Stephen King’s The Stand

. . . . . . . The Stand is Stephen King’s masterpiece, a 1000-page book that begins with a slither and ends with a thud. Yes, the ending was that desperate. Let’s start at the end instead of the beginning. As with so much Stephen King, you need to reverse things in order to see them clearly.

. . . . . . . But before we talk about the end, we need to reference King’s first book, Carrie. Carrie was a successful novel because it condensed King’s abilities into a taut book. At that point, King was ready to sprawl but hadn’t found the vehicle in which to do it. His successor to Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, would give him a 600-page range to roam, as he explored a whole township in his home state of Maine.

. . . . . . . Now back to the ending of The Stand. I’ll try to write this analysis without spoilers. King wrote a book in The Stand which was out of control. It was structured scene-by-scene, without consideration of where the plot was taking him. The title is a misnomer. There was no Stand, no clash of armies, of good versus evil; there was just one entertaining scene following another, meandering along.

. . . . . . . So why was it so great? Because of the volume of great components, the scenes that constituted the book. He gave himself a large cast of characters to work from. King gets easily bored, and he needed to shift from viewpoint to viewpoint, and setting to setting, to interest himself in what was going on. He typed from a Deep South jail cell to a Federal plague center, from an abandoned Maine town to a man lost and losing his mind in the big city of New York. He encompassed America.

. . . . . . . In a way, there is a theme to the book. That theme is we are all alone and separate and we need each other. The characters are constantly reaching out to one another to form a bond. Even a deaf man and a retarded man find common cause and purpose in each other, and a number of scenes are dedicated to the two of them. King reaches out, making radically different characters. I know it’s been said that King can’t create realistic woman characters between the age of 12 and 100, but that’s not the case in this book. Frannie is a well-rounded, fiercely independent pregnant woman dealing with the ticking time bomb of a newfound baby in her belly. As she yields her independence over the course of the novel, you see other characters responding to her.

. . . . . . . The Stand is King’s most soap opera-ish novel. That’s a sweet thing. He mixes good and evil liberally. Even characters you think that start of as good turn out to be bad. Harold Lauder is a prime example of this. The fat boy with the big brain is a chronic masturbator who knows too much for his own good. He sees the new community of Boulder for what it is: a giant pearl in a post-apocalyptic fresh world, and hates it. He is a tragic character because he can’t let go of his hate, and this partly decides what happens to him (I shall not give that away).

. . . . . . . Critically, the book was written as King’s fourth novel. He was comfortable enough with his new career and yet tight enough from a recent start at professional writing that he was destined to write a stellar fourth novel. I think he knew this. I think he also knew this constellation of conditions was not to repeat himself. Just as he knew Different Seasons was a one-off, The Stand was a unique rara avis.

. . . . . . . King’s failure to develop in later years makes him look bad when you hold up The Stand to his face. It’s not that he thinks it’s a bad book — it’s just that he can’t face up to the fact that he peaked so early. In King’s mind, every book should be better than the last. He ought to be improving in his writing career, and The Stand cost him that illusion.

. . . . . . . The thud of the end of the book was King just reaching out for anything and grasping the first thing that came to mind. He resolved the book by cheating. It’s such a bad ending that I may as well tell you what it is, but I’ll leave it to the reader to swallow that blue whale whole and try not to grimace at the awfulness of the ending. Leave it to say that it makes perfect sense that a book that was built like a staircase to the clouds, scene by scene acting as step by step, ends in the middle of the sky with nowhere to go but down. And it was a long way down. King had to fix it somehow. And he did. Shittily.

. . . . . . . King’s writing evolves throughout the novel, and that’s interesting. He starts off being Simon-pure simple, and gains complexity as the book thickens. Yet his added complexity only limits the scenes he writes a little. He manages to gain depth at the same time as complexity is layered on, and this depth works in his book’s favor. A book this thick should have a little depth, at the least. Certain characters, like the sociological professor, and certain concepts, like the political meetings of the Boulder Free Committee, work to enhance the book as a whole. King does a magical job of making nothing seem like something.

. . . . . . . It has been descriptive of his whole career that he pulls a rabbit out of a hat. He creates something out of nothing, consistently and strongly. He convinces us, even when we are a tad reluctant to be swayed. He works persistently and encouragingly. He doesn’t give up.

. . . . . . . King the writer is the one magician late Twentieth Century America had been looking for, and The Stand is his opus.

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