Book Review: The Stand by Stephen King

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Rating: 4 out of 5.

Given the current climate, this may seem like an odd choice of book to read, but I like a challenge! I read the extended version on kindle so it was roughly 1325 pages long, but a print edition may be different. I believe the first version of the book was published in 1979 in the UK, with the version I have read first being published in 1990 in the UK.

A strong cup of builders tea is the best brew for this book!

I’ll try and keep the first portion of this post spoiler free, in case you want to read the book and not be coloured by my judgement of the intricacies of it. I personally went into this book with only a vague notion of what it was about and found it a thrilling read. This is a long read, there’s no doubt about that. King explains in the preface the reason there are two versions in the first place is solely down to the length of the book and the cost to produce it versus the sale cost at the time of production. I’m glad they went on to produce this longer version, as the added detail really gives a depth to the story and characters you rarely see in novels. I would say it is well worth springing for the uncut version.

The book has been hailed as a masterpiece by many. As a King fan already, it was this that tempted me to pursue it. He states in his preface that he personally does not see it as such, but I have to disagree with him. I certainly think it is one of his best works based off the few other books of his I have so far read. I found it rich and engaging, and was not bored at any point. A proverbial page turner. I was eager to catch up with each characters journey and felt I could relate to all of them in some way.

Having said all of the above, I have only rated it four out of five stars. This is because, and I have found this as a consistent theme throughout Kings books, I don’t think he writes female characters very well. This could be because I am reading his books as a woman, and he is writing them as a man. It is difficult to write from a perspective you have never had. I find he tends to make his female characters needy and weak. Perhaps not always obviously, but I find in this book even the strong female characters end up being carried in some way by the male characters. I actually find it harder to relate to his female characters than I do to his male ones.

This is not a book for the faint hearted. It is brutal in places and graphic. King does not shy away from describing the very worst in us, and it is that which makes this book a chilling, but believable read. I found it even prompted me to question myself. Who would I be in this situation? How would I act? What path would I take? A good novel should always make us take a look at ourselves and the world around us and wonder. Are we doing/being the best we can?

You can pick up a copy of the book here.


And now, onto the spoilers. Below there will be more in depth discussion about the characters and themes of the book, if you are interested in how I interpreted it.

The book is split into thirds. In the first, we see the spread of the plague, and are introduced to our main characters. This is where King goes into real detail on the spread of the disease and the way it decimates the country, even as the government are trying to cover it up. He sets the tone for the book with the first few chapters, and after Stuart and his friends discover the deformed corpses of a mother and her toddler daughter, and the dying father, we can clearly see this book is taking no prisoners. It chills me to my core to know that that one man, just trying to flee and save his family, caused the destruction of the entire world as we know it. You ask yourself, would you do the same?

“In the course of the meal he infected Babe, the dishwasher, two truckers in a corner booth, the man who came in to deliver bread, and the man who came in to change the records on the juke. He left the sweet thang that waited his table a dollar tip that was crawling with death.”

Stephen King The Stand – Chapter 8

King, very aptly in my opinion, describes the spread of the disease across America. This was a bit of an eye opener for me given the current situation. This part of the book is useful in understanding how the corona virus managed to get from a market in Wuhan to your local hospital in a matter of a few months. It caused me to look at the world a little differently and pay attention to my interactions, even in lockdown. Kings virus is much more contagious and deadly than the corona virus, thankfully, but they spread in much the same way. There are also some parallels in Kings book between the governments handling of the virus and the early handling of our pandemic. Fortunately for us, our world leaders seem to be much more open with the information these days, but no one can deny that this pandemic was downplayed by all governments in the early stages, much like it is in Kings book. It leads you to ask the question, what would have happened if the disease was worse?

During the destruction of the world, we are introduced to the main characters, of which there are quite a few. I think the characters are what make this book live up to is masterpiece status. King takes real time to develop and instil in them qualities (both good and bad) we find in ourselves. He takes them from their mundane lives pre-plague, through the horror and loss to the empty and dangerous world beyond. Each character reacts and adapts differently and its easy to see elements of yourself in all of them.

This post will be longer than the book its self if I go into all my thought and feelings on each character. There are many and it not until quite late in the book that their paths all converge. The reader gets to know them so well it is almost as if they are real people to me. I sometimes find myself wondering about them as if I knew them. The journeys they take are fraught with twists and turns. In my opinion, none more so than those of Harold and Larry.

“And when the end comes, and when it is as horrible as good men knew it would be, there is only one thing to say as all those good men approach the Throne of Judgement : I was misled.”

Stephen King The Stand – Chapter 64 (Harold’s last note)

I actually found myself grieving for Harold. I sympathised with his character an awful lot. He represented a lot of the traits we often find undesirable in ourselves and others, but he seemed aware of this. He wanted to change. I found his descent into “evil” quite profound. I understood why he ended up doing the things he did. It made me wonder if we really do know ourselves. I think of myself and an inherently good person. Doesn’t everybody? But that does not mean I always do good things, or react to situations in a ‘good’ way. It doesn’t mean others think I am good. There is no question that Harold commits evil acts, but there is a question over whether he, himself, is evil. I think not, personally. He is a product of his environment and his past, as we all are. He struggles with the hated in his heart right until the very end, and he almost changes his mind. Almost. I think King really tackles some huge issues in this book and leaves me pondering some deep philosophical questions.

“No one can tell what goes on in between the person you were and the person you become. No one can chart that blue and lonely section of hell. There are no maps of the change. You just… come out the other side.

Or you don’t.”

Stephen King The Stand – Chapter 44

I dislike Larry to start with too. He is selfish and arrogant and struggles with this throughout the book. This is once again something I think we can all relate too. As difficult to admit as it can be, we all behave like this sometimes. I know I can be very selfish at times. Larry seems to me like the ideal character to join the ‘evil’ side. I spend quite a bit of the book waiting for that to happen, but it doesn’t. He turns himself around, but he still does ‘bad things’. Just as with Harold, he struggles with himself right up to the bitter end, but unlike Harold, his demise comes of altruism rather than hatred. His struggles are not really any different to Harold’s, just he just makes one choice that saves him, by denying Nadine, where Harold “succumbs to his destiny” with her.

King grapples with the idea of good and evil throughout the book, in fact the plague at the beginning seems almost unimportant to the story other than to create the field upon which this great battle between good and evil will take place. I read this book as someone without religion, and it has clearly been written from a christian standpoint, but I don’t think that matters. Despite the fact I do not believe in a god or a devil per se, (both of which feature quite heavily throughout the narrative) the concept of good versus evil is a recurrent theme thought most schools of thought.

There are stark similarities between both of the new civilisations, I personally think. To someone on the ground, they probably wouldn’t seem very different at all. In fact, Las Vegas would seem better run and better organised. Most of the people there are just that, people. What makes them so evil compared to everyone in Boulder? What makes the children in Las Vegas evil, and the ones in boulder good? I would argue that the only difference is which place they felt could offer them the best chance at survival.

Saying that, once you delve into the intricacies of their societies, you begin to see where the differences are. Those in Las Vegas are controlled by fear, and are living in a dictatorship. Whereas those in Boulder are (given the illusion of) democracy. I would argue that it isn’t a complete democracy as they attempt to engineer the situation to elect those they think will be best suited to the rolls of leadership. There is a question over the morality of this I think. Of course, everyone in Boulder thinks they are doing what is best for the colony, but surely everyone in Las Vegas believes that too. There are certainly good things about the Las Vegas society, and bad things about the Boulder society, so how can one be wholly good, and the other wholly evil?

Harold clearly thinks he is justified in blowing up the newly formed government albeit for somewhat selfish reasons. Is what “God” did to the people in Las Vegas any different? Did all those people, some of them children, deserve the fate they got, even as they were beginning to revolt against their totalitarian leader? Did God even do anything? Could they not have brought about their own destruction in some way. There is deliberate irony, I think in the fact it was Trashcan Man, who was the most devoted of all ‘The Dark Man’s” followers, who brought about the demise of the “bad guys”.

“The Beauty of religious mania that it has the power to explain everything. Once God (or Satan) is accepted as the first cause if everything which happens in the mortal world, nothing is left to chance… or change”

Stephen King The Stand – Chapter 48

I will draw this post to a close here, although I have much to say on the concepts of good or evil. I feel I have only scratched the surface of the intricacies of this book and the philosophical questions it has raised for me. If you have made it this far, I would be really interested to hear what you think of the book, and my somewhat rambling conclusions of it. Especially if you disagree with me.

You can pick up a copy of the book here.