Background: I saw the beginning of the miniseries when it first aired; I don’t remember why I stopped watching, whether it was scheduling or terror. I’m looking forward to watching it now. However little I saw of it, I still had Gary Sinise and Bill Fagerbakke firmly in mind as Stu and Tom. (“M-O-O-N spells scared the heck out of me!”) But I never read the book.
The reason I read it now after having owned a copy for so long was that I put it on a Goodreads challenge list – 24 books that I’ve owned and not read for a year or more. It was perfect for the challenge (I obtained it as a strip when I worked at B&N, a few more than a year ago) – except that I was daunted by the size of it. Yes, I, who once only took out books from the library that were well over an inch thick, was afraid of a VLFN: the 1000+ page count represented a huge outlay of time which I don’t have. But I made an informal commitment to read it for June, and so I did.
I knew the beginning of the story very well: top secret research facility + oops (I don’t think we ever find out what that first oops was – simple butterfingers?) + second oops of unlocked gate + fleeing guard + third oops of inattentive guards = worldwide catastrophe. A monster flu, a mega-flu, an über-flu, resistant to all treatment (or, rather, adaptive to all treatment), spreading with horrifying swiftness – augmented, apparently, by release of the same strain in other areas of the world to level the playing field, or some such. And only something like 1% of the population immune. It’s very realistic. It’s too realistic. I can see a situation, a chain of catastrophes, in which every single “oops” – dropped phial or whatever it was, mechanical failure in the alarm system, mechanical failure in the door seals, human failure of the guards, who should have been the last failsafe protection, playing cards in their booth instead of paying attention to their duty – all of it, easily preventable, and still happening. That’s why this is one of the scariest horror novels I can think of. Not because of Russell Flagg (as much) – I was mostly afraid of the man-made epidemic. My respect for Stephen King grows with every book of his I read, and my remorse at my long-held prejudice against him grows proportionately. This is a masterful work. Yes, I have a couple quibbles: it seemed to take forever to move from the plot arc of the illness spreading to the arc of the survivors’ quest. There is a vulgarity of language that is off-putting in most books (another status update: ” I think my only, only issue with The Stand is the sheer number of people who wet their pants … And none of them ever just “pees” much less urinates – they make wee-wee, or just make, or their bladders give way, or some such. It just starts being funny after a while.” That’s pretty typical, really.) But those are just quibbles. The language is part and parcel with the story, with the points of view, and, of course, with the writing style. And it took as long as it took.
The ending was, perhaps, a bit anticlimactic; the coda was disturbing, as intended. I would have loved something … I am tempted to say “more explosive”, but that would be silly. I almost said “world-shaking”, but that doesn’t fly either, considering. More personally involving and emotionally wrenching, perhaps. I approved of the ending, but it was almost as if having spent some 900 pages pulling me into the book and wrapping me up in it like a spider with a big fat web, now the story was gently disentangling me and edging me out the other side. I’d be curious to read the original edit one day, to see if it’s less leisurely in its set-up and dismantling.
I think the upshot of this post, though, is that the book could have ended with a pie-eating contest between the Good Guys and Randall Flagg, and it would still be an astounding, even important book. This is a keeper.
ETA: I’ve started watching the miniseries streaming on Netflix while I still can: see here.
Naturally, my allergies chose the entire period I was reading The Stand to act up, aggressively. Symptoms of the mega flu: headache, runny nose, sneezing … My symptoms: headache, runny nose, sneezing. Yeah, that was fun. What is kind of fun is that a GR group I don’t belong to had The Stand as its monthly read, and a friend in that group said quite a few other people reading it were going through the same thing. A comment I made on my first status update was: “*sneeze* AAGH!”