Last night, I finally finished the girthy Stephen King novel that I started more than a month ago. I’ve been recommended this book on several occasions by people who share an interest in either King’s back-catalogue of absolute bangers or an appreciation of dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction in general. Regarded as one of King’s strongest works, The Stand is an epic piece of literature at 1300+ pages (I have the full edition, which was published years after the heavily cut original) and therefore not for the faint-hearted. Just a warning before I go on: as much as this is a book I’d recommend to any readers of this blog (all three of you), it’s worth pointing out that the themes may be upsetting for some, with the striking comparisons to the reality we’re living in right now. So, if you’re trying to deal with this quarantine/isolation business by avoiding all talk of pandemics, avert your eyes or click on another random blog. But if, like me, there’s a morbidity and Sertraline-pumped interest in the encompassing darkness of fiction, read on.
Set in 1990, The Stand begins as many dystopian reads do: a secret base, a hushed-up government operation, an engineered virus designed as biological warfare and a panicked employee who is responsible for accidentally releasing the virus from the secure compound in which it has lived since discovery. The virus reaches the outside world. The world is never the same again.
Capable of constantly mutating, and therefore effectively resisting any cure, ‘Captain Tripps’ wreaks its havoc by spreading like wildfire, and subsequently goes on to claim the lives of the majority of Earth’s population. The Stand looks at the impact of the man-made disaster, and the ripples of effect felt by a number of survivors dotted across the ghostly remains of America.
Of course, this isn’t just any generic take on what the world would be like if just a small population remained. I’ve read a few books which have followed this angle and watched many films/TV series (the initial series of The Walking Dead will always live in my heart) but King does his thing better than most. He works his magic as a natural storyteller, allowing us to see the world through the eyes of numerous characters before, during and after the catastrophe hits.
The Stand is fundamentally a story of survival and faith, which sees its cast of characters ponder the big existential question as well as theology, as they try to assemble the jigsaw pieces of what’s left behind. There’s so many enigmatic figures: ‘Trashcan Man’, Frannie Goldsmith, Mother Abigail, Nick Andros, Larry Underwood, Glen Bateman and ‘The Walkin Dude’ to name but a few. King has this magical ability to make each person as real as your neighbour, or the person you used to walk past every day on your commute. They’re living, breathing figures that transcend the page and hold their own anxieties as to what will become of humanity and what shape the new world might take.
There are underlying themes of redemption and faith, at the heart of the novel. Powerful characterisation is one tool, but one of King’s greatest skills is interweaving the delicate plot-lines of each character, as they intersect along their journey to either the East (the hub for ‘Good’) or the West (a more brooding collective of ‘Evil’). The world King builds is complete, with constant references to both the individual story arcs and the overall story of picking a side, choosing something to stand for.
Survivors are left to their own devices, they are responsible for preserving notions of democracy and society, for bequeathing memories of a world that their children will never know in their lifetimes. This psychological shift draws parallels with the attitude changes I’ve seen in people who have been transformed by the virus, and the repercussions of forced lock-down. Some people seem humbled by the effects of perspective: of seeing what’s important when the hum-drum of capitalism and consumerism shuts down and normality, as it has always been known, is disrupted. The Stand makes for interesting reading material at a time like this: it calls upon our tendencies as humans to live cyclically and to repeat the patterns of what has already been, but also calls upon our imaginations to picture what could be. I would definitely say that this book is powerful more so because it is especially tangible now more than ever, as a reader.
The Stand was a risky choice of reading material in that the COVID-19 pandemic we are experiencing seems to be identical, in many ways, to that of ‘Captain Tripps’. The viruses themselves are distinguishable from one another, but the human responses to the threat of a pandemic are difficult to separate into ‘fiction’ and ‘reality’.
King does an incredible job of depicting how people interact in the face of disaster and how they cope with the trauma of it, in its aftermath, and this seems eerily comparable to that which we have seen so far during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that which we are yet, still, to encounter when it leaves.
I’m genuinely upset to have finally finished The Stand, primarily because it’s been such a great accompaniment since the day lock-down officially began and because it’s also weirdly given me some strange sense of clarity and hope. I guess some people might feel worse, reading about a situation so similar to what they’re experiencing in real life, but for me it was a reminder that we can withstand things beyond what we believe we are capable of.