I have a weird feeling that I’ve read, or started at least, The Stand, at some point in the past, anyway… I’ve re-read it.
This time around, I took the audiobook route and listened to Grover Gardner’s narration. This is the full text. It includes about 400 additional pages (that were originally cut by the publisher). Stephen King mentions that edit in the introduction. He states that the text was cut for financial reasons (at the time, printing such a large book was considered financially prohibitive). I imagine that the publisher was also conforming to market expectations, as well as doing it for editorial reasons. A quick internet search lists the word count of The Stand at 472,376 words. The book could have been published as a duology, or a trilogy. Just finishing it feels like a feat of endurance. The audiobook is almost 48 hours long!
Stephen King self-consciously set out to create a contemporary American epic to match Lord of the Rings. He actually references Tolkien’s work a number of times in the text (along with H G Wells and Aldous Huxley). The result is a self-consciously epic, XXXL-sized novel whose length demands a convoluted plot and extensive backstories to notch up the word count. It’s a complicated book that’s chock full of detail. The pace of the story that comes out the other end feels almost Dickensian. This can be a delight, or off-putting, depending on how you see the various character stories. Is it ‘telling detail’, integral to the story, or a diversion, unnecessary detail?
Great novels tend to say something about the world they were created in. The Great Gatsby is a portrait of the American dream. Star Wars is about freedom versus authoritarianism. The Stand is a portrait of working-class America, a kind of science fiction and fantasy version of The Grapes of Wrath. There’s a strong Christian element in it – the ordinary ‘good folk’ verses evil. The narrative feels cinematic. In a way, the book does for the novel what the Hollywood summer blockbuster, movies like Jaws (1975), did for film. It embraces the language of film, multi-threaded stories, time-shifts, and flashbacks, much of it taking place as internal monologue.
There are similarities between The Stand and Mary Shelly’s The last Man (1826). They both feature an apocalyptic event caused by a pandemic. They both have extensive character backstories (which could arguably diminish the overall experience). They’re both structured in three parts. The Stand has three ‘books’ and The Last Man is arranged in three ‘volumes’. The Stand fuses speculative science fiction, the post-apocalyptic plot (which is set in the near future, or it was when the novel was published) with fantasy elements and the eternal struggle between good and evil.
Post-apocalyptic stories are warnings. They’re stories about loss. And they are celebrations of human resilience. The American post-apocalyptic novel frequently turns into a form of Neo-Western – small communities epitomising the ‘frontier spirit’, ‘rugged individuals’ within the wilderness, elemental survival – it’s a metaphor for life, an environment where the stakes are heightened.
For a mainstream genre story, the language is surprisingly writerly. There’s a lot of metaphor and descriptive detail that draws attention to itself. Characters are frequently doing things that are rigorously described in a detailed step-by-step process. And then there are the character backstories, and the lengthy interior monologues. On another level, The Stand is the Ulysses of science fiction and fantasy. For a genre novel, the prose has a surprisingly ‘literary’ pace, slowed down by a character focus. In places, I was reminded of The Last Picture Show (1971).
Like the film, The Stand exudes a certain kind of folksy blue-collar Americana. And, like the film, it includes an intellectually and developmentally disabled character, and another character (a young man) who has a relationship with a much older woman. Stephen King’s work is enormously influential – from Lee Child, to The Walking Dead – Haruki Murakami even. King’s verbose prose style feels natural, but there’s something slightly uncanny quality to it. Perhaps it provides the reader with too much information, and it doesn’t offer enough space for the reader’s imagination? If that’s the case, it’s definitely part of the recipe for selling huge numbers of books. Lee Child’s genre prose feels more satisfying to me somehow. Why is that? Is it simply down to the twenty year age gap between the novels? Has genre writing significantly evolved in those two decades? Or does this simply reflect my taste? Either way, it’s a question that’s been bugging me, and I’m not sure what the answer is.
The Stand’s epic size is delivered through a series of character backstories. If you see them as the core part of the story, then it works. But if it feels like a series of unnecessary diversions, then it comes across as padding. Either way, these diversions are necessary to push up the word count into ‘epic’ territory. Ultimately, it’s a remarkable achievement, a portrait of the working class American, a kind of post-apocalyptic Charles Dickens-like work, as much as a science fiction and fantasy story… but it’s also proof that you can have too much of a good thing.