I recently picked up Stephen King’s The Stand in my local library. It’s got to be somewhere around 30 years since I first read that book, a fact of my life which I find far scarier than anything King has written, and he has written some very scary fiction over the years. And so, holding a copy of The Stand, for the first time since I was a teenager, I was suddenly overcome with a severe bout of nostalgia, and decided to borrow it and read it again.
Well, I finished it a couple of days back, and I’m still wondering if I made a mistake.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love The Stand. I think it is a phenomenal work, not just in its epic sweep, but also in the personal, tiny details. I care about the good guys, and despise the bad guys, although none of the villains are truly, one dimensionally evil. Except Randall Flagg, of course, but then he is different. He really is evil personified.
I also love the way many of the subplots dovetail together at various points, and the story arcs that many of the characters go through, adding to, and enriching, the overall complexity of the narrative structure.
On a second reading, all these years later, I was less blinded by its brilliance, and couldn’t help but notice some of the props behind the stage. Almost like Dorothy, on finally believing that she had found the Wizard of Oz, discovering only a strange little man behind a curtain, breathlessly pulling levers and pushing buttons, striving to create an illusion. The mundane instead of the magic. The artifice behind the wonder.
So where did it go wrong on my second reading? For a start there were all those adverbs. Is the author of The Stand the same Stephen King who, in On Writing, advises avoiding adverbs? I’ll admit, I’ve seen worse, but there were far more adverbs littering The Stand than I am used to from the American master of letters. Enough for me to be distracted from the narrative flow and atmosphere, at times.
Then there were the plot devices.
SPOILER ALERT. I find it hard to believe that Stu Redman, who if I had to single out a main protagonist is the centre piece character, plays absolutely no part in the final showdown between good and evil. No, he falls over and breaks his leg on the way to that showdown.
In fact none of our heroes play a proactive part in the final showdown. Glen Bateman is shot for being too mouthy, and whilst Larry and Ralph at least get to watch the final goings on, handcuffed inside their cages, they exist only as a sacrifice. Trashcan Man and his nuclear warhead would have turned up anyway in the end. Larry and Ralph serve only as a distraction. The big problem I have with that ending is the use of deus ex machina, where, in this case literally, the hand of God intervenes to conclude the conflict. END OF SPOILER ALERT.
But my main gripe with The Stand? It’s so long! Although I didn’t realise until shortly after checking the book out of the library, I was reading the expanded version. Not that King rewrote it to make it longer, apparently it always was longer, but back in 1979 book bindings weren’t strong enough to hold that many pages. So his publishers made King edit it down to a manageable length. It was still a big book, but not as big as it would one day become.
And I think that was the mistake. I have to confess, I skipped a few sections whilst reading this time. There was just too much. It needed editing, and that was what it got the first time around.
I don’t know…
What do you think of The Stand? Should King have stuck with the original version, or do you prefer the expanded one?
And what about this idea of revisiting favourite books, last read many, many years ago? Is it a good idea, or a big mistake?
I’m still not sure.