Tales of disaster have always been among my favorite story genres, from yarns encompassing hordes of the undead or planet-dwarfing meteors, to more cerebral depictions that consider the emotions roused by such world-altering and hopeless circumstances. Peering into an artist’s vision of societal collapse — not to mention the stand humanity might take against it and the world left in its wake — can be simply mesmerizing. It may terrify you to regard a country without order. It may exhilarate you to fantasize of a time beyond restraints. Indeed, whatever the case, all apocalyptic stories inflame our imagination.
But of all I’ve come across to date, none has felt so poignant, palpable, or utterly disquieting as Stephen King’s The Stand. In this modern-day epic, the end does not loom in the form of reanimated corpses or impending meteors twice the size of Europe. Rather, it is biological, microscopic. Our government has edged the moral line one too many times and now its hapless citizens must pay the price. From Maine to California, the nation is enveloped by a bioengineered flu strain with a mortality rate of more than 99%.
While the novelty of the tale may appear threatened by Hollywood’s never-ending procession of CGI-rendered outbreaks, the idea is easily saved through originality of plot and deep, enthralling characterization. We grow to empathize with our unlikely heroes. We come to despise the iniquity of our villains. (In fact, the author’s characterization of some of these figures is so extensive I even came to identify with them, as well — a feature which I don’t know should be praised or criticized.) We are spellbound by those of whom we are unsure. I personally found the depiction of these irresolute characters to be one of the finest aspects of the book.
Do not be mistaken. There’s still plenty of corporeal destruction and disarray for the nihilistic consumers among us to lap up, but it’s just the icing on this gruesome cake. Indeed, far more disturbing than the physical, disease-driven downfall of America depicted in this telling, are the psychological horrors unveiled by society’s reaction to it. These King portrays masterfully.
Our government has lost its new toy. People are dying by the millions. Quarantine’s given way to martial atrocity, and the nation is slipping into chaos. Then we come upon the impetus. We discover those dark, outlying bunkers beneath the desert wastelands of California never held our greatest threat. They merely held its catalyst.
The points of view range in the dozens. The crossroads and conurbations of our country alike wither and die before our eyes. (And, of course, the ever-present ruin of New York can be found in all its shocking glory.) The best and the worst in men rage to the surface. Thus results a grand allegory encompassing vengeance, love, envy, damnation, and redemption. Published by Doubleday in May of 1990, the unabridged version of this epic spans some 1152 pages and delivers on every single one of them (the original was published by Doubleday & Co. in 1978). I highly recommend reading this contemporary classic.