I really enjoyed Stephen King’s Gunslinger series; The Stand is another one of his less horror-oriented pieces, set in a late twentieth-century America, where an escaped biological weapon decimates the population.
I really, really enjoyed how King builds his world. He follows random characters – the struggling university student, the unemployed factory worker, the teenager stranded in a holiday town – as they navigate the collapse of their society and the death of everyone they know. He doesn’t do zoom-outs — instead he tells myriad little stories, and lets the reader project them out to the whole.
The second half of the book felt stranger. Rather than any organic process, King pictures a Manichean clash between good (represented by an old woman, Mother Abigail, who felt at times as though she was a character squashed into a Magical Negro trope, as others have pointed out), and evil in the form of the ‘Dark Man’, Randall Flagg (who I think makes an appearance in The Gunslinger series). Each gathers a population to them, separated by a mountain chain dividing the continent. Mother Abigail is caring, religiously oriented; Randall Flagg has magical powers and crucifies those who disobey him.
SPOILERS FROM HERE
But the second half of the book feels rushed, and hurried – it should really have been another two novels, I think. Having spent hundreds of pages building up characters and gathering them, King then rushes through the question of confrontation, solving it with a deus-ex-machina atomic bomb and a spark of electricity that he literally describes as the hand of god, intervening to both right wrongs and neatly tie up a storyline that could have taken GRRM decades to complete.
It felt, too, at points as though Randall Flagg went from being all powerful, all evil, to foolish and short-sighted, without much of a pause for breath in between. The action is driven by the universe’s intrinsic rightness, or God’s actions, rather than anything done by the main characters – they simply travel through a strange landscape, trying to survive. At times, that feels more powerful, at some level, more haunting than your typical narrative of a hero saving the day. At others it felt weirdly disembodied, as though they were disconnected from the storyline.
One thing I liked was the psychology underpinning it. King has his characters grieving for the country; including the mundane things, the baseball games they went to and the candy they ate, the entire loss of a civilisation.
This is fun, epic fantasy / sci-fi, and it’s worth reading. And it’s one of the best ‘post-apocalyptic’ set-ups I’ve read, bar none – but the second half of the story lets it down significantly, making it less impressive than The Gunslinger.
He stores up rebuffs the way pirates were supposed to store up treasure.
In that hour or instant, he became aware that he could simply accept what was, and that knowledge had both exhilarated and terrified him. For that space of time he knew he could turn himself into a new person, a fresh Harold Lauder cloned from the old one by the sharp intervening knife of the superflu epidemic.
And he himself, when faced with the knowledge that he was free to accept what he was, had rejected the new opportunity.
Love didn’t grow very well in a place where there was only fear, just as plants didn’t grow very well in a place where it was always dark.