After spending over a month reading The Stand and not a lot else, I finally finished it at the weekend. It's been a wild ride. Fictional superflu. Actual flu. 2-person book club meetins at home, in the pub, in Costa and on the beach. My poor book is rather ragged-looking after just one read, and it's going to be a relief not having to carry that massive tome around with me everywhere. It's been the rare occasion when I've almost - almost - wished for an e-reader instead.
Spoilers, spoilers, spoilers.
- By the end of Book 2, it still felt as though there was an awful lot of plot to go; the narrative was racing towards a conclusion before it felt ready - despite having already invested over a thousand pages in the book. How on earth was Stephen King going to tie up all the loose ends in the last 300? (That's almost the length of an ordinary paperback novel, and yet it seemed pitifully small.)
- Well, one means he used was to simply cut off entire threads of story. The first few chapters see one character after another come to a sudden and brutal end, some before their stories really felt like they were beginning. Of the three spies sent to Randall Flagg's Las Vegas, two are dead within two chapters. Harold's story, too, is cut off suddenly; we are suddenly at the miserable end of his life, and see how he got there only in flashback. And Nadine. After years of grooming from Flagg to become his wife and the mother of monsters, one outburst and all his plans are thrown out of the window - literally!
- Narratively, this should be most unsatisfying. It breaks all the rules of storytelling. And yet, somehow it works. The sudden demises of Dayna and the Judge in the first chapters show how dangerous and terrifying an enemy Flagg is, how our heroes are ostensibly powerless against him, that he can thwart their schemes so quickly, and yet... he is not in control either.
- One reason I was disappointed in Needful Things, one of King's other novels, was because it ended up in a bloodbath. Most of the characters ended up dead, and I stopped caring after a while. The Stand has a similar body count among the named cast, and yet it worked. The stakes were higher.
- I could have kicked myself when he men from Boulder simply walked into Las Vegas and I finally realised what kind of story this was. How were four unarmed man going to do battle with Randall Flagg and his forces and live to tell the tale? They weren't meant to. That wasn't the plan. They were the sacrifice. And in retrospect it seemed obvious. The book is so full of Christian allegory - King even describes it as such in his introduction! Still, I shouted out in horror when I realised what Flagg had in store for the characters.
- So why, if they just had to show up and die, did they have to walk instead of drive? If they'd taken a car, how much suffering might have been prevented? But the walk was important; a test of character and faith. And, as Judith pointed out, it was about timing. They arrived, Flagg's gathered everyone together to make a spectacle of them, and the Trashcan Man shows up with his nuclear bomb. And so the plot strands all come together. Brutal.
- Looking back over Mother Abagail's prophecy, I realised she didn't say that one character would die, she said that one would not reach the destination - and that was Stu. He falls in the desert and breaks his leg, and as his broken-hearted friends leave him behind, we learn that "they never saw Stu again." That was when I started to put the pieces together - because I was sure that Stu would survive, against all the odds. With the help of the dog, Kojak, and Tom Cullen, the surviving spy on his way home, Stu pulls through the impossible and heads back east towards Boulder.
- I actually found Stu's journey home the most suspenseful part of the entire book. We think the danger is over - and then he starts having nightmares about Frannie's baby, opening up new fears. No, no, it has to be all right! There aren't enough pages left to do the alternative justice. Small spoilers remind us that we haven't actually seen anything that's going on in Boulder since they left.
- And then he arrives home to the worst news. The baby is alive - but it's got Captain Trips, the superflu that no one has ever survived. It's only a matter of time. But no. It can't die. Not this close to the end. Not after 1200 pages or so of waiting. And so I dared to hope that this child would have some sort of mutation that would allow it to throw off the disease - and when this turned out to be true I shouted "YES!" and punched the air.
- Although, ultimately, there was no battle in the end (and how many epic fantasies don't have a battle? It's just taken for granted these days. Nice to mix up the expectations there!) the only survivors of the main cast are Frannie, Stu, and Tom Cullen. Apart from Harold's bomb, the Free Zone has been largely safe, though, most of the casualties happened in Vegas or on the way. The community is growing. Yet, even so, my prediction about starting again once more proved correct, if not in the way I expected. Because, despite the increasing growth of the Boulder community, people are moving away again. The system begins to show the same flaws and problems as in the previous America. The Free Zone is now full of anonymous strangers, and with anonymity comes loss of community. So Stu and Frannie, with their baby (and another on the way) decide to move away, start again, US history unwinding again. They're going back to the pioneer life, away from everyone, out into the unknown. Very Little House on the Prairie. I was even right about the book ending on Mother Abagail's farm with Stu, Frannie and the baby. Although I wasn't expecting the new society to be that small!
- Almost ending, I should say. The epilogue leaves us with a final glimpse of Randall Flagg, still out there, somewhere. And as I'm aware that there is some crossover with the Dark Tower series, of which I've only read the first two books, I'm wondering if that world is where he's ended up.
Ultimately, I found the ending a lot more satisfying than I'd expected to, based upon where book two left off. I've seen several people criticising the book for having a rushed ending, but I think there were good reasons for some storylines coming to a very sudden halt. Yes, The Stand has earned its place at the "good" end of King's work, and was definitely worth the time and emotional commitment invested into it.