The Stand (1990)
Often hailed as King's best, The Stand is a novel of epic proportions, depicting an all-consuming holocaust leading to the final battle between Good and Evil, largely derived from the Christian apocalypse. This is a long book; my paperback edition weighs in at 1400+ pages. The originally published version had been cut by some 30%, this is the restored text. I haven't read the shorter version, but since I did not feel that this book would be improved by shortening it, I suggest you stick with the longer one. It certainly shows King's mastery of the craft that he can keep the reader interested throughout a work of this size.
At the beginning, there is the holocaust. A biological warfare germ escapes from a laboratory in the U.S. and quickly depopulates the country as well as the rest of the world. (Or so it seems. All of the novel is set in the continental United States, I guess we are to take these as representing the world. Well, at least giving local events a global significance is consistent with the Christian underpinning of the book.) The amount of willful destruction taking place is limited by the swiftness of the plague, which is gauged at 99.6% lethal effectiveness.
Then the dreams come. Still suffering from shock and confusion, staggering through the estranged remnants of their world, the survivors are haunted by ominous dreams: there is Mother Abagail, the oldest woman, who radiates a feeling of universal kindness, and there is Randall Flagg, the dark man, taking the place of the Antichrist. Different people gyrate toward those two, trekking from all over, following the path shown in their dreams, to meet and organize in two communities.
At the end, there is the final stand, the climactic confrontation, the last battle. Actually, I did not find it that climactic at all. While calling the end of the novel predictable would not do justice to King, it ends in the way you would probably place your bets on, if you had to. The action hardly ever accelerates, keeping a constant pace throughout it all.
In the preface, King calls the book a "long tale of dark Christianity". And that it is. A lot of it is founded on Christian mysticism and superstition. All King offers for a competing point of view are a few agnostics, who appear rather hapless in the end. Another thing to be aware of: this book is profoundly American. (Ties in well with the religious theme, for sure.) While The Stand certainly succeeds as a novel, it is only of marginal interest to the science fiction reader as a well-written, but thematically far-fetched instance of the popular holocaust motif.
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