I’ve read a lot of books by Stephen King. Then again, at this juncture, that’s hardly uncommon, as he’s long since become something of a household name, even if his books have not yet punctured the well-established canon. He has a considerable reputation, and it’s a little difficult to avoid coming across even the smallest mention of him. In that context, then, it seemed somewhat inevitable that I would try him out at some point.
Naturally, I jumped straight in at the deep end. I began with IT, hardly recommended for someone of my age at the time, and it left me with a distrustful distaste of bathrooms and the driving need for more. I was hooked. This was horror done in a way I’d never before experienced, so much better than I’d imagined, and I wanted more of it.
Since then, I’ve ranged far and wide through the lot, reading anything and everything with his name on it, and I have, in the main, enjoyed myself. Most recently, however, I came across The Stand, which did not live up to my expectations. Some research on the novel showed me that it was very highly regarded by readers and critics on the like, and so I went into it with high hopes regardless of the fact that I’ve read more than my fair share of dystopian novels over the years, and wasn’t sure whether I’d enjoy another.
My response was less than positive.
Let me explain.
I loved the first half. Truly, genuinely, loved it. I sped through chapter after chapter, barely able to put it down, and almost incapable of thinking of anything else. It was wonderful, full of clever plot movements and character development alongside interesting debates into the nature of humanity and the occasional entirely ridiculous joke, and it was absolutely perfect. It was clear at that point that Stephen King had done it again – had produced a stunningly good yarn that was effortlessly, ceaselessly, engaging.
Then I got to roughly three quarters through, and I was, dare I say it, bored. At first, I didn’t want to admit it, convincing myself that I had was merely distracted in the moments I set aside in which to read it, and that with a more in-depth attempt I would naturally come to appreciate it once more. But, as I continued, the truth became clear to me. It was, to put it simply, just too long. Over one thousand pages of dense text and meaty description, all of which needed to be read, understood, and processed before I continued, and yet which did not seem, in every case, even the slightest bit relevant. It was close to overwhelming, and needlessly so. I finished the book, but only because I skim-read the last hundred pages or so, and I absolutely don’t regret it. (I never skim-read books).
However, my problem with the book doesn’t end there. Consider, now, the characters. In a word: men. Everywhere. From Nick Andros to Stu Redman, male characters dominate the novel, showing considerable signs of character development and story arcs, albeit of different lengths, and most of which were thoroughly fleshed out by the end of the novel.
In contrast, now, the women, beginning with Fran. At first glance, she’s an interesting character. She discovers that she’s pregnant, but despite her mother’s disapproval, and despite the willingness of the father of the child, she refuses to get married, clinging stubbornly to her independence. But when the superflu hits, she travels with Harold Lauder, letting him take charge and make the decisions, meets and falls in love with Stu and ends up doing the same, contributes very rarely to a committee comprised mainly of men, and often changes her mind to agree with Stu despite some misgivings.
Then there’s Nadine, the intended bride of Randall Flagg, the Dark Man. Her whole life, she has dreamed of him, and her story is simple. She meets and then sleeps with Larry, joins up with Harold, and is determined to remain a virgin for her intended husband.
Dayna’s story takes something of a different form, as she enters the story as one of many female prisoners held by a group of men using them for sex. She contributes little to the story, beyond her brave sacrifice towards the end, after being discovered by Randall Flagg, but she is the subject of what I think was a particularly problematic piece of dialogue. We are told that she is bisexual, but the word the other characters use most regularly is ‘lesbian,’ utterly disregarding what they are told by Dayna’s friend. Furthermore, they connect her being a ‘lesbian,’ in itself false, with the notion that she must hate men, simply because she is not attracted to them. It’s an awkward scene, but, more importantly, it’s completely unnecessary, ensuring that Dayna is also defined by men and by her relationships with them.
Why? The above three women are deprived of their own stories to become the footnotes, some larger than others, to the stories of the men around them, and there doesn’t seem to be any practical need for it. Granted, not every character is fully developed, as there are so many, but the men get considerably more attention and considerably more time than the women, and they are defined by their deeds and personality, not by the people they take to bed. Even Mother Abigail, an exceedingly pivotal character, vanishes quickly from the novel, returning only to die.
That is not what I expect from an author as well known and respected as Stephen King, and not what I expect from an author I like as much as I do. Maybe I’m misreading the situation. Maybe I’m over-reacting. Or maybe it was sloppy work with unnecessary exclusions. I don’t know what to think. But I do know that I’m not as impressed as I thought I would be.
Was this a good book? In the main, and excluding the above concerns, yes. Am I going to read it again? For the above reasons, absolutely not.