Stephen King’s The Stand is really two stories that fit awkwardly together. The first story, which is superb, describes the spread of a superflu that kills off almost everybody in the world. The second, inferior story is about a dark cult, headed by the Satan-like Randall Flagg, that rises to power in the aftermath of the pandemic.
What’s so odd about The Stand is that these two stories barely intersect. Yes, the good guys and the bad guys are aware of each other, in weird and mystical ways, and the brooding presence of Flagg, like the Eye of Sauron, drives the good guys ever forward. And yes, the two sides engage in a few small skirmishes: a spy here, a roadside encounter there. But for all the buildup to an apocalyptic battle between good and evil, The Stand ends before the battle is even joined. It’s as if the Martians in War of the Worlds had contracted a cold before setting off for Earth.
Nonetheless, The Stand is compulsively readable due to King’s ability to breathe life into a diverse cast of characters: a deaf-mute young man, an ancient black woman who sees visions, a washed-up rocker, etc. While The Stand doesn’t lack for harrowing set pieces (Larry and Rita’s long trek through the Lincoln Tunnel comes to mind), some of the book’s most memorable scenes involve nothing more than a character’s leisurely ruminations, as with Judge Farris’s drive West and Mother Abigail’s farmyard chores while waiting for the good guys to arrive.
Of course, as usual with King, there is also plenty of excess in The Stand, and the flab is worse here because the version I read was the “expanded, complete, and uncut” version. The worst offender by far is a bizarre road trip taken by the Trashcan Man (a pyromaniac) and the Kid (a plain old maniac). But throughout the book it’s easy to identify chapters where King probably could have trimmed a couple of pages. This flabbiness deprives The Stand of the breakneck tension that characterizes King’s best books.