by Justin Tate
As soon as Chinese New Year got cancelled, I knew this was serious. Then the virus spread just like viruses do in every horror novel. So much so, in fact, that my immediate first thought was not to stock up on bottled water and toilet paper, but that it’s finally time to read The Stand.
Naturally I’m a Stephen King superfan, so it’s strange I hadn’t yet read what is commonly considered his magnum opus. In the back of my mind I knew there would be a right time to read it. I thought it might be after King’s death (rue the day) or after reading everything else by him. As a way to fully compare it to the rest of his oeuvre. Clearly, however, a once-in-a-100-years pandemic was the sign I was looking for. This is it, folks. It’s time.
As it turned out…maybe not the best idea. After seven months of living through this, there’s a level of new normalcy. But in those early days, during constant uncertainty, seeing nearly 4,000 Americans die daily, entire nursing homes wiped out, entire families…it was scary as hell. Reading a scary book during a scary time isn’t nearly as fun as it sounds.
I kept a reading journal throughout this time. Partly because I wanted to remember my reactions throughout such an enormous read, but also to monitor my mental state during a pandemic. Much of my journal entries relate to bad dreams, reactions to the news, or just keeping up with the death count. Many times Stephen King’s world was a close parallel to the real world, resulting in much anxiety and much admiration for a writer capable of prophecy.
Here’s the full, unabridged copy of my The Stand review journal:
01/27/2020 – What better time to see what The Stand is all about than during a global coronavirus pandemic? Given this book’s epic length, I’m going to do a review journal with spoiler-free reactions over the many months I suspect it will take me to finish.
Three chapters in, and of course I’m hooked. Would expect nothing less from King. It may be a big ass book, but he doesn’t wait around to get started. For this rollercoaster, you skip the line and sit right up front. Clickity-clank, clickity-clank, then a straight drop. If the rest of the ride is this intense, and the coronavirus doesn’t kill me first, I’m going to be one frazzled mess by the end.
02/11/2020 – Been reading this a while, but only at 10%. My main thought right now is that it’s entirely unfair for Stephen King, probably writing most of this while still in his 20s, to be this good. Old characters, female characters, rich, poor—they all come across so real it’s startling. How can one mind comprehend so much? How does he articulate it so well? He builds this terrifying world one person at a time and it’s so much scarier that way. I’m in awe.
In other news, over 1,000 deaths have been attributed to the coronavirus. That’s approximately 2-3% death rate for those infected. Better than the 99% death rate in The Stand, so there’s a bright side. Of course, there are Internet rumors circulating that China is under-reporting and the real count is significantly higher.
02/28/2020 – Up to 15%. Starting to question my logic that reading this during a pandemic will make it more fun. I became physically disturbed last night while reading in bed. Like, on the brink of a panic attack. It’s all getting too real. The careful pacing particularly. Stephen King, prophet that he is, describes our current world too well. One case spreads to ten, to fifty, to a thousand. The government doing all it can to prevent blame, to avoid panic. Of course that’s making it worse.
For historical reference, what’s going on right now is that there are more coronavirus cases outside of ground zero China than in. Last I heard that includes 56 countries, with rates rising every day. Other than China, Iran, Italy, South Korea and Japan seem to have it the worst. The W.H.O. just raised its risk assessment from “high” to “very high,” which is their most extreme rating outside of declaring an outright pandemic. Saying the world is under pandemic essentially succumbs to the realization that the virus is unstoppable and everyone on the planet will eventually be exposed.
The death rate for the coronavirus is somewhere between 2-3%. I calculate that 2% of the world population is 154 million.
There’s also been a case where someone previously “cured” of the coronavirus caught it a second time.
At home, our president has censored the CDC from making any announcements about the virus without approval by the vice president. When asked why the stock market is tanking, he blamed the recent Democratic debate.
Still unclear which is scarier right now, Stephen King’s novel or reality.
03/03/2020 – Have to share this frightening quote from the book before I forget:
The President is scheduled to speak tonight at 6:00 PST and his press secretary, Hubert Ross, has branded reports that the President will speak from a set mocked up to look like the Oval Office but actually deep in the White House bunker “hysterical, vicious, and totally unfounded.” Advanced copies of the President’s speech indicate that he will “spank” the American people for overreacting, and compare the current panic to that which followed Orson Welles’s “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast in the early 30s.
03/13/2020 – It’s a misty Friday the 13th. I’m reading The Stand on my break, which happens to be at home now. The office is still open, but we’ve been instructed to work from home for the unforeseeable future. This doesn’t come as a surprise since nearly all gatherings have been cancelled. Talk shows are without an audience, theme parks are closed, movie releases are all delayed. The upcoming presidential debate has been relocated to avoid cross-country travel. Entire countries are on lockdown.
It’s all playing out eerily similar to Stephen King’s doomsday scenario. The book, so far, has been a crystal ball for what happens next. Within hours of reading a passage where King’s president delivers a cough-filled address stating that virus concerns are blown out of proportion and a vaccine will be delivered next week, Mr. Trump appears in the oval office and assures all Americans will have access to testing and free medical treatment. Surprise, surprise, both presidents lied.
What’s still to be determined is just how deadly this virus is. On one hand you have 22 dead in a single Seattle nursing home, but on the other it’s been suggested that hundreds of thousands of infected people are running around who don’t even know it because they don’t have symptoms or they aren’t serious. It seems like either way I’m not personally at high risk, but I am worried about those who are.
These are certainly interesting times, to say the least.
03/19/2020 – Today marks my first full week of not leaving the house. There’s little incentive to at this point. Movie theaters, restaurants, and book stores are all closed. And even if they weren’t, the risk of getting COVID-19 isn’t worth the reward. Fortunately we saw this coming and our house is stocked with food, water and other essentials. I’m thinking we can last another two weeks before needing to venture out again.
Being honest, I’ve struggled to pick up The Stand as of late. King usually delivers a delicious dose of escapism disaster, but under the circumstances it’s all hitting too close to home. Like reading Cujo while living with a rabid dog.
I also think the last few chapters have been really boring, though. I’m at 26%, which probably translates to page 350ish, and the most recent characters have really snoozed the action. I know I still have a bazillion pages to go so I’ll hold off before giving final judgement, but in this present state I wouldn’t call it his best work. Of course this wouldn’t be the first time that a King book had a lengthy lull before launching back into life-changing thrills.
We’ll see how I feel after another week. Hopefully I’ll have better things to say about The Stand, and will not have yet descended into madness.
03/28/2020 – The Stand did get good again. I’m at 35%. Been reading faster than normal because I have this conspiracy in my head that the coronavirus will finally end the day I finish reading this book. Unfortunately, even at my current pace, that might be several more months. I’m trying, world, I’m trying! Lol
As for current affairs, today is sadly noteworthy because over 2,000 people have officially died from COVID-19 in the United States. Just two days ago we hit 1,000 dead. The way things are going, it’s very realistic for those numbers to continue doubling every few days.
The virus itself is still somewhat mysterious. Is it airborne? Kinda yes, kinda no. How long can it stay on surfaces? Several days…ish. Can you get it from touching cardboard boxes? Maybe? Will warmer weather do any good? Don’t count on it. Who can you trust? No one, of course, because even the seemingly-healthy can spread it all around.
The president expects everything to be fixed in a few weeks so churches can be packed on Easter Sunday. We’d all get a good laugh out of a comment like that, except the situation is too dire.
What else has been going on? So much I can’t even keep track. The government somehow came up with $2,000,000,000,000+ to infuse the economy, save businesses and give people enough money to hopefully keep the lights on. Pretty cool, I guess, but I think we’re all wondering what will happen next if this goes on for several more months.
A number of celebrities and politicians have caught the virus, some have died from it. A grim reminder that this really does impact everyone. You can’t buy your way out of this mess.
04/16/2020 – Future me, whenever you decide to re-read The Stand (which I’m sure you will at some point) remember that the end of “Book 1” gets boring. But don’t give up, because the adventure really starts with “Book 2.” There’s a lot of direct homage to The Wizard of Oz, like there is in The Dark Tower series. Slightly cheesy, I suppose, but Oz is up there among the great quest novels so it’s worthy. And like Oz, King populates his journey with unexpected characters who become close to your heart. You’ll fear for them, and really hope they don’t die—even though in the back of your mind you suspect they will.
Hopefully you won’t live to see another global pandemic, but if you do—don’t read The Stand during it. You will be tempted, because it is perhaps the definitive literary achievement of pandemic stories, but it won’t make you feel better. It will make you feel worse.
If it’s been 19 days since you last updated your review/journal, remember that looking back at what’s happened in the world will be depressing. For example, 19 days ago only 1,000 Americans were documented as succumbing to the virus. Now that number is 34,000 and growing rapidly. Globally, there’s been 144,341 deaths. These numbers include only those who were officially counted, of course. The world is unfair, and you know that there are many more who society didn’t deem important enough to be included in the statistics.
One good thing about revisiting The Stand will be recognizing that no matter how horrible your current political situations are, remember that most political situations are horrible. In the 1970s, King imagined a president who refused to take any responsibility for the handling of a pandemic. Had King’s president lived long enough for the other branches of government to approve stimulus checks, there’s no doubt he would have demanded that those checks bear his name. Situations change, but people generally don’t.
If you are absolutely determined to re-read The Stand during another pandemic, remember that it’s okay to take a break and read other books before coming back to it. I recommend gothic romances. They’re a good melodramatic distraction from all the real drama swirling around.
05/06/2020 – What’s life like during a pandemic? I suppose people will ask years from now. For me, at least, the staying at home part isn’t bad. Where there’s books and Internet, I’m good. I’m still employed (from home) and taking online classes, so too busy to let staying in every night be oppressive.
That said, I still find myself suddenly panic-stricken. The smallest thing sends me spiraling. Planning a birthday party and realizing it’s impossible amid a swirl of uncertainty. Will I still have a job in six months? Will it be safe to travel? Will the next wave of virus be even worse? Will I be dead by then—what about my family?
Other things too. Watching a movie where people happily interact can be an escape, or a grim reminder that those moments were the before times—times we may never see again.
Are my panic attacks unwarranted? Probably. Mostly. But how can I be sure?
Even if we do eventually return to normal, what’s the long-term psychological impact? Can I ever attend a concert or visit an amusement park without imagining a plague of death in the air?
The new developments haven’t been reassuring. It’s not just flu-like symptoms; the virus causes blood clots which can lead to fatal strokes. The strain that’s out now is more severe than the original strain. Maybe you get it once and you have antibodies, maybe you can get it an unlimited number of times.
The official death toll continues to rise to terrifying numbers, but they’re also saying the virus could have gone global as early as December 2019. How many COVID deaths haven’t been counted? Hundreds? Thousands?
By the way, says some government leaders, we believe this virus was manufactured in a Chinese lab. Great. What does that mean? Was China reckless? Was this intentional and we have a nuclear war to look forward to?
Oh, and murder hornets.
Anyway, back to The Stand. I’ll admit to still reading slowly. It’s good. Really good. But I can only handle small doses at a time. King is revving up to create the ultimate Good vs. Evil battle. Stakes of Biblical proportions. I still got about 500 pages to read, but I can see why people find that aspect of it appealing. I’m not convinced it’s Top 5 King material yet, but I’m willing to let the adventure roll on and be convinced otherwise.
06/04/2020 – Dreams play an important role in The Stand. Survivors of the super flu dream both of holy Mother Abigail and evil Randall Flagg, but where their sympathies lie determines their allegiance. Like Star Wars (1977), you can choose to join the Dark Side or not. Although I think King is drawing more from the Book of Exodus than George Lucas’ epic space opera, it is interesting that both were released within a year of each other.
Also interesting, how vivid my own dreams have been lately. Since the beginning of the pandemic I’ve had reoccurring nightmares. All of them some variation on the same theme: impending doom.
I dream of drowning most frequently. The plot shifts, but it always ends with me driving off a bridge, trapped as my car slowly fills with water. I beat against the glass to no avail, scream until I’m out of breath. The water rises to my neck, sometimes entering my lungs, before I finally wake in a panic. This dream occurs so often I’ve memorized every article on the Internet about how to properly escape a submerged vehicle. Not that that makes it any less scary.
Other slow deaths have infiltrated my nightly subconscious. One was a complicated scenario where my living body was dumped into a heap of COVID corpses and I suffocated under their weight. I woke up horrified and, at the same time, thinking I should write everything down. The premise had a juicy E. A. Poe vibe.
I’ve also dreamed of an evil man. Perhaps Stephen King is to blame for this, though I don’t think my nightmare man is meant to be Randall Flagg. He is a magician of some kind though, with an ability to order minions to terrorize the innocent. In my dream I was with a large group of friends in a park, I think, when his henchmen started shooting. It was one of those weird dreams where you see it coming, but are also taken by surprise. I knew the man was evil and capable of such things, but still felt shocked when it happened.
The worst part about these nightmares is waking up and realizing they aren’t over.
06/25/2020 – Five months later—FINISHED! What a ride. Glad I kept notes on how the novel impacted me throughout, because January 2020 was a very different time in my life than June 2020. It would be impossible to capture the range of emotion that coincided with reading this epic without writing them down in the moment.
In hindsight, this is easily a five-star read—though it didn’t feel that way the entire time. The Uncut edition adds around 400 pages which were removed from the original release for logistical reasons. The full-length text was so thick it created binding issues.
Years later, when the binding expense was less of a problem, King brought back his unabridged novel as originally intended but also updated the timeline to the 1990s. The subtle era update works well, I think, because the 1980s included escalated Cold War tensions and the AIDS crisis, both of which fit into the fears and themes of The Stand.
As for the extra pages, I’m a little torn. I don’t think this book is too long—it’s meant to be paced as an epic and should have the length to match—but for sure 200 pages could have been deleted without any loss. The other 200 pages should have probably been rewritten because they just weren’t as strong from a character development perspective, or an adventure perspective.
That said, I like that I closed this book feeling the weight of an epic journey. The length is part of the experience, and that includes boring parts and exciting parts. Like unabridged Les Misérables, which includes hundreds of pages of dull French history. Even though the history lessons are tough to get through, they feel necessary to bring the fictional world into a greater context and make you feel the significance of time.
The Stand ends well, which is a rare King treat, and does something unexpected: made me appreciate the end to The Dark Tower more. So much so, I would say reading The Stand is required before embarking on The Dark Series.
Outside of Dark Tower connections, however, there is a timeless tale of Good vs. Evil, with a superb concluding “will we ever learn?” theme. In a way it’s a religious book, and I can see why some find that aspect particularly satisfactory. Tom Cullen, Nick Andros, Mother Abigail and Kojak are among King’s finest characters, though the remaining cast are somewhat weak. Randall Flagg does become an intriguing villain toward the end.
In conclusion, I would argue The Stand’s greatest strengths are in the enduring qualities of human determination, evil determination, political achievements and failures, and many other prophetic aspects of life. We’ll continue reading this book through the ages, because it will always be relevant.