Saturday, September 07, 2013

'The Stand' Against Evil

Thirty–five years ago this month, Stephen King published his lengthy novel, "The Stand," which was almost immediately proclaimed, by just about everyone I knew, to be his best.

I'll grant you, the list of his published works wasn't too long in 1978. "The Stand" was his fifth novel — the last count I heard indicated he has now published 50. Obviously, there is a lot more competition now than there was.

But, even 35 years later, I still hear people say it is his best. I haven't read all of his books, but I've read quite a few, and I, too, say — as I have been saying for 35 years — that it is his best.

Of course, what I read 35 years ago was the abridged version. In 1990, he published the original, uncut edition. I read that one, too.

The plot was deceptively simple. At an Army base, a deadly strain of the flu that has been created to be used as a weapon gets loose. Most of the people who become infected will die — but a handful will prove to be immune to it.

The survivors migrate into two camps — one dedicated to evil, the other mostly dedicated to good — and an apocalyptic confrontation is inevitable.

I remember thinking when the book came out — as I always do when I read a Stephen King book — that it would make a splendid movie.

And, eventually, it did. It was a four–part TV movie in 1994.

But the problem always has been that King's narratives seem to spend a lot of time inside the characters' heads.

The plot of "The Stand" was easy enough to follow. The American military had developed a weaponized strain of the flu, which was informally known as Captain Trips. It was released accidentally, causing an epidemic that killed more than 99% of the world's population.

The few who survived — and usually showed no symptoms — gravitated to two camps in the Western United States, and the story evolved into a battle between good and evil.

All of which set up a final confrontation between the two sides.

The first version I read ended on a suitably ambiguous note. A baby was born to two of the survivors who lived in the good camp. One asked if humanity had learned from its experience. The other replied, "I don't know."

The longer version had a different ending, much darker. The antagonist, who somehow survived the apocalyptic battle, awakened with a case of amnesia and began to recruit new followers among an illiterate race of people who treated him like a god.

The clear implication was that another stand would be necessary.

The TV movie was pretty faithful to the story, but there were a few differences. If you've only seen the TV movie, you owe it to yourself to read the book.