Thursday, 30 December 2010

Book Review: The Stand by Stephen King

I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with Stephen King.  He has a special place on my bookshelf as he was one of the first writers I really got into when I was around eleven or so, (plus we share the same birthday!).  I devoured pretty much all his stuff up until about 1995.  I think it was Needful Things (1991) which broke the spell for me.  Hundreds of pages leading up to the most ridiculous, Deus ex Machina ending ever.  But every now and then I have another bash at a Stephen King, just for old time’s sake.  In recent years I’ve tried Insomnia (94), Cell (06), Just After Sunset (08), Dreamcatcher (01).  They were all, without exception, complete turkeys.

The way I see it, the early ’90s were the turning point for King.  Before then, his books were quite addictive: good pacing, in depth characterisation, unsettling and (often) a decent ending (not always though - endings are definitely his weak point.  King is really an ideas man.  You get the sense that he has so many and sometimes just doesn’t know what to do with them once he gets to the end).  After that, I don’t know what happened really.  Maybe it’s something to do with his prolific nature, his fame and status and his lack of a good editor.  Who’s going to really edit a King book these days?  He’s a bestseller, regardless of how unwieldy and bloated his novels become.  He can do what he wants.

So whilst searching around on my bookshelf for something to read which wasn’t too taxing in the Christmas wallowing period, I thought I’d re-read an older one and see how it holds up under scrutiny.  I decided to go for The Stand (78/90) - the reworked 1990 edition of course!  I last read this on holiday in Mallorca with my family; I was probably twelve-ish.  At the time I loved it.  But would I still love it?  And how would it, ahem, stand up to scrutiny?

Pretty well actually.  First I noticed loads of literary references which I simply didn’t get aged twelve.  King is an intelligent bookish man; he majored in literature and I’ve read interviews where he explains how he struggled for years with his desire to be seen as a ‘literary’ writer yet he produced pulp fiction.  But it’s all here: Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’, T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’, The Scarlet Letter, and um…The Lord of the Rings.  The influence of Tolkien is really obvious throughout, but hey, we all love a good quest of good vs evil don’t we?
What King is really good at is characterisation.  Backstory is dropped in with subtlety and we actually care about (well most) of the characters.  Except Frannie.  God she’s annoying.  I would say his female characters are actually less convincing here (and there’s fewer of them anyway).  The pacing keeps us engaged throughout - even at the ending.  Here’s something to note - a King book which doesn’t have a lousy ending!

True there are areas of style which could do with tightening up and some inconsistencies, but overall it lived up to my memory’s recommendation.  It linked in with his Dark Tower series too.  For some reason I managed to bypass these and have been picking at them every now and then for the past six months.  And I loved the reference to Christine.  Of course that’s nothing new - King is uber intertextual and that appeals to my slightly geeky nature.  But one thing I would say is some parts of the narrative are actually quite experimental (for mainstream fiction).  Stream of consciousness, second person voice, present tense, interspersed diary entries…

I think you could really compare The Stand to Cell to see how far he’s changed (for the worse).  Both have an apocalyptic theme.  But whereas The Stand, despite the horror/fantastical elements remains firmly rooted in reality and character, Cell descends into farce.  The Stand takes small steps and remains wholly believable and true, whereas Cell just made me laugh.  Zombie type creatures created by mobile phones, who are in fact, batteries, who recharge by listening to M.O.R?  Eh?  Instantly forgettable characters, who I care about even less when one dies?  Yup.  I kind of remember some weird levitation thing happening at the end too.  Cell is a cash-cow, plain and simple.  The Stand is the real deal.

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