In 1978, Stephen King took it upon himself to rewrite Revelations in his own image and called it The Stand. Today, still considered a masterpiece, it’s a sprawling epic that exceeds 800 pages in its 1980 paperback version. And I have to say, even when King released his 1200-page monster version in 1990, it was still a damn site better than the paranoid and overly preachy Left Behind series. (For starters, King can actually write like he’s made it out of high school.)
The story begins in 1985 (1980 in the hardcover original and 1990 in King’s restored version), when a sickened soldier plows his car into a gas station in Texas. He appears to have the flu. Soon, it becomes obvious that, flu it may be, it’s something much, much worse. Within two weeks, 90% of the human race is dead, leaving a handful of bewildered survivors.
Those survivors are haunted by dreams of two people: Mother Abagail, a 108-year-old daughter of a freed slave living on her own in Nebraska; and Randall Flagg, aka The Walking Dude, The Dark Man, or just him. Mother Abagail invites people to “come see me in Hemingford Home.” Randy just likes to scare the bejesus out of people.
The bulk of the book is the group of survivors who congregate around Mother Abagail as they take over Boulder, Colorado. It becomes clear that they are the forces of good. They form a committee to run the town, the members reluctant to take on the leadership role. There are a couple of malcontents among them, however. Harold Lauder, still a high school teen when the story begins, shows promise as a possible future leader, but he is driven by jealousy and hatred for Frannie Goldsmith, a crush he soon learns will not be requited. He hooks up with Nadine Cross, the virginal former schoolteacher who is saving herself for Flagg. Together, they plot to blow up the committee. They succeed in killing a few of them, but don’t stick around, fleeing West toward Las Vegas and The Walking Dude.
As far as Antichrists go, Flagg is a damn site more convincing – and interesting – than Left Behind‘s annoying Romanian male model, Nicolae Carpathia. Flagg is damn sure of himself and brooks no dissent. Whereas Mother Abagail is something of a sage, afraid of her own sinful pride, Flagg is cocky, capable of using wolves, crows, and weasels as his literal eyes and ears. However, Flagg gets really scared when he learns of Mother Abagail’s death.
That’s when everything starts to fall apart. After raping Nadine in the desert, she coaxes him into throwing her off the roof of the MGM Grand. He misses another spy until the last second, but fails to control her when she opts for suicide instead. Worst of all, he is outwitted by poor, simple Tom Cullen. (M-O-O-N, that spells Tom Cullen.) Tom is hypnotized and sent to Vegas as a spy. He leaves just ahead of Flagg’s own downfall. In fact, Flagg’s discovery of Cullen marks the beginning of the end for him.
One of the most interesting characters is one of Flagg’s underlings, The Trashcan Man. Trash is a schizophrenic pyromaniac who loves fire. His goal is to find an atomic bomb for the ultimate fire. If you saw Matt Frewer’s edgy, over-the-top portrayal of Trash (“Bumpty-bumpty-bump!”), you know he finds one.
It’s a long and sprawling epic. Many consider this to be King at the peak of his skills, which would be depressing, since he first published it in 1978. I’m not sure about the wisdom of making only the extended version available, but it’s impressive King could handle the nearly two dozen characters that populate this story. It’s a far cry from Salem’s Lot, which had a more narrow focus and tighter storyline. On the other hand, the one King novel that comes closest to equaling The Stand is It.