March 18, 2014

Big Fat Book Readalong: The Stand by Stephen King

This month, Sunita is hosting a Big Fat Book Readalong and I wanted to participate*, which is why I’m interrupting our not-so-regular schedule with this post about a book that isn’t a romance, but it sure is long (the audio clocks at almost 48 hours). This won’t be a traditional review, but I hope you enjoy it more than I enjoyed the book. I’ll be back with a couple of Romance reviews later this week (fingers crossed!).

In high school, I used to be a huge King fan, but I never read his two big fat books: It and The Stand. A couple of months ago, I was browsing through Audible and decided to use my promotional credit on the longest book I could find, which is how I ended with this book. But with about 5 hours to go, I felt annoyed and unsatisfied, so I decided not to finish it, which turned out to be a good decision, because shortly after, this happened and I’m still trying to rinse the bad aftertaste from my mouth. Yet I wanted to comment on a book that I've been meaning to read for years, and that I found disturbing for reasons other than those originally intended.

The strength of The Stand is how it focuses on each character and constructs them in detail and with care. It could seem meandering and overly long, and I wonder if part of this individual character exploration was cut from the original version and how it affected the story, but it works in making the book about the people more than about the supernatural occurrences, which is very good because the part about the killing flu is interesting, but the part about the Good vs. Evil, borderline preachy, unimaginative Christian not-so-epic battle is nowhere near as compelling.

However, as much as I enjoyed getting to know the characters, it soon became obvious that the men were more nuanced than the women. These guys are struggling with their natures and circumstances regardless of whether they end up playing heroes or villains. With the exception of a couple minor characters, the men have stories and personalities that make them unique individuals that extend far beyond archetypes and stereotypes. The women, on the other hand, are either good and pure, or, well, have a potential for evil that’s fundamentally linked to their sexuality. And of course there’s the magical black lady, because racist stereotype**. All the women are completely innocuous and take a back seat to the men, in fact, most of them seem desperate to find a man to take care of them.

I also had a hard time dealing with the way mental illness was portrayed. One of the secondary characters is a schizophrenic pyromaniac who, unlike other characters, doesn’t have any struggle to decide which team (Good vs. Evil) he belongs to. It’s as if his condition automatically turns him into a villain. He’s written in a sympathetic, borderline pitying way, which makes everything worse because it involves stripping him of choices and personality.

And then we have Tom Cullen, another character whose choices are taken from him, and whose developmental disability is exploited in all its stereotypical glory. It’s funny tragic, because The Stand has been changed and updated two times: in 1985 for the paperback release, and in 1990 when the Complete and Uncut edition was published, yet the racism, sexism and ableism appear untouched.

I like how the first half of the book consists of a series of vignette-like episodes featuring each main player. As I said, those individual journeys are the novel’s strength and structure upon which everything else relies. But that everything else is so incredibly problematic, that it eventually took over my reading experience and I was too distracted to pay attention. And frankly, I have the suspicion that the ending won’t be up to par with the beginning.

* Yes, I’m not reading along, but let’s pretend I’m not cheating.
** When I was writing the post I found this interesting article discussing the subject.


  1. I listened to The Stand last summer and really enjoyed it, but I agree 100% with your comments about the characters. You may not be far enough but you may or may not eventually want to add "and GLBTQ" to your list ("The Kid").

    Mother Abigail is the saint, Frannie is the good girl, and Nadine is the slut. Of the three of them, Nadine was by far the most interesting character, but they were all defined by their relationship to male figures.

    1. Oh, I forgot about The Kid. Bingo!

      My favorite characters were Nadine and Larry, which is interesting, because their fates were linked for a big part of the book. I wonder if Larry is the one who ends up being the hero even if Stu is the one who follows the hero recipe.

      King has an issue with the portrayal of women. I remember reading Cujo when I was a teen and even then I noticed how the main character was punished for basically cheating on her husband. If I weren't so angry at him, I would re-read his books with a more critical eye.

  2. 48 hours of an audio book?! Eek. I think I'd pass on that. LOL. I've never gotten into Stephen King, and after your comments on what turned you off to this book...I think I'll stick to not checking his work out. I hope your next few reads/listens are much more enjoyable!

    1. It is long, but to be fair, the book is entertaining and the audiobook narrator is fantastic, IMO. But yeah, it's problematic.


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