|THE STANDby Stephen King|
Originally Published 1978 in edited form
Published 1991 by Signet (Penguin Putnam)
ISBN# 0-451-16953-0 (Mass Market Paperback)
Reviewed January 2, 2000
This is a book with a split personality, and it is diminished for it. Stephen King builds a wonderfully realistic, terribly chilling world in which a government-developed supervirus escapes the facility in which it is developed, and decimates the human population of the earth. We are introduced to a wide range of characters, each living out their normal lives as the disease begins to spread, who are suddenly confronted with the horror of watching nearly everyone around them get sick and, without exception, die. Later, however, the book turns into a rather banal and pointless good versus evil story.
Beyond the primary ensemble of characters, the best parts of the book are the chapters of vigniettes in which King shows how the events affect other people throughout the U.S. (though the plague is worldwide, King focuses exclusively on the United States). First he gives a chapter in which the bug is spread from person to person, like a fatal game of "Operator". Someone gives it to a waitress, who then gives it to all her customers, one of whom goes to work and infects everyone at the office, including a client who goes home and gives it to his wife and kids. And so it goes. Later he shows snapshots of the widescale degredation of societal structures, as martial law is declared and riots break out throughout the country. The government desperately tries to hold together the social fabric, but soon finds out that there aren't enough people left alive for such structures to exist. Third come the survivor stories -- those few who are immune to the disease, many of whom end up dying anyways from small accidents which would not have been fatal if there had been anyone else around to help. This is the first half of the book, and the developing stories are truly fascinating.
The book loses a great deal when King starts to introduce major supernatural elements into the plot -- mainly in the form of Mother Abigail and The Dark Man. Mother Abigail is a strong character in her own right, but a great deal of the latter part of the book revolves around the machinations of the Dark Man, and he is simply too one-dimensional of a character to support that load. The character is completely unmotivated -- he does what he does simply because he is the Bad Guy, and therefore must oppose the Good Guys. King's wonderfully detailed interwoven plots suddenly gel into a relatively flat good versus evil story, in which the primary force of evil is, quite frankly, boring.
King starts off with a bang, but is unable to maintain the power of the first half for the entire 1,000-plus pages. He seems to be at his best when writing straight fiction, and falls into stupid oversimplifications when writing fantasy. That trend is never more apparent than in this book, which starts out as a solid piece of speculative fiction, and halfway through becomes a straightforward good versus evil story with little depth. The latter part of the book does have its good points, but it earns its stars almost entirely in the first half, which is strong enough for me to care about what happens though to the end.
As a side note: The version of this book now available is a major expansion to the original, which in the 1970s was purged of some 400 pages prior to publication. I did some comparison to the original and came to the conclusion that while some of the additions do enhance the story, many do not. My recommendation to you is that you skip the added prologue (entitled "The Circle Opens") and start at the original beginning, Chapter One, with the boys sitting outside the gas station in Arnette, Texas. If you really don't want to miss the events in the Prologue, go back and read it later, after you've gotten through the first few chapters.
|A GOOD READ|