Stephen King's The Stand was the first book I ever bought with my own money. This end of the world opus remains one of my favorites, and one of the few books (along with Michael Herr's Despatches) that I've read multiple times. The collapse of civilization brought about by the superflu is superbly detailed at both the personal and global level. It could stand on its own (see what I did there?) as a novel, but of course da King takes it so much further by introducing Randall Flagg and his second Armageddon.
I dived back into it again this week, but with two changes. I'm listening to the audiobook, and the edition is the 1990 re-release that returned about 400 pages to the text. Since the original 'shorter' version was already over a thousand pages long, this edition is a monster.
Thomas and I are listening to the audio book in the car. We've been doing audiobooks this way for about a year or so, given the enormous amount of driving I have to do with him. Some of those cricket and rugby fields are a LONG way away. We'd just finished Justin Cronin's The Twelve (which got a bit strange in the last few chapters) and I was curious to see how he'd react to a book I had enjoyed so much at about his age.
The narration by Grover Gardner is top-notch, but one thing I hadn't thought of was how much of the story had dated. It's not just the absence of mobile phones and the Internet, for instance. There are characters whose whole lives are simply inexplicable in modern terms. Or if not inexplicable, at least anachronistic.
The rock musician, Larry Underwood, one of my favourite characters, appears in his opening chapters dealing with the blowback from overnight success, which naturally took seven or eight years to eventuate. There are a couple of pages, or in the audiobook a couple of minutes worth of storytelling, detailing Larry's struggles as a musician. Musicians have always struggled to make a living, of course, but it struck me listening to this section of the book how much things have changed because of digital distribution. The struggles are different now. I don't know that Thomas even noticed, but for me the discussion of 'pressing vinyl', cutting an album, Billboard top 40 charts, powerful record company executives etc marked this section of the book as an historical curiosity. So too with the description of New York, which was originally written well before the city's renaissance. The New York of The Stand is the dark, dangerous metropolis of the 1970s, not the zero tolerance wonderland of today.
Still, none of this detracts from my enjoyment of revisiting the story. In some ways, it adds to it. It's like time travel. And Thomas is loving it. I've always been a fan of King's work, but I forget sometimes just how good a writer he is. The last couple of years have seen the academic and literary establishment beginning to recognise and acknowledge his achievement. The publication of his alternative history of the Kennedy assassination, which I always think of as simply '63', seems to have marked the point at which the literary establishment threw up their hands and said, "Come 'ere, you big lug, lets just hug it out."
Some of the earlier chapters where the most important characters are introduced are a masterclass in writing about the banalities of everyday life without boring your readers. Even Thomas was taken aback at how interesting King made the breakup of Frannie Goldsmith and her hapless college boyfriend, the would-be poet Jess. There are no dark and fantastic elements to that chapter, just a really keen eye for the way that human beings treat each other.
The dark and fantastic elements are coming, of course. And I'm very much looking forward to reading them, or hearing them, over the next couple of months.