Rating: 4 out of 5.

Warning: this post contains spoilers for Stephen King’s The Stand

I don’t read a lot of Stephen King, not because I don’t like his writing, but because I’m not a big fan of horror. I actually very much enjoyed one of his fantasy novels, Eye of the Dragon. My own horror writing tends to not remain in the genre for long, as you may recall from reading Zombies, and I don’t especially enjoy reading it from others. To me, reading is usually about escaping to a better world of the imagination, not a darker one. However, a friend recommended this book to me, as it was rather topical, and so I figured I would give it a read.

Maybe it’s how I interpreted it, but I didn’t really see this book as horror. It was only horror in the way that Game of Thrones is horror: there’s a fair amount of blood and gore, and none of the characters are safe from being killed off, but that seemed to be about as far as it went. Otherwise, it was a very interesting apocalypse novel, and I would definitely recommend it, or at least the first half.

For the first half of the book (or so), the story is about a bio-engineered plague that kills off 99% of the world’s population. The government tries to cover it up, and contain it, both of which efforts fail miserably, in part because the symptoms are subtle and generic, like standard colds or flu viruses. Most of the first half of the book involves identifying who survived, those people trying to survive the aftermath, and trying to identify what the linking factor is that kept them alive. It was an interesting, if gritty, treatment of what is a fairly standard apocalypse concept, although this one was better executed than most.

I really did enjoy the depth and attention to detail of the first half of the book, with considerations about the implications of a 99% population cut, and how people would respond to it. The characters were compelling (some more than others, of course), and all of them were imperfect. I think the story would have benefited from having one of the primary POV characters be someone better equipped to understand what was happening, but I suspect that was a deliberate choice on King’s part to make the story fit more into the horror genre.

About halfway through the book, though, it starts getting…weird. Not horror weird, just weird. There were hints of a possible supernatural thread in the first half, but in the second half these are built out into a full-on supernatural showdown between good and evil, with an embodiment of the devil controlling predators and teleporting around, and lightning falling from the sky to detonate an atomic bomb at the will of God. The writing and characters were still compelling enough to keep me reading, but the story lost some of its hold for me. Maybe that’s just because of what I happened to be getting out of the book – others might think that the supernatural element was the best part of the story.

From another author, I think the dramatic shift between the tone of the first and second halves of the book might have broken the piece, but King’s writing is compelling enough, and detailed enough, to make the transition work, even if I wasn’t entirely sold on it. The very end, the denouement, returned to more of what I was most fond of about the first half, and led to a very satisfying conclusion. I could have done without the epilogue, however – I think that bit could have been easily left to the reader’s imagination, and that the book would have been stronger for it.

Although I wouldn’t call this horror, per se, it’s definitely a darker piece than most of what I read, and not something that you’d necessarily want to read as a bedtime story. Most of what I read calms me from the stresses of the day; this book was frankly stressful to read. My experience with the book was different, I suspect, from what most people get from it, so ultimately I can’t say whether you should read this or not. That’s not a cop-out: that’s just the truth.

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