I grew up reading Stephen King, so I’ve always had a soft spot for the guy. I’ve read tons of his novels – Misery, Pet Semetary, Cujo, Eyes of the Dragon, The Bachman Books, just to name a few – but I never got around to reading The Stand. Many people have told me that The Stand is one of, if not the, best novels King has written, and at over 800 pages, I knew reading it would be quite an investment of time. I think King is a damn good writer. Don’t get me wrong, he’s no F. Scott Fitzgerald or even Bret Easton Ellis, but he’s a helluva lot better than the Dean Koontzes and John Grishams out there, too. So how did The Stand turn out? I was more than just a little disappointed. Keep reading to find out why. Major spoilers, obviously.
As is the case in most of King’s novels, the characters in The Stand have depth and feel like real people, complete with flaws, quirks, and even accents. I think part of the reason I disliked the ending so much – more on that in just a bit – is because I had grown to really care about the characters. I was fully invested in many of their fates. Would Larry Underwood find redemption after spending his whole life an an arrogant jerk? Would Stu Redman, a simply dude from East Texas, become one of the saviors of humanity? Because the characters were so well-defined and seemed so real, the ending of The Stand totally undermined all that King had built up. OK, so let’s get to the ending itself…
Randall Flagg – one of the coolest fictional villains in recent memory – has imprisoned Larry Underwood and Ralph Brentner in a pair of cages outside the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. A crowd of Flagg’s followers gather around, anticipating Larry and Ralph being literally pulled apart. The prisoners are at Flagg’s mercy, and all they can do is pray to God that things end well. One of Flagg’s followers – Whitney – stands up to Flagg and, full of fear, tells him that what Flagg is doing has gone way too far. Other members of the crowd agree, but they’re too scared of Flagg to say anything. A savant of sorts and also a follower of Flagg, Trashcan Man arrives before the executions are carried out. Trash has brought with him an atomic bomb that he found in the desert, presenting it to Flagg and hoping to make amends with him (Trash had previously sabotaged many of Flagg’s assets, including helicopters).
Flagg, who is much more than a man – you could say he is the personification of evil or, in The Stand, an Antichrist figure – emits a small, blue ball of electricity from his left index finger. The crowd gasps as the ball moves toward Whitney. It scorches Whitney’s skin and kills him before hovering in the air and increasing in size. Ralph screams to Larry to look at the ball, claiming that it is the Hand of God (and Larry thinks that it does indeed look like the Hand of God) before the ball moves down toward the atomic bomb. The bomb is detonated and everyone is Las Vegas, righteous and unrighteous alike, is killed. There’s a bit of resolution regarding Stu Redman, Tom Cullen, Frannie Goldsmith and the rest of the Free Zone, but as for the big climax, that’s it. Over 700 pages of buildup to a final confrontation, and essentially all we get is a big fat Deus ex machina.
So what does the ending mean? Frankly, I think King invested so much time in his characters and the final confrontation between the members of the Free Zone and Flagg’s people in Vegas that he didn’t know how to end the story. And this isn’t an uncommon aspect of a lot of King’s stories – the set up is terrific, the characters are fleshed out, but the story totally falls apart at the end. In fact, in On Writing, King himself states that he creates his characters, puts them in interesting situations, and then simply writes. I imagine that must have been the process here. Why would the Hand of God come from Flagg himself? What was the point of the members of the Free Zone traveling to Vegas in the first place? King isn’t big on metaphor (and if he is, it’s high school-level metaphor, like a Christ figure), and so I take his ending to be fairly straightforward.
I have no regrets about reading The Stand, as the journey itself was enjoyable. That said, I found myself incredibly disappointed with the ending. King built up a huge, climactic confrontation, and in just a few pages, he nonsensically created a phenomenon that wasn’t remotely symbolic. Essentially, King wrote a giant escape hatch into his novel. Maybe someone can help me interpret the ending, but I’m pretty sure that’s all there is to it. In fact, after I finished, I called two friends who I knew had read The Stand, too, and they both admitted being quite let down. For those of you who’ve read The Stand, what did you think? Were you as disappointed as I was?