There was a time, decades ago, I read every single Stephen King book being published. Nowadays, I pick and choose between the more recent stuff of his, but that’s not any reflection toward him as an author. It’s more about what my tastes in reading are at this stage in my life — and it’s not unusual they’ve shifted over the years. No matter. Without question, this author has been influential in my life. If he wasn’t, I’d not seek his newer works or go back to re-read his early books. There’s only a handful of writers that I do that particular thing with, and re-watch the TV/film adaptations of his novels (sometimes referred by me as the good, the bad, and the ugly).
The Stand by Stephen King, though, carries a special significance with this reader. For one thing, the apocalyptic horror novel has the distinction of being the only book of the author’s that I felt the absolute need to stop and put down. During the 70s, I’d positively inhaled his first four books during my period of reading that literary genre (Carrie, Salem’s Lot, The Shining, and Night Shift). I wasn’t aware of his work under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman then so none of those books made that era’s list. By the time I started this one in late ’78, I was myself laid up on my grandmother’s couch, sick with that year’s influenza. Maybe I got through a hundred pages before the effects of “Project Blue” wafting off those pages got to me and my own situation.
You see, the other factor in play was the gravity of losing loved ones. Done with such descriptive, heartfelt and horrific writing prowess King is known for still. The tale of a virulent super-flu wiping out whole cities, states and regions, struck home something awful. Having lost my mother earlier that same year, reading the initial portion of the book, especially in my sickly state, was just a fresh level of Hell for me. So, down came the front cover. Yet, I couldn’t or wouldn’t place the work back on a shelf. The book laid out while I convalesced — those 823 pages waited patiently, always tempting me to return to it with just a hint of anticipation. Along with a smidgen of dread. Come back to it I did, perhaps a month later.
I picked up exactly where I left it, too, still vivid were those early pages. Believe me, I wasn’t about to start the novel over again. And transfixed I was, almost immediately, as the author continued to strip away more than 99 percent of the population with each click of his typewriter (remember, there were no word processors back then). Nothing but the lucky, or unlucky some would say, few were left by the time I reached the end of part one (titled, “Captain Trips”, by the way). What the author did with the last two parts of that King-sized novel, as he collected and gathered up the survivors for a old-fashioned, Old Testament Good vs. Evil kind of reckoning has been pondered and looked at many times over by better than me in the years since (see author Joe Maddrey’s excellent take from last week, if you don’t believe me). It’s the type of book, if you got anything out of it, that never really leaves you.
About a dozen years later, by the time I reached my second year of marriage in 1990, Stephen King (now even more established and celebrated at this stage of his writing career) had the clout to push Doubleday to release his second bite of the apple with The Stand: The Complete & Uncut Edition. This version now included over 300 more pages that expounded and brought up to date the tale to the 90s. At 1152 pages in hardcover, this remains the longest book the writer has ever had put to print (still nicks his It behemoth at the tape by a few sheets). Naturally, I read the new version over that year’s particularly hot summer here in the southland. Even with the novel’s overhaul, many aspects that marked the first with its unmistakable 70s vibe (along with its music and song allusions) couldn’t entirely be over-written.
Hell, the work would have lost too much, if it had, and taken away what made the experience fearful and obvious to those who survived that turbulent decade (me included). As much as I enjoyed his original cut of the book, his added detail with the characters and situation in this edition only made its doom-laden story more meaningful (even as the Cold War was ending). And in doing so, laid the case for this novel as the best-loved Stephen King work on my library shelf (even if it’s not the author’s favorite). The Stand still sits there to this very day (see below), though I’ve lost its dust jacket. I curse the Walkin’ Dude for that one!
I realize I should mention the 1994 television miniseries adaptation at this point. The Mick Garris-directed four-part movie was the TV event for that year. The star-studded production was much-anticipated by fans of King (who also wrote the teleplay), including my wife and I. It was a worthy effort, especially for the medium, but it can’t help but pale compared to the epic source. Though, it should be noted, its use of Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper made for one of the all-time best musical intros, like ever.
In February of this year, released on Valentine’s Day in fact, the complete, uncut edition came available at Audible. As it happens, it was its acclaimed narrator, Grover Gardener, who made note of it on his audiobook blog the same day that brought my attention to this release. Twenty-five years ago, it was he who performed the first reading on audiobook of the original, shorter version published (one that is hard to find these days). I was surprised to learn he doesn’t have a copy of that out of print recording, either.
Even though I’m not what you’d call a long-time audiobook listener, I only started doing this format in earnest around the time of the Y2K scare, I’m was well aware of Mr. Gardner’s highly regarded work in the format by other fans. Plus, I had the experience of listening to a couple (one each of fiction and non-fiction) of his splendid readings: most recently The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips and The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many are Smarter than the Few by James Surowiecki some years ago. So, I very much looked forward to this session in audio. Nevertheless, this was my third visit with the gargantuan best seller and I actively wondered beforehand if it would still hold me all these decades later with the same unsettling ardor as it once did.
I need not of worried. The author’s tale (surprisingly it only covers less than a year’s duration), winding its way through the catastrophic leftovers of mankind (a word that is its own oxymoron, at times), held me spellbound through the dead-on (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) vocal work by Mr. Gardner. It’s a stretch for some to take on a huge cast of characters by voice alone, but he made it look and sound easy. That’s no small feat since we’re referring to a lengthy book that rendered to 48-hours in audio. Let’s say that again another way: it would take two entire days of reading, non-stop, out loud to get through it all. Grover pointed out:
“It took four weeks to record, and I had to pace myself so I wouldn’t sound fatigued or thread-bare at any point.”
I’d say we’re all pleased with the effort. From this audiobook listener’s perspective, that’s a long time to be with any one book narrator. Even so, I never tired of paying attention to this vocal. I can’t think of a better compliment for what the reader achieved.
Since I work for a living, listening to this audiobook took me the unheard of duration of two weeks to get through it all (with some needed late nights with the headphones to even hit that mark). In the end, re-visiting this novel in this way proved its own reward. I came away remembering some passages with a new perspective (e.g., Randall Flagg never sounded so seductively ominous when voiced by Grover), and in others I was drawn in once more because I barely recalled the excerpt, anxiously wanting to see what the next page brought with it. The Stand managed to tug and yank at me in ways that made all these remembrances spill out when it was done. I know it’s still early, but I suspect it’ll be Stephen King, with the exceptional assist by Grover Gardner, that will be among the year’s best. Surely, it’ll be when I recall how this 34-year old novel came to dark life one more time and enthralled this old reader/listener. This turned out to be one of my best audiobooks experiences in quite some time. Kudos to them both.