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Going against the tide of opinion
on 19 December 2013
Let me start by saying I'm a big King fan (especially his earlier stuff from the 70s and 80s) and I remember reading this for the first time back in '84. It's the only King book from the time that I haven't gone back and re-read several times, and when the "extended version" came out, I wasn't inclined to buy it. After all this time I couldn't remember why...
Fast forward to the 21st Century and, armed with Kindle and having some extra reading time to spare, I thought I should revisit the book. I now remember why I didn't like it all those years ago. Whilst the story itself is quite engrossing and, as other people have said, it presents a fascinating end-of-the-world scenario, the actual characters (with the exception of the Walkin' Dude himself) are just...meh! They don't spring off the page like other King characters, they're relatively one-dimensional and apparently only there to present different ideological or philosophical viewpoints on the events of the novel.
The book splits neatly into sections: the spread of the plague and how people react to it, the journey to come together in Boulder, the development of the new community and the events in Vegas that climax the novel. there's also a short epilogue that's very well-written but of little interest. There are surprises along the way - characters who start on the right side defect unexpectedly, key characters die along the way (no spoilers here) and events built up dramatically resolve in ways you wouldn't expect. Standard King techniques and no less welcome for that. But the dialogue! Everyone here has their own didactic style which, in real life, would have you reaching for the baseball bat in short time. They collect their thoughts then reel out a rigidly logical response to the most surreal situations as if Mr Spock had written their script. They're either wretchedly evil (and ashamed of it) or Ineffably virtuous (in which case they agonise over their own character flaws endlessly). And throughout the whole story, there's a blatant religious thread which I, as a practising theology-dodger, find oppressive and preachy.
It's been so long since I read the original version, I can't make out which are the additions but there are nice touches - the Plymouth that Stu & Tom find whose keyring has the initials "AC" printed on it, the links hinted at between Flagg and his Dark Tower incarnation, and so on.
If you can cope with the moral undertones, then you should enjoy this book. If you like Stephen King, you should read it anyway. But it's a lot more "Under The Dome" than "Salem's Lot", in my opinion.
(PS thanks for the preview of "Doctor Sleep", I'll certainly be buying into that soon.)