If he never wrote another word, Stephen King describes to be remembered for this, his contribution to the "Disaster Novel" genre. (Note: This review applies to the ORIGINAL release of the novel, not the "Special Edition")
It begins innocently enough, with an army officer running away from his base. But he has left it too late, and he carries a new disease into the world. Over the next months people begin to die, in small numbers at first, then in their hundreds, thousands and finally millions.
The survivors, a disparate band drawn from all walks of life, find they have to make a choice; to join with the forces of evil, personified in Flagg (one of the best fictional villains in living memory) or to take a "Stand" for good, personified by Aunt Abigail, an old wizened black woman with a fundamentalist approach to her faith.
Soon all the survivors are lined up on one side or the other, and the final battle for their future destiny is set up when the main characters must take their own "Stand"
The questions of faith posed by this, and how each of the protagonists make their choices, form the moral core of this book, and the rigors of basic survival when civilization has fallen forms the backbone of the plot, but it is the characters who stick in your mind long after you've finished reading.
King has always been good at "country" types, but here he shows a sure hand with such disparate people as a deaf-mute, a rock star, a garage worker, a pregnant teenager and her admirer-from-afar neighbor Harold (a gentleman so slimy you'll feel like taking a shower after just reading about him)
You feel rapport with these characters, and are soon cheering them on, and King has managed to reel in his propensity for "bloat", and does not let any one character take over.
The book carries a strong moral tone throughout, and at times seems almost biblical in its "fire-and-brimstone" intensity. In typical King fashion there are some terrifying set pieces, the pick of which takes place in a tunnel which is full of dead and decomposing bodies that must be navigated without a light. Not for the squamish.
A lot of people have been daunted by the sheer size of this book. At over 1000 pages, it is not a quick read, and in the early chapters it is sometimes difficult to keep track of its large list of characters. Also, King seems to take delight in slowing things down and looking in great detail at some pretty unpleasant deaths as a result of the disease – a super-flu which results in particular messy fluid expulsion.
However once Flagg appears and starts insinuating him into the survivors' dreams. the tension starts to crank up and King knows how to keep you hooked, cheering the good guys along to the denoument.
I will not spoil it by giving away the ending, but the final "Stand" does not come quite as expected, and has some really shocking consequences for the protagonists.
For a jaded horror fan brought up on John Wyndham and John Christopher, this book revitalized my interest back in the late 70's. This was the book that bought me back to horror, and made me want to write it myself.
For that alone it's got a lot to answer for.