Apr 15 2011 1:05pm

Stephen King’s The Stand: What a Long, Strange Captain Trips It’s Been

The Stand CoverStephen King’s The Stand was not the first dystopian novel, but for a generation of young adult post-Baby Boomers, it was our Hunger Games trilogy rolled into one extremely large package—part apocalypse, part morality tale, part soap opera. The Stand also is arguably the first modern dystopia novel, a product of complex social changes that remain relevant despite the book’s ripe old age of 33.

Those of us who were kids or young adults when The Stand was released had grown up in a sanitized, self-consciously innocent America. Vietnam was long gone, Watergate had reinforced a systemic distrust of politicians, and the Cold War drills were no more than quaint tales our parents and older siblings told. Our world of disco and polyester symbolized the slick, emotionless happy zone that was America.

But ugly things were stirring, and we knew it.

Inflation ran rampant. A recession brewed. We’d seen our first gas shortages. Trouble roiled in the Middle East. American factories were moving jobs overseas and jacking up unemployment rates. Nuclear and environmental safety questions had begun to nag at us. Some danced blithely on beneath the glitter ball, but others of us realized the bedrock beneath our platform shoes had some serious cracks in it.

It was the perfect petri dish into which a young horror writer named Stephen King, already mastering the art of jabbing a claw into what he calls the “phobic pressure points” of his readers, could stir his own ideas and dark imaginings.

See if this sounds familiar. In the opening chapter of The Stand, a weaving Chevy full of dead and dying victims of an Army biochemical weapons plant accidentally plows down the gas pumps at Hap’s Texaco in Arnett, Texas. One of the five guys sitting around the station spinning yarns is in a panic because his unemployment has run out, the station owner ponders whether he can get away with supplementing his retirement income with a little counterfeit operation, and the two others—including hero Stu Redmond—are down-on-their-luck workers at the calculator factory whose time has been cut down to 30 hours a week.

Familiar much?

In Danse Macabre, his 1981 exploration of the horror genre (updated in 2010), King talks about the world in which The Stand was written:

Its writing came during a troubled period for the world in general and America in particular; we were suffering from our first gas pains in history, we had just witnessed the sorry end of the Nixon administration and the first presidential resignation in history, we had been resoundingly defeated in Southeast Asia, and we were grappling with a host of domestic problems, from the troubling question of abortion-on-demand to an inflation rate that was beginning to spiral upward in a positively scary way…The America I had grown up in seemed to be crumbling beneath my feet.

If we accept the idea that The Stand was our first modern dystopian novel, we also have to acknowledge where our current rash of dystopian fiction differs. Think of them as The Stand’s cynical, depressed godchildren. Because for all its similarities, there is an ultimate optimism, a sweetness if you will, running through The Stand. From Tom Cullen’s simple, unfiltered joy and faith, to Stu’s solid bravery, to Nick’s mysticism, and to Larry, the selfish, irresponsible guy who grows into an unlikely hero, we come away with the reassurance that good will win over evil, that in the end, things will be okay. The center will hold. Things will not fall apart.

Those of us who grew up with The Stand as our dystopian bible are writing our own nihilistic worlds now, and our tales are darker and more brutal. Our books’ heroism is more often measured in individual bursts of nobility rather than grand showdowns of bonded, ultimately good-hearted, humankind. 

Why? I think it’s because we’ve seen some shit since 1978. Too much of it. As I write this, a nuclear plant north of Tokyo threatens meltdown in the middle of an annihilated landscape. We’ve survived Katrina and Lockerbie and Haiti and, by God, we watched those planes fly into the Twin Towers over and over. We watched ash-covered Americans running through the streets of Manhattan as if the Walkin’ Dude himself was in pursuit, laughing, his boot heels clicking on the pavement.

Terror is no longer hypothetical, so we do what writers and readers have always done when things get scary and we suspect they might get a whole lot worse: we plunge ourselves into dystopian worst-case scenarios, seeing how the human spirit might flower and thrive in the midst of newly imagined futures that are worse than anything Stu Redmond or Nick Andros faced. They, after all, had Mother Abigail.

Author Suzanne Johnson’s new urban fantasy series, scheduled to begin with the release of Royal Street in April 2012 by Tor Books, is set in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina—her own dystopian world. Find Suzanne on Twitter.

Victoria Logue
1. Victoria Logue

I loved that book and it has certainly had its impact on what I write now. Not surprising that I am nearly finished with the first book in a dystopian fiction trilogy.
Victoria Logue
2. That Neil Guy
Still have read very little Stephen King, just The Shining, which I read in 1987 and it didn't make much of an impression, and Under the Dome, which I read and loved a few months ago. Have long considered reading The Stand, and my question now is, original version or the expanded version?
Suzanne Johnson
3. SuzanneJohnson
@That Neil Guy: I'd read the expanded version since it's the one King originally wrote. The original was cut not for editorial purposes, but because it was so darn big that it would cost the publisher too much to produce. They finally released the one he originally turned in after he'd proven he was worth the investment--LOL.
Emmet O'Brien
4. EmmetAOBrien
ThatNeilGuy@2: I would strongly recommend the original; the expanded version does not that I can recall have any additional substance to it, it's just sort of looser and less-focused throughout.

Suzanne: your point about the generational context in which it came out in the US makes sense, and is not a thing I had seen; I grew up in Ireland and the shapes of ugliness and innocence around for my childhood and adolescence were in many respects very different.
Victoria Logue
5. SunnyReads
Go for the expanded version - you won't regret it!
Victoria Logue
6. Smaug's Li'l Brother Puff
And one of the greatest book covers of all time. Seeing it takes me right back to the moment my mom pulled it out of the Doubleday Book Club box. Love it.
Victoria Logue
7. Leeswammes (Judith)
I'm afraid I have to disagree. I love The Stand, it's an absolutely brilliant piece of dystopian fiction, but for me it's The Crysalids (link to my review) by John Wyndham (1955) that is at the beginning of the modern YA dystopia era.

Why? Because more than The Stand, this is like modern YA novels, such as The Knife of Never Letting Go and Feed. I think it's often overlooked, but so worth reading.

But since it's been often overlooked, it may not have had an impact on modern day writers, like The Stand has had. In that respect, The Stand is the better choice.
Suzanne Johnson
8. SuzanneJohnson
@Leeswammes--I haven't read The Crysalids, but your review is great. Makes me want to go out and find it!
Paige Vest
9. paigevest
Now I want to read this again! I wish had it in audio!
Trevor Vallender
10. tsv
Much as I loved The Stand (and I did love it), I still feel unbelievably let down by the ending. It felt to me King wanted to end it but didn't know how, and it sticks in my mind as one of the most disappointing anticlimaxes I've read.

Regardless, it's a fantastic book.
Marcus W
11. toryx
The Stand is one of my favorite all time novels but I don't really think of it as a dystopian novel. It's an apocalyptic one and they're not automatically interchangeable.

That Neil Guy @ 2:

That's a surprisingly difficult question. I read the original, edited version first and loved it. When the expanded version was released I got that and loved it as well, but with a few qualifiers.

In the unedited version, King updated the book so it'd fit in the 90's rather than the late 70's/ early 80's. I actually preferred the story in the original timeline. They're largely cosmetic changes but the world was already quite different from what it had been on first publication and I don't think the timeline updates were quite as well polished.

On the other hand, a few of the cut pieces are really very good and as a whole, the book feels more complete to me.

Anyway, the real question is how you feel about really long, solid tomes. The unedited version is much bigger and if you're intimidated by such things you might want to try the original instead.
Suzanne Johnson
12. SuzanneJohnson
@toryx--I'd forgotten that SK did that--he tinkered a little to reflect mostly, I think, the AIDS virus that wasn't a factor when the book was originally released. There are some expanded scenes in the re-release that are really good, though. It's a tossup, I guess. You aren't going to lose either way--it's a good, good read!
Joel Cunningham
13. jec81
can you even get the original version anywhere anymore?
Suzanne Johnson
14. SuzanneJohnson
@jec81 -- it's available used on Amazon. Probably can find it on eBay too--and maybe a library :-)
Marcus W
17. toryx
SuzanneJohnson @12:

It's really silly but you know what really bugged me the most about the updates? He changed the candy bars Harold ate. I think they were Milky Ways the first time and they ended up getting changed to Paydays or something like that.

On the other hand, I was able to read the uncut edition during the same dates that Captain Trips was racing through the country. That was fun.

jec81 @ 13: I don't think you can get it at new bookstores but there are copies of the original still around. I bought one not too long ago at a yard sale or something like that.
Victoria Logue
18. mochabean
For years I had a tradition of reading the Stand every year starting in late June. Made it extra creepy that way. It's always been my favorite SK. Great review. And while I first read it the year it came out, when I was a freshman in high school, I would not call it YA. As for original or expanded, agree whole-heartedly about the timeline updates -- it works better if you keep it mentally in 1980. That being said, they are both good!
Victoria Logue
19. That Neil Guy
Thanks for your thoughts on the expanded vs original editions!
Cindy Benson
20. Newtomato
I finished reading The Stand a few weeks ago, and it was my first King (even though I'm in my 30s). I was disheartened that the story utterly fails the Bechdel Test. With all those characters King introduces, no two women have an actual conversation about anything other than a man? Boo.
Victoria Logue
22. a1ay
I was disheartened that the story utterly fails the Bechdel Test. With
all those characters King introduces, no two women have an actual
conversation about anything other than a man?

I am surprised by this - especially since my impression was that Abigail has one-on-one conversations about The Way Things Are with pretty much all the main characters at some point. There's no Abigail-Fran or Abigail-Nadine conversation at all?
Suzanne Johnson
23. SuzanneJohnson
@newtomato @a1ay Interesting...I'm trying to remember too. I guess if you take Mother Abigail out of the equation the women are pretty much man-focused or, in Fran's case, also baby-focused. How do women fare in other of King's earlier books? Will have to look at that.
Victoria Logue
24. Katiya
@That Neil Guy: As a rabid King fan in my teens and a slightly more jaded twenty-something fan now, I'd have to say that the question of original vs. expanded depends on your desired view of tragedy. The thing that always sticks out in my mind about the expanded (and, I'll admit it, I've only ever read that version, and watched the TV movie to get my original version viewpoint) is how it ultimately ends. It's a small thing, but enough to completely alter the tone of the entire novel. So would you like tragedy to be ultimately triumphant? If so, read the original. If not...
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
26. tnh
I'm with Emmet O'Brien @4: like the uncut version of Heinlein's The Puppet Masters, the uncut version of The Stand contains nothing that isn't in the shorter, better-edited version. It's just longer and more diffuse.

I'm puzzled by the idea that there needs to be an identifiable "first modern dystopian novel," and if I had to pick one, it certainly wouldn't be The Stand. There's been a continuous stream of dystopian novels published since at least the 19th Century, and I'm not aware of any identifiable discontinuity that would warrant the "modern" label for novels that came after it. You can make a distinction between naive and genre-savvy dystopian novels, but that division dates back to thirty or forty years before The Stand was published.

Why not just say it's a remarkable novel, and let it go at that?
Victoria Logue
27. Jackwouldlikethisalias
Personally, I consider "The Stand" to be overly long and for the most part boring.

With regard to Kings explanation of his mood when he wrote the book, from the perspective of someone who was there in SE Asia, WE were'nt "resoundingly defeated" in the field. It was given away in Washington DC

If I understand your definition of "dsytopia" correctly, then a supremely good print example would be "The Peshawar Lancers" by S.M. Stirling.

An excellent movie example would be "The Perfect Creature"
Victoria Logue
28. espais
sounds like one of the fine contributors to this site should partake in a stephen king re-read
Victoria Logue
29. Madeline F
I'm not buying "we've seen terrorism" as an excuse for why the zeitgeist is different now. I remember somewhere an article about how there were handfuls of plane hijackings every few years in the 70s, plus things blowing up in Ireland, plus pretty much all the messes we have today but moreso. They'd seen the Holocaust and the Korean War. There are always devastating earthquakes.

I'd suggest a couple things: the baby boomers' rebellion against their largely successful parents meant they sometimes headed towards anti-sucessful things, and Gen Xer's took the "cynicism is cool" schtick and really ran with it.

And it's been awhile since there was a big win that everyone in the society can point to, like there was in WWII. Plenty of wins since, like in feminism and antiracism and environmentalism, but there are big chunks of society that think those are losses. Plenty of wins like the internet, but they're not the kinds of things people necessarily feel a glow of credit about.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
30. tnh
Madeline F, there's a remarkable amount of nonsense talked about the 70s. Very few reconstructions of "what the counterculture thought" come anywhere close to being reliable. There's also a huge blank spot, a sort of willful collective loss of memory, about how common it was back then to see the future in terms of social breakdown, violent civil disturbance, and grass growing in the streets. There were people I went to college with who were so sure that everything was shortly going to fall to pieces that they couldn't emotionally commit to their own lives and careers. If you look closely at that period's dreams and expectations, it was actually a more dystopian period than the present.
Suzanne Johnson
31. SuzanneJohnson
Interesting discussion....whether or not The Stand is a true dystopian novel, whether it was or wasn't a seminal modern dystopia, how the mood of the 1970s stands up against today's cynicism...really, all a matter of interpretation and makes for plenty of points to argue.

My recollection of the 1970s was that people played at being cynical but really weren't. It was cool to say everything was going to hell in a handbasket but, deep inside, we still thought our lives would be better than our parents'. That we'd find a different way and do better than they did at managing the world. LOL. Maybe I hung out with the wrong people.
Victoria Logue
32. blindguard
Loved The Stand when I first read it. But I must admit I like the beginning, with the initial onslaught the best.
It's fascinating to observer the world we know slowly being torn apart.
Other's in the genre, all worth reading are,

Day of the Triffids, perhaps its beginning is the closest to The Stand.

Death of Grass, yet more horror, but really showing how vulnerable our interconnected world has become.

On the Beach, a oddly middle class account of the coming end.
Jeff Cordell
33. Checkman
As I've aged (weird how that happens) I've come to look at where an author was in their life when they wrote their work(s). Also what was going on during their time of life. It's said that people "write what they know" and it's accurate. King was in his twenties when he wrote The Stand. Most people change as they age. I'm 46 now and in some repsects I am not the same young man that I was when I graduated from college in 1990. Opinions change, beliefs change (or modify), bodies change. Our life experiences mold us. If you take that into account I think it can explain much about The Stand. For an example of how King has changed read Cell. Written approximately thirty years after The Stand the novel has a very different feel to it. The outlook has changed and the sense of hope is muted. In that apocalyptic novel things are very grim indeed. Times change and we change.

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