Nov 29 2012 10:00am

The Great Stephen King Reread: The Stand

The Great Stephen King Re-read: The StandThe Stand was a landmark book for Stephen King, and not just because it’s the approximate size and weight of an actual landmark. It was the book that ended his contract with Doubleday and landed him his first agent, turning Stephen King from rich author into a very, very rich author. But, more importantly from a writing point of view, there is one detail that made it tower above everything else Stephen King had written up until that point, one factor that made The Stand special. And that factor? Simple: it was long. M-O-O-N long. And that’s more important than you might think.

The Great Stephen King Re-read: The StandAfter finishing The Shining, King took a month off before he started on his next book, The House on Value Street. A fictionalized account of the Patty Hearst kidnapping, King believed that only a novelist could make sense of Hearst’s kidnapping and induction into the Symbionese Liberation Army. However, after six weeks of work nothing was coming and, even worse for a character-based writer like King, his characters felt lifeless and borrowed from other books. Sitting at his dead typewriter, surrounded by his research materials, he found himself thinking about the 1968 Dugway incident, in which an Army test of nerve gas in Utah accidentally killed 3,000 sheep, and also about George R. Stewart’s book, Earth Abides, concerning a pandemic that wipes out mankind, and also about a line overheard on a late night Christian radio station “Once in every generation the plague will fall among them.” These three ideas swirled in his mind and collided with his concept of the Dark Man, Randall Flagg, based on SLA kidnapper Donald DeFreeze. Almost like automatic writing, he began typing a few sentences and, two years later, The Stand was born.

King described The Stand as his very own Vietnam, an endless conflict that he sometimes hated, but could never seem to finish. It took him two years to write, and in the meantime he had to placate his hungry publisher, Doubleday, with Night Shift when they came calling for another novel. King took his time with The Stand and when he was finished he was exceedingly proud of it. The book “seems to sum up everything I had to say up until that point,” King said in an interview. It was exactly what he wanted: an epic of epic epicness. “I wanted to do The Lord of the Rings with an American background,” he claimed in a later interview, going on to say that this kind of ambition was something he wasn’t previously willing to acknowledge in case the book turned out to be a disaster. And in the beginning, there was every sign that it would be.

The Great Stephen King Re-read: The StandThe Stand was originally closer to 1200 pages, but Doubleday’s presses could only accommodate an 800-ish page book, so his editor gave King an ultimatum: they would not accept his manuscript unless it was cut by a third. He could cut 400 pages himself, or they would. King chose to cut the book himself, but this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The Stand was the last book he owed Doubleday on his contract, and immediately after it came out he hired an agent, Kirby McCauley, and demanded a three-book $3.5 million deal. Doubleday refused to go above $3 million, which may have been what King was hoping for. He had been complaining for a while that Doubleday disrespected him despite the vast sacks of cash he earned them and so, in a move orchestrated by McCauley, he walked to New American Library, his paperback publisher (who licensed his hardcover rights to Viking). In seeming retaliation, Doubleday fired Bill Thompson, the editor who had discovered King and who had been his strongest advocate at the house.

At first glance, The Stand isn’t a very promising book. Suffused with more than a little Bruce Springsteen, from its blue collar poetry singing the praises of small town America to the fact that the title is taken from Springsteen’s song “Jungleland,” it has an almost childishly schematic plot. When the military accidentally unleash a biological weapon (nicknamed “Captain Trips”) it wipes out America (the rest of the world is disposed of in one short chapter in which the military spreads the virus around the world in an act reminiscent of the Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine). A few thousand Americans are naturally immune to the plague, and the book follows several of them as they dig themselves out of the rubble. Guided by prophetic dreams, the nice survivors congregate on a farm owned by Mother Abigail, a saintly, 108-year-old African-American woman who leads them to establish the Boulder Free Zone. Meanwhile, the mean characters are drawn to Randall Flagg, the evil Dark Man, and they set up camp in Las Vegas.

The Great Stephen King Re-read: The StandThe rest of the book follows the fellowship of the faith-based Free Zoners who set off on a mystical quest to destroy the technocratic Las Vegas crew who are arming jet fighters and unearthing nukes, led by Flagg who wants to have a baby and rule the world. In the end, the “Hand of God” touches off a nuclear device in Las Vegas and everyone there dies. The final 60 pages are something very much like the end of Tolkien’s Return of the King, as three of the heroes (two men and one dog) struggle back home to Boulder after their adventures are over. However, they find home so changed, or they themselves are so changed by their quest, that they have to leave it behind and strike out for wilder territory to truly be at peace.

“I was suffering from a really good case of career jet lag,” King writes about the two years in which he wrote The Stand. “Four years before, I had been running sheets in an industrial laundry for $1.60 an hour and writing Carrie in the furnace-room of a trailer. Suddenly, all of my friends thought I was rich. That was bad enough, scary enough; what was worse was the fact that maybe I was. People began to talk to me about investments, about tax shelters, about moving to California. These were changes enough to try and cope with, but on top of them, the America I had grown up in seemed to be crumbling beneath my feet….”

The Great Stephen King Re-read: The StandBeset by financial and lifestyle complications he had never dreamed of—from what to do with all his money to how to cope with the growing legions of Number One Fans—King was also living in a world with rising inflation and gas prices, random terrorist attacks, Legionnaire’s disease killing 34 people in a Philadelphia hotel, and a blackout that left New York City dark for over 24 hours, resulting in riots and looting. It was a complicated life for a guy who’d been living in a trailer five years previously, a complicated life lived in a complicated world that was seemingly getting more complicated by the minute. Unable to fix this complicated, interconnected, tangled up world, King did the next best thing: he wiped it out and started over. You can feel the great relish King took in burning it all down in The Stand. The sheer joy of unbridled destruction rings throughout the first half of the book, most notably in a long chapter where Trashcan Man, a pyromaniac and mechanical savant, torches some oil tanks and sets an entire town on fire.

But there was a plotting problem. When the world ends there will be ample resources for the survivors, so how could he provoke his characters into doing something interesting? Post-plague, the population would be scattered and probably amble along for a bit, maybe with a few mutant biker gangs here and there stirring up trouble, but there would be no overwhelming imperative for people to come together and engage in conflict. And that was a problem because King didn’t want his apocalypse to be pokey, he wanted his apocalypse to be an epic about the war for the souls of the survivors. His solution was to deploy that laziest of literary devices: dreams.

The Great Stephen King Re-read: The StandThe organizing principle of the second half of the book wasn’t the plague, but the dreams, good and bad, that drew “good” survivors to Boulder and “bad” survivors to Las Vegas, spurring them into action when the more natural response might be to stay put. This becomes habitual in The Stand—whenever the plot started falling into a rut, King goosed it along with some kind of quasi-mystical, out-of-left-field intervention. Whether it’s Mother Abigail’s disappearance, Trashcan Man unearthing a nuke, Mother Abigail suddenly sending the main characters on a quest, Nadine deciding to leave the Free Boulder Zone to have a baby with Flagg, or Harold setting a bomb, it feels like the hand of god is constantly poking these characters into motion. Even the end of the book is a literal deus ex machina, with the “Hand of God” actually appearing and setting off a nuke.

The incessant meddling from on high is one of the weaknesses of The Stand, but the more serious problem is its tendency to engage in simplistic dualism, a dividing of the world into black and white, good and evil, nice and mean. There are the good guys in Boulder, and the bad guys in Vegas. There is a nice old lady and a mean old Nixon stand-in (although Flagg was based on a militant radical, he comes to resemble Tricky Dick far more, willing to say anything to gain power, but ultimately insubstantial). There are people who believe in prayer and people who believe in technology. It doesn’t help that the characters, when the book starts, are cardboard thin. Fran is a nice, practical pregnant girl. Stu Redman is a salt of the earth type. Larry Underwood is a selfish rock star. Harold Lauder is an evil lech. Mute, noble Nick Andros is an inspiration. For people who don’t make it past the first 200 pages, The Stand is ‘Salem’s Lot all over again, only longer. Stop the book at page 200 and you’ve got cardboard cut-outs being moved around a chessboard by the all-too-obvious hand of the author, disguised as the hand of god.

But as The Stand gets longer its characters get deeper simply through virtue of the fact that they have to appear in so many scenes. King gives his characters the room on the page they need to surprise him, and in doing so they surprise the reader. By the end of The Stand, Nick Andros has become a cold manipulator, Stu is a waffler, Harold finds satisfaction in hard work and seriously considers reforming himself, and Larry Underwood goes from yellow belly to hero. Even saintly Mother Abigail falls from grace due to her pride, echoing the story of Moses forbidden to enter the Promised Land.

The Great Stephen King Re-read: The StandThe Stand is a book where the epic length works in King’s favor, and he uses it not so much for giant set pieces (most of the book consists of people either riding motorcycles or sitting around talking) but to let his characters age, ripen, and mature beyond their initial stereotypes. Stop the book too early and it’s thin, simplistic, and way too long. But read it all the way through and you will find that it operates on the same principle that has made HBO’s dramas so good: give good dramatists all the room they want, over a long period of time, and they’ll give you characters who feel real. The Stand may be long, but King needs all those pages to let his fictional characters convincingly grow a third dimension. Some writers could do it quicker, but King seems to need the pages. What’s more, it’s this length that allows his book to come close to transcending genre.

Terence Rafferty writing for the Times Book Review wrote that the key difference between genre and literary fiction was that literary fiction “allows itself to dawdle, to linger on stray beauties even at the risk of losing its way.” If that can be accepted as a working definition, then King is rapidly leaving genre behind. Although The Lord of the Rings provided the template for The Stand, it’s the moments of the book that linger on extraneous details that make it memorable.

The Great Stephen King Re-read: The StandLarry Underwood’s flight through the pitch dark Lincoln Tunnel is an extended nightmare that didn’t need to be written, the very definition of a “stray beauty.” So is the chapter in which Fran Underwood struggles to bury her father. Or Mother Abigail’s chapter in which she spends all day fetching chickens and fighting weasels. There are long sections told from the point-of-view of one character or another that are simply unnecessary to the needs of genre: Trashcan Man lighting Powtanville on fire, Lloyd Henreid sitting in his prison cell for days on end, Nadine vacillating over what kind of person she wants to be. None of these chapters drive the plot forward, but they do deepen the characters. In fact, given the book’s preoccupation with fireside chit chat, picnics, and long walks, it feels tremendously relaxed for what could, in lesser hands, be just another thriller.

Carrie was a gothic portrait of an individual, while ‘Salem’s Lot gave readers a large collection of two-dimensional characters engaged in an epic battle. The Shining tightened the focus to four characters and allowed at least one of them, Jack Torrance, to come to life in all his contradictions. The Stand combines the character work of The Shining with the plot-heavy sprawl of ’Salem’s Lot to deliver a character-based epic. So of course it’s long. To write a book where this many characters make choices that affect their destinies, act contrary to their own best interests, and whose inner lives don’t match their outer, King needed a lot of pages.

Later King would be mocked for the length of his books, and too often in his later career he would seemingly spin his wheels, burning page after page while not telling the reader anything new. A good case in point is the addition of 400 pages to a new edition of The Stand released in 1990 that didn’t so much add to its charms as bury them under even more words. But in the first version of The Stand the length is just long enough to allow King to let his characters stretch their legs for as long as it takes them to come alive in his mind. It’s the book where he acquired an agent and walked to another publishing house, a tough move for any author. Starting here, King would take all the time he needed to get his characters right, for as many pages as it took. The Stand was the book where he realized he had the power to demand as many of those pages as he wanted.

Jack Flynn
1. JackofMidworld
I read this in high school and went from a SK fan to a die-hard SK fan. Since this is a re-read, I don't mind saying that when a certain dark stranger popped up in the city of Lud and asked good ol' Tick-Tock to say "My life for you," just because an old friend of his used to say it, I literally yelled out loud.

Even the tv mini-series was good, especially for when it was made. Random side note, I was overseas when it came on and my dad taped it (ah, the golden age of the VCR) and mailed it to me; it came while I was on field operations and half of my company piled into our barracks to watch it. Good times...
Eric Saveau
2. Eric Saveau
I've always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with King's writing. The Stand in particular is a book that I still feel was too long, and I despise its theme of "science=bad; irrational mysticism=good" though I also acknowledge that it did some things very well, such as the patient character development noted in the OP. Some of his later novels are also too long, seeming to wander around aimlessly for long stretches before sudenly remembering that there is someone's story to tell.

Though there are later novels of King's that I adore (The Dark Half comes immediately to mind), I've always felt that he is strongest in short fiction. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that his some of his short fiction deserves to be ranked among the best writing in the English language in the last hundred years. Just one example - The Mist is the most harrowing portrait of the destructive power of fear I've ever encountered. The monsters were active scenery; what the people descended into was the real horror (I also thought Frank Darabont's film did reasonable justice to the written tale).
Sean Banawnie
3. Seanie
What I find very endearing in SK's work is what puts some people off. I love the immersion Still that he uses. Yes he writes a lot of ordinary details into his writing. He uses common events, brands and clips of songs TV etc to give a feeling of realness amidst a story of unrealness. He does this skillfully enough that I don't mind it at all. The stories are long but just giving me more of what I love. Some of his later books don't have the magic but even a master has some misses.
Eric Saveau
4. dobieprime
There will never be anything like King's early works. I grew up reading King to the point that I would almost read nothing else. I would get the new book and spend my time locked in my room reading it. It was magic..what many new readers experienced with the Harry Potter books. The Stand holds a special place in my heart. I finished it while in my father's hospital room. It was my escape from the pain my father was feeling. I would sit at the window in his room, read The Stand and look out the window imagining the world that Stephen King made me see in my head.
As much as I dislike some of his current work, and I think alot of that comes from age on my part, The Stand will hold a priceless place in my heart and soul.
Eric Saveau
5. martinezt
I have re-read The Stand more than any other book. I also don't like some of King's current work, but this one stands for me as his best. When I read this book, I get so into it that when I stop, I feel like I should be alone with everyone else dead. I have looked and looked for another book to give me the sort of immersion that The Stand did, and haven't found it yet. For that alone, I will keep re-reading this book.
Eric Saveau
6. Mham
I loved this book. Read it twice and listened to the audio book once at work. I loved a lot in it, but not everything. Flagg is good, mostly, even though he's painted more as the Devil, or as Mother Abby puts it, the Devil's Imp, here where as in his other appearances in King fiction he is just powerful and not Satanic at all. But whatever. What I loved was the first half. How the world ended in that wimper was great. I loved how some people just devolved into madness while others tried to survive, even to triumph. The chapter where he goes on a tangent about all the other people (i.e. the woman with her family in the freezer, the woman afraid of being raped, the guy jogging, etc etc) was facinating, though I've always been more interested in what is going on behind the scenes than anything else.

But, not to start a religious argument here, but the one thing I never understood was why all the good survivors suddenly became Christians. I mean, sure, a good many of them probably already were Christian and yes, the book is basically a dark version of the Book of REvelations with the plague equalling the Rapture-but surely some of them were nonbelievers and such. I can't see myself as a non religious person suddenly coming to Colorado and converting. That simplemindedness always kind of bothered me, as per the arguments above about how technology people are bad and non technology people are good. It's very simplistic. So, yeah, long story relationship with this book.
Jack Flynn
7. JackofMidworld
I don't know if everybody converted (Glen and Nick, at least, seemed to be hold-outs, at least til the very end), but, from their standpoint, I think that it'd be pretty easy to consider everything they saw as proof of a divine power. That being said, it would have been interesting to see a few good guys of alternate faiths show up and challenge Mother Abigail's beliefs.
Eric Saveau
8. mham
Yeah, it was just that everybody was just too black and white. It was good and evil, love and hate. There was no middle ground, it was love, not like, hate, not distaste.

Oh, and on a small note; I must disagree. I think that the scene where Larry Underworld travels through the Lincoln tunnel did need to be written. It was one of the most harrowing things I've ever read
Eric Saveau
10. RES
Mr. Hendrix's article is illuminating but he contradicts himself rather noticeably. In the fourth paragraph, he notes that "The Stand was originally closer to 1200 pages, but Doubleday’s presses could only accommodate an 800-ish page book, so his editor gave King an ultimatum: they would not accept his manuscript unless it was cut by a third. He could cut 400 pages himself, or they would. King chose to cut the book himself, but this was the straw that broke the camel’s back." But Mr. Hendrix later classes what he refers to as the "new edition" of 1990 with King's later work, "burning page after page while not telling the reader anything new." Yet the longer version issued in 1989 was King's original whose cutting was that "last straw" that made King leave Doubleday. So Mr. Hendrix's article is confusing: first he defends King against the disrespect afforded him by Doubleday in calling the demanded 400-page cut of The Stand King's reason for leaving that publisher, but then he dismisses the original uncut version as inferior, in the style of King's later writing--which it cannot be as it is among King's earliest works.
Eric Saveau
11. Lsana

There's no contradiction there. King was really annoyed that Doubleday made him cut a third of his story, and that was part of the reason he left them for another publisher. That's a fact. That the cut was really for the best and made a better story than the uncut version is an opinion, and apparently one that Mr. Hendrix holds. There's no contradiction between reporting the fact and also holding the opinion.
Eric Saveau
12. RES
@Lsana: I agree that the shorter version is far preferable. And despite the fact that he had to cut several hundred pages in the 1970s, I must wonder if the added material really dates from that period. Its characterizations, tone, and language are just too different from the surrounding text and one can always tell where the joins occur even without checking the original version. There are badly misjudged changes on nearly every page of the original as well. Some were made ostensibly to "update" the period (why do that anyway?), but they are so haphazard that in "1990" we still read countless jarring anachronisms like "cutting records" for "Columbia"--although no one has "cut a record" since 1985 and "Columbia" ceased to exist, purchased by Sony, before 1990. Then there are pointless changes like altering "Milky Ways" to "Paydays." King also adds nasty violent scenes that seem unlikely to be of the same vintage.
Jeff Cordell
13. Checkman
I've heard The Stand described as a "counterculture wet dream". I would have to agree.

There is much about the expanded edition that I like, but the updates are too jarring. The novel is a novel of the seventies and the book has that "vibe". The updates don't fit.
Eric Saveau
14. Noorzana
Hey everyone..I am really big fan of Stephen King. I half read a book in my college library once and I didn't checked it out since I was only browsing through the books reading them and killing time. But I really loved the book I was reading and went back to find it but for the love of god could not locate it in the library. I am not sure if they moved out of here or not. And the worse part is that I don't remember the name of the book. And I am noy even sure if it was stephen king's book or I just picked something out of random. I have been searching that book for years but no luck..The story start out as a stormy night and one couple woke up to the sounds of coyotas which was very strange because there weren't any coyotas in their city. The electricty was out and the phone line and everything was dead. They waited till morning and went out to seek people as to what is going on. They went to a local pub and found all the church people huddle together waiting for the worst. Some sare saying that the end of the world is here and they have to fight the evil force. And one thing I remember that there were two dogs in the pub were very friend to the wife, when they saw her they stopped barking and came up to her to welcome her. and when she told them to sit and shoo away they obeyed her. Which was really strange because she even didnt know those dogs. And everyone else around thought she might be the source of evil force since she was able to control the animals. Yah thats all I know about that book. So if anyne know any books that fits this description then please let me know. It had apalylic theme to it so it might be Stephen King book. Please I am hoping to track the book down or it's name anything let me know. Thanks
Eric Saveau
15. fiftyfootelvis
I'm not sure everyone converted to Chritianity as you put it Mham. It was more that everyone, even the non-believers like Glen and Nick, had to admit that something supernatural (for lack of a better word) was going on when they all started having the same dreams and then discovered that the mysterious person from those dreams was real.

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