The Stand by Stephen King (1978/1990) 1439 p.

the stand

Stephen King claims in the foreword to this edition of The Stand that it’s never been his own favourite book, but is “the one people who like my books seem to like the most.” It’s his magnum opus, his piece de resistance, his shining star. It’s certainly the longest single book he’s ever written, outweighing It by several hundred pages. I’m referring here to the uncut edition, which I’ve just read; the first copy of The Stand I ever read was a tattered second-hand copy of the original 1978 issue, which – due not to editorial discretion but the financial issue that such a large book wouldn’t recoup its printing costs – excised about 400 pages from King’s original manuscript. The 1990 edition reinserts them, like a literary version of a director’s cut. It’s this edition you’ll find on bookshop shelves today, and this edition that I started reading a month ago. And a big long book deserves a big long review.

IN THE BEGINNING

The Stand, if you’ve never heard of it, is an apocalyptic novel about a horrifyingly lethal virus which ravages the world and kills 99% of the human population. You can probably imagine why I decided to revisit it in 2020.

According to the receipt in my email archive I ordered this from The Book Depository on Sunday March 15. That was the weekend, in Australia at least, that everything changed; that was the tipping point. The week building up to it had been a slow burn of anxiety about events developing overseas and coronavirus cases documented within Australia which no longer felt like isolated incidents that wouldn’t spread any further. Prior to that, it had seemed like a problem for other countries to deal with. Over the past twenty years we’d been fed media stories about SARS and swine flu and bird flu and Ebola and various other prophesied pestilences which never turned out to be anything to worry about – so why would this be any different?

But it was different. No matter how insular and navel gazing a nation is (and we all are, that’s inherent to being a nation, but Australia is particularly so) it was impossible to ignore that the virus had left China and was rapidly spreading across Iran and Italy and New York City. On the morning of Friday March 13, a stone’s throw from my apartment, thousands of interstate and international visitors were gathering at the closed gates of the Albert Park Grand Prix circuit as confusion reigned on both traditional and social media as to whether the event was going to be cancelled or not. (It was, about an hour after it was supposed to begin.) My immunocompromised girlfriend Pippa had gone to the Mornington Peninsula for the weekend with her sisters, one of whom was visiting from New Zealand with her one-year-old son and her husband, who was doing a month-long medical residency in Melbourne. On Saturday March 14, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that all arrivals to the country would soon be required to self-isolate for two weeks, and Pippa’s sister and brother-in-law decided to cut their time in Melbourne short and fly back that Sunday night. (On Thursday 19 March, Ardern further decided New Zealand would close its borders entirely to non-residents; Australia followed suit later the same day.) Pippa returned to our apartment on the night of Sunday March 15 with a car boot full of food from her sister’s pantry – useful, since panic buying had already cleared out supermarket shelves across the nation. On Monday March 16, as Pippa and hundreds of thousands of other people across Australia began working from home, I attended my university campus in the city assuming (correctly) that we would be told our Inside Out course for this semester – in which a cohort of students would regularly visit a jail and learn alongside convicted prisoners – had been cancelled. (My other classes were rapidly moved online the same week, and the following week I was informed my second semester internship with a law enforcement agency had also been cancelled.) I said goodbye to my fellow classmates, washed my hands, mounted my motorcycle – I don’t normally ride into Melbourne’s traffic-choked CBD but I sure as hell wasn’t about to catch a tram that day – and returned home. Since that day, neither Pippa nor myself has left the apartment, except to jog around Albert Park, get our flu shots, or pick up her prescriptions from the Alfred.

In that first week I still felt a palpable sense of fear, anxiety and dread. Leaving the apartment felt like a dangerous, reckless risk. That feeling’s abated as the Australian government has shown a level of maturity and decisiveness I wouldn’t have expected of them, and at time of writing we appear to be close to eliminating the virus within Australia even as it ravages much of the rest of the world. (Amazing what you can accomplish when the conservative party hasn’t yet let the lunatics rise to the top and gut the public service.) But I purchased The Stand on that day in March when it felt like the plague times were very much in vogue, and also when it looked like I was all of a sudden going to have a lot of spare time to read an obscenely long 1,400+ page book. A secondary point is that all that wrangling of dates suddenly feels very familiar. We all move in days, not dates; I had to look up those events I rattled off above because I couldn’t actually remember whether The Weekend That Everything Changed was March 14/15 or 21/22. In The Stand, a bio-engineered virus escapes a government facility on June 13. Over the following pages, day by day and date by date, King slowly leads us through an unfolding pandemic until the 4th of July dawns over an America that is almost as silent and empty as the grave.

DEATH STALKS THE LAND

The opening of The Stand is a classic. (Yet was, inexplicably, on the chopping board for the original publication). In the prologue, a woman is shaken awake by her panicky husband in the middle of the night, and in her disoriented dialogue with him it becomes clear that they’re a military family living on a base – and that something has gone terribly wrong. At her husband’s insistence, they cut and run.

“Sally, honey, don’t ask questions. We have to get away. Far away. You just go get Baby LaVon and get her dressed.”
“But should I… is there time to pack?”
This seemed to stop him. To derail him somehow. She thought she was as afraid as she could be, but apparently she wasn’t. She recognized that what she had taken for fright on his part was closer to raw panic. He ran a distracted hand through his hair and replied, “I don’t know. I’ll have to test the wind.”

By dawn they were running east across Nevada and Charlie was coughing steadily.

In the opening chapter, Charlie’s family arrives in East Texas, and the AWOL soldier is now sick enough that he’s slaloming across the road. Stu Redman, hero du jour and The Stand‘s de facto main character, flips off the gas station pumps in the tiny town of Arnette right before Charlie Campion ploughs into them. It occurred to me later that if he hadn’t, he and his friends and the Campion family would all have been incinerated in an explosion… yet the world would have lived. Because Charlie and Sally and Baby LaVon have already been infected with a dreadful bio-engineered virus, and Charlie chokes out his last in front of Stu and the other horrified onlookers. It’s too late for the government to lock Arnette down, though it tries to anyway; a sheriff has already stopped by to chat to Stu and the other witnesses, and he passes it on to others in turn. Before long, the military’s secret biological weapon is multiplying its merry way across Texas and America beyond:

Harry, a gregarious man who liked his job, passed the sickness to more than forty people during that day and the next. How many those forty passed it to is impossible to say – you might as well ask how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. If you were to make a conservative estimate of five apiece, you’d have two hundred. Using the same conservative formula, one could say those two hundred went on to infect a thousand, the thousand five-thousand, the five-thousand twenty-five-thousand.

Under the California desert and subsidized by the taxpayers’ money, someone had finally invented a chain letter that really worked. A very lethal chain letter.

On June 19, the day Larry Underwood came home to New York and the day that Frannie Goldsmith told her father about her impending Little Stranger, Harry Trent stopped at an East Texas cafe called Babe’s Kwik-Eat for lunch. He had the cheese-burger platter and a piece of Babe’s delicious strawberry pie for dessert. He had a slight cold, an allergy cold, maybe, and he kept sneezing and having to spit. In the course of the meal he infected Babe, the dishwasher, two truckers in a corner booth, the man who came in to deliver bread, and the man who came in to change the records on the juke. He left the sweet thang that waited his table a dollar tip that was crawling with death.

Chain letters don’t work. It’s a known fact. The million dollars or so you are promised if you’ll just send one single dollar to the name at the top of the list, add yours to the bottom, and then send the letter on to five friends never arrives. This one, the Captain Trips chain letter, worked very well. The pyramid was indeed being built, not from the bottom up but from the tip down – said tip being a deceased army security guard named Charles Campion. All the chickens were coming home to roost. Only instead of the mailman bringing each participant bale after bale of letters, each containing a single dollar bill, Captain Trips brought bales of bedrooms with a body or two in each one, and trenches, and dead-pits, and finally bodies slung into the oceans on each coast and into quarries and into the foundations of unfinished houses. And in the end, of course, the bodies would rot where they fell.

As Project Blue, or Captain Trips, or the superflu, begins to swarm across America, King introduces us to his characters – all of them among those lucky less-than-1% who are naturally immune to the virus. In classic fashion, each of them is already grappling with something unusual in their life as humanity begins to die off en masse. Stu is the aforementioned laconic East Texas feller who works in the calculator factory, and his unusual moment is encountering Patient Zero and subsequently being bundled off to the CDC by the US military. The struggles of the others are more prosaic but no less engaging. Fran Goldsmith is a newly-pregnant college student in Maine; Nick Andros is a deaf-mute drifter who falls into the confidence of a sheriff in a small town in Arkansas after getting the shit kicked out of him by some locals; and Larry Underwood is a one-hit wonder musician who’s coming down from the coke-fuelled high of his overnight success and has fled from debtors back to his mother’s apartment in his native Manhattan. There will be many other viewpoint characters to come, but these are the four at the crux of the The Stand. As Fran deals with her parents’ reaction to her unexpected pregnancy, as Nick finds himself in the odd position of being deputised to deal with the same men who assaulted him, and as Larry grapples with his damaged relationship with his mother, the first indications of the pandemic ravaging the nation begin to pop up in the corners of their stories.

There is one other viewpoint character in these early chapters, largely absent from the original edition: Starkey, one of the brass, The Man, the general in charge of Project Blue at a secret military base in California. We only meet him after the virus has got loose and Campion has fled, and he knows Project Blue is out in the wild. He stands with his hands behind his back surveying a wall of CCTV footage showing the silent, corpse-ridden laboratory where the US government was playing god.

In the physics lab a small centrifuge was still turning around and around. Starkey had complained about that. He had complained bitterly. There was something spooky about that centrifuge whirling gaily around and around and around while Dr. Ezwick lay dead on the floor nearby, sprawled out like a scarecrow that had tipped over in a high wind.

They had explained to him that the centrifuge was on the same circuit as the lights, and if they turned off the centrifuge, the lights would go, too. And the cameras down there were not equipped for infrared. Starkey understood. Some more brass might come down from Washington and want to look at the dead Nobel Prize winner who was lying four hundred feet under the desert less than a mile away. If we turn off the centrifuge, we turn off the professor. Elementary. What his daughter would have called a “Catch-22.”

He took another “downer” and looked into monitor 2. This was the one he liked least of all. He didn’t like the man with his face in the soup. Suppose someone walked up to you and said: You will spend eternity with your phiz in a bowl of soup. It’s like the old pie-in-the-face routine: it stops being funny when it starts being you.

Starkey stares at this bank of monitors through intermittent chapters, receiving updates on the unfolding situation, the only viewpoint character at the beginning of the book who truly understands what has been unleashed on his country and on the world. He is not a sympathetic character, but his situation makes him a deeply compelling one. At one point he quotes Yeats: “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.” Starkey’s purpose in the first third of The Stand is to serve as the centre, receiving constant updates on a periphery which is very rapidly falling apart.

THE MAN, MAN

Part of the idea for The Stand came to King after hearing about the 1968 Dugway sheep incident, in which canisters of nerve agent fell off a truck and spread across a ranch in Utah, killing thousands of sheep; had the wind been blowing another direction, they might instead have killed thousands of people in Salt Lake City. The Stand is very much a product of the 1960s and 1970s post-Vietnam distrust of government. Not only is the superflu developed in a lab, Starkey and his higher-ups in the US government respond to its release not by honesty with the public and widespread quarantine and shelter-in-place measures, but rather clamping down on journalists and reporters and telling the public it’s merely a bad strain of the flu and that a vaccine is on the way. As the situation deteriorates, this culminates in soldiers executing members of the fourth estate who dare to disseminate the truth. Even as the virus rips through the government’s plague centres, Stu Redman – still fit as a fiddle, but a prisoner under observation – is almost killed when a sick government operative attempts to tie up this loose end.

I wouldn’t, though, describe King as counter-cultural. In some ways he hews doggedly close to the values of the small-town all-American Yankee that he is. Consider this, the introduction of Randall Flagg, The Stand’s antagonist, and generally considered King’s greatest villain:

He walked south, south on US 51, the worn heels of his sharp-toed cowboy boots clocking on the pavement; a tall man of no age in faded, pegged jeans and a denim jacket. His pockets were stuffed with fifty different kinds of conflicting literature- pamphlets for all seasons, rhetoric for all reasons. When this man handed you a tract you took it no matter what the subject: the dangers of atomic power plants, the role played by the International Jewish Cartel in the overthrow of friendly governments, the Cl A-Contra-cocaine connection, the farm workers’ unions, the Jehovah’s Witnesses (If You Can Answer These Ten Questions “Yes,” You Have Been SAVED!), the Blacks for Militant Equality, the Kode of the Klan. He had them all, and more, too. There was a button on each breast of his denim jacket. On the right, a yellow smile-face. On the left, a pig wearing a policeman’s cap. The legend was written beneath in red letters which dripped to simulate blood: HOW’S YOUR PORK?

The vibe works. I get it. But lumping together union advocacy with the KKK – lumping together all pamphlet literature, all non-mainstream sources of information – leaves you with the nagging feeling that King views any kind of deviation from the all-American status quo as inherently dangerous. As the virus rampages across America there are a couple of college protest scenes turned bloody which mostly feel like a nod to Kent State, but also give you the impression King doesn’t think much of those rabble-rousing college kids with their far-out political ideas. (I was ready to chalk this up as blue collar envy and an inferiority complex, but it turns out he did a BA at the University of Maine, so that serves me right for pigeon-holing.) In any case, all of this went over my head as a teenager, but looking at it now it’s impossible not to see The Stand as a product of a very specific time in American history and culture.

A TALE OF TWO CITIES

The first third – maybe the first half – of The Stand is a deeply compelling portrait of a world that crumbles to extinction in a matter of weeks. King paints this wonderfully, particularly the phases of PTSD some of his characters go through: Larry sitting numbly on a Central Park bench watching a monkey in the zoo slowly die after his own mother’s death in an overcrowded hospital corridor; Fran blankly eating cherry pie while her father’s body decomposes in an upstairs bedroom; Nick cycling away from Arkansas, still unable to truly grasp what has happened:

He remembered a Walt Disney movie he had seen as a kid, a nature thing. Filling the screen was this tulip, this one tulip, so beautiful it just made you want to hold your breath. Then the camera pulled back with dizzying suddenness and you saw a whole field filled with tulips. It knocked you flat. It produced total sensory overload and some internal circuit breaker fell with a sizzle, cutting off the input. It was too much. And that was how this trip had been. Shoyo was empty and he could adjust to that. But McNab was empty, too, and Texarkana, and Spencerville; Ardmore had burned right to the ground. He had come north on Highway 81 and had only seen deer. Twice he had seen what were probably signs of living people: a campfire perhaps two days old, and a deer that had been shot and neatly cleaned out. But no people. It was enough to screw you all up, because the enormity of it was steadily creeping up on you. It wasn’t just Shoyo or McNab or Texarkana; it was America, lying here like a huge discarded tin can with a few forgotten peas rolling around in the bottom. And beyond America was the whole world, and thinking of that made Nick feel so dizzy and sick that he had to give up.

This is also around the time King writes one of the best horror set-pieces he’s ever done, as Larry turns his back on a dead Manhattan and attempts to leave the island through a pitch-black, corpse-strewn Lincoln Tunnel:

He groaned and fumbled the lighter out again. This time it was much worse. The body his foot had struck was that of an old man in a blue suit. A black silk skullcap had fallen from his balding head into his lap. There was a six-pointed star of beaten silver in his lapel. Beyond him were another half a dozen corpses: two women, a man of middle age, a woman who might have been in her late seventies, two teenage boys.

The lighter was growing too hot to hold any longer. He snapped it off and slipped it back into his pants pocket, where it glowed like a warm coal against his leg. Captain Trips hadn’t taken this group off any more than it had taken the soldier back there. He had seen the blood, the torn clothes, the chipped tiles, the bullet holes. They had been gunned down. Larry remembered the rumors that soldiers had blocked off the points of exit from Island Manhattan. He hadn’t known whether to believe them or not; he had heard so many rumors last week as things were breaking down.

The situation here was easy enough to reconstruct. They had been caught in the tunnel, but they hadn’t been too sick to walk. They got out of their car and began to make their way toward the Jersey side, using the catwalk just as he was doing. There had been a command post, machine-gun emplacement, something.

Had been? Or was now?

When you come to a point in an apocalyptic story like this there isn’t really anywhere left to go. Everyone is dead but there are no monsters or zombies or aliens; no reason for there to be much conflict between survivors when the remains of the world as it was provide food and supplies in abundance. So this is where King abruptly shifts gears and turns his apocalyptic pandemic story into a Biblical showdown between good and evil which he characterises as an American Lord of the Rings. There’s only a little foreshadowing, with the characters beginning to have strange dreams as the plague grips America. One dream is about a kindly old black woman strumming a guitar on a porch in Nebraska; the other is about “the dark man,” already known to the reader as Randall Flagg, who is everywhere and nowhere. It transpires that every survivor in America has been having these dreams, and – though King never uses terms as simplistic as “good” and “evil” – they soon find themselves separated into two camps. Mother Abigail, the 108-year-old pious black woman, leads her people to Boulder, Colorado; while the followers of Randall Flagg coalesce (naturally) in Las Vegas.

A tall white building stretched up to the desert sky, a monolith in the desert, a needle, a monument, every bit as magnificent as the Sphinx or the Great Pyramid. The windows of its eastern face gave off the fire of the rising sun like an omen. In front of this bonewhite desert edifice, flanking its entranceway, were two huge gold pyramids. Over the canopy was a great bronze medallion, and carved on it in bas-relief was the snarling head of a lion.

Above this, also in bronze, the simple but mighty legend: MGM GRAND HOTEL.

(Sidenote: King is well-known for setting his fiction almost exclusively in his native Maine, but an aspect of The Stand I really enjoy is how widely it roams across all of America, and how atmospherically it paints all those disparate locations.)

Going from chillingly realistic story about a 99% lethal government-engineered super-virus to a supernatural tale about a battle between some kind of dark magician and the servant of God is always going to be a disconcerting adjustment. I think I liked it better this time around because I knew it was coming, and because this is such a larger-than-life novel that its events seem writ in stone. (Though possibly that’s just the nostalgia talking). On that same note, King absolutely writes himself into corners here, and relies very heavily on deus ex machina; that’s fine to me now, re-reading a seminal text of my teenage years, but I can’t say how well it would go down for somebody coming to it fresh.

A MATTER OF CHARACTER

Mid-novel change of pace aside, I think The Stand has an undeniably compelling plot. Its characters also loom large in the pantheon of King’s creations, though the ensemble cast exposes a certain flaw in the second half. King has a distinctive writing style and does exposition very well; he also writes very well while sitting inside a character’s head, noting their thoughts and observations and perspectives. By the time all his protagonists have congregated in Boulder, though, there are a lot of scenes of dialogue in which it begins to feel a bit like Stephen King is talking to himself. Characters come to be separated only by their explicit quirks or characteristics, like the waffling sociologist Glen Bateman, or this scene in which good old East Texas boy Stu Redman addresses a crowd at Boulder’s first town meeting and begins to sound like Joe Biden giving an inappropriate stump speech: “Last time I had so many people looking at me was when our little consolidated high school made it to the football playoffs, and then they had twenty-one other guys to look at too, not to mention some girls in those little tiny skirts.”

There are nonetheless two characters I think King develops quite well. The first is Harold Lauder, a fat and awkward teenager who falls in with Fran by dint of them being the only two survivors in their town in Maine. Harold is someone who’ll be uncomfortably familiar to a lot of bookish types in high school: a nerd, a loser, looked down on by everyone, somebody who never fit in, suddenly granted a blank slate by the new world of the apocalypse but unable to quite let go of the vestiges of his petulant, jealous, incel past. His character arc wavers between whether or not he’ll be able to become a decent man or whether he’s irretrievably haunted by high school, and I won’t reveal his fate here. The other is Larry Underwood, a twenty-something musician who makes it big and then fucks it up before crawling home to his mother, and finds himself trying to accomplish that hurdle into maturity and responsibility in the aftermath of the plague, as he finds himself with a duty of care to survivors less well-equipped to manage things than even he is – and constantly beset with the fear that he still isn’t good enough. King is not a character writer and nobody would ever say he writes character-driven stories, but there are some people and some character moments in The Stand that are certainly unforgettable.

A MATTER OF COLOUR

King has a problem with black characters. There’s no getting around this. Whether it’s John Coffey in The Green Mile or the hood kids in The Running Man, his work is littered with evidence that throughout his Maine-bound life he’s had very few encounters with African-Americans and subconsciously views them as fascinating, folksy Others who are fundamentally part of the American fabric yet not quite American in the same way that he or his white characters are. Mother Abigail, in The Stand, is a flagrant example of the Magical Negro stereotype. She is also the one (1) character in Boulder who is identified as being black. There is similarly one (1) character in Flagg’s Las Vegas who is black; you can tell because he talks in jive and dresses “like an Ethiopian pirate.” Other than that, the only black characters we see in The Stand are a Detroit heroin addict who’s part of a quick rush of characters who demonstrate how even those who survived the superflu died by other means in the immediate aftermath; and a truly bizarre vignette at the height of the pandemic in which a junta of black soldiers (wearing loincloths!) publicly execute white soldiers on television. I don’t find it difficult to imagine a handful of American soldiers taking it upon themselves to conduct an ethnic cleansing as society collapses around them, but I do find it difficult to imagine the racial roles would be filled in that order. This is, I suppose, more evidence of The Stand’s genesis in the 1970s, with shades of the Black Panthers and Charles Manson’s calls for race war. It’s nonetheless deeply weird and racist and I can’t believe it saw publication in 1990. This is the most offensive example of King’s subconscious racism, and it feels deeply out of place in a book which otherwise doesn’t go much further than the kind of racial blind spots you’d naturally expect from a baby boomer who grew up in the whitest state in America.

BACK TO THE FUTURE

King talks in the introduction about how he hasn’t reinserted all of the cut 400-odd pages, because some of them deserved to be cut. I think everything in here is great stuff and I’m glad he returned it. What’s more baffling to me – and which he doesn’t discuss, so I don’t know whether it was his decision or the publisher’s – is the decision to superficially update the novel from its original 1980 setting to 1990. Firstly, this is mostly irrelevant, since the events of the novel soon make the calendar meaningless. Secondly, it’s done in the most superficial manner possible, by ctrl+H’ing any mention of years or decades and simply adding ten to them. There are a handful of more deliberate updates – making Bush the president rather than Carter, adding in a reference to Tom Cruise here and there – but for the most part it leaves the characters pretending it’s the year 1990 when it’s very clearly still 1980. At one point Larry needs to call an ambulance for his mother and so he looks up the number of his local Manhattan hospital in the yellow pages. Stu is mentioned to have been “in the war,” except we also know he’s around thirty years old, so I guess he’s a grizzled veteran of America’s 12-hour-long campaign in Grenada. This update wouldn’t be so irritating if it weren’t so unnecessary. Did King or his publishers really think the reading public would balk at a novel set ten years in the past?

IN THE END

The Stand shouldn’t really work. It’s two distinct stories stitched together; it’s sometimes uncomfortably racist; it has characters who seem well-defined in isolation but who blend together once they cross paths; its undeniably bloated (though not nearly as much as some of King’s later works); and it’s weird. It’s an odd, mystical, pseudo-religious and ultimately self-indulgent novel.

And yet it does work – or at least, I love it, and I can’t distinguish between those two very easily. I love the dreadful, spiralling-out-of-control cataclysm of the first half; I love the scenes that implanted themselves in my memory after all these years, like Nick watching the lights go out in Shoyo or Larry sitting on a park bench in a desolate Manhattan; I love the dark magic and ineffable evil of Randall Flagg, which is rarely seen and largely inferred by his fearful minions; I love the sketching of his Western stronghold as an American totalitarian state; I love the novel’s quiet, optimistic coda, as Stu Redman and Tom Cullen and Kojak the dog make their way across the Rocky Mountains in winter, triaging a daunting ordeal into one little problem at a time: a broken leg, sickness, transportation, shelter. There are far too many elements, big and small, of a 1,439-page novel to list here. Suffice to say that I understand why King says it’s the book his regular readers love the most. The Stand is very far from perfect, but it’s undeniably a great novel.