#53. The Stand by Stephen King
The destruction of Las Vegas
What is longer than Moby-Dick, War and Peace or Ulysses (although Ulysses seemed to go on FOREVER!)? If you guessed the Bible or the Manhattan telephone book, you would not be wrong (though there are small-print Bibles that are under a thousand pages). There are, of course, other longer books, but not many are novels and few of those have been able to sustain a hold on the popular imagination. The Stand, unabridged and 1,153 pages long, may prove the exception. To be honest, when I picked up the book, I was a bit overwhelmed with the size of it, measuring more than an inch and a half and weighing enough to wear out anyone’s wrists! It might seem unfair or irrelevant to dwell on size when assessing a novel, yet in this case it is impossible to do otherwise. One simply cannot ignore the bulk of this volume. Besides, a preoccupation with size and weight, particularly an American preoccupation with size and weight, is, as Mr. King insists, central to The Stand. As it is linked with images of the land, of the spaciousness and diversity and opportunity of the nation, this is a familiar American theme. Mr. King is aware that there is menace as well as promise in the immensity of the United States, and therefore the size is forgivable.
By 1978, Stephen King was already known for his Carrie (1978) and The Shining, (1977) when published The Stand, a post-apocalyptic horror-fantasy novel . Almost immediately it added thousands of new readers to his already huge following. At that time, Mr. King’s publishers thought the book would be better and certainly more salable if it were cut – in fact, cut by 500 pages, nearly half of its original length. It was later re-released in 1990 as The Stand: The Complete & Uncut Edition; King restored some text originally cut for brevity, added and revised sections, changed the setting of the story from 1980 (which in turn was changed to 1985 for the original paperback release in 1980) to 1990, and updated a few pop culture references accordingly. The reissuing found the more than 150,000 words that were originally missing reinstated, plus a preface by the author and 12 black-and-white illustrations by Bernie Wrightson. The Stand was nominated for the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 1979, and was adapted into both a television miniseries for ABC and a graphic novel published by Marvel Comics.
In his non-fiction book Danse Macabre, Stephen King writes about the origins of The Stand at some length. One source was Patty Hearst’s case. The original idea was to create a novel about the episode because “it seemed that only a novel might really succeed in explaining all the contradictions”.
The author also mentions George R. Stewart’s novel Earth Abides, which describes the odyssey of one of the last human survivors after the population is decimated by a plague, as one of the main inspirations:
“With my Patty Hearst book, I never found the right way in… and during that entire six-week period, something else was nagging very quietly at the back of my mind. It was a news story I had read about an accidental CBW spill in Utah. (…) This article called up memories of a novel called Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart.
(…) and one day while sitting at my typewriter, (…) I wrote—just to write something: The world comes to an end but everybody in the SLA is somehow immune. Snake bit them. I looked at that for a while and then typed: No more gas shortages. That was sort of cheerful, in a horrible sort of way. “
The Stand was also planned by King as an epic The Lord of the Rings–type story in a contemporary American setting:
“For a long time—ten years, at least—I had wanted to write a fantasy epic like The Lord of the Rings, only with an American setting. I just couldn’t figure out how to do it. Then . . . after my wife and kids and I moved to Boulder, Colorado, I saw a 60 Minutes segment on CBW (chemical-biological warfare). I never forgot the gruesome footage of the test mice shuddering, convulsing, and dying, all in twenty seconds or less. That got me remembering a chemical spill in Utah, that killed a bunch of sheep (these were canisters on their way to some burial ground; they fell off the truck and ruptured). I remembered a news reporter saying, ‘If the winds had been blowing the other way, there was Salt Lake City.’ This incident later served as the basis of a movie called Rage, starring George C. Scott, but before it was released, I was deep into The Stand, finally writing my American fantasy epic, set in a plague-decimated USA. Only instead of a hobbit, my hero was a Texan named Stu Redman, and instead of a Dark Lord, my villain was a ruthless drifter and supernatural madman named Randall Flagg. The land of Mordor (‘where the shadows lie,’ according to Tolkien) was played by Las Vegas.”
King nearly abandoned The Stand due to writers’ block. He threw the script into the garbage when his wife Tabitha fished it out and encouraged him to finish. The book is dedicated to his wife: “For Tabby: This dark chest of wonders.”
Eventually, he reached the conclusion that the heroes were becoming too complacent, and were beginning to repeat all the same mistakes of their old society. In an attempt to resolve this, he added the part of the storyline where Harold and Nadine construct a bomb which explodes in a Free Zone committee meeting, killing Nick Andros, Chad Norris, and Susan Stern. Later, Mother Abagail explains on her deathbed that God permitted the bombing because He was dissatisfied with the heroes’ focus on petty politics, and not on the ultimate quest of destroying Flagg. When telling this story, King sardonically observed that the bomb saved the book, and that he only had to kill half of the core cast in order to do this.
What appears modern (or post-modern) in Mr. King is that both the menace and the promise have been tainted by a cheap tedium, a repetition of bravado and monotony of violence. This is not another book about a still raw, untried, half-hidden America, but a nation exposed over and over to itself, as in an enormous mirror, part trite situation comedy, part science fiction, part cop show. In The Stand, Mr. King comes across as the people’s Thomas Pynchon. His characters are “toilers in the vinyl vineyards,” just plain folks who drink Gatorade and V8 but who also may happen to have jobs on top secret Government installations in the barren recesses of Nevada.
The general outline of the plot is fairly simple. An accident occurs in an Army lab doing research on biological warfare. A virus breaks through the isolation barrier and rapidly causes the death of nearly everyone working in the plant. There is one survivor, however, who walks past the failed security apparatus, races home to his wife and child, bundles them into the car and speeds toward the Texas border. By the time they reach a gas station in Texas, he is very ill and his wife and daughter have died a horrible death that leaves their bodies bloated, blackened and stinking.
Of course, the handful of people at the gas station are also contaminated and they, in turn, pass on the virus to others in a macabre chain of association that is described in loving detail, like a parody of the circulation of money (the perennial bad penny) or a mammoth game of pin the tail on the donkey. From Texas to Maine, Los Angeles to New York, in a gruesome variation on the refrain of ”This Land Is Your Land,” the superflu spreads, causing its victims at first merely to sniffle and sneeze but soon after to expire in paroxysms of pain and burning fever. I suppose when you look at the varieties of the “flu” that have infected and affected us in the past decade, this seems a bit more realistic, and it sure didn’t help that I was reading this book during the oncoming colds and flus as the fall and winter seasons were rolling in! (Remember that not even the AIDS epidemic had not been identified when Mr. King originally wrote this book. What in 1978 might have looked like a fantastic exaggeration, in 2013 may still appear statistically exaggerated but, sadly, not so fantastic.) Hundreds of pages of text are devoted to vignettes – some poignant, nearly all disgusting – of Americans in all regions and walks of life being stopped in the tracks of their ordinary existence by the dread and incurable disease. Two things make Mr. King’s rendering of this phenomenon peculiar, one might almost say original. The first is the sheer number of cases reported and described. At first, you read along expecting things to change, a cure to be found, an escape to be discovered, but after 300 or more pages it becomes clear that variations on one theme – not progress – are the novelist’s plan.
The second thing that makes these vignettes, and indeed the entire novel, peculiar is that the characters and situations are virtually all reproductions of American cultural icons. L.A. Law meets The Wizard of Oz; On the Road meets The Grapes of Wrath; Rebel without a Cause meets Walden; Li’l Abner gets lost in the House of Usher; Huck Finn finds Rambo. The New England we see is Norman Rockwell’s; the West is John Wayne’s. They are often pointed out, lest the reader miss them. “She looked like a woman from an Irwin Shaw novel” or “It’s like Bonnie and Clyde” are common interjections from the narrator and the characters to bring connection and familiarity to the reader, and irrevocably draw them in. At the same time, neither comic parody nor a Joycean complexity is at work here. The reproduction of the familiar seems instead a kind of corporate raid, a literary equivalent of a megamonopoly in which the new owner parades brand names to show off the extent and importance of the newly purchased domain, a reflection of our materialistic lifestyles still in play (and more exaggerated as the holiday season takes control of our current lives).
Everything is processed through a gigantic American meat grinder. Just as foreign monuments become a “Leaning Tower of Pizza” or “the Forbidden City Cafe,” so the names and words of writers from other parts of the world are reproduced, respelled and repronounced. An admiring general turns Yeats into Yeets: “He said that things fall apart. He said the center doesn’t hold. I believe he meant that things get flaky. . . . That’s what I believe he meant. Yeets knew that sooner or later things get . . . flaky around the edges even if he didn’t know anything else.”
The few healthy characters seem not just to have survived the plague; they have also survived a rough-and-tumble translation from another medium. There is a Woody Allen look- and sound-alike: a New York songwriter with a sassy mother, who nags and pampers her successful and neurotic son during one of his rare visits home. There is a Jane Fonda character from Maine who is gutsy, beautiful, bursting with aerobic energy and slightly pregnant. And there is the hero, a strong, silent Texan, an amalgam of Gary Cooper and Kevin Costner. When the virus eventually peters out, after having done away with what appears to be most of the population, these and a few others gradually converge on the road, with their battered motorcycles, jalopies, slick sports cars and stolen bicycles, or just tramp exhaustedly from empty town to empty town in search of life and some place to start over.
Boulder, Colo., turns out to be the point of convergence for these friendly and cinematically familiar survivors and some dozens of others like them (Boulder was also a place of recovery for King after his mother died). No sooner do they find one another than they begin planning a government. Someone suggests a meeting in which they all ratify the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Another objects that this is unnecessary since “we’re all Americans.” But, it is quickly explained, government is really an “idea,” and the reality of a democracy no longer exists: “The President is dead, the Pentagon is for rent, nobody is debating anything in the House or the Senate except maybe for the termites and the cockroaches.”
It is all too shockingly and heavy-handedly clear that such statements – literally accurate within the plot of the novel – could (like the deadly virus) serve as metaphors for the dangerous and deplorable state of things in this country. However, rather than analysis or narrative development, there is a prophetic and programmatic explanation: a satanic figure, who has gathered his evil forces in Las Vegas, Nevada (where else?), has been haunting the American dream with fearful nightmares. He must be stopped. A few handpicked heroes, macho males from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or The Longest Day, scramble over dangerous, desolate terrain to get him, but are saved the trouble when he and his minions melt, like the Wicked Witch of the West, in a nuclear accident.
In short (well, not so short), this is the book that has everything – adventure, romance, prophecy, allegory, satire, fantasy, realism, apocalypse, etc., etc. Even Roger Rabbit gets mentioned. The Stand does have some great moments and some great lines. A desperate character trying to save his mother reaches an answering machine: “This is a recording made at Mercy General Hospital. Right now all of our circuits are busy.” And there is a wonderful description of “mankind’s final traffic jam.” But the overall effect is more oppressive than imposing.
In many ways, this is a book for the 1990’s, when America is beginning to see itself less and less in the tall image of Lincoln or even the robust one of Johnny Appleseed and more and more as a dazed behemoth with padded shoulders. The Stand, complete and uncut, is about the padded shoulders and the behemoth and the humiliation. Unfortunately, it also reproduces at length all the empty excesses that it appears to deplore.