Book Review: Stephen King’s The Stand

Earlier this year I shut down King Reads King, a blog where I hoped to write about the experience of reading through Stephen King’s books. I didn’t fully comprehend the time commitment such an undertaking would require. Maybe if I hadn’t gone back to school I would have found the time. Regardless, I couldn’t commit to the new project while I was trying to finish up this blog’s goals. Frustratingly, however, I still wanted to read some of his books. I had already purchased a few of them. They sit on my book shelf, mocking me. So while King Reads King is probably finished for good, I will still be reading through King’s catalog. So long as there are no objections, I will probably write about the experience here.

Incidentally, since the primary focus of this blog is Doctor Who, I get quite a few views from England, is Stephen King popular there? What about other parts of the world?

In the U.S., he has a fairly large readership. Some critics don’t know what to do with him. He is extremely popular and he writes horror. These are qualities that don’t typically get an author access to the higher echelons of literary merit, which is a shame because Stephen King is actually a really good writer. In fact, in “Better Late Than Never?: Stephen King’s The Stand,” Keith Phipps quotes Dorothy Allison, who said that King doesn’t really right horror. Instead, he is a working-class realist. And this is absolutely true. Stephen King is a working-class writer; his fiction has broad appeal. Sure, he writes stories with eldritch horrors and vampires, but his gift is for characterization and slice-of-life moments. The brilliance of a novel such as Salem’s Lot is that the first third of the story is devoted to giving a fleshed-out look at a small town in Maine. He uses this to build suspense, but he also uses it to build the horror as we see how evil infects the town and how the townspeople succumb to it. You can replace the vampires with whatever metaphor you want: Cold War era communism, terrorism, conservatism, liberalism. Or you can enjoy the story as a reinvention of the vampire story. But King’s snapshots of life are rooted distinctly in the United States culture. So I’m curious, what do people of other cultures do with him? Is he popular? How is he viewed? Feel free to comment below.

The Stand
Source: Wikipedia.
Source: Wikipedia.

There are two versions of The Stand. The first was released in the 1970s; the second was released in the 1990s, and it included 400 additional pages. The 1970s version had been cut down due to concerns over binding and cost. By the 1990s, King was a big enough name in the publishing industry that the publishers could release the book as he originally intended. So, he reinserted the cut material and updated a few references to make them more contemporary. But make no mistake, this is a 1970s book. The outlook is rooted in the U.S. cultural climate of that decade.

The book opens with Charles Campion, a soldier at a U.S. military research facility goes AWOL with his wife and child. He doesn’t realize that they are already infected with a super-flu which had been developed at the facility. The super-flu got loose, and now Campion and his family are carriers. In their flight, they create a line of infection that spreads from California to Texas. Since the disease exhibits flu symptoms, it is consistently misdiagnosed until it has become widespread. I believe the mortality rate was given at 70%. The first third of the novel deals with the spread of the super-flu, now generally dubbed Captain Tripps. King introduces us to many of The Stand’s characters during this part of the novel: Stu Redman, Franny Goldsmith, Harold Lauder, Larry Underwood, Nick Andros, Lloyd Henreid, and Randall Flagg. Other characters are introduced in part two of the novel (Mother Abagail, Glen Bateman, Nadine Cross, and Trashcan Man among them). Part two deals with the dreams the survivors have of Mother Abagail, a 108 year old woman who is calling people to her home in Nebraska. But the survivors are also haunted by nightmares of a dark man—Randall Flagg. In this part of the novel, the survivors make the journey to Mother Abagail, then to Boulder, CO, where they establish the Free Zone, an ad hoc community of survivors. But other survivors are flocking to Las Vegas to follow Randall Flagg. Flagg is creating a society according to his own rules, and he sees the Free Zone community as a threat. The people in the Free Zone fear Flagg, and some of their number are tempted by him.

The final part of the novel deals with the final confrontation between members of the Free Zone and Randall Flagg. By this point in the novel, the conflict has been painted in good versus evil, explicitly God versus Evil. Anyone familiar with Stephen King’s fictional world (primarily that of The Dark Tower), know that Randall Flagg is a force of chaos, a trickster creature who prides himself in causing destruction wherever he goes. In The Stand, one character even names him Nyarlathotep from H.P. Lovecraft’s mythology. Mother Abagail, on the other hand, is a prophet of God. But she is human and prone to all the weaknesses that come with humanity.

It would be easy to dismiss Stephen King as anti-God or anti-Christianity. He has many characters who display the horrors that can come from extreme religious fundamentalism. In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, King said that he grew up watching televangelists like Jerry Falwell and Jack Van Impe. He found them fascinating, not because he agreed with them, but because he found them entertaining. He appreciated the showmanship. But it is hard to read The Stand and come away thinking that Stephen King is anti-God. He has a firm grasp of certain aspects of theology, one that is probably stronger than the teachings of the men he grew up watching. But he doesn’t really speak much for God. Evil has a voice in Randall Flagg, but God doesn’t have a voice in The Stand; He has a prophet, and that prophet makes mistakes. God remains a mystery in The Stand, but God does unquestionably exist to the reader. Of the characters who see the strongest sign of God and live to talk about it, one is a man with strong a mental handicap and the other is dying of heat exhaustion and infection. But perhaps the greatest examples of Stephen King’s theology (as of 1978, at least) are how he characterizes good and evil among his very human characters. I’m thinking of Larry Underwood and Harold Lloyd in particular.

Larry Underwood as portrayed by Adam Storke in the television adaptation of The Stand. (Source: Stephen King Wiki. Copyright 1999 by Artisan.)
Larry Underwood as portrayed by Adam Storke in the television adaptation of The Stand. (Source: Stephen King Wiki. Copyright 1999 by Artisan.)

Larry Underwood is a bit of a washed-up rock star. He had a hit single and pursued the lifestyle of a rock star: girls, drugs, girls, and drugs. Unfortunately, he was unable to have a follow-up hit, and his lifestyle had bled him dry financially. After getting in to debt with the wrong people, Larry returned to New York City to live with his mother and try to get his life back together as well as get some money to pay off what he owed. But as they say, old habits die hard. He had pretty-much kicked the drugs by this time, but the habits he had were behavioral. His struggle was that he blamed others for his failures. He never owned his own mistakes. This caused him to be dishonest with himself about his own motivations. Thus, he never would have been able to put his life back together. Then Captain Tripps hit, and he was put into positions of leadership, not out of choice, but out of necessity. As he tried to make sense of this post-apocalyptic world, a woman died because he couldn’t help her. This caused him to question himself even further. He later met up with Nadine Cross and Joe, and formed a makeshift family—mother, father, and son. He couldn’t consummate the husband/wife relationship, however, because Nadine had her own agenda—she believed herself to be promised to a man, later revealed to be Randall Flagg. Nadine rejected Larry’s love to pursue Flagg, thus choosing evil (although, Mother Abagail told her in a dream that she had a choice and that Larry was becoming a good man). But it is the bond between Larry and Joe that healed Larry. He had grown up without a father. Joe forced him to become a father, thus forcing Larry to become the man he needed in his own life. But Larry always had a choice. There are moments when he realized he could choose to respond according to habit or according to who he was becoming, most specifically when Nadine finally offered herself to Larry even though he had already started seeing another woman. He realized that the work of just a few moments would give him the woman he had desired for months, but to do so would also cause him to reject another woman (Lucy) who represented his new life. It was the choice between the new Larry and the old Larry. He chose new life.

Harold Lauder as drawn by Mike Perkins in the Marvel Comics adaptation of The Stand.  (Source: Comic Vine. Copyright by Marvel Comics.)
Harold Lauder as drawn by Mike Perkins in the Marvel Comics adaptation of The Stand. (Source: Comic Vine. Copyright by Marvel Comics.)

The opposite equation is Harold Lauder. Harold dreamed of being a writer. He was extremely nerdy and pedantic. He was a know-it-all. His father didn’t like him, and accused him of being gay. His parents poured all their attention into his attractive sister. Harold was bullied at school. No one saw his worth as a person. Because of this, he built up fantasies, both from the fiction he read and from his adolescent desires. He didn’t learn to view people as people, but as caricatures of his fantasy life. When he and Fran were the only survivors in Ogunquit, Maine, he took it upon himself to protect her, to save her. He fell in love with her—or at least, with the fantasy of Harold saving Fran. When they joined up with Stu Redman, Harold was threatened. Stu initially denied being interested in a relationship with Fran, but he soon realized that he was wrong. Stu fell in love with her and Fran with him. The decisive moment of Harold’s development is when he decided to read Fran’s diary. She had written all her thoughts on Stu and Harold, the latter being quite harsh at times. Harold realized as he held the diary that he had the choice to put it down and walk away. Choosing to read the diary would be an act in which he embraced the old way of thinking: the world of jocks who made fun of him and of parents who were not loving. Walking away would empower him to find a new life in this new world, symbolizing turning his back on the old world. He chose to read the diary, which proved all his fears: Fran didn’t love him, she loved Stu. Harold could not learn to live outside of how people viewed him or what people thought of him. He reacted to those views and let them define him. Thus, he became every bad thing that people saw in him. He lived in fantasy, and when Flagg tempted him, he gave him those fantasies. But they were empty. Harold’s story ends in tragedy. After accomplishing Flagg’s commands, Harold is cast aside as worthless.

So, where Larry Underwood embraced self, Harold embraced ego. Larry embraced compassion for others, Harold embraced the other as wish-fulfillment, as something to be manipulated to gain his own desires.

Concluding Thoughts

The Stand is an impressive work. It deserves three stars out of five just for the fact that it is over 1000 pages and it all holds together. But while Stephen King has a very conversational style, there were passages that I struggled with. There were times when I felt the novel went on too long. I have since learned that some of those passages were ones that were cut from the original publication. (One day soon I want to read the original version to see if it resonates with me more.) I think there is a bit of fat that could be trimmed from the uncut version. (In particular I am thinking of the chapter with Trashcan Man and The Kid, which I think I would prefer to never think about again, but also some chapters when King widens the scope to show us what is happening in different parts of the country when Captain Tripps is running rampant. That went on a bit too long for my liking. It slowed the pace too much.) I also had difficulty with Trashcan Man and Nadine. Both of them felt like plot devices rather than characters. An attempt was made to give them development, but they never entirely rose above device for me. They didn’t feel as real or sympathetic as other characters. If The Stand were written by an author with less talent than Stephen King, I probably wouldn’t have been bothered by this, but King is great at writing characters. When compared to the journeys and motivations of Larry Underwood and Harold Lauder, Nadine and Trashy just don’t seem up to King’s standards. In all, The Stand is a very good work, but it is still rough around the edges.

My Rating

A solid 3/5

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