I was twelve the first time I read Stephen King’s The Stand. My dad read it before I did. We were on vacation, and I saw him with the paperback, the edition with the silver binding and blue-black cover. There was a face on the cover—a mysterious, spooky sort of face, creepy and weirdly beautiful. I saw that face, and it worried at me, the way grown-up things always worried me back then. The sort of worry that’s like an itch you can’t help scratching.
The Stand was the first Stephen King novel I read, and I’ve been reading Stephen King novels ever since. Stephen King novels were what made me want to be a writer. His work shaped how I thought of the world when I was a teenager more than any other novelist I can think of. I’ve read better writers before and since, depending on how you define “better,” but while I have my favorites, none of them will ever come close to having the same amount of influence on me as King did. In the years since I first read The Stand, I’ve read and reread nearly everything he’s published. I’ve been scared by his books, moved by them, lost in them; I’ve also been deeply frustrated by their limitations, disappointed by their limitations, and irritated by their prejudices.
But I’ve never stopped rereading them, and I doubt I ever will. The Stand isn’t my favorite King novel (that would be Misery), but it’s one I return to regularly, and every time I do, I find something different. The story never alters, the prose stays the same; I’m the one who changes. I’m not the twelve year-old kid who was edging around what it meant to be an adult. I’m older now, and I see things differently, even if the view hasn’t changed.
Actually, when it comes to The Stand, things have changed a little. The original novel was published in 1978 with substantial edits; while King was popular in the ‘70s, he wasn’t the behemoth he would one day become, and his editors had him cut a few hundred pages worth of prose to make the hardcover cheaper to print. Jump forward a decade, and King has become one of the bestselling authors alive. Someone gets the bright idea to republish The Stand with much of the edited out material put back in. Thus, we get The Stand: The Complete & Uncut Edition in 1990, which is now the only edition officially in print.
The version I read first was the edited version, but I’ve read the uncut novel so many times now that I barely remember the space between the two. And here’s a change for you right out of the gate: when I read the uncut edition in the ‘90s, I had absolutely no problem with it whatsoever. That was how I engaged with art at that age—if I loved something, I loved it completely, and it never occurred to me to question artistic choices because it never occurred to me to think of them as “choices” at all. The author wrote the book, I read the book, and if I was bored or confused by something, that was my problem. Three hundred more pages of a Captain Trips ravaged America? Sure thing. Sign me up.
Looking at it now, things are more complicated. King is, as he admits himself, an over-writer, and much of what he put back in should’ve stayed lost. I’ve got a better sense of pacing and narrative now, and early added chapters that give us confrontations between Frances Goldsmith and her horrible mother, and Larry Underwood and his not-quite-as-horrible-but-still-pretty-sharp mother, read like roadblocks to momentum that serve no greater purpose than to dip into King’s maternal anxieties. (Something else I’ve noticed on rereading: there are a lot of absolutely terrible mothers in King’s fiction.) The section detailing the Trashcan Man’s trip to Vegas and his encounter with the Kid shores up a plot gap, but it’s not a gap that needed much shoring in the original text, and the Kid, a psychotic outlaw hillbilly with sadistic homoerotic tendencies, is the sort of writer’s darling that should’ve been left in the trash-bin, an absurd caricature with none of the empathetic depth King so often brings to his villains.
On the other hand, the uncut version does have a chapter about survivors of the plague dying of natural (more or less) causes after society collapses around them, and that chapter is crucial to one of the book’s most affecting ideas: that in this cataclysmic conflict between Good and Evil, with its mystical portents and monsters and madmen, millions would die regardless of the outcome, and the doomed and lost and not-quite-chosen were just as deserving of attention as those lucky few who make it to the last page. Intentionally or not, the most interesting characters in The Stand are almost always the losers, and the older I get, the more sympathetic I am towards the supposedly “evil” characters, doomed as much by circumstance as by choice. The end result is a narrative that subtly questions its Old Testament take on religion, even as an unseen God dictates events.
If you’ve never read The Stand, the premise is one of King’s most ambitious: a man-made sickness escapes from a government lab and kills roughly %99 of the population of the United States (the rest of the world is presumed infected as well, but King sticks to North America). The survivors, driven by loneliness and dreams, end up split into two camps. On the good, there’s the saintly Mother Abigail Freemantle, a 108 year-old black woman who still makes her own biscuits; on the bad, there’s Randall Flagg, aka The Walking Dude, a dark sorcerer with a mysterious past. The heroes head towards Mother Abigail in Boulder, Colorado, and the baddies head towards Flagg in Las Vegas, Nevada, and the back half of the novel is concerned with how these opposing forces will ultimately shake out, and who (or what) will make their stand.
It’s not a bad set-up—actually, let’s not damn this with faint praise, it’s a great set-up, and one of the things that always impresses is how well King builds towards the frenetic collapse of Western civilization. The first third of the novel is, a few stutters aside, a remarkable accomplishment of scope and rising action. The more you reread (or rewatch) a story, the easier it becomes to spot the seams, the thin places where the writer’s shortcomings leak into their work. But there’s little to complain about here, at least on the level of plotting. Jumping between the major cast of roughly half a dozen leading characters, and a series of short vignettes depicting the virus’s impact as the country falls apart, King gives the destruction a real scale. It’s a thrill to read, brutal tragedy underlining the glee that comes from any great disaster tale; and even as the story moves away from the destruction, there’s a lot of pleasure to be had in the fantasy of society coming back together and trying to rebuild.
There are shortcomings, though, and these are shortcomings which only became obvious to me as I grew up. Of the novel’s large ensemble cast, only three major characters are women. Mother Abigail is more symbol than person, and Nadine Cross is so defined by her struggles with temptation (a struggle that never entirely makes sense on a personal or philosophical level) that she never comes into focus on her own. That leaves Frannie Goldsmith, and while she’s introduced at the start, she falls into the category of what the kids today would call “problematic.” Her only real narrative function is to be lusted after by one guy and loved by another, get pregnant, be emotional, and stay at home and worry while the men go out to get the real fighting done. My appreciation of her has waxed and waned over the years, but it’s hard not to be disappointed by the reductive gender roles that pop up throughout the story. Yet it’s clear King is at least trying to wrestle with what it means to be a woman in a world where the threat of mortal violence is even more present than it is right now, even if his efforts aren’t entirely successful.
King also tries to deal honestly with blackness, and here his failures border on spectacular. Mother Abigail is the only major African American figure in the story, and she is the very definition of the “Magical Negro,” a character who exists solely to guide the white protagonists and offer spiritual counsel. She gets an internal life, but the chapter which introduces her is one of the book’s most painful roadblocks, and its reliance on cliché is leavened only moderately by King’s natural empathy as a writer. Far worse is an earlier chapter in which a group of crazed black soldiers execute the white members of their platoon on television; the text borders on self-parody in its savage, paranoid depiction of racial uprising.
While the book’s subject is epic, covering the devastation of an entire country (and, by implication, an entire world), its perspective is, intentionally or not, limited to a very specific straight white male viewpoint. The older I get, the more I notice this, and the more I see how those limitations shape the story’s themes and directions. I’m aware of it, I am bothered by it, but I’d be lying if I said I was alienated by it.
I am a straight white male myself, and one with, at least in broad terms, the same perspective as King. That’s one of the things that drew me so strongly to him when I was a kid. I grew up in a small town in Maine, and diversity wasn’t a concept I grasped until I hit college. In King’s writing I found worlds that were as familiar in their version of stability (even The Stand, for all its apocalyptic imaginings, pulls towards stability) as they were terrifying in their horrors. For a lonely geek like I was, the novels offered a perspective that seemed sane, whatever its myopia; more, the man behind those novels seemed like the kind of man I wanted to be.
There’s a dark side to this, and that’s another thing that drew me to his work—the self-loathing, the anger, the despair that comes from the gulf between expectation and spoiled privilege. The nominal protagonist of The Stand is Stuart Redman, a taciturn Texan who captures the epitome of a certain masculine ideal: even-tempered, humble, and practical. He’s also bland as hell, and despite his prominence in the novel, remains a cipher throughout.
Contrast that with Harold Lauder, a fat, put-upon nerd whose neediness and frustrated sense of entitlement drive him from nebbishy outsider to homicidal madness. Harold’s weight is referenced repeatedly, but even without it, he’d still be more distinctive than Stu, and what makes him so fascinating is the complex mixture of revulsion and sympathy with which King depicts him. Harold is a fuck up, an embarrassment, a toxic concoction of arrogance, lust, and misery. Yet his presence dominates the book to the point where characters are constantly talking about him when he’s not around, fixated on him as much as their author is, for reasons they can’t entirely grasp.
That uneasy tension between the supposedly normal and the apparently aberrant is an idea that King returns to again and again in his work, and it makes his fumbling efforts at representation more forgivable, because his sympathies are perpetually split between both. Growing up, I was constantly trapped between the idea of the man I thought I was supposed to be come—stoic and calm and not given to book learnin’—and the man I was—messy, confused, and constantly reading. King’s fiction offered me both role models to aspire to and the understanding that those aspirations would perpetually fall short. It was only as an adult that I could recognize the value of the paradox. Stu may be the hero, but he’s not the one who stays with you. He’s not the one who matters.
What I learned from The Stand when I was 12: really long books could be good; you could get paid to tell scary stories; I could read a scary story and survive. Over the years, I’ve learned more. I’ve learned about structure, and about world-building, and about what makes for a good scare. When I finally realized King could be a bad writer (Insomnia), I rolled my eyes at The Stand’’s bouts of clumsiness, its unnecessary detours, the promises it makes that it can’t ever really deliver. I’ve been bothered by its racism and bored by its sexism. But even recognizing all those problems, I’ve always felt comfortable revisiting it. Maybe that’s what I take from it most these days. Not the climax (which is at once disappointing and entirely thematically appropriate) or the portentous hints of doom and magic that lurk around its edges, but the realization that something I grew up loving can be awkward and imperfect and, yes, problematic—but that understanding those flaws is an essential part of love.
Zack Handlen has written for The AV Club about The Walking Dead, Futurama, Metroid and many other topics. All images from The Stand book covers and Marvel Comics adaptations.