d e a t h , e n t r o p y a n d a n a m e r i c a n e p i c
I'M NOT SURE "EPIC" even covers it. At over 450,000 words¹, it's half the length of the King James Bible. It kills off something like five billion people in its opening swipe. It reads like the intersection between Revelation and The Lord of the Rings. And it is horribly, unforgivably engaging.
The Stand begins with an unlocked animal cage, or a weak seal, or a broken vial. The origin is not exactly clear. What is clear is that a disease, a made-to-order disease, has traveled, in the lungs of an AWOL soldier, from a military base in Nevada to a small town in east Texas. It infects 99.44% of the people it comes into contact with, and it kills everyone it infects. And containment is no longer an option.
Over the course of roughly a month, America descends into a state of martial law, reporters broadcast sunny predictions of recovery (at gunpoint), and vast traffic jams form as residents flee cities (or flee to cities) only to be blockaded by military forces. And in these huge masses, and in their homes, and in overcrowded hospitals, the people die—of a "shifting-antigen" flu that zigs, zags, and eventually exhausts even the most robust immune system.
The rest of the world, we are left to assume, fares little better.
The destruction so gleefully sown (and King clearly enjoys this deconstruction), it is now time for this to become a Stephen King novel—by which I don't mean the supernatural, the horror, the downright creepiness that often propels his prose. I'm talking about the character-driven drama, King saying "let's drop Larry into Central Park after the whole city of New York has died, and see what he does." It is King's fascination with this question, and with so many like it—much more than any of the supposed Stephen King trademarks—that drives and underpins his better stories, and that draws to him more readers (and more "Constant Readers," as he calls them) than perhaps any other living author². But I'm getting ahead of myself.
We follow the main characters—Larry Underwood, a rock musician in New York, Stu Redman, a strong-and-silent east Texan, Fran Goldsmith, a pregnant college student from Ogunquit, Maine, and Nick Andros, a deaf-mute twenty-one-year-old drifter—and a handful of others, as they seek out survivors. They form small groups, and then begin to dream similar dreams—of two different people, two different places. Of something that smells a little like Good versus Evil. And they begin to feel they now have, at the very least, a destination.
This is the set-up, this is the first third of the novel, and in good conscience I feel it's as far as I can take you.
s t o r y t e l l i n g
I'VE BEEN MEANING TO write about Stephen King for quite a while—because I think he deserves a great deal more critical reading than he's gotten, and because King was the first writer who really hooked me, back when I was thirteen years old, and made up most of my reading material for the next three or four years.
King is like that. His readers consume his books compulsively. His style is straightforward and simple; his stories interweave, with characters from one novel often referencing those from another; his regional dialect is authentic and serves very well to ground his narrative—all, in combination, forming a certain comfortable familiarity for the "Constant Reader." Maybe this explains the audience, the return crowd that's read not only The Shining, Pet Sematary, and 'Salem's Lot, but also the relatively marginal Rose Madder, Insomnia, and Firestarter. I don't know. I don't really care: It's not what draws me back (and I've read nearly all his books).
I pick up a Stephen King novel when I have a few days to burn, and I want to be taken wholly into a story. He has the ability, especially when (as in The Stand) he crosses the border between horror and dark fantasy, to create powerful and immersive worlds. It's a matter of imagination and talent and so on, of course—but I think the really captivating element is his own fascination. He seems to proclaim the he believes.
King's greatest talent, though, has little to do with words like "imagination," "horror," "fantasy," and so on: He has a startling capacity for creating rational, real, whole characters, and scattering them in major and often minor roles. Even the hapless Bill Hapscome, who exists for perhaps a dozen pages in The Stand (who, "from the depths of his ninth-grade education," suggests that the US Treasury should just say "'screw this inflation shit. Screw this national debt shit ... We're gonna run off fifty million thousand-dollar bills and hump them right the Christ into circulation'") remained in my memory the five years between readings. And many of his major characters—Carrie, Jack Torrence from The Shining, Andy Dufresne from "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" (Tim Robbins's character in the film), Annie Wilkes from Misery—hold a sort of mythic status among his readers, and, due to the films, many non-readers as well.
t h e s t a n d
THE POWER OF THE Stand is special, though. It is King's most popular novel, and his best (at least until he finishes publishing his seven-volume story, The Dark Tower). Its scope far exceeds that in his earlier novels, and it seems to exist more in our world than the Stephen King not-quite-our-world of most of his stories. Yet it still contains that drive, that brashness, that seems to fade as most writers age. It's extraordinary, of all King's works, because of its portrayal of the meltdown of authority structures. It's extraordinary because it borrows heavily the weight of Genesis and Revelation. And it is extraordinary, perhaps more than any other reason, because it provides a particular opening for the imagination:
This idea first occurred to me, under similar circumstances, reading Lord of the Flies. I was maybe a quarter of the way into that novel and it came to me that probably no amount of bumbling on the part of William Golding, its author, could ruin what he'd created in my mind. That he'd come upon a near-perfect set-up, a clean slate that the imagination couldn't help but fill on its own: A group of children stranded, alone, left to do what all people must, which is form power structures. No matter where the story lead, whether his story remained a true one, I was certain there was, stemming from that point, a story that would come easily and naturally and truly. And if I squinted, I could almost see it.
And in The Stand, when the lights flicker and die over the head of Nick Andros, we realize in something more like instinct than feeling that not only are the people gone, the authority is gone ... and that pretty much makes those who are left the authority. Now I'm not talking about profundities, realizing you can be whatever you want to be, so on—I'll tell you right now, this is not a book that will change your life. What I'm talking about is simply that this is one of those very few stories that, at least for a while, hands the reader something so fundamentally dead-on that he feels almost as if he's writing the story himself.
The Stand : The Complete and Uncut Edition by Stephen King
1161 pages, copyright © 1978 by Stephen King
New Material copyright © by Stephen King
Illustrations copyright © by Bernie Wilson
- The edition reviewed in this writeup is the 1990 revision of The Stand, which was originally published a decade earlier in a significantly shorter form. Four hundred manuscript pages were cut from King's final draft, due to production costs. This edition restores much of the deleted material, including a previously-unpublished prologue and epilogue.
- "The world's bestselling novelist," claims King's paperback publisher, Penguin: http://www.penguinputnam.com/Author/AuthorFrame/0,1020,,00.html?id=1000007680