Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Stephen King: The Stand (1978)

He who stands firm to the end will be saved.
Matthew 24:13

Let's put our heads together, start a new country up ...
Rewrite the book and rule the pages, saving face, secured in faith
Bury, burn the waste behind you
R.E.M., Cuyahoga

After Stephen King finished the first draft of The Shining, he wrote the novella Apt Pupil and, after a short break, returned to a novel he was calling The House on Value Street:
It was going to be a roman a clef about the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, her brainwashing (or her sociopolitical awakening, depending on your point of view, I guess), her participation in the bank robbery, the shootout at the SLA hideout in Los Angeles ... the fugitive run across the country, the whole ball of wax. It seemed to me to be a highly potent subject ... [I]t seemed to me that only a novel might really succeed in explaining all the contradictions.
King never finished that book. While he was working on it, however, he read a news story about a chemical weapons accident in Utah, which reminded him of George R. Stewart's 1949 science fiction novel Earth Abides, in which an airborne disease decimates mankind. Around the same time, King heard a gospel radio preacher proclaim: "Once in every generation a plague will fall among them."
This phrase and the story about the CBW [chemical/biological warfare] spill in Utah and my memories of Stewart's fine book all became entwined in my thoughts about Patty Hearst and the SLA, 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. ... [Later] I wrote Donald DeFreeze is a dark man. I did not mean that DeFreeze was black; it had suddenly occurred to me that, in the photos taken during the bank robbery in which Patty Hearst participated, you could barely see De Freeze's face. He was wearing a big badass hat, and what he looked like was mostly guesswork. I wrote A dark man with no face and then glanced up and saw that grisly little motto again: Once in every generation a plague will fall among them. And that was that. I spent the next two years writing an apparently endless book called The Stand. It got to the point where I began describing it to friends as my own little Vietnam, because I kept telling myself that in another hundred pages or so I would begin to see light at the end of the tunnel.
King calls The Stand (published in September 1978) a "long tale of dark Christianity". Many fans consider it his best novel.
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. ... 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.
The manuscript that King handed in was roughly 1,200 pages, too long for Doubleday to publish in one volume. King says the decision to cut the manuscript by about 400 pages was
not an editorial one ... The cuts were made at the behest of the accounting department. They toted up production costs, laid these next to the hardcover sales of my previous four books, and decided that a cover price of $12.95 was about what the market would bear ... I was asked if I would like to make the cuts, or if I would prefer someone in the editorial department to do it. I reluctantly agreed to do the surgery myself.

In The Stand, King muses on the dichotomy between the spiritual and the technological.
I was raised Christian, and I was raised to believe in the idea of the Antichrist. . . . I'm interested in the concepts. I'm particularly interested in the idea that in the New Testament, you're suggesting a moral code that's actually enlightened. Basically what Christ preached: get along with your neighbor and give everything away and follow me. So we're talking pretty much about communism or socialism. . . . I was able to use all those things in The Stand. It's an effort to say, let's give God his due here. . . . I wanted to explore what that means to be able to rise above adversity by faith, because it's something most of us do every day. We may not call it Christianity. I wanted to do that. I wanted it to be a God trip.
While King made a clear decision to write outside of the horror genre of his first three novels, The Stand also feels like a culmination of the themes of decay, paranoia, and uncertainty of 'Salem's Lot and The Shining. While The Stand is very much a creation of the 1970s, King's thoughts on society, government, and the fear of an outside enemy are perhaps more relevant now.

The novel begins on June 16, 1985 (Bloomsday!) when a car crashes into the gas pumps of Bill Hapscomb's Texaco station in the small town of Arnette, Texas. The driver is Charles Campion, who three days earlier escaped from a secret military installation in the Mojave Desert after being exposed to a rapidly mutating virus being developed by the US as a biological weapon. Campion was able to get out a mere 23 seconds before the base was automatically locked down. In less than two weeks, 99.4% of the world's population will be dead.

King's description of the way the plague spreads from person to person is cold, clinical, and matter of fact - which makes it both chilling and fascinating. From the 1990 "complete and uncut" edition of the novel:
On June 18, five hours after he had talked to his cousin Bill Hapscomb, Joe Bob Brentwood [who caught the virus at Hapscomb's gas station] pulled down a speeder on Texas Highway 40 about twenty-five miles east of Arnette. The speeder was Harry Trent of Braintree, an insurance man. ... And [Joe Bob] gave Harry Trent more than a speeding summons.

Harry, a gregarious man who liked his job, passed the sickness to more than forty people during that day and the next. ... Harry Trent stopped at an East Texas cafe called Babe's Kwik-Eat for lunch. ... On his way out, a station wagon pulled in ... Harry gave the New York fellow [Edward Norris] very clear directions on how to get to Highway 21. He also served him and his entire family their death warrants without even knowing it. ...

That night [the Norris family] stayed in a Eustice, Oklahoma, travel court. Ed and Trish infected the clerk. The kids, Marsha, Stanley, and Hector, infected the kids they played with on the tourist court's playground – kids bound for west Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, and Tennessee. Trish infected the two women who were washing clothes at the Laundromat two blocks away. Ed, on his way down the motel corridor to get some ice, infected a fellow he passed in the hallway. ...

During their wait in [Doctor] Sweeney's office they communicated the sickness which would soon be known across the disintegrating country as Captain Trips to more than twenty-five people, including a matronly woman [Sarah Bradford] who just came in to pay her bill before going on to pass the disease to her entire bridge club. ...

She and Angela went out for a quiet drink ... they managed to infect everyone in the Polliston cocktail bar, including two young men drinking beer nearby. They were on their way to California ... The next day they headed west, spreading the disease as they went. ...

Sarah went home to infect her husband and his five poker buddies and her teenaged daughter, Samantha. ... The next day Samantha would go on to infect everybody in the swimming pool at the Polliston YWCA.

And so on.

For an excellent summary of the novel's narrative and themes, you won't get any better than this, written by a guy that also set out to read and review King's books in order, but stalled after 16 books.

My brief synopsis:

Book 1 – Captain Trips – A deadly flu virus developed by the US military as a chemical-biological weapon (Project Blue) is accidentally released into the general population and wipes out nearly all of the world's population. The few survivors (who are inexplicably immune) attempt to connect with other survivors and cope with the collapse of society. King details the spread of the virus in fantastic detail. His strength is painting a realistic picture of this world, increasing his story' believability, even as it's clearly fantastical. We can easily wonder how it would feel if we were suddenly the only person (or one of the two or three people left) in our town.

Book 2 – On The Border – The main characters of the book all have a series of similar dreams and nightmares. They head west to rural Nebraska to meet Mother Abagail, a 108-year-old black woman, and then on to Boulder, Colorado, where they form their main settlement (the Free Zone). Some other survivors have travelled further west, to Las Vegas, where Randall Flagg (aka the Walkin Dude, the Antichrist) is making plans to attack and destroy the Free Zone.

Book 3 – The Stand – The narrative grows more fantastical as four men from the Free Zone walk to Las Vegas to confront Flagg in a confrontation between the forces of good and evil.

Religious references and spiritual overtones permeate the novel, but The Stand is also a story of rebirth, of second chances. The superflu has destroyed not only the United States, but all the world's governments. Now the nearly one thousand survivors in Colorado have some major decisions to make. What type of society will they build, and how will it be governed? What code of conduct should be put into place, what laws should be passed, and what system of justice should uphold those laws? How the residents of the Free Zone wrestle with those questions is arguably as big a part of the novel as the climatic showdown with Flagg.

Keith Phipps, AV Club:
The Stand is a book of aerial footage and close-ups, with little use for medium shots. King is skilled at showing the scope of his ruined world and of those left to make what they can of it. He also has a Dickensian talent for establishing characters with a few key details, and a gift for deepening readers' understanding of those characters across hundreds of pages. Where a lesser writer might have filled The Stand with broadly drawn types, King sticks to flu-resistant characters who seem as if they were randomly chosen to survive, from a tight-lipped East Texan to a pregnant college student from Maine. King makes them and their baffled reactions seem real, and his writing ability gives the novel a heightened sense of danger and loss. In one chapter, a woman struggles—both physically and psychologically—with the need to bury her father. It's remarkably easy to imagine having to do the same, and King's emphasis on the grim details makes it that much easier to empathize with her plight.

Joseph Reino, Villanova University, Stephen King: The First Decade:
Apocalyptic dispositions always surface in Bible-influenced societies when human reason becomes incapable of resolving whatever distresses might happen to afflict a nation, or – as at the present time – consume the whole earth in irradiated madness. . . . [F]aith in human progress, especially when that progress is dependent upon the triumph of human reason, is constantly circumscribed with doubt, insecurity, and ambivalence. . . .
Douglas E. Winter, Stephen King: The Art of Darkness:
From the colonial years, Americans have seen themselves as a people of great mission - of destiny. The westward urge of "manifest destiny" inspired the conquest of a continent and the creation of the very imperialism that we sought to escape. We see ourselves as independent and democratic, even though two political machines control the electoral process, many of us never vote, and the spirit of independence is likeliest to be manifested by dissent. Our heroes typically have been cowboys and rugged individualists - only recently have we embraced our martyrs. We think of ourselves as nonviolent and peace-loving, but we cannot even successfully regulate, let alone ban, the sale of handguns. We have conquered ruthlessly when our destiny has been challenged; and we have found war to be a cleansing experience. Our science created the atomic bomb to end a great war, and we must live in its shadow evermore. We romanticize small towns, yet flock to our crowded cities. "All men are created equal," but this may not include women, gays, blacks, chicanos. ... "In God We Trust," but missile silos and chemical/biological warfare hedge our bets.

We pursue happiness, believe in progress, materialism, and the infallibility of science, but we doubt our success, our power, ourselves. As we watch the evening news, if we reflect even momentarily upon our social fabric, we begin to question the validity of the engine of progress. Our position as a society is a precarious one - and principally because of our misguided belief in the divinity of civilization and technology. ... [T]hese are the precise fears that Stephen King explores in The Stand.
At one point in the 1990 version, Nick Andros is reading William Styron's 1960 novel Set This House On Fire. That novel's epigraph is from John Donne, and states that God, if not given his due, will command the attention of humanity by setting the "house" on fire. The book features an evil man named Mason Flagg. In Styron's book, the narrator's father states:
what this country needs . . . is something to happen to it. Something ferocious and tragic, like what happened to Jericho or the cities of the plain – something terrible I mean, son, so that when the people have been through hellfire and the crucible, and have suffered agony enough and grief, they'll be men again, human beings, not a bunch of smug contented hogs rotting at the trough. Ciphers without mind or soul or heart ... [W]e've got to start from scratch again, build from the ground up. . . . What has happened to this country would shame the Roman Empire at its lowest ebb.
Styron suggests that catastrophe and destruction are necessary for spiritual consciousness. I would say that, in The Stand, King agrees.

King also has a lot to say about the nature of government, and he puts most of it into the mouth and mind of Glen Bateman, a former sociology professor. Despite knowing that the plague originated as a weapon of mass destruction in the US military's arsenal, when the Boulder survivors discuss what type of society they want, they quickly move to put into place the old ways of the US, ways of governing that eventually led to the bleak position they find themselves in.

They knowingly discuss corruption, lying, secrecy, and rigging elections - "short-circuiting the democratic process", as one of them says - all in the name of keeping the Free zone free and keeping everyone safe from an outside, perceived threat (Flagg). As Bateman says, "When safety and constitutionality are at sword's points, safety must win out."

First: re-create America. Little America. By fair means or foul. Organization and government come first. If it starts now, we can form the sort of government we want. . . .

What we've got going for us now is culture lag. Most of these people still believe in government by representation – the republic – what they think of as "democracy". But culture lag never lasts long. After a while they'll wake up to the idea tyhat the old ways are gone,, and that they can restructure society any old way they want. We want - we need - to catch them before they wake up an do something nutty. . . .

[I]t's very important that the first thing we do is ratify the spirit of the old society. That's what I mean about re-creating America. It has to be that way as long as we're operating under direct threat of the man we're calling the Adversary. . . .

[W]e'll see to it that the people who get elected are the same people who were on the ad hoc committee. We'll put the rush on everybody and get the vote taken before people can do any tub-thumping for their friends.
Much earlier in the book, Frannie Goldsmith thinks to herself:
If the system of authority had temporarily broken down, they would just have to find the scattered others and re-form it. It didn't occur to her to wonder why "authority" seemed to be such a necessary thing to have . . .
They also discuss arresting or detaining anyone who disagrees with them or any suspicious newcomers (they fear spies from the other settlement, just as they are planning to send spies over to Las Vegas to see what Flagg's possible plans of attack are).

At another point, while talking about various weapons, Bateman tells Stu Redman: "All of that stuff is lying around, waiting to be picked up." It's a sentiment that is repeated two or thre more times in the novel. It reminded me of Naomi Klein's 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Klein's theory is that governments like the United States have various undemocratic plans and policies on hold, simply waiting for a natural or man-made disaster to implement them. In the aftermath of any large disaster, while the populace is too shocked and scared and confused to notice or offer any dissent, these policies, agreements and/or laws can be pushed through with no discussion, and sometimes, even little notice.


Late in the book, King posits, without irony, that love is the answer to many of mankind's problems. One character, Tom Cullen, decides that the Las Vegas community was missing "simple love. They were nice enough people and all, but there wasn't much love in them. Because they were too busy being afraid." King's unironic stance reminded me of David Foster Wallace's essay on Dostoevsky, and how modern novelists employ irony to avoid look too earnest and naïve. I also thought of DFW as I read the end of The Shining, when Dick Halloran talks to Danny Torrance about grieving over the death of his father:
The world's a hard place, Danny. It don't care. It don't hate you and me, but it don't love us, either. Terrible things happen in the world, and they're things no one can explain. Good people die in bad, painful ways and leave the folks that love them all alone. Sometimes it seems like it's only the bad people who stay healthy and prosper. . . . [W]hen you feel you have to cry . . . you go into a closet or under your covers and cry until it's all out of you again . . . But see that you get on. That's your job in this hard world, to keep your love alive and see that you get on, no matter what.
That seems like a perfect example of what Wallace was talking about when he wrote, regarding Ippolit's "Necessary Explanation" in The Idiot:
Can you imagine any of our own major novelists allowing a character to say stuff like this (not, mind you, just as hypocritical bombast so that some ironic hero can stick a pin in it, but as part of a ten-page monologue by somebody trying to decide whether to commit suicide)? . . . The straight presentation of such a speech in a Serious Novel today would provoke not outrage or invective, but worse – one raised eyebrow and a very cool smile. . . . The novelist would be (and this is our own age's truest version of hell) laughed out of town.
Wallace added that we
seem to require of our art an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate questions . . . [we] distrust strong belief, open conviction . . . ideological passion disgusts us on some deep level.

Twelve years after the release of The Stand, King had the clout to come out with the "complete and uncut" version of the novel. In his introduction to the 1990 edition, King writes that this version is
an expansion of the original novel . . . [Y]ou won't find old characters behaving in strange new ways, but you will discover that almost all of the characters were, in the book's original form, doing more things, and if I didn't think that some of those things were interesting - perhaps even enlightening - I would never have agreed to this project.
When he expanded the novel, King also changed the year of the plague from 1985 to 1990, and updated all the pop culture references. (I am not sure why he changed the dates, beyond the idea of not wanting the plague to have happened in the past.) The difference from the 1978 paperback and the 1990 paperback is 324 pages.

After I read the "complete" version of The Stand, I wrote:
Many sections went on and on, and I felt King could have told us more than enough in five pages rather than 12. But when I slowed down and read each sentence carefully, it did not seem indulgent or redundant or excessive. King was simply taking his time, relishing the details of his apocalyptic tale. If you concentrated, he wasn't boring. I simply wanted the story to move along at a much quicker pace.
The original, 1978 version seemed to zip right along, by comparison.

Next: The Long Walk, by Richard Bachman.


laura k said...

The description of the people passing the virus is like the dark mirror image of the "we're all connected" imagery often used in advertising or the "six degrees" meme.

I suppose it's fitting that a post about The Stand is a novella in itself. I'll have to come back to finish this post another day.

laura k said...

Styron suggests that catastrophe and destruction are necessary for spiritual consciousness. I would say that, in The Stand, King agrees.

Yes, but from what you write, King doesn't agree that the catastrophe and destruction would in fact change anything. The survivors are planning to re-create the same society that was destroyed. That would only be logical, since they didn't choose to destroy it - they're recreating the only thing they know.

At another point, while talking about various weapons, Bateman tells Stu Redman: "All of that stuff is lying around, waiting to be picked up." It's a sentiment that is repeated two or thre more times in the novel. It reminded me of Naomi Klein's 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine

I also (of course) immediately thought of Naomi Klein, but to be clear about her theory, she is actually quoting Milton Friedman: "Only a crisis produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around."

allan said...

es, but from what you write, King doesn't agree that the catastrophe and destruction would in fact change anything. The survivors are planning to re-create the same society that was destroyed.

And in the 1990 complete version, King makes it far more obvious that evil/Flagg has been defeated for now, but it/he will absolutely make a comeback.

Gareth said...

Excellent post. I haven't read this for years, but many of the images stick vividly in the mind. King's matter-of-fact description of the virus spreading reminded me of how Steven Soderbergh's recent film Contagion handled the same issue; I wonder if there was a deliberate echo.