Friday, January 17, 2020

The Stand by Stephen King (1978/1990): Dancing on the Grave of the World

"You're nothing! Oh pardon me... it's just that we were all so frightened... we made such a business out of you... I'm laughing as much at our own foolishness as at your regrettable lack of substance..." 
—Glen Bateman, upon first meeting Randall Flagg

Let's get right to it, gang: The Stand has never been one of my favorite Stephen King novels. No need to get excited; I'm well aware of its status as maybe his most beloved book, if one may use that word for a novel about a plague that kills more than 99% of humanity. Despite its imposing length, it may be the one Stephen King novel people have read who've read only one Stephen King novel.

 
 Doubleday hardcover, Oct 1978
Bosch-inspired art by John Cayea
 
But when I read it in 1987 or '88, I found it lacked what I most loved about Stephen King; that is, an intimacy, an atmosphere of the chummy detailing of the American quotidian that he'd done so supremely well in his other novels and short stories. Reading King felt like home, and The Stand most definitely did not feel like home. How could it? It is an epic story about people who no longer have one and are desperate to build a new one. That epic length never bothered me: I'd already read It (1986) as soon as it was published in hardcover. But the giant panoramic post-apocalyptic canvas really did not appeal to me, and while I read almost every other King work over and over and over again, The Stand was one and done for me.

King in 1978

Most horror fiction fans probably have a decent understanding of the book's publication history: Doubleday hardcover in '78, Signet paperback in '80, then in 1990 another Doubleday hardcover edition in which King put back in something like 500 pages from his original manuscript that he himself had edited out before its first publication (Complete & Uncut, this new edition said; Uncircumcised would've just been impolite). In case you don't know the particulars, he spells them out in more detail in his intro to the '90 edition. Going by online reviews, this expanded edition is either: A) the best thing ever; B) the worst thing ever. Many prefer the shortened original. People have strong opinions about Stephen King books, it may surprise you to learn, especially one regarded as his greatest. In fact, you're about to read one now.

 First Signet paperback, Jan 1980
Don Brautigam cover art

(Okay, friends and neighbors, before I forget, here there be spoilers galore. I'm gonna be rambling all about The Stand and you won't want to continue if you haven't read either version. But maybe come back after you have!)

Doubleday hardcover, May 1990

Working in a bookstore when this massive 1,200-pager arrived on shelves, I was interested just enough to skim the new opening and closing chapters. The opening is now the family that careens into Hapscomb's Texaco at the beginning of the '78 version; it's fine, I guess, starting off the story in a panic (They're all D-E-A-D down there). But I recall being particularly put off by the final chapter, in which the evil, otherworldly Randall Flagg's time has come round again... accompanied by a Bernie Wrightson illustration that's entirely too comic-booky. It seemed all too obvious, weirdly unimaginative (but probably a way to link the Gunslinger/Dark Tower series into it, which King was now writing and Signet  publishing in earnest). I was deeply unmotivated to read this new leviathan, and remained so... till now.

I'd never seriously considered rereading The Stand. What a commitment! Perhaps it was something deep-seated in my unconscious, who knows, guess that's why I can't even recall how I picked it up at the beginning of December, because before I knew it was knee-deep in that mother. Reading the 1980 Signet paperback—I'm happy to own a mint first-print of it, but I'm not a monster, I do have a beat-up copy for actual reading—I was something like three or four hundred pages in and the story-line felt... constrained. Uptight. Airless. Condensed. I began to think maybe there was something to the idea of the complete uncut edition after all. Maybe I did owe it to myself to bite the bullet, go for broke, ride the lightning, and dive in. So I put my reading on hold till I was able to locate a nice, also first-print, sorta mint paperback (published in a sturdy mass market edition in May 1991) for a sawbuck, then went back and started over a week or so later. Seriously. I did.

 
And I'm not gonna lie: it was a grind. King's well-known weakness to overstuff his narratives with irrelevance and folksy analogies is on full display. He went wide instead of deep, expanding but not layering. The problems with The Stand are more serious than simply the number of pages: the real fault lies in execution, in writing, in characterization, and in scenario. Neither the 1978 nor the 1990 version is exempt from these fatal flaws; the longer edition simply reveals these flaws as baked-in, that's all.

Well-known and -loved characters like Stu Redman, Frannie Goldsmith, Larry Underwood, Nick Andros, et al, all get extra sentences in their personal histories, but nothing I found essential or particularly enlightening. Better were the vignettes of superflu survivors who meet grisly ends, with King evincing both sympathy and merciless horror: a Catholic man whose family dies but won't commit suicide because it's a mortal sin; a child on its own falls down an improperly sealed well but does not die right away. Chilling, classic King... but mere crumbs.

Anchor Books, 2011

Also better and included now is one of King's patented family breakdown scenes that's top-notch. Early on, pre-apocalypse, it's pregnant Frannie, our heroine, in an argument with her mother in the family's parlor drawing room, whose hysteria over Fran's out-of-wedlock family way borders on the absurd. The confrontation crackles with real emotion, King getting at class and social standing and good breeding all at once. I hungered for more of this kind of King Americana.

 "How could you do something like this to your father and me?" she asked finally... "How could you do it?" she cried. "After all we've done for you, this is the thanks we get? For you to go out and... and... rut with a boy like a bitch in heat? You bad girl! You bad girl!"

New English Library, 1988 reprint
 
Trashcan Man, a pyromaniac gutter bum, with stupid dancing and cries of "Cibola," remains a tacky, tasteless character. And then King unleashes, in the uncut, a dude known as The Kid, so now we've got Trashcan and the Kid (heeey! don't tell me you forgot that Saturday morning teevee classic). It is a dopey read, a side travelogue no one asked for, almost too King for King, if you know what I mean. "Kill your darlings" goes the old writers' adage, and this darling should have died, died, died. The Kid is a caricature of a King character, a parody. While the Kid comes to disturbing end, he's cringe-inducing, dressed like a greaser extra from, well, Grease, spitting out embarrassing dialogue like "Coors beer is the only beer, I'd piss Coors if I could, you believe that happy crappy, awhoooooga" then sprinkles in some Springsteen and Doors lyrics. Then he rapes Trashy with a pistol. You believe that happy crappy?

Despite the various gross, gruesome scenarios King revels in, there's a naivete I hadn't noticed on first read. This depiction of the good folks of Boulder rebuilding society, all-American salt-of-the-earth types, was just so square. Why, they even have a ready-made town drunk and a hot-rodding teenager to contend with, and good god I was up to here with old prof Glen Bateman's observations about "-ologies" not being enough anymore, the glad-handing and back-slapping, the jokes during their endless, oh god endless meetings to figure out how to get busy being born all over again. Like everybody just up and knows Robert's Rules of Order and has a perfect conception of deploying committees and subcommittees and voting and vetoing and accepting in toto and everyone is happy to vote for the main characters.

New English Library paperback, 1991

Speaking of characters, too many fade in and out under the weight of the expanded narrative. Women are, in old-time pulp fashion, described in terms of physical appearance. And the endless litanies of names! If one more character said about another "Joey Shmoey, by name" I was gonna plotz. "Sally Lovestuff, her name is," or "Goes by the name of Bigtop Ragamuffin, he does" or "Tall, pretty girl, she is, that Wendy Jo" and "Heckuva nice guy, sounds like, over this jerry-rigged CB contraption we got going on here." Their dialogue is irredeemably corny, as if virtually every character was being voiced by a cast of cracker barrel regulars. He's always populated his books with jes' folks types, but Jesus everloving Kee-rist, King, did everybody who survived the superflu just walk fresh off the set of "Hee Haw"?

I'd forgotten deaf-mute Nick Andros was even around, and overshadowing him is a crime as there's no doubt he's one of King's greatest characters. His sacrifice during Harold Lauder's bombing is one of the novel's high points, maybe its most heartbreaking moment: He couldn't talk, but suddenly he knew. He knew. It came from nowhere, from everywhere. There was something in the closet. Rereading it just now to get this quote right, hairs on my arms stood up. Nick's dream appearances to poor Tom Cullen, explaining how Tom has to try to save Stu Redman's life, are touching—if a little too convenient plot-wise.

 
 French edition, 1981

Speaking of Lauder, how's he for King's prescience about a certain type of American male we see all too often these days? The creep, the outcast, the psycho, the loner (today he's the incel, the school shooter, the edgelord, the MRA, the dude who complains about "nice guys" and getting "friendzoned," folks, these entitled losers are nothing new). Nadine Cross's unholy seduction of him for Randall Flagg is disgusting, sad, and all too successful (she lets him fuck her in the ass but not in the pussy, saying that will keep them pure for Flagg, my goodness what a lovely couple those two make). Harold's suicide after the bombing sticks in the throat—men like him shouldn't get free of the consequences of their actions so easily, even if they do express remorse as he does in a suicide note.

 Later '90s reprint

Let's just say it: for all his storytelling prowess, King can be a lazy writer. Much of the novel I read on autopilot; for as long and weighty the book is, it's easy—too easy—to read. Complexity, density, ambiguity is out; useless puffery and bloat is in. I skimmed pages because King was repeating himself, describing things I already knew: someone grimacing, people gossiping, everybody walking every goddamn place, Stu calling Glen "baldy," Flagg grinning, Fannie crying, I mean sweet Jesus Fran crying. He uses simple phrases over and over, engages in sophomoric philosophizing, his details about character behavior ring false: I lost count how times someone laughs till tears stream down their cheeks, uses someone's name more than once in a conversation, is described as being "naked except for shorts" (i.e., not naked), etc. And how much do you like reading about car-crash pileups? There are more of those here than in a J.G. Ballard novel. Where was everybody going?

And where's the mass breakdown of society? That's what I felt the '78 edition was lacking, why the story felt abbreviated. I expected more in the complete edition, but King takes the easy way out. Rather than do the heavy lifting of imagining and describing the political and social fallout as the world's (is it the entire world? This is never made clear for no real reason) population succumbs to a man-made disease, King presents his scenario as fait accompli. There's more of the military scientists realizing the enormous oopsie they've done and their futile attempts to fix it, which I liked as it was precisely the kind of approach I felt was missing from the '78 edition. I can't help but think this was a huge miscalculation, leaving out the nitty-gritty of not only world-building, but world-destroying. I needed a bigger bang, not this whimper. Ironic to say this about a 1,200-page novel, but I wanted more.

 Later Signet reprint with iconic Eighties typeface

It's all too easy today to see the creaky underpinnings and cracks in the foundation of King's scenario. Again, I needed more social apocalypse. If you're gonna have superflu-sick black soldiers dressed like pirates take over a TV station and begin to execute white soldiers on live broadcast television, you better bring some wit, irony, or satire to the proceedings; just slapping it down bald-faced on the page makes you seem oblivious to the racist tropes you're invoking... or maybe not even oblivious. It's dangerous ground, and if you're gonna tread on it, know what you're doing. Have a bigger, more audacious plan. Reveal the racism, the sexism, the classism and all the other -isms that permeate American society, that have festered and eaten us from within, and which now have exploded in the advent of the end of the world.

Speaking of racism, what of Mother Abagail Freemantle, the century-old black woman who is the locus of the survivors' dreams and visions, a wizened, hearty Christian woman of the Midwest who knows well the time is nigh and perhaps the Lord in all His infinite wisdom and glory will show her a way to guide these good people in their final confrontation with the Walkin' Dude, the hardcase, the Man in Black, please allow him to introduce himself, Randall Flagg? While King gives her a real backstory, strength, and fortitude, the fact that she is the only black character is conspicuous. I feel this is narrow-mindedness on King's part, a lack of imagination in a work that is intended to be the opposite!

Finnish translation, 1994

King has never shied from letting it all hang out (something he may have gotten from goodbuddy Harlan Ellison). This book was written by a guy of his era, a Cold War kid. It's a book of its era too; that is, the late 1960s and 1970s. Its creation was inspired by the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. The death of flower power and the downfall of Nixon propel its engine (indeed, The Stand is so of its time that it presages both Three Mile Island and the Jim Jones mass suicide in Guyana). The lyrics of Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Jim Morrison float through the prose and dialogue and epigrams. Springsteen too, but he's a '70s guy, so it fits that zeitgeist I'm talking about. Larry Underwood's rock star burnout reads more like late '70s scenario too... Warren Zevon, anyone?

Our villain Randall Flagg's nickname is the Walkin' Dude, and he walks like a hitchhiker, but hitchhiking was vastly out of public consciousness by the time the '90s arrived. Hitchhikers weren't killers on the road, despite what the Doors said; hitchhikers got picked up by serial killers. So changing the dates to 1990 and switching in Bush for Carter and so on is just that: it changes only the dates and the names, not the psyche of the characters, and country, involved. Like Glen Bateman's estimation of Randall Flagg himself, this aspect of the book was a big nothing. And Flagg is a big nothing, but not in a horrific way: nah, he's just a grinnin' fool, like Bill Paxton in Weird Science or something.

German translation, 1985

People like to read about themselves, about regular people in extraordinary situations, and King has always provided that pleasure. Larry Underwood's grueling passage through the Lincoln Tunnel is certainly an all-timer sequence in King's output, and there are many scenes of dire heroics, such as the shootout between our heroes and the men who've been keeping several women as sex slaves is quite good: Four men, eight women, Fran's brain said, and then repeated it, louder, in tones of alarm: Four men! Eight women! Nadine Cross's college experience with a Ouija board, in which Flagg contacts her years prior to the book's events, was a nice touch too in the expanded version. But these sequences are very few and far between, which I was not expecting at all. For such a long book it is curiously empty of import.

In fact I found the latter half to be tighter in every aspect, and that climax, long-maligned, not nearly as disappointing as I'd recalled. Reading about Flagg and his coterie of boot-lickers and hangers-on in Las Vegas who've formed a cult around him that would make Manson proud is infinitely more interesting than those goody-two-shoes Free Boulder folks. Many readers have complained of the deus ex machina, virtually a literal "hand of God" (even noted as such by Ralph in the final seconds) that brings about the climax. It has nothing to do with the travails of Mother Abagail, nor any of the people of Boulder, so there is no ultimate confrontation between good and evil as the medieval-style cover art suggests.

French J'ai Lu editions, 1992

It was almost a relief, not having a giant ending that exhausts readers. This is, I know, the opposite of many readers' experience, who prefer the first half of the book. The 1990 edition expands, after their witnessing the nuclear doom of Flagg's Vegas, Stu and Tom's hard road back to Boulder, a bitter denouement that drags, I suppose, appropriately. So having Flagg reappear in the final pages struck me as pointless, a cheap twist...

Large-scale, good-versus-evil horror is not for me. My long-ago read of The Stand was the first inkling that I was outgrowing this pedestrian worldview. My other two big go-tos back then were Clive Barker and H.P. Lovecraft, who didn't deal in this kind of Manichean duality; I preferred ambiguity and agnosticism, subversion and confrontation, certainly not King's idea that "horror is as conservative as a Republican banker in a striped suit." Today I've outgrown completely this "tale of dark Christianity" as King himself puts it in his intro.

While I wasn't actively reading the book, I was also watching HBO's devastating historical drama Chernobyl, an all-too-relevant coincidence. The show's images of abandoned houses and tower blocks and vehicles and pets and  the dead and dying bodies were utterly haunting, heartbreaking, gut-wrenching. Never once did King's descriptions of similar landscapes affect me the same way; he's unable to scale the heights of his imagination with his pen. These grievous oversights and failures actually angered me: ask my wife about the rant I went on about how displeased I was with the book during our drive to a relative's house on Christmas Eve! Or rather don't ask my wife about my Christmas Eve rant. I mean and I wasn't even high.

It comes down to this, and I'll admit it seems almost churlish for me to say so, but I can not recommend either version of The Stand. The 1990 uncut edition expands on the weaknesses of the 1978 version, making that book's faults even more obvious, while adding new ones. Despite random strong passages and scenes, there is so much shallowness, naivete, and lack of commitment to the central idea—a grand battle between good and evil that never comes to pass—The Stand left me disappointed in a very deep and lasting way. This surprised me a lot; I was unprepared for how very little I enjoyed this book.

While my rereads of two other King novels I was never fond of, Carrie and The Shining, were surprising successes, The Stand remained as I'd found it nearly 35 years ago: foundering under its own weight and undone by a banal, half-baked theology. On this reread I noticed how larded it is with middlebrow observations of human relationships, American culture, and societal ties; and not nearly as profound as it thinks it is: all in all, a deeply superficial account of the end of the world. As a fan of vintage King I don't understand the novel’s esteemed status, other than nostalgia by fans who first encountered it as inexperienced readers. It pains me to say all that, but here I am, making my honest stand.


19 comments:

Unknown said...

My problem with "The Stand" is the general unlikeability of the "good" characters. They're annoying and boring. The most interesting of them is Harold, who of course is obviously the worst person of them. Would I really want to spend the post-apocalypse with these people, just because they're better than Flagg's freak show? No thanks, I'd be better off on my own.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this review. Useful as usual. By the way, I agree with most of your ideas about this book.

Babs said...

I finish every book I start. With the exception of The Stand. I don't even remember how far I got, I just remember being incredibly bored.

@Silverdire said...

I totally agree. I remember friends in high school telling me it was the best thing ever and I had to read it. I gave up a third of the way through. Like you I was a Barker fan so the whole "folksy" thing grated on me (your Hee-Haw comment made me lol). As far as apocalyptic horror goes, I liked Swan Song from McCammon way more.

tarbandu said...

For me, 'The Stand' , which I read when it first came out as a Signet Mass Market paperback, also was a 'one and done'. All the criticisms you make of the book remain valid after 40 years, and I have no desire to revisit 'The Stand'.

In particular, I found the character of Mother Abigail to be overt Pandering by a white liberal. Along with Dick Hallorann, the Overlook Hotel cook from 'The Shining', and Speedy, the blind Blues musician from 'The Talisman', Mother Abigail was the first in a long line of 'Magic Negroes' to be featured in King's fiction.

Dr. Caligari said...

I couldn't agree more with your review (of the 1978 version; I never had the slightest desire to read the 1990 one). Thank you.

TT. said...

Jeez, Grady, this is a great review/essay/rant about something I've long suspected. And similar to something I just experienced myself with Fahrenheit 451. I'd been planning to reread both versions of The Stand back to back, but maybe I'll just leave my fond memories of the book to my younger self and move on to other things. I've put aside several King books halfway through in recent years with many of the same complaints you have here. No need to add to that discard pile ...

Will Errickson said...

Hi TT, glad you agree, but this isn’t Grady’s blog! ;-) (I believe he gave the book the full five stars on Goodreads!)

TT. said...

Good grief, I totally knew that. Sorry -- it's a Monday. Will, great rant!

Zwolf said...

I loved The Stand when I first read it, but I haven't read it again. I keep thinking about doing it, but it's a commitment. Sometimes things you read back then don't hold up.

For me, the book that doesn't hold up is Straub's Ghost Story. I loved it when I read it as a teen. Then I read it again about 20 years ago... and wondered why I ever liked it. So last year I decided, "I must have been in a bad mood or something because I KNOW that's a great book... let me give it another read."

Aaaaannnnnnd... nope. Ghost Story is awful. There are some good things in it, but I've given it plenty of chances and it just doesn't hold up. I like lots of Straub's other work, and I'll probably stubbornly give Ghost Story another run in 10 years or so (I tend to do that... I hate Henry James but I've read "Turn of the Screw" a half dozen times), but as of now, I'm reacting to it about the same as you've reacted to The Stand. Other than I *did* like it once.

Rob said...

When the "long version" of The Stand came out, I was under the impression that it contained pretty much everything that had been edited from the previously released version. So far, so good. Then I started reading it and came to a "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" reference....a movie that was released waaaaaay later than 1978. I suddenly smelled a brazen cash grab. What could be King's justification for inserting post-1978 pop culture references into a book that was supposed to be simply the "uncut" version, not the "modernized and updated" version? I then threw the book across the room, closed my eyes real tight, stuck my fingers in my ears, and yelled, "La-la-la-la-laaaaaaaa!!!" in a childish attempt to forget what I had just read.

Will Errickson said...

I knew I wasn't the only horror fan who felt this about about the book! This was a hard review to write, not only because of its status and how its fans feel about it, but because I needed to tone down some of the invective in the first few drafts--I mean, THE STAND made me really, really angry! Like, how dare he foist upon us such unremitting lazy junk? I reread the short story "Night Surf" in NIGHT SHIFT last week and even that struck me as dreary and mean-spirited for no real reason, as if those qualities make it horror.

As for that Roger Rabbit reference, I kind of liked the absurdity of it in context of the scene it appears in (you can hear the voice in your head perfectly), so I only wish King had saved it and used it for an actual post-1988 work.

Hob said...

It's been a long time since I reread THE STAND, so for all I know if I read it now I might feel exactly the same as you... and I have had a lot of the same thoughts before. But somehow there's something in all but the worst of King's stuff that makes me not care; I can see the flaws but at the same time it's working for me. At least, that's how it was when I read it before, and it's been the same for other very flawed books of his that I've read more recently. I first read this one when I was about 13 and had no point of reference for 90% of its contents, and had almost simultaneously gotten into Clive Barker so I certainly knew horror didn't have to be in this particular style, but somehow it really gripped and haunted me. And I think it's a good thing that I read the shorter version first, because it's just a much better edit.

Anyway, this is a perceptive and well-written piece.

One irrelevant nitpick, just because my brain holds onto this stuff: you asked, "is it the entire world? This is never made clear for no real reason." It is made clear: in the original edition at least, there's a scene very early on in the secret germ warfare lab, after the scale of their fuckup has become apparent, where one of the military guys tells the other to send a coded message ("Rome falls") to overseas agents who will release superflu samples across the world. Their rationale is that it'd be even worse (somehow) if our rivals saw this accurately as a self-inflicted disaster specific to the US. I'm not sure how that dialogue got updated in the newer edition since they wouldn't have been talking about the USSR any more, but I feel like it's still there in some form.

Hob said...

Btw, I finally picked up PAPERBACKS FROM HELL and I'm really enjoying it. One of its few disappointments (and I'm saying this as someone who usually prefers to read printed books) is that I can't click on the smaller cover art reproductions and make them enlarge! I got all excited to see that there was a page devoted to Jill Bauman, but such a tiny and tinily-printed sampling of her art— I realize Hendrix didn't have infinite space for this stuff, but still. Bauman's cover for INCARNATE is one of my favorite book covers of all time.

Leon K. said...

This was a great read! Seems likes King's enjoying a renewed popularity right now, so there have been a ton of articles detailing his strengths as a writer (which is cool) while simultaneously glossing over his weaknesses (which is not so cool). It was nice to read an unvarnished critical review of one his most famous books.

I've sometimes heard Robert McCammon's Swan Song mentioned in the same breath as The Stand - sorta the Shasta Cola to The Stand's Pepsi. Is it worth checking out?

Casual Debris said...

Thanks for reminiscing. I read the "uncut" paperback in the summer of 1991, when I was seventeen, on a pointless but fun road trip with a couple of friends. Nearly everywhere I went, people were reading the novel. I even stopped to chat with strangers, everyone proclaiming how it was King's best yet. But I was sorely disappointed, despite enjoying portions of the novel. While I do recall many characters & scenes, some of what you mention contain not even a grain of recollection (the kid?). A few months earlier I'd read Jerry Pournelle & Larry Niven's apocalyptic Lucifer's Hammer, first published in 1977, a year before the shorter The Stand, & I suspected that the impact of that novel weakened King's version for me. (Yes, "version," as I wondered if the earlier novel inspired King to produce his.) Now I wonder if my disappointment was simply because the book just wasn't all that good. I have no intention of re-reading the beast. Lucifer's Hammer, however, I am certain to one day re-visit.

Will Errickson said...

Not a McCammon fan so probably not. I read a bit of it back in its day and did not dig it at all.

Will Errickson said...

If you go back through this blog I have posted most of those book covers over the years so you can click and embiggen to yr heart’s content!

Griff said...

I don't think it's his best work but I gotta admit I'm surprised that you would dislike it to such a degree.

To be fair I haven't read it since 2007 and I was pretty green as a reader back then, maybe you're right, but I feel like I remember the novel pretty well and my gut tells me you're being a little too harsh on it and for whatever reason you simply couldn't get on its wavelength.

It helps I think if you're like me and was raised in the Christian faith with a heavy emphasis on the "end times", that lends the novel a heavier dramatic weight, it's a very American story about a very American idea, that America will play a central role in some great cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil.

I don't know, it worked for me, I'm sorry it didn't work for you, art is a pretty subjective thing and I feel one's background can color one's perception a lot.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...