Stephen King’s The Stand

Stephen King’s The Stand

Nixonland, Rick Perlstein’s mammoth survey of a political landscape polarized by one powerful, vindictive man, addresses Nixon’s followers’ habit of “heightening the contradictions.” They picked up the trick from leftist protesters, of all sources—those who sought to intensify confrontations with police with obscenity and inflamed rhetoric, picking fights to bring out the worst in their opponents. Nixon knew how to play the game on a national scale, drawing the supporters of what he dubbed “the silent majority” to one side, and portraying the opposition as suspect, un-American sorts living on the other end of a great divide. One segment of the country responded with revolutionary fervor, while the other cheered on Peter Boyle in Joe as he killed hippies. Nixon presided over not one America, but two, and he had a hand in shaping each of them, and in pushing them apart.

He also played a role, however indirectly, in shaping Randall Flagg, the villain of Stephen King’s mammoth apocalyptic novel The Stand. Here’s how King describes Flagg, a darkly charismatic, demonic man clad in a denim jacket with a smiley-face button on one lapel and a button featuring a pig wearing a policeman’s cap on the other:

He was known, well known, along the highways in hiding that are traveled by the poor and the mad, by the professional revolutionaries and by those who have been taught to hate so well that their hate shows on their faces like harelips and they are unwanted except by others like them, who welcome them to cheap rooms with slogans and posters on the walls, to basements where lengths of sawed-off pipe are held in padded vises while they are stuffed with high explosives, to back rooms where lunatic plans are laid.

Left-wing? Right-wing? It didn’t matter. Flagg thrives on the hateful fringes in the America of The Stand, heightening the contradictions of a country blissfully unaware of the coming disaster, a government-created plague that, once accidentally freed, wipes out most of humanity at an alarming rate. Flagg then becomes the satanic pole in a battle between good and evil in an America where the distinction between the two becomes as sharp as the division between left and right in Nixon’s America. Flagg presides over a Las Vegas of criminals, malcontents, and bedraggled technocrats who seek to dominate or eliminate the peace-loving, democracy-espousing inhabitants of Boulder, Colorado. The land is divided along different lines, but Flagg understands the usefulness of a distinctive schism. It takes little transition to move from exploiting politics that masquerade as morality to exploiting morality that imitates politics.

I’ve read King’s books off and on since the early ’80s, when my fifth-grade teacher worriedly informed my mother that Christine might be too adult for an 11-year-old. (He was probably right.) Compared to other A.V. Club staffers—particularly Zack Handlen and Tasha Robinson—I’m not all that well-versed in King, but looking over his bibliography, I was surprised by how many King books I had read. Over the years, I’ve gone from reading him for the lurid thrills to appreciating his skill both as a storyteller and a chronicler of the fabric of everyday American life. King clutters his fiction, or at least the chunk I’ve read, with references to mundane elements like candy-bar names and car models. When he writes a scene featuring a television, he always lets readers know what show is airing. He recreates the world as we know it—either today or in the recent past—which makes disruptions to that world that much more terrifying. The details matter. Dorothy Allison once said that people mistakenly think King writes horror fiction, when he’s really a working-class realist. That sounds about right to me.

But writing working-class realism doesn’t preclude writing horror or other genres. And with The Stand, King wrote a continent-spanning piece of apocalyptic fiction that follows a handful of plague survivors as they watch the world fall apart, then start to piece itself back together under the shadow of a tremendous threat. This column asks a question, “Better late than never?” So let me respond immediately with a mildly qualified “yes.” If I’d read The Stand earlier, say sometime between consuming It and The Dead Zone in high-school study-hall sessions, I almost certainly would have dug it for its compelling story—as I did this time—but I would have been less troubled by its slow abandonment of moral ambiguity. It begins as a Boschian nightmare of amplified 1970s political and cultural currents, and ends in an America that’s been turned into, as one character points out, a cosmic moral chessboard. The former is more compelling, and scarier, than the latter.

I enjoyed The Stand from start to finish, but never as much as in its first third, when the fast-acting “superflu” known as Captain Trips destroys an America that was already destroying itself. The government—the same one that recently lied to the American people about Watergate and the origins and scale of the war in Vietnam—uses terrifying violence to enforce an official story. Television broadcasts get overrun by black militants who perform public executions for a dying populace, getting in some last licks in a race war that’s about to become irrelevant. The superflu is a poison, but it’s also a catalyst, exacerbating and speeding up the conflicts already in play. It’s less a new development than the last chapter in the story of an ongoing American apocalypse. It heightens the contradictions until they can’t be heightened any more.

The Stand is a product of the ’70s, though its origins got a little obscured by the 1990 release of The Stand: The Complete & Uncut Edition, which added about 400 pages to the already sizable book, bringing it to a mammoth 1,153 pages. In 2009, King told Time the cuts nagged him and had originally been made because binding issues made it impossible for Doubleday, his publisher at the time, to release his original manuscript as one volume. But for the expanded release, King also updated the book to be set in 1990, performing a rewrite that threw in a crack at Ronald Reagan and updated the pop-culture references. Some of them, anyway. The Stand’s inhabitants attend the latest Nightmare On Elm Street and Rambo movies, but they also drive new Datsuns, a brand name that had faded out by the early ’80s. One character is on the cusp of becoming a rock star when the plague hits, and King describes him as performing the kind of easygoing, defanged hippie pop that would have no place in any decade but the ’70s. I’ve only read the extended version—the original cut has gone the way of New Coke and Hydrox—but the original text keeps glowing through the changes, creating a weird sense of cognitive dissonance. King created an exacting depiction of a particular moment in American culture, then went through with spray paint to reshape the details. Happily, the graffiti is pretty easy to ignore.

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.

What kept me interested in the book after I started to lose interest in its world were the characters and King’s gift for keeping the momentum going even as The Stand stretched on and on. As the recognizable details of the ’70s he destroyed start to fall away, King turns the book into a shade-free struggle between capital-G good and capital-E evil, complete with a cameo from the Hand Of God Himself. The characters are tortured by flashes of moral ambiguity, particularly my favorite character, Harold Lauder, a heavyset, teenaged aspiring writer who’s bitter that the end of the world hasn’t made his adolescent power fantasies come true. Even Flagg is troubled by human frailty, and he ends the book looking less like Satan incarnate than like someone who was loaned a little power and mistook it for a gift. 

But the universe has little room for doubt, and as the characters started to talk about the will of God with the confidence of converts, The Stand started to puzzle me. How could a book that opens with such a disturbing depiction of the conflicting cultural currents sweeping the country embrace such a simple worldview? Maybe it’s an act of wish-fulfillment, an attempt to eliminate the divisions of Nixonland, with its claims of absolute right and wrong. Instead, it gets down to what right and wrong are really all about, even if it becomes necessary to wipe out most of the world’s population to squelch the noise that got louder and uglier as the ’60s turned into the ’70s and the ’70s rolled on to an uncertain, unhopeful end. I can respect that without buying it.

In the end, The Stand feels like the work of a powerful imagination scoffing off others’ incendiary philosophies, but falling back on fairy-tale figures to fill in the blanks. The good people flock to one point on the map, the evil to another. Post-plague, the characters of The Stand live in a world where they can know evil when they see it—whether it arrives wearing a denim jacket or not—and have the time and resources to choose to embrace the good. It’s just another land of artificially heightened contradictions, and unlike the world of the novel’s opening chapters, or in many of King’s other novels, it’s nothing like a world you or I will ever see.

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