When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine, I thought it would be fun (if a bit cliché) to finally read his books in earnest, and discover how I really feel about his work. For this installment, I started lifting weights for the first time in my life – I was about to pick up the 1,200-page “Complete & Uncut” edition of The Stand.
In the introduction to the extended edition of his 1978 novel The Stand, Stephen King had this to say about his writing process:
“When asked, ‘How do you write?’ I invariably answer, ‘One word at a time,’ and the answer is invariably dismissed. But that is all it is. It sounds too simple to be true, but consider the Great Wall of China, if you will: one stone at a time, man.”
King had a right to get a little hyperbolic here. The Stand is a behemoth, in size and scope. It’s a contagion horror story, American sociological study, roads-go-ever-on Tolkien adventure, and elemental Biblical showdown. It’s 1,200 pages long. And it is beloved by readers. When the BBC did their “Big Read” project back in 2003, asking viewers to vote for their favorite novel of all time, The Stand came in at #53, between Of Mice and Men and Anna Karenina.
At its heart, The Stand is a simple story. Disaster strikes a top-secret government lab, that was developing an extremely deadly biological weapon. One infected soldier escapes the premises, and he represents the difference between the status quo and the apocalypse. King details the gruesome efficiency of the resultant super flu (a.k.a. Captain Trips) with the thorough commitment of a beat reporter. We get transmissions from Kansas, California, Maine, Iowa. We learn how a doctor’s waiting room gets infected and follow patients out into the world, leaving diseased bridge clubs and YMCA pools in their wake.
More than 99% of America dies. And the remaining 800 pages or so are left for the immune survivors, left scattered across our tired, polluted country. Like Stu Redman, a standard-issue soft-spoken Eastwood hero from East Texas. And Fran Goldsmith, a Maine college student prone to fits of giggling who is impregnated by an indifferent boyfriend right before the plague hits. And Larry Underwood, a journeyman musician and all-around selfish idiot who’s just landed his first hit single.
The balance of the novel accounts how these characters coalesce around one of two supernatural figures in this new Paradise Lost reality. The first one we meet is a demon in denim called Randall Flagg, who assembles a legion of the demented and technologically adept in the on-the-nose location of Las Vegas, Nevada. The second is a 108-year-old woman named Abigail Freemantle who can channel the power of God. She summons her flock to Boulder, Colorado. And in case you ever wondered for a second about Abigail’s skin color, King is there to remind you, over and over again, that’s she’s black.
Here’s where King’s Great Wall of China starts to crumble. He’s given us every brick in his head, including the cracked ones, the soft ones, the ones that didn’t spend enough time in the kiln.
If the treatment of “Mother Abigail” isn’t discomfiting enough, we then follow the Colorado commune as it evolves to become “The Free Zone” – a society of chosen people. If any other non-white people are a part of this community, they’re not mentioned. Is this a choice of the author not to mention the race of his characters, with one exception? Unfortunately not. Here’s a list of things that King has black people do in The Stand:
- Perform televised executions of white people while wearing loincloths
- OD on heroin in Detroit
- Dress like a pirate, answer to “Rat Man” and be described as “the only guy in Las Vegas too creepy to sleep with”
- Emerge from a jungle holding spears
I’m not here to say that Stephen King is racist. But these moments in this book absolutely are. According to 2017 U.S. Census data, 94.8% of Mainers identify as white. It’s probably safe to say that growing up in 1950s Bangor, King wasn’t exposed to much diversity. Non-white people were people outside of normal life. Not inferior, but other. So he ends up using the heinous backhanded compliment that is the “Magical Negro” trope, over and over again in his career. Perhaps I’m being too generous in this reading. But living in Maine for the last five years, and seeing firsthand how blindingly white it is, I can see how it would make somebody terrible at writing about people of color.
This rank insensitivity is also a by-product of the surface-level treatment that a majority of The Stand’s characters suffer from. King pulls his camera back to the point where he’s an omniscient narrator, using Stu and Fran and Larry and Nick like pawns on a wasted American chessboard. We’re up so high, we can’t get close enough to them, to truly feel their grief. We’re in the hands of an Old Testament god.
This book is historically popular for a reason. King masterfully plays off our fears of infection, making Captain Trips so nauseatingly scary, you’d welcome an axe murderer in its place without blinking. The section where the Free Zone is created is absolutely unputdownable, a microcosm of what makes humanity unique, and uniquely self-destructive. The story arc of the bullied Harold Lauder is a fantastic exploration of how toxic masculinity can turn boys into monsters.
But no way is this King’s best. It’s just his most. You’re going to get more death, more disease, more pitch-black humor, and more corny boomer nostalgia (fricking Jim Morrison shows up at one point, people). As an ambitious journey into what’s admirable and problematic about the human race, The Stand is worth the long sit. As long as you’re willing to accept everything admirable and problematic about its author.
THE “CATCHING UP WITH KING” RANKINGS
5. The Stand