Thursday, April 05, 2012

Looking back at Stephen King's The Stand

In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been on a Stephen King kick lately. This is partly fueled by my nostalgia for stories I read years ago, and partly by my interest in the author’s latest works. After reading his 2008 novel Duma Key and the subsequent short story collection Just After Sunset, I became convinced that King is experiencing a creative renaissance. His latest works, Under the Dome and 11/22/63, are as epic as his great horror novels of the late 1970s and early 1980s (The Stand, The Dead Zone, The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, The Talisman, It) and as intimate as his more character-driven work in the 1990s (Gerald’s Game, Dolores Claiborne, Rose Madder, Bag of Bones, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon). He seems to be creating his best work by returning to his storytelling roots and bringing a wealth of writing experience to bear on some of his earliest themes. His writing continues to affect me because his narrative voice is at once familiar and evolved. After reading 11/22/63, I decided to re-read The Stand, arguably King’s best-known novel, for the sake of comparison. Along the way, I realized just how meaningful the author’s influence on me has been over the years.

“Isn’t this America?” (King’s Politics)

In The Stand, an ordinary citizen poses this question to a group of foot soldiers as they quarantine her town in a desperate attempt to contain Captain Trips, the “superflu” that will eventually wipe out 99% of the world’s population. The obvious implication of this scene is that basic American freedoms will be the first thing to get sacrificed in a crisis. You might think this is King’s way of showing where he stands on the political spectrum... but King is not really a political writer per se. He’s not campaigning for the NRA or anything. That’s not to say that he is not politically aware. King came of age in the late 60s and early 70s, so he has an understandable suspicion of authority... and of human nature. Rather than express this through a political agenda, he expresses it through the morality of his characters.

My 9th grade English teacher probably would have scoffed if I had ever told her that Stephen King was a moralist writer. When she saw that I was reading The Stand, she said, “You’re a smart guy. Why don’t you read something a little more meaningful?” Now, I’m not trying to criticize my 9th grade English teacher. She introduced me to the work of T.S. Eliot, along with the teachings of most of the great Western philosophers, and she exerted a major influence on me as a writer and as a person, for which I will always be grateful. But I do believe she underestimated Stephen King. She assumed that he was simply exploiting people’s morbid curiosities, rather than trying to teach them anything. What she should have realized is that any writer worth his or her salt conveys a set of personal beliefs, and thereby challenges the reader to examine his or her own beliefs.

The Stand is a modern myth -- an epic story of good versus evil, set on Main Street America. Just as Salem’s Lot transplanted Dracula onto a contemporary New England setting, so The Stand transplants The Lord of the Rings into the Great American Desert, by way of an all-too-common news story about a chemical spill in Utah. It features Stephen King in two different modes. The Stand has the fantasy elements of King’s Dark Tower series as well as the cultural commentary of books like The Dead Zone or Hearts in Atlantis. King biographer Douglas Winter sums it up as “a search for a utopia of meaning while glancing backward in idyllic reverie to lost innocence.” In a way, that also sums up King’s career as a writer. The main characters in his longer, more mature works are always searching for something to hold onto in the darkness. Like so many members of King’s Baby Boomer generation, they are driven by an uncomfortable sense that they inherited a better world than the one they’ll leave behind.

What has changed? King can’t say exactly, but as a book like 11/22/63 makes clear, he’s convinced that it started in the Sixties. 11/22/63 elaborates the author’s theory of modern American history, which King started sharing nearly four decades ago, when he introduced Randall Flag in The Stand. This is how he began:

“[Flagg] sometimes thought that he might have been born in that strife. He certainly could not remember much that had happened to him before that, except that he came originally from Nebraska and that he had once attended high-school with a red-haired, bandy-legged boy named Charles Starkweather. He remembered the civil rights marches of 1960 and 1961 better - the beatings, the night rides, the churches that had exploded as if some miracle inside them had grown too big to be contained. He remembered drifting down to New Orleans in 1962, and meeting a demented young man who was handing out tracts urging America to leave Cuba alone. That man had been a certain Mr. Oswald, and he had taken some of Oswald’s tracts and he still had a couple, very old and crumpled, in one of his many pockets. He had sat on a hundred different Committees of Responsibility. He had walked in demonstrations against the same dozen companies on a hundred different college campuses. He wrote the questions that most discomfited those in power when they came to lecture, but he never asked the questions himself, because they might have seen his grinning, burning face as some cause for alarm and fled from the podium. Likewise he never spoke at rallies because the microphones would scream with hysterical feedback and the circuits would blow. But he had written speeches for those who did speak, and on several occasions those speeches had ended in riots, overturned cars, student strike votes, and violent demonstrations. For a while in the early seventies he had been acquainted with a man named Donald DeFreeze, and had suggested that DeFreeze take the name Cinque. He had helped lay plans that resulted in the kidnaping of an heiress, and it had been he who suggested that the heiress be made crazy instead of ransomed. He had left the small Los Angeles house where DeFreeze and the others had friend not twenty minutes before the police had arrived; he slunk away up the street, his bulging and dusty boots clocking on the pavement, a fiery grin on his face that made mothers grab up their children and pull them away into the house. And later, when a few tattered remnants of the group were swept up, all they knew was that there had been someone else associated with the group, maybe someone important, maybe just a hanger-on, a man of no age, a man who was sometimes called the Walkin Dude.”

By connecting his super-villain with some of the most disturbing events in recent American history (I've read that The Stand began its life as a fictionalization of the Patty Hearst story!), King presents him as the Boomer generation’s own personal devil, and poses the question: How can we restore the country to its former innocence? It’s not enough for King’s would-be heroes to have a physical confrontation with Flagg. Rather they must confront what he represents, because Flagg is not the source of evil. He simply nurtures the potential for evil in normal, everyday people. Through the character of Glen Bateman, a cynical sociology professor, King expresses his belief that the potential for evil rests not so much in individuals, but in groups. Bateman explains:

“Shall I tell you what sociology teaches us about the human race? I’ll give it to you in a nutshell. Show me a man or a woman alone and I’ll show you a saint. Give me two and they’ll fall in love. Give me three and they’ll invent that charming thing we call ‘society.’ Give me four and they’ll build a pyramid. Give me five and they’ll make one an outcast. Give me six and they’ll re-invent prejudice. Give me seven and in seven years they’ll re-invent warfare. Man may have been made in the image of God, but human society was made in the image of His opposite number, and is always trying to get back home.”

The other great temptation in The Stand is technology. It is technology, after all, that creates the superflu and unleashes it on the world, like Frankenstein’s Monster writ large. As a product of the Sixties, King is a natural-born Romantic, and The Stand addresses the romantic’s concerns about population growth, urban sprawl and industrialism. Through Bateman again, the author also expresses his belief that scientific rationalism could be our undoing:

“If it hadn’t been Captain Trips, it would have been something else. The fashion was to blame it on ‘technology,’ but ‘technology’ is the trunk of the tree, not the roots. The roots are rationalism, and I would define that word so: ‘Rationalism is the idea we can ever understand anything about the state of being.’ It’s a deathtrip. It always has been. So you can charge the superflu off to rationalism if you want. But the other reason we’re here is the dreams, and the dreams are irrational... We’re here under the fiat of powers we don’t understand. For me, that means we may be only beginning to accept - only subconsciously now, and with plenty of slips backward due to culture lag - a different definition of existence. The idea that we can never understand anything about the state of being. And if rationalism is a deathtrip, then irrationalism might very well be a lifetrip...”

“That’s okay, Nick. He believes in You.” (King’s Religion)

This brings us to the central issue of King’s novel, which is Faith. Organized society has failed -- and will fail again before the novel is finished. Science has failed -- and technology, if left unregulated, will continue to cause problems for King’s characters. In the wake of the total collapse of the world they know, the only thing the survivors are able to put their faith in is a series of mystical dreams about an old black woman in rural Nebraska. The dreams are their only common ground, the only thing that gives them hope for a new community, and so they each begin their individual quests to find Mother Abigail. When they reach her, one by one, she frames the crisis for them in the simplest terms: good versus evil. She explains what they’re up against:

“I know what he’s about but not who he is. He’s the purest evil left in the world. The rest of the bad is little evil. Shoplifters and sexfiends and people who like to use their fists. But he’ll call them. He’s started already. He’s getting them together a lot faster than we are. Not just the evil ones that are like him, but the weak ones... the lonely ones... the ones that have left God out of their hearts.... The Bible, it don’t say what happened to Noah and his family after the flood went down. But I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some awful tussle for the souls of those few people - for their souls, their bodies, their way of thinking. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that was what was on for us.”

This may seem like a most obvious turn of events... It’s not hard for me to imagine religious zealots banding together in the wake of a national crisis, and promptly looking for a few "heathens" to blame. I can think of more than a few evangelicals who would happily build their ministry by preaching that God is punishing us for legalizing birth control, abortion and same-sex marriage, or outlawing school prayer, the teaching of creationism, etc. (Unlike King, I grew up in the South... so I’ve got my own political biases. Bear with me.) No doubt they would draw quite a few followers, just as Mother Abigail does. A friend of mine says, “There are no atheists in a foxhole.”

In King’s story, however, there are atheists in the foxhole. Well, to be specific: one atheist (Nick Andros), one agnostic (Ralph Brentner) and a few rational skeptics (Glen Bateman, Stu Redman, Larry Underwood)... and, what’s more surprising, Mother Abigail puts them in charge of the fate of the free world! I can’t imagine the evangelicals making that kind of decision, because to me it demonstrates a much deeper faith than their usual brand of “believe His Word or ye shall feel His wrath.” I have another friend who argues that faith is a journey, filled with as many trials and tribulations as we require in order to get things right. Faith is not a simple, static thing. To put it another way, “God doesn’t move us by telling us the facts. He moves us by pains and contradictions.” I think King would agree, because it’s the doubt of his characters that allows them to eventually become heroes. I think it's safe to sum up the implications of his story as follows: True faith is strengthened, not weakened, by doubt.

King was raised in the Methodist church, and he says that in some ways he will always be that kid in Sunday school. Although he developed an aversion to organized religion as he got older, he still has the faith of a romantic. “I believe in God,” he once told Douglas Winter. “I believe what I write when I say that I think we live in the center of a mystery. Believing that there is just life, and that’s the end of it, seems to me as primitive as believing that the entire universe revolves around the earth.” I’m not as inclined to use the word “God” (which has too many connotations, in my mind), but as for the rest of this statement... I couldn’t say it better myself. No doubt that’s why I’m still reading Stephen King, still following him on his journey, which seems thoroughly sincere and meaningful to me.

The author eventually answers the crisis he has created in The Stand by going on a kind of “vision quest.” In interviews, King has said that he reached a point in his writing when he couldn’t go any further on his own. After 600 pages or so, the “good guys” were building a facsimile of the old, pre-flu society in the Free Zone while the “bad guys” rebuilt another facsimile in Las Vegas. Scientific rationality had regained its hold over civilization. Mother Abigail became so distraught that she disappeared for forty days in the wilderness, and Stephen King was left to sort the mess out for himself. He set the manuscript aside for a while, wrote the novella “Apt Pupil,” and then came back with a plan: Destroy everything all over again. In the author’s mind, that was the only authentic solution. He had to once again strip his characters of everything they had -- all the creature comforts -- in order to help them finish their quest. He uses Glen Bateman again to explain his reasoning:

“There were several American Indian tribes that used to make ‘having a vision’ an integral part of their manhood rite. When it was your time to become a man, you were supposed to go out into the wilderness unarmed. You were supposed to make a kill, and two songs - one about the Great Spirit and one about your own prowess as a hunter and a rider and a warrior and a fucker - and have that vision. You weren’t supposed to eat... The casting away of things is symbolic, you know. Talismanic. When you cast away things, you’re also casting away the self-related others that are symbolically related to those things. You start a cleaning-out process. You begin to empty the vessel.”

Bateman continues: Get rid of your TV, your radio, your books, your friends, your food. Empty your life, and see how you feel.

“Now think of yourself as a battery. You really are, you know. Your brain runs on chemically converted electrical current. For that matter, your muscles run on tiny charges, too - a chemical called acetylcholine allows the charge to pass when you need to move, and when you want to stop, another chemical, cholinesterase, is manufactured. Cholinesterase destroys acetylcholine, so your nerves become poor conductors again. Good thing, too. Otherwise, once you started scratching your nose, you’d never be able to stop. Okay, the point is this: Everything you think, everything you do, it all has to run off the battery. Like the accessories in a car... Watching TV, reading books, talking with friends, eating a big dinner... all of it runs off the battery. A normal life - at least in what used to be Western civilization - was like running a car with power windows, power brakes, power seats, all the goodies. But the more goodies you have, the less the battery can charge... Well, what we’ve done is to strip off the accessories. We’re on charge.”

In his book God is Red: A Native View of Religion, Vine Delouria Jr. writes that vision quests are nearly impossible to pull off in the modern world, for one specific reason: “The places currently available to people for vision quests are hardly isolated. Jet planes pass overhead. Some traditional holy places are the scene of strip-mining, others are adjacent to superhighways, others are parts of ranches, farms, shopping centers, and national parks and forests.” King has neatly solved this dilemma by removing all of those obstacles from the modern world, plunging America back into a pre-industrial state of potential innocence. But that is not the end. The Stand finally boils down to the story of four individuals (Bateman’s perfect number to “build a pyramid”) and their God.

Once God's "chosen ones" have learned the lesson of faith, the story comes full circle. The quartet lead the moral battle to reclaim America’s innocence on behalf of their generation, only to sit back and wonder if the next generation will be able to maintain it. The implication of this finale is that every generation, and every individual, has to go on the journey for himself. For me, this is the most meaningful message in The Stand: Sometimes we have to get away from everything we think we know in order to figure out what we really believe. That’s how you start the cleaning-out process. Unplug and recharge.


  1. A great and thoughtful-provoking piece on one of the great writers of recent times and a seminal novel of his, Joe. I love reading your breakdown of what made THE STAND and the author tick. It remains my favorite novel of his even after all these decades. And what timing! I just finished my review of its new audiobook that came out in February, which will post next Monday. Now I need to touch it up some and link it up with this. Well done.

  2. Thanks, Michael! I look forward to reading your review.

  3. Thanks! It looks like you've got a great lineup of movies this summer...

  4. Fantastic, I really enjoy your writing! I haven't read The Stand, but I think I might now. I also listened to The Book Report every Sunday, and Elaine Charles reviewed the audio yesterday, you should go give it a listen, you can still pick it up in the archive section -

  5. Thanks, Jack. It doesn't look like yesterday's show has been archived yet, but I'll definitely check it out as soon as it's uploaded.

  6. If you're interested in the audiobook, go here to check out listeners ratings and take in a audio except at Audible. It's where I picked up my recent stint with King's seminal novel.