The Stand

book by Stephen King

annotation by Telaina Eriksen

I just finished Stephen King’s The Stand:Complete and Uncut. I read and read this book as a teenager. (And you’re going to have to bear with me on this annotation because this book is 1345 pages long, and I want to preface my annotation with a wee bit of an introduction. So go get a cold beverage, and dig in for a second, if you don’t mind.)

When I mention Stephen King to many educated and avid readers, they get a look on their faces like I just farted or, depending on how many advanced degrees they have, wet my pants in front of them. I am exhausted by literary snobbery but, on the other hand, I am a literary snob myself. Several years ago when The DaVinci Code came out, I read it in less than two days and I completely understood why it was popular. The Nicholas Sparks phenomenon evades me, but I can generally see why things sell. And who I am to tell a busy man or woman, or even a retiree, what they should and shouldn’t be reading? I am currently sneering at the popularity of 50 Shades of Gray, but if it’s spicing up some couple’s sex life and putting a smile on their faces as they go out into the world to meet the demands of their jobs and families… that’s not a bad deal for under $10, in my humble opinion.

I consider The Stand (and several other Stephen King novels), Gone With The Wind, Lonesome Dove, The Thorn Birds, and several other novels of John Irving and Pat Conroy, to have been the “gateway” books of my teenage years. My dad was a factory worker who enjoyed reading the paper and paperback westerns and my mother was a voracious reader, enjoying the daily paper, women’s magazines and romance novels. Her ultimate endorsement of a book was, “It reads right along.” My mother had seven children and finances were always tight, if not in active crisis. She alternated working part-time and full-time as our ages and the job market in Michigan allowed. She didn’t want to spend her evenings working through Anna Karenina. She didn’t want to lie on the couch and talk about the marriage plot in the novels of Jane Austen. She wanted a story to amuse and delight her.

There was no literary snobbery in my house. My aunt would give us big garbage bags full of books after she had read them. She bought a few new, a few used, and many at garage and library sales where in the 70s, you could fill up a large bag with books and then pay $1. We would buy books at garage sales, get them from the library (though we had issues returning them–my apologies to The Stair Public Library in Morenci, Michigan) and people knew we read, so we got a lot of people’s handmedowns and castoffs. In my teen years, I began to have some disposable income and one of the first things I bought was my own books. And here was where I encountered the novels of Stephen King. And it was books like The Stand, still a good old-fashioned story, but with literary devices and scope, then enabled me to go further on in my reading and tackle Russian novels. These starter literary novels  (for lack of a better term) were what allowed me to pick up and read the books which would later change who I am as a reader and writer—books like Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart and many others… too many others to list.

So what did I learn re-reading The Stand with adult eyes—the eyes of a college professor, no less? First of all, I couldn’t believe how much I had forgotten. This was very probably my third time through this giant book (published when I was 22) and I probably made my way three times through the shorter version which was published in the late 70s.  Secondly, the novel still piqued my interest with its epic scope and romantic showdown between good and evil. (If you want a summary of The Stand click here because this annotation is already going to be a monster.) And finally, yes, I did notice the wheels do come off of King’s story here and there. There are some inconsistencies with the novel that I never noticed before. In this reading, I had to ask how does the superflu kill everyone on the base instantly, and yet when it is released to the public, it takes days, sometimes even a week for people to die? And all the traffic jams and cars with dead bodies in them? People just stayed in their cars to die of flu? And why does Randall Flagg need a new identity and a car no one can trace if the world is falling apart? Is someone going to check his driver’s license before he becomes dictator of Las Vegas? And how does The Judge get gas in Wyoming when he is trying to get to Las Vegas to spy? I’ve driven across Wyoming. It already looks like there’s an apocalypse, let alone when the few sad and lonely gas stations would be closed and without electricity.

The worst thing to me though, was the “updating” Stephen King did. His 1970s characters were all logical and believable. When he moved those characters (inconsistently, I might add) up into the late 80s and 90s, they lost their credibility. Frannie in the book was supposed to be my age in 1990. She makes little comments about lying to get birth control pills (really wasn’t necessary in 1989/1990… though it might be now the way things are going). She also says “Only the Shadow Knows” which is something my mother would say, not me. (Frannie might have quoted the Partridge Family or the Brady Bunch, or Love Boat etc.)  There is also a part early in the book where someone in east Texas babysits two or three children the whole morning for $1. That would have been fine in the 70s, but a decade later, this woman would have received at least $5, even in the smallest town in America. Toward the end of the book, King begins to mention things like MTV, but his characters are generally inhabiting a pre-cable, pre-music CD, pre-blockbuster movie, Vietnam-was-very-close-and-life-changing, world. Which would be fine if he’d left them in the 70s. But he didn’t.

The other issue I had was King’s treatment of race in the novel. Mother Abigail is the wise African matriarch which, given the archetypal nature of the book , I don’t have a big issue with.  Flagg is a pretty archetypical demon, as well. I had an issue with the following passages… black servicemen “also nearly naked, all wore loincloths”… “more members of this black ‘junta’ covered perhaps 200 khaki-clad soldiers with rifles…”. Now, it’s not that I think when the end of the world comes that race relations are going to be stellar, it was the absence of other discussions or background story to this scene that stuck in my craw. That this, and Mother Abigail and the Rat-Man (who dressed like a pirate), are the sum total of black characters in this massive tome. This too reflects the “old” nature of the book, and I think King would probably write those passages differently today.  (And I won’t even begin to address the problems I have overall with Stephen King’s women characters who tend to be weak, emasculating women who divorce their good long-suffering men. That is SERIOUSLY a separate annotation.)

The things King does well far outnumber my speculation of how The Judge finds gas without electricity in Wyoming and why everyone takes so much aspirin (when in 1982 the FDA issued a warning about aspirin pertaining to Reye’s Syndrome and young adults and when the kick-ass anti-inflammatory Advil was brought to market in the United States in 1984).

King works in Yeats, the Bible, Watership Down, sociological theory and much more. His vision of a smashed America (an apocalypse where goods aren’t scarce and where we haven’t destroyed our planet) allows him to question why characters turn from good and whether people who have had less than stellar lives ever have a chance to be “inside.” This novel illustrates the power of story, the power of the reader to be invested with characters that are even briefly introduced. King does this extremely well when summing up the post-plague plague—people who were immune to the superflu but fall down wells, die of appendicitis, accidentally lock themselves in freezers, etc. In a few brief paragraphs he tells what happened to these characters and he tells it concisely, each vignette a tiny piece of a more traditional brand of flash fiction.

Reading this book as a writer reminds me to ground my characters fully in their time and place so there isn’t any disconnect with the reader. It reminds me that we all need editors. While the 823-page original definitely benefited from some of this richness and back-story in this uncut version, 1300+ pages was too much. A happy medium between the two lengths probably would have been perfect.

And finally, never forget as a writer (no matter what your genre) the power and the joy of a grand, compulsively readable, invested-in-the-characters-oh-my-god-what-is-going-to-happen-next, story.