reread: The Stand by Stephen King

My copy of The Stand runs 1,153 pages, and I have a lot to stay. Sorry for the long review.


I loved this book before, and all over again, although not without qualifications. It took me nearly two weeks to read these ~1,200 pages, but only because I was reading other books at the same time (and teaching three classes) – it was really a handful of nights reading 300+ pages at a go. I loved this book all over again.

The very obvious impetus was the current pandemic, and my curiosity about how well The Stand tells a story that we are now (in some ways) living. The answer is, pretty well, actually. In the real world we don’t have a supernatural evil force in the form of a shapeshifting man with a cadre of more and less intelligent evil-minded followers; but there is plenty of metaphorical material there for those so inclined. I’ll leave that work to each of you. The superflu aka Captain Trip’s infection itself is different from Covid most importantly in the speed and rate of transmission, the death rate, and the speed with which it does its deadly work. It is infectious massively more of the time, and nearly always deadly. Covid is wildly infectious and pretty deadly by real-world standards; Captain Trip’s takes this to a logical extreme, which is often what fiction does, but the parallel is striking and instructive. That it is also wildly fast-acting is an interesting point. In some ways, the slowness with which Covid makes itself known (meaning, we can be infected for days or weeks before we get sick – and we can be infected and not get sick, therefore acting as invisible vectors)… has helped its spread, because we humans have a hard time taking seriously something that we can’t immediately see happening. Captain Trip’s, on the other hand, looks more like this: guy coughs near you; 20 minutes later, you are coughing. You might both be dead in a day or two. This is much easier for people to grasp as a concept; they feel fear and wish to take precautions much more, and much sooner, than we have with Covid. The flip side is that it’s much harder to fight against (especially because if you cough, you die). At least to this lay reader, this difference between reality and fiction feels like a simple difference between two types of virus. To my (again, layperson’s) knowledge, a virus could act as quickly at this one does; we just didn’t happen to get one of those. There would be pros and cons.

Captain Trip’s was also manufactured in a lab as a form of biological warfare which then accidentally escaped. This is not the case with Covid.

Because of the massive death rate of Captain Trip’s, the post-pandemic world looks very different than the one we will be living in the real world. Roughly, let’s flip the numbers of living and dead: the United States in The Stand is populated by some tens of thousands of people. That means their challenges in rebuilding, and in thinking about designing a new world, are very different from the ones we’ll face. Well, I’m trying to write a book review and not entirely a social commentary; but let me say briefly, I think the Covid crisis is highlighting the inequities and injustices we’ve always lived under, and we have a rather special opportunity to do something to fix our systems, with this new (to many of us) vision we’ve been granted. The survivors in this novel, on the other hand, have been left with the “toys” (Glen Bateman’s term) of a previous world, but limited knowledge of how to use them, and the power (etc.) has been turned off. Ideally, they’ll choose what to pick back up (book learnin’, heat in the winter, animal husbandry) and what to leave lying (nuclear weapons). But Glen Bateman is not terribly optimistic. (I must confess, neither am I.)

On to the book review proper. This remains a thoroughly compelling, expertly paced, engrossing story. Characters are delightfully wrought, various and complicated. The sympathy drawn out of us for the Harold Lauders of the world is disturbing as hell; he’s a villain but he’s very human. (The Walkin’ Dude is just evil, and not human.) While there are “types” in Glen Bateman, Larry Underwood, and Stu Redman, they’re convincing human beings at the same time that they’re types. Let’s face it, there are types in the real world, too; that’s where they come from. The momentum with which this plot moves could perhaps not be better executed; Stephen King is a master, and as I said above, I can easily take in 300+ pages in a single sitting (and stay up until 3am, I’m sorry to say), because it’s just all so juicy and absorbing.

That said, I did have a few concerns on this reread that I didn’t have just three years ago. Partly I suspect this is because in reading a print copy, I was able to pay closer attention to certain details. The audio experience I had in 2017 was entertaining, and I certainly followed the story and many of its finer points, but I do feel like I can watch a story more closely when I read it. I can speed up and slow down at my own pace, reread a line if necessary. And I think seeing a word printed imprints it on my mind more thoroughly than a word heard. I don’t know if that’s because I have a certain kind of brain or if it’s relatively universal.

On the other hand, I also think I’ve become more attuned to certain issues and injustices in the world in the last few years. So, on this go-round I noticed a problem in particular with race and ethnicity. King’s characters are almost all white, which doesn’t seem statistically plausible in this country, although I’ll allow that in 1978 (when this novel was originally published) the country probably looked a lot whiter than it looks now – it probably was a little whiter, but it also would have looked a lot whiter, in terms of where society (and therefore Stephen King) directed its gaze. And the few characters of color? Well, we have the “magical Negro” trope, which Stephen King gravitates toward in many of his works. (There’s a decent write-up of the concept in King’s work available here thanks to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.) “Although from a certain perspective the character may seem to be showing blacks in a positive light, the character is still ultimately subordinate to whites. He or she is also regarded as an exception” (source). Mother Abigail is delightful, and she does get her own backstory, but her function in terms of plot seems to fit squarely into “magical Negro” territory. It could be said she also serves as a token. Headline: Black woman character as hero! There are very few other non-white characters, and they’re all problematic: the abominable Rat Man, the heroin addict in the “second epidemic” section, the “black junta” early in the pandemic (they wear loincloths. This is disgusting, SK). But the ending really got me, and take note, writers of all stripes: the end of your book is the taste that is left in your reader’s mouth. At the end of The Stand we get the evil force sometimes known as Randall Flagg reawakening in an unknown place where he is surrounded by brown-skinned men with spears who don’t speak English but worship him. Not cool.

King’s women are sort of up-and-down with me; I rather love Frannie Goldsmith, the pregnant college student who is part scatter-brained and part moral compass, but I’m also getting weary of the pert young thing who lusts after the middle-aged man. And Tom Cullen, the mentally challenged man with occasional rare wisdom who is able to tune into a higher frequency than his peers-of-normal-intelligence – well, he feels a little like the mentally challenged version of the “magical Negro.”

These concerns dismayed me on my second reading, and while I want to be clear that I really enjoyed rereading this book and still find it to be a masterpiece, it is a flawed masterpiece. And I wonder what King would see fit to correct, if he were to edit this novel for a reprint in 2020. He’s still problematic now, as we know, but I think we should ask of our heroes (literary and otherwise) not that they be perfect, but that they be always learning, progressing, and always willing to learn. I’m certainly still learning: for example, it took a second reading for me to track some of the concerning elements of this book.

I still recommend The Stand. In some aspects it nears perfection. In others, cause for concern and fodder for discussion.

I am letting my original rating stand (ha), because I have new observations in both the positive and the negative columns.


Rating: 8 chocolate Payday bars.

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