The Stand
The Complete and Uncut Edition
by Stephen King

Review by
Ron Grube

Doubleday: New York
1978 (abridged); 823 pages

1990 (complete); 1153 pages April 2005

My favorite novel

It's horror. It's science fiction. It's a soap opera. No, it's The Stand by Stephen King, "Big Steve" to his fans. Starting as an obscure and near-broke English teacher, he has written short stories, novels, books about writing, screenplays, teleplays — no category seems to define or defy him. This is almost certainly my favorite novel of all time, and I am a voracious reader with numerous interests and admiration for many authors. Stephen King writes like no other. He is his own category, at least in most of his books. Critics have called him a "schlockmeister", something he sort of 'fesses up to. It isn't Literature, in the sense of some famous names in the past. What it is, is stories about people, ordinary people, in extraordinary circumstances. In The Stand the circumstance is the possible end of the world, certainly the end of humanity in its present form. Good vs. Evil, both very real, involving the guy from down the street, you, maybe your family and friends, and what happens when the end of the world seems to be imminent. King takes people from all over the country and shows what might happen under intolerable circumstances. know these people. So do you. I'd recognize 'em on the street.

If any single book was responsible for changing my reading habits, from about 95% science fiction to more of a mainstream mix, this is the book. Although The Stand has an SF quality to it, at the time my tastes ran to much more "pure SF" books (Heinlein, Anderson, Clarke, etc., so to my way of thinking King was a mainstream author (!). I was visiting my brother and his wife in San Diego around 1979. They were big book club members (SF, Doubleday, and the like) and she's reading this big thick book and chuckling to herself. When I said, "What's so funny?", the reply tickled me so much I had to read the book. (Incidentally, my late brother John, even more of a purist than I was, never read it).

We've all heard one-can-short-of-a-sixpack and other expressions for someone not quite right in the head. The description of Tom Cullen, a retarded but important character in The Stand:

He would be like a man in a darkened unfamiliar room who holds the plug of a lampcord in one hand and who goes crawling around on the floor, bumping into things and feeling with his free hand for the electrical socket. And if he found it — he didn't always — there would be a burst of illumination and he would see the room (or the idea) plain.


... when he got very close, smiling and talking away a mile a minute, you realized that a goodly chunk of Tom Cullen's attic insulation was missing.

Is this a ridiculous reason for reading something? Maybe so, but a few further quotes from the book led me to believe that this was an author who had a real feel for people, and I needed more input. One thing led to another, and I ended up reading every book King had published to that point. All different, but all real people, even vampires and wild talents like Carrie. (Just an aside: I think a young Sissy Spacek did an outstanding job portraying the latter in the movie Carrie.)

Two versions of The Stand

There are now, of course, two versions of The Stand. The newer complete and uncut edition inserted 318 more pages originally cut from the book. King rather unhappily did the cutting himself, feeling that he could do a better job than someone in the editorial department. To reconstruct the book was a major effort on King's part, a response to tremendous reader interest. No new characters are added, but the tales of the existing characters are expanded, one of them (The Kid) from just a few background lines to someone who genuinely added to the story. King states in the preface to the expanded book:

There is only one place ... that seems noticeably scarred in the original version.

If all of the story is there, one might ask, then why bother? Isn't it an indulgence after all? It better not be; if it is, then I have spent a good portion of my life wasting my time. As it happens, I think that in really good stories, the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts.

I can't stress this recommendation enough: Even if someone flat-out gives you a copy of the original, get the expanded edition and read that. It's worth the effort and time. No, it isn't a new story; it's a better story. I must say, the original was great; I read it many times over. The expanded edition better acquaints you with the characters and fills in information only hinted at in the original.

Plague's arrival and aftermath

Okay, what about the story, you ask? The basic premise of The Stand is that a very contagious, high-fatality disease is suddenly loosed on the world. Just a rather unlikely set of circumstances allows the escape of this disease from the military establishment where it was developed to a small Texas town named Arnette and the first few people involved. From here it shows the spread of the disease, which incidentally is very nearly perfect — that is, near 100% communicable with minimal or airborne contact, and near 100% fatal! Needless to say, the survivors are very few and scattered all over the country. Among these are a very old black woman out in Nebraska farm country, and the Dark Man, whose name currently appears to be Randall Flagg, just sort of appearing in southern Idaho, heading for the tiny community of Mountain City, Nevada. These two become the magnets, the gathering points, for the remaining survivors, and form the basis for The Stand — Good vs. Evil. The other characters have dreams about one or both.

The shocked and struggling survivors of the plague make their way to one or the other, either the old woman or the Dark Man, and the book becomes many individual stories leading up to the inevitable confrontation. Much emphasis is placed on the high fatality percentage of the plague, but people do appear and gather to their particular "magnet", a trickle at first, but more and more coming out of hiding as The Dark Man takes up residence in Las Vegas, and Mother Abigail, the old black woman, attracts her followers to Boulder, Colorado. The individual adventures of a small but growing cast of main characters, good and bad alike, as they make their way through the skeleton of a country make up the bulk of the book. King neglects nothing that I can see in telling the tale, and has no problem with killing off various Good Guys if he feels it's right for the story. It's my impression he wants to emphasize that the plague alone is not responsible for all the deaths, so Good and Bad alike have their casualties along the way. What happens when doctors, for instance, are essentially unavailable? Pretty hard to set your own broken bones, or perform an emergency appendectomy. Don't forget the animals, either. Dogs have fatalities like humans, as do horses and other domesticated animals. Wolves, however, thrive — they belong to the Dark Man. What about restoring power and heat? Taking care of millions of dead bodies? How about the people responsible for this virus in the first place?

Survivors in a transformed world

Main characters include Stu Bateman, from Arnette, in the thick of things from the beginning; Fran Goldsmith, from Maine, along with a neighbor, Harold Lauder; Nick Andros, a young deaf-mute drifter; Tom Cullen, big, strong, but "a little short on attic insulation"; Larry Underwood, a singer-songwriter; and Glen Bateman, a sociology professor, heading for Boulder and Mother Abigail. Among the "bad guys" are Trashcan Man, a misfit who has had a few too many shock treatments and loves to set fires; The Kid, a crazed, drunken hot-rodder almost completely missing from the downsized version of the book; and Lloyd Henried, a low-IQ minor hood, rescued by Flagg from starvation in a jail cell. Certainly there are many more; however, these people, to me, seem to form the main backdrop. The book's overall chronology is from outbreak to disease to shock to gathering of Good and Evil and a final, fantastic confrontation. Interwoven with that are the individual stories, then those of progressively larger groups as people come together.

Not all characters are pure good or pure evil at heart, as one might expect. The internal, individual battles of many characters form a large part of The Stand. Even Flagg and Mother Abigail have their moments of doubting, although they seem necessary as symbols and gathering points before the confrontation. Some of my favorite SF writers would, I'm sure, have problems with the indecisiveness of people on both sides. Would Heinlein, or Campbell, or for that matter "Victor Appleton" of Tom Swift fame, put up with all this vacillation? I do think, given the scenario which forms The Stand, most people would tend to feel their way along nervously, rather than be really secure in their beliefs, at least for a while. Feels right, anyway. Stephen King is a master of character development. No matter how fantastic the story may seem, these people are real. This is a very long book, but near-impossible to put down, once started. I kept wanting to see how my friends were going to do in "just a few more pages".

The Dark Man and Mother Abigail are more symbols than active characters, and though they do take active parts in The Stand, the emphasis seems more in polarizing people, to give them something, however vague, to help provide nuclei drawing the groups together. Not sure if you're a Good Guy or Bad? Well, whose actions and/or citizens do you most approve of? Okay, that's where you belong. Note that small numbers are dissatisfied and want to switch. Leaving Vegas? Tough if Flagg's crew gets you, he likes final solutions like crucifixion on telephone poles. Leaving Boulder? Mother's people just might jail you if they think you'd supply useful info to the Adversary, but in many ways their attitude is "good riddance".

A final quote from Stephen King, in the introduction to the revised edition:

Finally, I write for only two reasons: to please myself and to please others. In returning to this long tale of dark Christianity, I hope I have done both.

Thanks, Big Steve, for acquainting me with a lot of new friends.


© 2005 Ron Grube

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