The Stand

first edition cover of Stephen King's "The Stand"

The Vitals

  • Published: 1978
  • Edition Read: 2012, Anchor paperback
  • Pages: 1,153
  • Rating (out of 5): 5

The Context

The writing and publishing history of The Stand is nearly as epic as the famous story itself. There are a couple threads of King’s thinking that came together to form the heart of the story.

The real genesis was King’s desire to write an epic story in the tradition of Lord of the Rings, but set in modern America. He’d been trying for years, over a decade, in fact, and just hadn’t landed on the right bones—the mechanism to center the story and characters around.

He found that mechanism in the story the 1968 “Dugway sheep incident” in Utah. The Dugway Proving Ground is a military installation that specializes in the testing and study of biological and chemical weapons. Seems like a real happy pappy place, eh? In 1968, one particular accident—it wasn’t the first nor the last—led to the deaths of over 6,000 sheep in the area. Not only were local farmers royally pissed, but the general public started asking serious questions about what was going on at Dugway. (Of course, answers, if they can be called that, are still few and very far between.)

King saw images of the sheep on the TV and knew he had it. A government-created plague would escape containment, kill off 99% of the population, and set up a showdown between the forces of good and the forces of evil.

So Stephen King did what he does best: he wrote, and wrote, and wrote . . . over 1,000 pages worth of story.

When he presented that story, called The Stand, to his publisher, there was just one problem: it was too long. One version of the story says that the printing machines could only handle an 800-page manuscript; another version says that it was more of pricing problem and that readers wouldn’t pay the high price necessitated by a 1,200-page book.

Either way, the original version of The Stand, published in 1978, was about 800 pages. King himself bitterly cut those 400 pages rather than handing the task to an editorial team.

In 1990, King was given the chance to publish the entire, unedited manuscript, with a preface and a handful of black and white illustrations added in, to boot. Today, any copy you’ll find in a bookstore has those 150,000 originally excised words reinstated. (Unless, perhaps, you’re at a used and rare books emporium.)

Even 30+ years later, it remains among his best-selling books and is always listed as a fan favorite.

King himself had this to say about the legacy of The Stand:

“Although it has never been my favorite novel, it is the one people who like my books seem to like the most.”

from King’s preface to The Stand

The Story

The Stand is a classic story of good versus evil on the most epic terms, using a pandemic as the foundation for that story. A government-created super flu, nicknamed Captain Trips, has accidentally escaped the lab. It spreads incredibly quickly and easily, eventually killing over 99% of the population. The reader follows its spread from East Texas, to Arkansas, to New York, and Maine, meeting our handful of main characters along the way.

Book One, about 400 pages long, is about the apocalypse itself. From ground zero to millions dead. How do people respond? How does the government respond? What about the media? How does the collapse of society actually happen? This chunk of text is among the most readable and powerful of all of King’s writing. The chapters are short—quickly zooming in and out on characters as they experience the pandemic—and though the cast is large, it’s not overwhelming.

Book Two is 500+ pages and takes a radically different approach, diving deeply into the characters and their backstories with long, ~50-page chapters. The characters are trying to figure out how to live in this new world. Eventually, groups of them meet up and start having dreams . . . about the old woman in Nebraska and about the Dark Man.

Ultimately, two main groups coalesce, one in Boulder and one in Las Vegas. (Can you guess which side is the bad one? Ha!) And this is where the genre moves from post-apocalyptic fiction to being more in the realm of fantasy and religious fiction. King himself calls The Stand “a long tale of dark Christianity.”

Here, in the middle of the book, is where it feels a little bloated. The chapters get a little long and King includes just a few too many details.

The final ~200 pages comprise Book Three and the conclusion of the story. I binged the finale and had a hard time putting it down. King’s endings always inspire a lot of debate, but I tend to enjoy them, including this one.

For being one of the longest books you’ll ever come across, The Stand is incredibly readable and very rarely boring. The characters are easy to root for, the story is gripping (especially in the midst of a pandemic!) and surprisingly believable, and the world-building is nearly incomparable.

All around, The Stand is not only a great book, but a dynamic, memorable reading experience too. It’ll stay with you for a looong time coming.

What Is It Really About?

This is the big question that I like to ask after every book I read. What is this story really about? What’s the defining theme? For every Stephen King book, this is the section where I’ll get into the one or two themes that stood out the most. It’s not exhaustive, but very much about how I personally encountered the story.

Few themes are as easy to decipher as the ultimate choice of good vs. evil found in The Stand. Though we can see critiques of modernism and military bureaucracy, this book is really about the choices we make when the going gets really tough. Will we choose love and sacrifice? Or power and punishment? Will we lean into community or lean into chaos?

You have a choice. In every scenario and every decision, you can choose the good path—love, community, sacrifice. The end result will always be worth it.

Overall

The Stand is not perfect, that’s for sure. The middle is a little bloated and the final showdown a bit abrupt, and yet I loved nearly every page of this book. That’s rare. 5 stars for me and certainly among King’s top five.

6 responses to “The Stand”

  1. I love the complexity of the characters. Larry Underwood, a shallow, self-serving user becomes one of the heroes. Describing The Stand as a dark tale of Christianity perfectly sums up why I love this book.

  2. This is my dad’s favorite Stephen King book, but I’ve always been intimidated by its length. The only part of it he doesn’t like is the abrupt ending. (I’ve read ‘Carrie,’ ‘Pet Semetary,’ ‘Elevation,’ and On Writing,’ and Stephen King’s writing style is kind of hit or miss for me.)

    • Yeah the ending is definitely a bit abrupt, which is something King tends to do now and then. He builds and builds SO well and can’t seem to stick the landing all that well. I think Elevation is actually among King’s worst, but I loved Carrie and On Writing!

  3. I just finished reading The Stand last month and loved it! I set a goal a few months back to throw a few pop-culture classics in with my never ending TBR pile. So far I have gotten through King’s masterpiece here, as well as Slaughterhouse Five and The Great Gatsby in the past few weeks. So happening upon your blog (thanks to the most recent WordPress newsletter in my inbox) was refreshing. I really enjoyed sifting through your mission of reading King’s works chronologically and devoured this post. I made the mistake of watching the newest screen adaptation which turned me off of the richness found in The Stand’s sprawling cast of characters, but your post here brought me back to the fondness I felt when I finished the whole epic story. I agree with your assessment, that while it’s not perfect, it did keep me under its spell for its entirety and it just feels like it will stick with me permanently.

    • Glad you enjoyed this one as much as I did! The real power of it is just sucking you into the story — the character and world-building is just fantastic.

      I just finished The Great Gatsby too! So so so good.

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