Good vs. Evil by Bev Vincent
After Stephen King finished The Shining, he wrote the novella “Apt Pupil” before going back to work on his Patty Hearst novel, The House on Value Street. After six weeks, he once again felt the book wasn’t coming together for him.
A few incidents in the news caught his attention. The first was an accident in Utah where canisters of a deadly chemical fell from a truck, split open, and killed some sheep. If the wind had been blowing in a different direction, many people might have died. He still had the Symbionese Liberation Army on his mind, so he wondered what would happen if a disease got loose and destroyed most of the world’s population—as in the George R. Stewart novel Earth Abides, which he had read in high school, and M. P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud—but members of the SLA were immune for some reason. Then he read about the first-ever outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease at the American Legion Convention in Philadelphia in 1976. When he heard a radio preacher utter the phrase “once in every generation the plague will fall among them,” he liked it enough to write it down and post it on his desk.
He had written about the survivors of a viral epidemic before, in the short story “Night Surf,” which was first published in Ubris in 1969 and reworked for subsequent publication in Cavalier in 1974. Though that virus was called A6, the survivors referred to it as Captain Trips. At that earlier time, he wanted to write more about the world after the apocalypse, but he didn’t feel ready to tackle such an enormous project.
He was also inspired to try to write an epic fantasy on the scale of The Lord of the Rings, but with a familiar setting. The problem with so much of high fantasy, he felt, was that readers had to learn a new language and geography to enjoy those books, whereas his would be set in contemporary America.
Also percolating in the back of his mind was a character who had been haunting him for years. In 1969, in the Ford Room on the third floor of the Memorial Union at the University of Maine, he wrote a poem called “The Dark Man” on the back of a place mat (or on a napkin) while recovering from a massive hangover. It was about a man who wanders the country like a vagabond, riding the rails, observing everything. The poem turns dark when the narrator confesses to rape and murder. A picture of SLA member Donald Defreeze in which his features were shadowed by a large hat triggered memories of that poem. This inspired him to create Randall Flagg, an amalgamation of a number of sociopaths, including Charles Manson, Charles Whitman and Charlie Starkweather, combined with everything else he knew of from the previous twenty years that was really bad.
Eventually he gave up on Patty Hearst and spent the next few years destroying America. He started The Stand from Franny Goldsmith’s perspective as she gathers followers on a trek across the ravaged landscape of the former America, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. This approach proved cumbersome, however, so King instead opted to write the novel from multiple viewpoints.
While he experienced a degree of pleasure in coming up with a radical solution to the energy crisis, the cold war and the planet’s environmental problems all at once, the book was hard work. At times he actively hated it, describing it to friends as his own little Vietnam because he couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. He might have given up on it if he’d had any other ideas but he eventually reached the point where he had invested so much time in The Stand that he couldn’t afford to abandon it, even after he encountered another novel that seemed to tell much the same story, Survivors by Terry Nation.
During one of the long walks that he often took to work out plot and character issues, he identified the book’s biggest structural problem. He might have thinned out the world’s population, but the story had accumulated too many characters again. Some of them had to go. A strategically placed bomb solved that issue, and he was reinvigorated to finish the novel a couple of months later.
The first draft manuscript was nearly 1400 pages. He reduced it upon revision but, according to editor Bill Thompson, “Doubleday felt they couldn’t bind the book at the prices they were used to because it was just too big. And if they did spend the extra money to bind it properly, they would have to charge $13.95 or $15.95. They didn’t believe the market would support that kind of price.” Either King could cut 400 more pages himself, or the editorial staff would do it for him. He didn’t like removing material for purely economic reasons, but he complied.
The cover art is his favorite among the Doubleday books—an illustration inspired by Goya’s painting, “The Battle of Good and Evil.” He was less impressed by the book’s construction, calling it a “little, tiny squatty thing that looks much bigger than it is,” and suggesting that the Doubleday books in general looked as though they were built to fall apart.
Given his issues with editorial matters and his thoughts about the physical books themselves, it should come as no surprise that he was ready to make a change.