Revisiting The Stand (1978) by Richard Chizmar
THAT WAS THEN…
THE STAND was originally published in 1978, but I didn’t get around to reading it until a decade later — the very end of 1988/beginning of ’89. Christmas vacation of my final year of college to be exact. I was living in an apartment near the University of Maryland at the time, but had traveled home to Edgewood to stay with my parents for the nearly month long holiday break.
I had just finished with exams and the premiere issue of CEMETERY DANCE had just been published weeks before, so I spent my time at home recharging my brain and devouring a pile of magazine submissions…and reading THE STAND every night before I fell asleep.
Why, all these years later, do I so clearly remember reading it during that time period?
One simple image, which I will get to in a moment.
First, my thoughts on THE STAND upon that initial reading:
I loved it, but it was more than that: it almost felt like I was being hypnotized by the story — this was becoming a familiar experience when reading a SK book — as it took over my late nights and, on more nights than I care to remember, my dreams.
I was already a sucker for apocalyptic stories (think books like I AM LEGEND and films like PLANET OF THE APES), and THE STAND was the Granddaddy of them all — featuring dozens of fascinating characters and locales, villains unlike any villains I had ever seen before, and the ultimate showdown between good and evil.
For almost three weeks, I was lost in Stephen King’s version of a post-Captain Tripps world, and I loved every minute of it.
So, yes, while it’s fair to say that I absolutely adored THE STAND, I also have to admit to a simple truth — at the time, I clearly remember not liking THE STAND quite as much as I had liked ‘SALEM’S LOT. Not a big deal, of course — to each their own — but it was still an opinion that led to quite a few in-depth discussions with my best friend and one of my older sisters. They both felt that the sheer scope and storytelling wonder of THE STAND easily trumped the small town horrors of the LOT. I argued that each book was a very different creature, with very different goals, and each were classics in their own right. Ultimately, it was an argument without a resolution, and an early lesson to all of us that King’s Constant Readers would almost always hold differing opinions regarding their favorites (although it’s interesting to note that both THE STAND and ‘SALEM’S LOT are rarely left off of any Constant Reader’s Top 10 lists).
Okay, what else do I recall about that initial reading?
I remember that it made me think a lot about God and faith and good versus evil. More than any other piece of “entertainment” had done.
I remember being wary of the Baltimore Tunnel for months after finishing the book.
And having nightmares not only about Randall Flagg, but of the Trashcan Man. In fact, I was sure he was following me around campus that winter.
I also remember trying to write my own stories with as much emotional breadth as THE STAND…and failing. And coming to terms with the fact that I just wasn’t ready.
I remember liking the climatic scene in Las Vegas just fine, despite a scattering of complaints I had heard about it.
And I remember falling in love with Frannie (didn’t everyone?) and hating and feeling sorry for Harold all at the same time (and realizing that I knew quite a few “Harold”s myself) and wishing Glen Bateman was my long lost Uncle because he was so cool and laughing at the mess of a man that was Larry Underwood (and torturing my friends by singing an awful, off-key version of “Baby, can you dig your man? He’s a righteous man.”) and torturing my friends even more by walking around repeating “M-O-O-N spells moon” and thinking that Stu Redman kept reminding me of someone, but I couldn’t quite place it…and that’s where that single image I mentioned earlier comes into play.
Stu Redman was the everyman of THE STAND. Solid. Dependable. Hardworking. Honest. Strong. And quietly confident. He wasn’t a super hero; he was real.
I’d like to say he reminded me of myself, but that wouldn’t be true. I was just out of my teens, just learning what it meant to work hard and sacrifice. I was also still young enough to think that I knew almost everything, and I wasn’t so quiet about that.
But the more time I spent with Stu, the more I sensed I already knew this guy. I just couldn’t figure out from where.
And then one early morning I found out.
I had read THE STAND until late the previous night. It was well after midnight when I finally turned off the lights. And, as was often the case in those younger days, I had consumed quite a bit of junk food in the process — in this particular instance, a double Big Gulp Coke from 7-11, two chili dogs, and a big bag of barbeque potato chips. Yes, I remember the menu, just like I remember the wobbly tv table (do they even sell those things anymore?) that stood by my bedside holding the feast and the old ten inch black-and-white television that perched on my dresser, picture on to keep me company, sound off.
Anyway, the chili dogs didn’t bother me a bit (I slept like a baby with a whole lot worse than a couple of chili dogs in my tummy back in those days), but the jumbo Coke did me in, and I remember waking up that morning around 5am. I tiptoed out of my bedroom and across the hall to the upstairs bathroom and took care of business in the dark, and on my way back to bed, I noticed a light on downstairs in the kitchen.
I stopped and stared at my father.
He was sitting alone at the little kitchen table. Drinking coffee and reading the early newspaper. He took a sip and turned the page.
I stood there and watched him.
A moment later, the microwave dinged (or was it a toaster oven back in 1989?), and he took out what looked like a Danish pastry. He took a bite and another sip of coffee. Sighed tiredly and turned another page.
And I saw it then: he was my Stu Redman.
Sitting right there in my kitchen.
Strong. Quiet. Dependable. No, not a super hero, but a hero nonetheless. My hero.
I went back to bed and thought a lot about my father sitting there in his dark blue work uniform (he was an aircraft mechanic and worked at the airfield on our local Army base). He worked the early shift and rarely missed a day, and when he did, it was usually because one of his knucklehead kids had broken their hand or foot or the great big picture window at the front of our house (ahem).
He worked hard, day in and day out, without complaint. He took pride in his work. He took pride in doing the right things.
I fell back to sleep that early winter morning not thinking about Stu Redman…but of my father; thinking that if I worked really really hard and lived the best life I could, maybe I could grow up to be half the man my father was.
It was a nice way to fall asleep.
* * *
THIS IS NOW…
Okay, let’s get this out of the way right up front: yes, I realize that it took me almost two months to finish my reread of THE STAND!
I apologize for that, and I appreciate the enthusiasm — and impatience — behind many of the emails I received. It’s nice to be missed!
All I can do is offer the following couple of explanations: 1) it’s a particularly busy time of year at the CD offices; and 2) I simply didn’t want to finish THE STAND. For the last half of the novel, I actually rationed my page count each day. That’s how much I was enjoying it.
I realize it’s cliche as hell to say this, but I can’t help it: rereading THE STAND felt like sitting down and revisiting old friends — Stu and Frannie and Nick and Mother Abigail and all of the others; even the bad guys! — and once I got nice and comfortable, I didn’t want to get up and leave.
So that’s what I did; I put my feet up and settled in for a nice, long visit. Too long, if I listen to all those emails I received. I’ll try not to do it again, folks, but I make no promises.
Now let’s dive into a handful of observations based on my reread:
Firstly, and most surprisingly, THE STAND wasn’t quite as scary as I remembered it to be. Don’t take that as an insult or complaint — because it’s clearly not. I still freaked out bigtime about the Lincoln Tunnel and many of the dream sequences. I still found myself both frightened and disgusted by Flagg and Trashcan Man and the Rat Man. I still had a bad dream…or two.
But, as a more mature reader, I found my terror someplace else in THE STAND this time around. You see, I felt so damn close to the characters that I found myself actually wishing and hoping that bad things would stay away from them, even while I knew — of course, I knew! — what their destinies had in store for them.
But it didn’t matter — somehow, after all these years, the fear of the inevitable overpowered the fear of corpse-ridden tunnels and dark magicians dressed in bluejeans and cowboy boots.
The Good Guys felt like family, and I mourned them as such.
When Frannie’s father died, I felt it deep in my soul.
The same goes for Larry’s mother.
When Mother Abigail took off on God’s orders from the safety of Boulder, I felt angry and prayed for her safe return — even though I knew what was coming.
When Nick and Mother Abigail both died within the space of several pages, my heart ached and I felt their loss to the book’s end.
And when Larry and Glen and Ralph all died in Las Vegas, I swear to you I turned back and reread the pages, sure that I had missed something, some loop hole in the plot that would allow them to make a last minute surprise appearance back in Boulder — ta daaaa, we’re here and we’re alive! Tricked you!
But, of course, that never happened.
Just like so often in real life.
And perhaps that is what Stephen King does best of all: he tells us the truth as he sees it. Sometimes, stealing his phrase, it’s the truth inside the lie. Sometimes it’s happy and nostalgic and full of sunshine. More times than not, it’s harsh and dark and found deep within the shadows.
What I also discovered during my reread is that THE STAND contains a whole lot of all of the above.
Sure, there are plenty of scares sprinkled throughout, but there are also a couple hundred pages after the main group arrives in Boulder where nothing terribly dark or horrific takes place (other than inside Harold’s mind and faraway in Vegas). Our main characters are busy setting up new homes, establishing the Committee, working at the Power Plant, and burying the dead. They are also busy falling in love, dreaming again, and worrying about what Flagg is planning in Vegas. In other words, they are busy living again.
This long section has become my favorite part of THE STAND, and if the characters’ cross-country journey to Boulder stands as the heart of the novel, then this section must be its soul.
A few more quick points and I’m outta here…
The “hand of God” ending still works for me. I don’t think Steve copped out or got lazy or couldn’t come up with a better ending (common complaints I have read over the years). I simply think the ending fits the story and what came before it.
Would Steve write the same ending today? Probably not. He’s lived a lot of years since the time he originally wrote THE STAND. But then again I’m guessing a big chunk of the rest of the story would be very different, too. People change. Even writers.
There is one thing I am certain would remain the same, though; no matter when Steve first put pen to paper on THE STAND — and that’s Randall Flagg, also known as The Dark Man.
I was fortunate enough last year to publish a short illustrated book containing Stephen King’s poem “The Dark Man,” originally published in 1969 while he was still in college. This rare poem marks the first ever appearance of King’s most famous villain, and I can’t even begin to tell you how much of an honor it was to be involved.
Every time I came upon the words “The Dark Man” during my reread, I thought to myself: dreams do come true. They really do.
Oh, and one last thing: after all these years, Stu Redman still reminds me of my father.
* * *
SEE YOU AT THE MOVIES…
If you had told me back in 1988 that there would be a film version of THE STAND, I would’ve come back with: Nope. Not possible. Not gonna happen.
Remember how I told you I thought I knew everything back then?
Yeah, not so much.
Fortunately for all of us, in May 1994, Stephen King and Mick Garris teamed up to take on the challenge and brought Stu, Frannie, Flagg and the rest of the gang to life in a prime time, four-part television mini-series. King penned a fantastic adaptation of the novel (managing the impossible by including almost all of the good stuff) and Garris did a tremendous job behind the camera. The casting was better than anyone had a right to expect — with wonderful performances by Gary Sinise, Rob Lowe, Ruby Dee, Molly Ringwald, Jamey Sheridan, Ossie Davis, Miguel Ferrer, Laura San Giacomo, Bill Fagerbakke, Corin Nemec, Ray Walston, Matt Frewer, Adam Storke and a cool little cameo by Stephen King himself.
THE STAND mini-series was an unqualified success, watched by a record number of viewers and winning a handful of major awards. And for me, it accomplished the impossible — it brought the heart and soul of Steve’s amazing novel to my television screen.
* * *
Now, more than 20 years later, Flagg and company are headed back in front of the cameras — this time for the big screen and not one, but two features films!
My friend and longtime CEMETERY DANCE reader Josh Boone (THE FAULT IN OUR STARS) is the man in charge, and I’ve learned my lesson this time around — I’m not only hoping for a great result, I’m expecting it.
Why so confident this time around?
Well, I could tell you that Josh just turned in his script and it’s rumored (ahem) to be excellent.
Or I could tell you that the casting for this feature film version will be surprising and stellar (and no I’m not giving you any hints).
Or I could talk about the hefty budget and how it should give this version a chance to be everything the book was.
Or, most importantly to me, I could tell you that Josh is a lifelong Stephen King fan who is determined to do the book — and author — justice.
* * *
Larry Underwood. A corpse-infested, pitch black Lincoln Tunnel. Flicking his Bic lighter on and off in the darkness. The terror is sustained for an amazing number of pages in this scene, but this particular sequence rated a solid 10 on the squirm scale for me:
Behind him, in the darkness, something moved.
Larry wheeled around, instantly engulfed with fear at that single gritting sound…a footstep.
“Who’s there?” he shouted, unslinging his rifle.
No answer but the echo. When it faded he heard — or thought he did — the quiet sound of breathing. He stood bug-eyed in the dark, the hairs along the nape of his neck turning into hackles. He held his breath. There was no sound. He was beginning to dismiss it as imagination when the sound came again…a sliding, quiet footstep.
He fumbled madly for his lighter. The thought that it would make him a target never occurred to him. As he pulled it from his pocket the striker wheel caught on his pants momentarily and the lighter tumbled from his hand. He heard a clink as it struck the railing, and then there was a soft bonk as it struck the hood or trunk of a car below.
The sliding footstep came again, a little closer now, impossible to tell how close. Someone coming to kill him and his terror-locked mind gave him a picture of the soldier with the switchblade in his neck, moving slowly toward him the in dark–
That soft, gritting step again.
Stu and Fran sitting on Mother Abigail’s front porch. Watching baby Peter play in the dirt. Talking about the rest of their journey to Maine. Talking about their future. Talking about the world’s future.
“Do you think…do you think people ever learn anything?”
She opened her mouth to speak, hesitated, fell silent. The kerosene lamp flickered. Her eyes seemed very blue.
“I don’t know,” she said at last.
There are dozens of classic lines in THE STAND. Frightening descriptions that rival King’s very best. Inspiring, uplifting moments in time that readers will never forget. But, for me, this simple piece of throwaway dialogue from Mother Abigail takes the cake (and I emailed Steve the moment I read it to tell him exactly that!):
“The only thing dumber than a broody hen was a New York Democrat.”
I know, I know, a strange choice. But it made me laugh bigtime, and I’ll always remember it.
SCENE THAT STILL MAKES ME CRINGE…
The Lincoln Tunnel comes a close second, but this one belongs to Trashcan Man:
It was Donald Merwin Elbert, now known as the Trashcan Man, now and forever, world without end, hallelujah, amen.
He was behind the wheel of a long, dirty electric cart. The cart’s heavy-duty bank of batteries was nearly drained dry. The cart was humming and buzzing and lurching. Trashcan Man bobbed back and forth on the open seat like a mad marionette.
He was in the last stages of radiation sickness. His hair was gone. His arms, poking out of the tatters of his shirt, were covered with open running sores. His face was a cratered red soup from which one desert-faded blue eye peered with a terrible, pitiful intelligence. His teeth were gone. His nails were gone. His eyelids were frayed flaps.
He looked like a man who had driven his electric cart out of the dark and burning subterranean mouth of hell itself.
Flagg watched him come, frozen. His smile was gone. His high, rich color was gone. His face was suddenly a window made of pale clear glass.
Trashcan Man’s voice bubbled ecstatically up from his thin chest: “I brought it…I brought you the fire…please…I’m sorry…”
CHARACTER I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO…
Flip a coin between Stu Redman and Frannie Goldsmith — and, as luck would have it, I have it on good authority that one day we will all learn more about Stu and Fran’s life in Maine.
And that’s all I’m gonna say about that.
START DATE – January 10, 2015
FINISH DATE – March 8, 2015