Monday, March 23, 2020

Many words about "The Stand" strung together

"No, coronavirus is NOT like THE STAND.
It’s not anywhere near as serious. It’s eminently survivable. Keep calm and take all reasonable precautions."

— Stephen King, author of The Stand, 15 days ago, on Twitter.

I've been thinking about The Stand quite a bit lately, and I suspect I'm not the only member of Generation X to be doing so. For some of us who grew up reading Stephen King, the surreal unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic feels a bit too much like a book we've read — a story that gets worse with each chapter.

Yes, I've been thinking about The Stand quite a bit lately, but I haven't really been able to shape a coherent blog post about it. I'm one of those writers who needs to know the first sentences and the basic direction of longer writing pieces before being able to type a single thing. So that leads to a lot of staring at the blinking cursor on the screen.

But nothing coherent emerged and, in this moment, "nothing" doesn't seem to be a viable option. So I'm going to wing it a bit, freestyle this post. Maybe that's appropriate because, weaving back to Stephen King, my bedtime reading the past week hasn't been The Stand, but Danse Macabre, King's 1981 history of horror. And that book is as freestyle as it gets. It's King at his peak of just letting everything he thinks about everything tumble out of his mind and onto the typewriter (or perhaps keyboard by that point). It's like hanging out with that guy who knows every bit of book or movie trivia, and has an opinion on it all, to boot. You could listen to that guy talk for hours because, damn, how does remember all that stuff? As Becky wrote in a review of Danse Macabre almost exactly 10 years ago on Goodreads: "There was so much inside [King's] head that I just wanted to remember, or come back to, or ... just highlight."

Anyway, The Stand.

It was first published as a Doubleday hardcover in 1978. Then came the Signet/New American Library paperback in 1980 that's pictured at the top of this post. That's the paperback edition I remember us having around the house. But while I read (many) other books by King in the middle and late 1980s, I never got into The Stand. Don't really know why.

Then the spring of 1990 rolled around. I had just finished my freshman year at Penn State. We had a big family trip on the summer docket; seven of us were heading west for two weeks to see the Grand Canyon, Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone. There was going to be a lot of down time, so I needed something hefty to read. And that's when The Stand: The Complete & Uncut Edition hit the bookstores in its full, 1,150-page glory. The original 1978 hardcover, at 823 pages, had been no lightweight. But in 1990 King was at the height of his power in the book industry. He could have sold phone books with his name plastered on the cover. So the 1990 version was a much-trumpeted re-release, promising everything that had been cut from King's earlier version. The novel got a timeline makeover, too. As Wikipedia describes it, "King restored some fragments of texts that were initially reduced, revised the order of the chapters, shifted the novel's setting from 1980 to ten years forward, and accordingly corrected a number of cultural references."

Yours truly at the Grand Canyon in 1990

While I was seeing the Scenic National Landmarks™ with my family, I essentially spent that 1990 trip to with Stu Redman, Nick Andros, Harold Lauder and, of course, Randall Flagg. Complete & Uncut was the only version of The Stand I knew, though it was later conflated with the well-done 1994 mini-series. (And now I don't think I could read any edition of the book without picturing Gary Sinise, Molly Ringwald, Rob Lowe, Miguel Ferrer and Laura San Giacomo in my head. You can't go home again.)

But COVID-19 has me thinking about The Stand quite a bit lately ⁠— and just maybe its world can be visited anew. On the blog Stephen King Revisited, Bev Vincent contributed an interesting essay in 2015 that looks at the creation of The Stand. You should read it yourself, but as a way of enticing you I can say it has mentions of Patty Hearst, Legionnaires' disease, Charles Manson, and The Wizard of Oz.

Down in the comments section of that essay, I came across the first kernel of an idea that now intrigues me. Someone named BR waxes eloquently about the strength of the 1978 version. He writes:
"Returned to it recently after about 25 years, but picked up the uncut edition, and it strikes me as a very different book, with many parts having a post-‘It’ King feel that don’t quite gel [sic] with the original voice. The original version seems like a book an idealistic youth in his 20’s would write, the expanded version has a bitter undercurrent of cynicism and suspicion about Humanity that I guess I just find unpleasant, cartoonish and lacking empathy. ... King moved the timeline ahead, but it’s a book that very specifically deals with the 1970’s, and its attendant fears, to the degree I think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read that sums up the climate of the 70’s."
I have an obsession with the 1970s now (fiction and nonfiction) that I didn't remotely have when I was a 19-year-old in that summer of 1990 (with the possible exception of loving old Genesis albums). So I like the idea of reading the original edition of The Stand.

Book and movie critic Jessica Ritchey, whose writings are available at the Patreon page "Cold Takes: The Elephant Graveyard of Hip," is currently doing a multi-part series in which she's reading the 1978 and 1990 versions of The Stand simultaneously. The series, natch, is titled "Reading The Stand in the time of Coronavirus." I'm not going to quote any of it here, because her work is behind the Patreon paywall and she deserves to be paid for it (the $1 per month tier is dubbed "I'd Buy That For A Dollar"). But, in general, she has been praising the 1978 edition as being the tighter, better reading experience.

* * *

But why am I drawn to any edition of The Stand as we're dealing with our own, less-deadly pandemic? How is would that possibly be enjoyable? The COVID-19 news gets worse every day, and I can't avoid it my role as a journalist. Today, I sent my ex-wife and her wife an email with the header "Devolving into Stephen King level shit." It detailed these COVID-19 snippets:

  • "Pennsylvania State Rep. Stephanie Borowicz (R., Clinton) has introduced a resolution calling for A State Day of Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer because the coronavirus pandemic 'may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins'"
  • "Racist extremist groups, including neo-Nazis and other white supremacists, are encouraging members who contract novel coronavirus disease to spread the contagion to cops and Jews, according to intelligence gathered by the FBI."

Also today, we learned that a man died and his wife is in critical condition after they ingested chloroquine phosphate that was intended for use in their aquarium. In recent days, President Donald Trump has touted chloroquine, an anti-malaria drug, as a potential treatment for COVID-19. Chloroquine phosphate is not cholorquine and, regardless, doctors stress that people should never, ever self-medicate.

As I said at the start, all of these horrific March 2020 news reports feel a bit too much like a book we've read; they are like the "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold" vignettes that made Stephen King novels so horribly compelling when we were in our teens. Maybe we want to revisit these novels because, as terrifying as they might be, we know they're much safer than the real world right now. Escapism in a time of COVID-19. Horror as comfort food.

There was a lot of wit and dark humor in the replies to Stephen King's March 8 tweet. Mentions of Hap's pumps, Captain Trips, summer colds, and, in a nod to a different King novel and present-day events, Greg Stillson.

I think these were my favorite two responses, though:

OK, that's enough.
I'll go back to old postcards, snapshots and book covers. Promise.

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