Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’ Is Bloated, Racist, And (Somehow) Still A Masterpiece

We love the apocalypse. Zombie invasions, nuclear holocausts, a ragged band of survivors — we’re fascinated by these stories because they’re as attractive as they are terrifying. On the surface, they represent the primal horror of everything we know disappearing. All of our loved ones, dead. All the order and comfort of our previous lives, replaced by wilderness.

But apocalypse stories also speak to the common human fantasy of wiping the slate clean and starting over. The upside of Armageddon is that you don’t have to worry about your bullsh*t job anymore, or any of the daily aggravations of modern life. You are free to redefine your existence. You have nothing, and everything is possible.

What would you do with that freedom? If the world ended tomorrow, would you be a good guy or a bad guy?

Birth Of A Monster

Take a look at the novels and anthologies that Stephen King published from 1974-1992, and try to name another American author who started his career on a comparable hot streak[1]. King put the entire horror genre on his back. He refreshed all the classic scary story tropes — haunted houses, vampires, werewolves, aliens, cats and dogs — and found fertile soil in modern anxieties like obsessed fandom and getting your period for the first time after gym class.

In 1978, King published The Stand, an 800+ page epic[2] about a super-charged strain of the flu virus — developed by the U.S. government as a biological weapon — which escapes from its testing facility and kills over 99 percent of the world’s population. The survivors in America[3] are drawn to a “good” community in Boulder, Colorado (led by the 108-year-old Mother Abigail), and an “evil” community in Las Vegas (led by the demonic and ageless Randall Flagg). As the threat of Flagg looms, several members of the Boulder community journey to Las Vegas to confront him. That’s basically the story, and people went nuts for it.

In 2008, a Harris Poll named The Stand as the fifth-favorite book of all time by American readers, four spots below the Bible, two spots above To Kill a Mockingbird. So, we’re not simply talking about a career highlight of a best-selling genre-writer. We’re talking about one of the most influential books in the history of the English language.

Last year, it was reported that Warner Bros. will be producing The Stand as a four-movie series directed by Josh Boone, with Matthew McConaughey attached as the lead actor[4]. Of course, The Stand was already adapted into a four-part movie series back in 1994, when ABC aired a corny made-for-TV miniseries starring Gary Sinise, Molly Ringwald, and Rob Lowe.

I was 13 when the TV adaptation aired and deeply in the throes of my Stephen King obsession, which had started the year before when I checked out Night Shift [5] from the library. The sheer size of The Stand scared me away from reading it back then, but the miniseries — which was scripted by King himself — had my full attention.