Considering The Stands
[This essay first appeared in Gauntlet: Exploring the Limits of Free Expression, edited by Barry Hoffman, No. 2 (1991): 179-185. The issue was a 'Stephen King special,' focusing on King's work as the object of direct and indirect censorship. The essay has been revised slightly for StarShine and Shadows.]
Several years ago I presented an article on the 1978 published version of Stephen King's The Stand (which for convenience sake I will refer to hereafter as The Stand [I]) to the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. The paper subsequently appeared in Darrell Schweitzer's anthology of essays, Discovering Stephen King, under the title "The Stand: Science Fiction into Fantasy." As the title suggests, the article argued that in its original format, The Stand [I] bifurcates rather neatly. The opening chapters focus on the Superflu and its consequences for humanity. In its emphasis on extrapolation from current technology, this part of the narrative seems essentially science fictional. Key episodes extrapolate from the one question fundamental to all science fiction - "What if?" What if there were a Superflu?
What if it did indeed wipe out over 99.6% of humanity?
How would the survivors react? How would they survive? Could they survive? If they did, how would their society differ from pre-cataclysmic human societies?
Midway into the story, however, King radically alters his approach. The logical extrapolation from a specific technological event -- the Superflu -- becomes secondary to episodes that deal less with the re-establishment of society than with issues incapable of clear, rational resolution. With the increasing frequency and importance of dreams, with the introduction of the mystical and evil Dark Man, with the revelation of Mother Abagail as a modern analogue to Biblical prophets and prophecy, the novel shifts from the rational to the irrational, from science fictional extrapolation to quasi-theological fantasy.
The paper was well enough received, both as presented and as published, and for a number of years, through a number of re-readings of The Stand [I], I felt comfortable with what I had suggested.
With the publication of the restored text of The Stand (The Stand [II]) in 1990, however, it became clear that the neat classification I posited for The Stand [I] did not in fact coincide with the realities of King's performance. With the added bulk of the novel, much of it emphasizing the fantastic rather than the science fictional, and with the intrusion of the irrational in dream-visions occurring much earlier than in The Stand [I], it seemed apparent that the novel King had originally envisioned differed substantially from the version actually published as The Stand [I]. Fundamentals of structure, characterization, tone, image, even basic theme had been altered by the deletions required for the 1978 publication.
The next question seemed obvious:
Why would King allow such elemental changes in what he must have considered at the time a major opus?
Certainly minor editing, even deletion of selected passages, occurs in the process of bringing many novels from manuscript to final published form. Even It, published at a time when King could probably have published almost anything without much editorial intrusion, lost about twenty pages from manuscript to final copy. But in the case of The Stand, the changes were so far-ranging that the novel as it finally appeared was in a very real sense not the one the author had written.
Part of the explanation, certainly, arises from King's awareness of how unpopular long novels were, if not among all readers then certainly among many critics. In his early reviews, particularly the Adelina columns (June-November 1980), he notes the antagonism most contemporary critics express toward 'big books' -- and by the most conservative of standards, the manuscript of The Stand [I] could only result in a 'big book,' certainly his longest to that date.
Purely practical considerations might have suggested to King that at this point in his career, it might be politic to edit. King himself says that this was the case. In the foreword to The Stand [II], he writes:
King seems to want to make it clear that the deletions were market-driven, pragmatic, required to bring the book at a cost that would support the $12.95 cover price that Doubleday decided was "about what the market would bear." Over the intervening years, however, some readers and critics have suggested -- ften on the basis of second-hand, hearsay information -- that there were other factors at work in the surgical transformation of King's manuscript into The Stand [I]. And here the issue of censorship arises.
It would be foolish, of course, to argue in direct opposition to King's published statements in his preface to The Stand [II]. The novel is, after all, his book, and it would seem that King would have little to lose now if he were to reveal the secret machinations of the publishing game in 1978 -twelve years (now twenty-six years) after the fact and at a time when he had established himself as one of the most potent players in that game.
Reading The Stand [II], however, leads to some interesting possibilities, particularly when one tries to identify the kinds of deletions made for the 1978 version. One group are clearly editorial; that is, they streamline the narrative, reducing word- and page-count while retaining the essence of King's vision.
The deletion of what now appears as "The Circle Opens" -- the prologue introducing Charlie, Sally, Baby La Von, and the Superflu -- allowed for an incremental intrusion of horror into the narrative, consonant with the science-fictional emphasis of The Stand [I]. There is something frantic, irrational, horrifying in Charlie's panicky flight that creates an entirely different opening tone from the stolid, phlegmatic, realistic portrait of Arnette and Hapscomb's Texaco and Stu Redman in Chapter 1. If, as happened in the 1978 version, the opening chapters were to emphasize the rational, the science-fictional, the extrapolative, then the brief introduction of Charlie and family seems too much, too soon.
Other deletions reduced what has become a leading charge against King as writer: redundancy. In the 1978 version, King's examples of the consequences of the Superflu were terse, understated, at times almost reportorially concise. He convinced readers of the reality of the plague but didn't dwell unduly on its accompanying horrors. In The Stand [II], however, the restorations help realize the Superflu by making its universality more obvious, but the multiple episodes threaten to reach or exceed a saturation point; after watching too many people die in agony and loneliness, readers may begin wondering what has happened to the story King wants to tell.
And finally, other deletions streamline the themes of novel as it appeared in 1978. The final chapter of The Stand [I] allows for a sense of controlled optimism. Humankind's nuclear playthings still litter the landscape, but Frannie and Stu and the child, Peter, have survived and are together. There is a moment of peace. There is hope. The novel settles into a comfortably SF format, since the disappearance of the Dark Man lets King refocus on his original question: "What if?"
The 'new' last chapter in The Stand [II], however, connects it with other novels and opens fantastical possibilities that King would have understood in 1978 but that most of his readers perhaps would not have. Nine years earlier, King had published a poem called "The Dark Man" (Ubris, Spring 1969) that contains a kernel of his vision of Randall Flagg, just as an early short story, "Night Surf," appearing in the same issue of the UMO student magazine, suggests his incipient interest in the Superflu. But the first of the Dark Tower stories, "The Gunslinger," did not appear until October, 1978; The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger appeared in book form in 1984, as did The Eyes of the Dragon, his third full-length treatment of the character sometimes known as Flagg. In 1978, then, King knew much about who Flagg was and where he might disappear to, but the readers of The Stand [I] did not. Ending the story with Stu, Frannie, and Peter gives the truncated 1978 narrative a coherent conclusion.
But there are other deletions that are more problematical than these. In some instances, large sections restored in The Stand [II] seem important enough to wonder why they were cut.
Frannie's confrontation with her mother in the formal, nineteenth-century parlor establishes critical themes and motifs for rest of novel as present confronts the future and the past and the possible sterility of both. Frannie's obsession with protecting her child begins here and makes even more powerful her terrors for her child in later chapters. Perhaps the sheer length of the passage dictated its excision.
In addition, however, there are other deletions that seem suspect primarily because of content. King has never been one to avoid sexuality in is stories. Yet his earlier works do in fact seem at times more restrained than later ones. In The Stand [I], for example, Lloyd Henreid lays awake on the night of June 29:
The next line indicates that it is now 5 o'clock the next morning. In The Stand [II], however, King adds a paragraph that bridges the missing hours and that simultaneously suggests the general tenor of many minor alterations between the two versions:
An overt, narratively unnecessary reference to what in 1978 might be construed as a conventionally unacceptable sexual activity appears in the restored 1990 text.
Similar, if less obvious, small changes in phrasing alter the tone of dialogue throughout. In the 1978 version, Glen Bateman responds to one of Stu Redman's question with an abrupt "Christ, no!" (233); in The Stand [II], the phrase is expanded to a stronger, but potentially more objectionable, "Christ's testicles, no!" (345). A more extensive but evocative passage occurs with "The Kid" -- a section of the narrative that disappeared entirely from The Stand [I] and that King refers to explicitly in the preface to The Stand [II]:
The Kid's story (587-616) is essential to the new version, fleshing out the sense of insanity that accumulates around the followers of the Dark Man. As King notes, the passage completes a disrupted parallelism between tunnels that amplifies the symbolic value of each. It adds imagistic and mythic strength to Trashcan's Odyssey, making that key character more understandable, his unswerving loyalty to the Dark Man more crucial ... and consequently his ultimate defection and destructive fervor more ironically satisfying.
But the passage also recounts The Kid's demand that Trashcan masturbate him, and his subsequent rape of Trashcan with the barrel of a .45 caliber pistol. King refers frequently enough in his stories and novels to "hommasexshuls"; homosexuality is certainly an important motif in It, for example. And in the 1990 restoration, twin images of homosexuality and of insane violence -- and a foreshadowing of one of the novel's climactic scene -- combine in Trashcan's imagination:
That scene in itself suggests a darkness and a perverseness that might have led to the deletion of the entire passage for an earlier, pre-1980's audience.
Even more disturbing and potentially more devastating is a persistent racial undertone in The Stand [II]. In a letter to Castle Rock (March 1988), Kima R. Hicks expressed concern about King's "constant negative reference to blacks":
King's response was reasoned, forthright, and clear: racial epithets occur in the novels because "bigots and idiots" use them, and King in turn uses such characters to "expose rather than promote racism" (1). Dick Hallorann, Mother Abagail, and Mike Hanlon are strong individuals whose very presence in their respective novels stimulates abuse and slurs by people "who are possessed of ugly tempers, ugly personalities … or people just too dumb to know any better" (5). Some of King's characters may be prejudiced; King himself is not.
In the expanded Chapter 26 of The Stand [II], which begins with a graphic evocation of the killings at Kent State (the action here transferred to the University of Kentucky at Louisville), King includes a two-page episode in which half-naked blacks systematically execute white army personnel in a deranged parody of baptism: holding a .45 to his victim's head, "'inthenameofthefathersonandholyghost,' the big black man intoned, grinning, and pulled the trigger" (226).
The text clearly sets black against white. It emphasizes the blacks as half naked, repeating the epithet "the black man in the loincloth." And -- symbolically, at least -- it exploits white sexual stereotypes and fears as nearly nude (and therefore more 'primitive'?) blacks brutally assault white males with phallic weapons. The Kid's use of a similar weapon as an instrument of sexual conquest and rape later in The Stand [II], and the narrator's deliberate focus on a "pristine white jockey shorts" and a "pink leather loincloth" suggest that the actions described are as much sexual as violent. Even the narrative language of the passage is double edged, denoting insanity while connoting sexuality: "performed," "jerked," "forced," "sweating," "glistening with perspiration," "abortive," "tawdry show."
The passage is, admittedly, relatively short. And given the shifted focus of The Stand [I], reducing the full hapter detailing the insanity resulting from the Superflu to only four pages allows King to concentrate on his major characters -- on getting the forces of light clustered about Mother Abagail and those of the dark around Randall Flagg. Yet it is easy to see that this particular episode might have drawn heavy editorial fire for its explicit actions, for its imagery and symbolism, for its suggestion of racial and sexual messages that the book (especially in its 1978 incarnation) does not otherwise carry.
If there were any passages in the manuscript that King was urged to delete, it seems likely that this would have been at the top of the list.
Without King's (or some one else's) evidential support that the manuscript was overtly censored, such charges should neither be leveled nor continued. However, it seems clear that in at least some instances King might have been concerned enough about overtly controversial sexual or racial content that he might have deleted passages he himself felt were otherwise strong and/or structurally important to the novel.
Not all of the changes from The Stand [I] to The Stand [II] are suggestive in this respect, of course. There is little in the parlor scene that would suggest censorship. But other instances seem problematical. Certainly two lines would not have been critical to total word count; yet King deleted the reference to Henreid's masturbation. The only reason would seem to be its sexual content. Or the single word" testicles" would not have run the book overly long, yet it, too occurs only in the restored text; again, the reason would seem to be its potentially objectionable combination of blasphemy and sexuality.
One point seems clear, however. Regardless of King's rationale for his choice of materials to delete, the restored text is stronger, more coherent, more focused than The Stand [I]. Those who saw The Stand [I] as among his strongest novels should find that assessment confirmed in the restored text. The re-introduction of long blocks of text deepens and intensified the mythic nature of the novel, particularly as it re-defines characters' motivations and personalities.
By restoring episodes fraught with racial and/or sexual tension, King creates a narrative compelling in its violence and compelling in its implications for its audiences -- whether that of 1978 or that of 1990 (or that of 2004). The addition of the final chapter confirms the position of The Stand in King's personal, allegorical investigation of darkness and of evil. The fragile hopes that concluded the 1978 version are undercut and denied; evil may disappear for a season but it is never totally defeated.
Almost without exception, the restoration and changes (including those that update the story to 1990) strengthen the novel. The irrational elements -- dreams, portents, omens -- arise much sooner, dissolving the sense that the story begins as post-apocalyptic science fiction and then abruptly shifts into fantasy. The ostensible climax -- the bomb scene -- still occurs with about fifty pages to run, but since so much has been added in previous pages, the final effect is to bring the episode closer to the end of the novel. The result is a fused whole, a more consistent and convincing novel, a cross-generic work that explores the possibilities of extrapolation and revelation, of facts and dreams, of darkness and of light.
I decided to post this essay on StarShine and Shadows, in spite of its being outdated in spots, after a summer spent preparing for a course I was to teach in Myth, Fantasy, and Science Fiction. I selected, in addition to Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game and Seventh Son, King's The Eyes of the Dragon and The Stand[II] as required texts, and after re-reading them (and annotating them heavily), went backward and forward in King's canon to examine how they connected with other Dark Tower novels, including The Talisman, Insomnia, Black House, The Wolves of the Calla, and Susannah's Song.
The experience deepened the understanding that The Stand [I] fact represents only a portion of a larger, more coherent vision, one that King has spend over a third of a century expanding and developing; and that the alterations and restorations in The Stand [II] not only have literary repercussions but add crucial connective tissue to the epic-in-progress that will (soon, we are promised) lead us to the Dark Tower itself.
Collings, Michael R. "The Stand: Science Fiction into Fantasy," in Discovering Stephen King. Ed. Darrell Schweitzer. Mercer Island W A: Starmont House, 1985. 83-90.
King, Stephen. "Books: The Sixties Zone." Adelina (June 1980): 12.
--- "The Dark Man." Ubris (Spring 1969): [n.p.].
--- "Night Surf." Ubris (Spring 1969): 6-10.
--- The Stand. Garden City NY: Doubleday, 1978.
--- The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition. New York: Doubleday, May 1990.
"SK Criticized for References to Blacks." Castle Rock Vol. 4, No. 3 (March 1988).
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