"Men fear death, as children fear to go in the dark; and as that natural fear in children is increased with tales, so is the other." The words of Francis Bacon in his essays convey the idea that stories about deat
h and destruction hold a steady grasp on the imaginations of all men. While death may be a natural phenomena, it possesses a unique ability to instill fear into the hearts of even the bravest of souls. Tales which focus upon the possible end of the world
and massive numbers of deaths have relied upon this horrific technique to conquer the imagination of the reader. From an obsession with the remains of Pompeii in art textbooks to movies about the effects of a nuclear holocaust to men forecasting impeding
doom on street corners, the idea of the apocalypse has been especially prevalent in the current materialistic American society. In his bestselling1990 novel, The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition, Stephen King delves into this theme of annihilation. I
n the work, over 90 percent of the American citizenry dies after an accident at a military base unleashes an extremely deadly chemical poison called "Superflu" into mainstream society. The survivors, characterized by unique dreams about two opposing forc
es, are left to wage war over the country's remains in a battle reminiscent of childhood tales of the conflicts between the forces of good and evil. King had published an earlier version of the tale in 1978, but the editor's deletion of 400 pages from the
original manuscript prompted King into publishing this longer, more complete version of the tale 12 years later. While the intense popularity of the novel in 1990 can largely be attributed to the name and techniques of the author, a number of changes in
American society have also worked indirectly to broaden the book's appeal.
There is no denying the fact that the name of Stephen King across a book's binding can be a powerful impetus for book sales. Since the 1973 publication of his first novel, Carrie, King has enjoyed an almost unparalleled success. His novels consistently r
ank in the lists of best-selling fiction works, and his interviews and performances in other media have also generated a flurry of interest. A 1997 study from Publisher's Weekly found that out of the 43 books which have had sales of more than a million co
pies during their first year of publication, thirty of those books were written by either John Grisham, Stephen King, Tom Clancy, or Danielle Steele (Maryles). Almost everyone has heard of the Maine native, and simple name recognition can help to propel a
book up the charts of best-sellers. People who have heard of Stephen King or who have read one of his other books are likely to purchase another tale, even if they have heard nothing about the specific novel in question.
Besides simple name recognition, King's popularity stems from a number of sources. King generally writes short stories and novels which focus on the macabre, the horrific, the disturbing. Yet despite this selection of subject matter, King's persona is th
at of an average American male. King lives with his wife and three kids in a traditional home in the Maine countryside, plays American rock and roll in a band with fellow authors Dave Barry and Matt Groening, and works very hard at his job. This congenial
personality and work ethic are a point of some notoriety throughout literary circles, as "You're not likely to find a writer as serenely down-to-earth as Stephen King. Or a writer as productive who maintains as high a standard throughout his work (Goldst
ein). It is widely reported that King writes for at least four hours and churns out six pages a day on every single day of the year except his birthday, Christmas, and the Fourth of July. King's long hours have enabled him to become an extremely prolific
author, with at least one novel published almost every single year since 1974.
This persona as an extremely hard-working author has also helped to fuel a number of other characterizations about King's work. Specifically, King's personal abstention from writing on the fourth of July is somewhat linked to the public perceptions of Kin
g as an author of the American people. Despite his numerous appearances on best selling fiction lists, his works have won few prestigious awards. King is perceived more as a writer for the people ? an artist who made it big by allowing the reader to empat
hize and understand his works with a minimum of effort. King himself has frequently referred to his own work as "the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and a large fries from "McDonalds" Additionally, a number of critics have also commented on King's abili
ty to accurately portray the minute realities of the American way of life in the midst of horrific tales. "King is heir to the American Gothic tradition in that he has placed his horrors in contemporary settings and has depicted the struggle of an America
n culture to face the horrors within it ? he has shown the nightmare of our idealistic civilization" (Contemporary Authors 8).
King's ability to portray modern America has been widely proclaimed as one of the strengths of The Stand specifically. King's story spans the entire country as he details the spread of the disease across the face of the continental United States, introdu
cing a multiplicity of characters and townships in his tale of destruction. As Harvard University's Robert Kiely explained in the New York Times Book Review, this juxtaposition of places and faces from across the whole country is the "thing that makes the
se vignettes, and indeed the entire novel, peculiar, is that the characters and the situations are virtually all reproductions of American cultural icons? Everything is processed through a gigantic American meat grinder" (Kiely) Many of the characters in
the novel are somewhat stereotypical, although King's use of internal conflict and background history prevents the characters from becoming too static. The main protagonist, Texan Stu Redman, is a perfect example of King's technique. Redman is the America
n idea of manhood, a poor small town boy who turned down an athletic scholarship to go to work and support his brother after his mother died. The portrayals of Redman and a host of other characters have been praised for King's ability to interlace person
al character backgrounds with minute descriptions of diverse geographical locations. "He picks up some of these characters again and again throughout the book in a series of self-contained vignettes, each of them of lapidarian brilliance. It is these shor
t telling scripts that make King so much the writer of his time, the ?post-television writer,' like the episodic script writers of ?Hill Street Blues.' The jarring bits make up a whole and build into a crackling structure with explosive climaxes" (Murphy
76). The episodic manner in which King switches back and forth between a number of different characters is also reminiscent of a number of his other books, including It and Needful Things.
However, while King's personal notoriety and these descriptions of style help to account for the book's popularity, the work was not well received in literary circles. Most critics criticized King for his efforts to get the book published a second time.
As a reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle explained, "The reader, first-time or second time, gains nothing from the reinsertion of that lost prose?except a longer book" (Liberatore E-10). Indeed, many of the reviewers suggested that the added pages, w
hich generally included additional character description and background information, simply cluttered the book. While King himself might have been pleased with the addition of 400 pages of the original manuscript, the rest of the literary world appeared h
appier with the original version. Consequently, the changes in the actual text of the book are unlikely to account for the increased popularity of the later version.
A general increase in King's popularity is probably the best explanations for the greatly enhanced success of the 1990 edition. The addition of 400 pages to an already lengthy book would not have been expected to increase the book's success if King was le
ss famous. The sheer intimidation factor involved in picking up a 2.5 inch work would lead one to question the necessity of lengthy additions, especially when one might think people would be unwilling to purchase a second copy of the same general story. H
owever, while the original shorter version did not even place among the top 25 fiction sellers of 1978, the 1990 publication was the seventh highest best seller and sold 653,828 copies during the first year of its publication alone (Bowker 569). This chan
ge is the result of a substantial increase in King's popularity. While King had already achieved some acclaim for his writing by 1978, he was nowhere near as popular as he would be in 1990. In a 1991 interview with Publisher's Weekly, Ralph Vincinanza, a
literary agent who sells foreign rights to King's works, said he believed that there were three main stages in King's success. From the 1973 publication of Carrie through the 1978 publication of The Stand, King was extremely success in paperback, but was
enjoying only mild success in hardback sales. Viking began to publish King's novels in the early 1980s, and hardback sales increased slightly. Finally, after the 1983 publication of Pet Semetary, King's popularity sky-rocketed. By the time of the 1990 pu
blication of the revised version of The Stand, King was widely accepted as one of the leading authors of the late 20th century. He now sells almost as many hardback as soft editions. Indeed, even People magazine selected King as one of twenty individuals
who have defined the decade of the eighties (Contemporary Authors 7). The increased popularity of the second version of The Stand provides substantial support for the idea that name recognition alone can play a large role in determining a book's success.
While King's increase in general popularity can account for the some of The Stand's success, there are a number of underlying societal factors which also help to explain the surge in popularity for this book specifically. American society changed dramati
cally over the twelve-year-gap between the publication of the two versions. Perhaps the best explanation for the book's popularity can simply be found in the contemporary relevance of the subject of the work itself. While this work is less centered on di
sgusting mutilations or monsters than many of his other works, King's The Stand is overpowering because it portrays a more realistic scenario for contemporary America. The Stand does not rely on fantastic tales of aliens creeping in the bushes, instead it
plays on a number of contemporary fears to instill fear into the reader.
One of the most prominent themes in the work is the prevalence of government corruption. In this post-Iran Contra era where public mistrust of the government is rampant, this work appears all the more realistic and all the more frightening. The fact that
the Superflu stemmed from a government mistake is "a variation of a familiar King theme, which is attuned to our common fear that the people in charge are a loutish and fearsome lot who lie and obfuscate and hide terrible things from us. This runs paralle
l to King's suspicion that there are powers of evil that exist outside of us and beyond our control, and there are likewise powers of good, eventually" (Murphy 76). People have lost faith in American society. A series of government scandals, increasing pr
oblems with social security, a decreased prominence in foreign affairs, and a number of other societal problems have corroded away the basic trust in the United States. The popularity of this book, which foretells the destruction of the country as a resul
t of government mismanagement is symptomatic of this declining support. As Kiely explained,"In many ways, this is a book for the 1990's, when America is beginning to see itself less and less in the tall image of Lincoln or even the robust one of Johnny Ap
pleseed and more and more as a dazed behemoth with padded shoulders ?"The Stand," complete and uncut, is about the padded shoulders and the behemoth and the humiliation." (Kiely)
King's selection of government mistake as the possible cause of the virus appear plausible in this contemporary world of rampant anti-government sentiment, and this adds a frightening realism to the story.
Other changes in society also contributed to an increasing social relevance to the work. The year 1978 was marked by continuing tension between the Soviet Union and the United States, and the Cold War remained the biggest threat to American security. In 1
990, the world scene was drastically altered. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the crumbling of the Berlin Wall were just two of a number of landmarks which helped to dampen fears of a nuclear war. More importantly, the discovery of the HIV viru
s in the mid-1980s changed the concept of real threat in American society. Whereas 1978 was marked by fears of Soviet nuclear attacks, the 1990s are a time for fears of contagion and life-threatening diseases. This sort of environmental change could be a
main source of the book's increased popularity. As Kiely explained, "What in 1978 might have looked like a fantastic exaggeration, in 1990 still appears statistically exaggerated but, sadly, not so fantastic" (Kiely). The Stand was more a more impressive
and entertaining work in 1990 because the American public perceived the plot line as much more plausible.
Another explanation for the book's increased popularity was an expanded market for the horror genre. In 1978, King was one of the only horror writers to pull a large audience. The genre has changed drastically since that time, however. King's initial suc
cesses in the 1980s have opened up a new field of horror entertainment. By 1990, a multitude of other authors were following in King's footsteps. Dean R. Koontz's thrillers and Anne Rice's tales of vampires and witches are just two of the more successful
examples of writers who have attempted to appeal to the dark side of the public's imagination. The substantial change is apparent in the distribution of the genres included on the list of best sellers for each year. Whereas in 1978 there was not a single
work from a horror or fantasy genre included on the list of top ten best sellers, the 1990 list included three separate works, Rice's The Witching Hour at number nine, King's Stand at number seven, and King's short story collection entitled Four Past Mid
night at number two (Cader). Recent novels about viral infections have also echoed the themes of Stephen King, including the 1994 Richard Preston work entitled The Hot Zone.
However, The Stand, unlike the majority of King's works, actually appears to have more in common with past classic works than with these modern horror stories. The tale is reminiscent of other apocalyptic tales such as Pat Frank's Alas Babylon, which det
ailed the results of an international decision to use nuclear weaponry in warfare. The idea of government cover-up is also linked to a short story of Kurt Vonnegat, entitled Harrison Bergeron. Both works include a scene in which citizens are killed in the
ir attempts to portray accuracy in entertainment. In addition to similarities of plot, there are a number of stylistic techniques which King employs which hearken back to earlier writers. For example, King's use of fragmentation and switching into the min
ds of different characters is reminiscent of such works as A Light in August by William Faulkner. The use of a large number of diverse personalities throughout the tale is also similar to the work of J. R. Tolkein in his Lord Of The Rings. King's work sha
res more similarities with these classic authors than with other writers of his day because of his unique plot and characterization.
Despite all these possible explanations for the book's success, it did not remain popular for very long. The book only appeared on the Publisher's Weekly list of best-selling hardback novels for three weeks in January of 1991. One possible explanation for
the book's rapid demise from the charts stems from the fact that Stephen King is quite a prolific writer. First-time buyers of any author are probably more apt to buy the latest work under that name, especially as that name probably has the most appeal a
s it received the most recent attention. Stephen King fans had a multitude of works to select from in the early 1990s. The year 1992 brought two other top ten works by the best-selling author, the number one Dolores Claiborne and number three Gerald's Gam
e. The drop from the charts and lack of reviews immediately after publication probably stemmed from this fact that there were so many Stephen King books to focus on that there it would be foolhardy for reviewers to concentrate on only one book. The book n
ever reappeared on the best-selling list, even after the 1994 production of a television miniseries directed by Stephen King. The eight-hour mini-series received mixed reviews and audience approval, mainly because many of the reviewers felt the screenplay
included an inadequate portrayal of the later sections of the novel. While The Stand skyrocketed to the charts of best-sellers, the prevalence of a number of other books in the horror genre and a merely decent television adaptation of the work helped to
insure that it did not stay up there for too long.
The Stand by Stephen King was an immensely popular book for an immensely short period of time. A number of societal factors combined with the infamous name of the author helped to account for the book's popularity. The Stand was popular because it was wri
tten at the right time by the right author, Stephen King ? a powerfully talented storyteller with an even more powerful reputation.