The Stand (1978)
So…it may behoove you to know that The Stand, King’s gigantic, bloated, sprawling epic, was picked by American adults in 2008 as their fifth-favourite book of all time. The Bible was #1 – this is America that was being polled, after all – but The Stand kept company with other books you may be familiar with: Gone With The Wind, The Lord Of The Rings, and the Harry Potter series. Generational touchstones, in other words. As a further fact, Generation X picked it as their #1 favourite (again, behind the Bible). That’s some big company, so an examination of this one should yield some interesting results.
This gigantic brick of a novel is 470,000 plus words, which makes it not only physically impressive it’s also more data being fed into these mining and analysis processes than all of the books combined before it. Whatever quirks are inherent in it would likely skew results, except of course that this isn’t the only gigantic epic in King’s bibliography. Still, it’s going to be a hell of a lot more information being graphed than before so there may be anomalies present that are specific to this book.
King likes to refer to this one as his “big American fantasy epic” and has likened it to America’s third-favourite (and Britain’s all-time favourite) The Lord Of The Rings on many occasions. It’s an apt enough description; the two share a similar, Manichean ethos that pits a few hardy individuals against the amassed forces of darkness. They both feature long journeys through strange landscapes and they both end rather ambiguously. Tolkien’s features a cathartic, drawn out set-piece battle as it’s climax (twice, if you count the climactic Battle of Helms Deep); King’s features no such triumphant victory. God – and this is a recurrent theme in King’s work – is an asshole. He’s a selfish, obsessive prick who demands things in a certain way and doesn’t care about your feelings or your personal safety. If he demands sacrifice, he gets sacrifice, weighing three lives against the souls of the human species. This leads to a feeling like there’s no massive climax in the book; sure, Las Vegas is wiped out from a nuclear explosion and three of the characters you’ve been following for 1000+ pages go with it and so ends the dark man’s wrestling for the Soul of America, but the buildup feels almost like a misdirection of sorts. God wins, but at what cost? Maybe that’s why Gen X likes it so much; after all, the Cold War was won during their coming of age, but what was the cost of that?
At any rate, I’ve never read the original. I’ve only ever read the full, uncut edition and that’s the one we’re using here. I don’t actually know what was missing in the original version, and for the sake of this analysis it doesn’t really matter except as a comparison in terms of sentiment scores between the original and the uncut, but I also don’t know if the original was ever made into an ebook, so I’m skipping that bit for now. I should also take a moment to mention that I’ve read this book no less than 16 times; I’ve literally read the covers off of my paperback edition.
This is what The Stand looks like as an emotional soundwave:
A few things to unpack from this one.
First, you’ll notice that in terms of sentiment activity it looks actually quite quiet up until just over the halfway mark, when it explodes into emotional weight. It looks like what “Dance Yrself Clean” looks like as a soundwave:
Also note the sentiment score range on the y axis of that soundwave graph above. On Salem’s Lot‘s sentiment analysis we were seeing ranges between 100 and -100; The Stand has a range five times that on either end. It’s also interesting to note that for over half the book the sentiment scores range around the same level as previous books, but at around chapter 43 they burst into dramatic sentiment levels and keep that volume up until that lull comes in in the mid-sixties. Then right at the end there’s a big burst of volume, not quite as big as the middle, but still loud compared to much of the book, kind of like the coda-chorus on “Creep.”
Which brings up a pertinent point. How should I choose the cutoff for what constitutes a “spike” or a “guidepost” when it comes to the sentiment line graph? A quick look at the distribution of sentiment in The Stand shows us this:
Where we can see that at least 70% of the sentiment scores registered occur between 50 and -50 (with, of course, most of that falling on the negative end of the range). As such, 50 and -50 seem like the best place to start. However, when we plug it in like that there are only two positive peaks in the entire 470,000 word novel, and the negative peaks look like this:
Again, the sheer drama of emotional sentiment that happens between 44 and 52 is something to behold. 48 spikes down to nearly -300. So what’s the deal here? Let’s take a look.
The beginning of the book is a lot of setup: introduction to the main characters, all of whom are caught up in the minutae of their daily lives, whether that being living in a dying East Texas town (Stu Redman), running from dealers and your own freak-out about sudden fame (Larry Underwood), or being an unexpectedly pregnant college student (your gal Frannie Goldsmith). While there are ominous portents it’s mostly putting all of the pieces into place. While many of the chapters in this region flirt with our -50 guideline, nothing exceeds it until we hit 16, which is the chapter that introduces us to career petty criminal Lloyd Henreid as he pals around with his friend Poke Freeman, robs and murders a Vegas grifter, and then proceeds to murder their way across three states without even really thinking about it. It’s telling that this chapter, which introduces the ultimate antagonist’s right hand man, is our first peak.
18 is where the background events of the first half of the story really start to get going. Up to this point we’ve seen the path the plague has taken in infecting America, and we’ve seen the government’s attempts at covering it up through the quarantine of Arnett, Texas (and Stu Redman), but in 18 people start dying in front of us. In this chapter Nick Andros, now unlikely deputy in Shoyo, Arkansas, tells his life story, meets the rest of the short-lived Shoyo cast, and then lives through the initial outbreak as the Sherriff, many citizens, and finally one of his prisoners dies of Captain Trips/Tubeneck/Choking Death/Superflu.
What follows is a great visualization of the path King outlines for this Great Millennial Plague. 19-24 are like a dangle of hope before it all plunges into hell. We stumble down the negative sentiment cliff into 25, where we return to Nick as he watches both Sheriff Baker’s wife and his second prisoner, Billy Warner, die. He bikes out to the quarantine line to find that the soldiers have also died of the Superflu. After letting the third prisoner, the ill Mike Childress, go free into the rapidly depopulating world, he watches the television and finds that the news refuses to admit that anything is happening (although they all look nervous, sweaty, and sick). Then in 26 the entire country goes to hell over a series of really rather powerful vignettes that chart the course of plague-driven anarchy as it sweeps over the dead and the dying. All of the paranoia of the hangover of the 1960s is evident here: the U.S. Army firing on it’s own citizens to cover up the truth, the rise of radical elements like the SDS to forment revolution, civil war among the disintegrating remnants of the armed forces, riots in the streets, looting, mob violence, racial violence, straight-up murder. While the details are a definite product of their late-1970s origin (the black vs. white soldier fight near the end toes a racist line), the general conceit is timeless and hearkens back to King’s quotation of Yeats earlier in the book:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhereThe ceremony of innocence is drowned
28 brings us crashing back into the story; we smash cut from the howling anarchy of 26 into Frannie Goldsmith’s blank stare as she tries to contemplate the fact that her father is, in fact, dead. We learn about Ogunquit’s chaotic last days and are introduced to sneering proto-neckbeard Harold Lauder. Finally we are introduced to the dream about the Dark Man that will consume so much of the middle of the book.
18-28 tell us the story of how the plague destroyed America – viscerally, and from the viewpoint of many characters. Two more peaks finish off the book’s examination of the end of the rational world: 32 and 35. 32 shows us Lloyd Henreid abandoned in a prison cell in Arizona, looking down the barrel of entrapment and starvation. It’s a pretty grim chapter and the sentiment score outlines how much more grim it is than the surrounding “what’s happening in the final stages of the plague” chapters. 35, meanwhile is (taking out the monstrosity of 48) the negative sentiment peak of the entire book. There’s good reason for this; 35 is the chapter where Larry and Rita leave New York City. They set out, walk 30 increasingly more bizarre blocks, get in a fight, and split up. Larry, in the face of an oncoming thunderstorm, is forced to take the dark tunnel under the river by himself. It’s one of the creepiest scenes King has crafted to date. Underneath the tunnel it’s pitch black, and Larry has to creep along step by step to avoid tripping over anything that might be…stretching out in the darkness.
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 the lining 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 in the dark—
The soft, gritting step again.
It’s a burst of impassioned terror and it being a sentiment peak for the novel is absolutely fitting.
It also syncs well with a few of the themes of the book. The Lord Of The Rings comparison is explicitly referenced;
“The beginning of a journey,” she said, and then so softly he wasn’t sure he’d heard her correctly: “The way leads ever on …”
“It’s a line from Tolkien,” she said. “The Lord of the Rings. I’ve always thought of it as sort of a gateway to adventure.”
“The less adventure the better,” Larry said, but almost unwillingly he knew what she meant.
The concept of tunnels as a liminal zone is first brought up here but also mirrored in chapter 48 (the gigantic spike of doom on the above graph). Characters have to cross through tunnels and emerge on the other side; there is struggle and change involved with both, and the idea of emerging through a hellish experience different but alive on the other end is also referenced in chapter 44, another sentiment peak.
38 and 39 are smaller peaks but still significant. 38 is the “no great loss” series of vignettes, where we see the deaths of those who survived the superflu but succumbed to accident afterward. There’s no upside to anything in the chapter so it’s sentiment position goes without question. 39 features Lloyd meeting the Dark Man himself, a pivotal moment for Lloyd and, as a consequence, everyone else.
43 marks the beginning of the section where the wild swings start occurring, and it’s also the beginning of everyone’s bizarrely spiritual division into the camps of Good and Evil. 43 has Nick meeting Tom Cullen in Oklahoma, where Tom saves Nick from a tornado that Nick swears has the spirit of the Dark Man in it. They also meet and ditch obnoxious, vapid, vicious Julie Lawry and meet up with the last main character to be introduced, that ol’ Okie sodbuster Ralph Brentner.
44 is Larry’s Journey Through The Dark Side, where he nearly kills himself on a motorcycle, gets stalked through New England, and faces up to the concept that everyone has been right about him thus far, that he Ain’t No Nice Guy. He meets Nadine and Joe/Leo, and they head on up to the coast which happens to be Ogunquit, where Frannie and Harold have recently left. It’s a parallel storyline to the one where Stu meets Glen, and then meets Harold and Frannie, but interestingly the Stu/Glen/etc. storyline is of much more neutral sentiment than the story of Larry shadowing them. It’s also interesting that two of Larry’s story arcs are sentiment peaks in the story whereas Stu Redman, King’s self-described Frodo Baggins, falls below the radar every time. This, despite Stu’s being at the epicenter of the superflu epidemic, and his being subjected to government quarantine, endless testing, and barely escaping the Stovington, VT plague center with his life. There is perhaps a case to be made that Stu is a calm, collected individual; even in stressful situations, he remains unruffled. This, therefore, come across in the writing with much calmer emotional sentiment.
The giant whip between 45 and 48 bears examination as well because it pairs exceedingly well with the adversarial structure of the novel. 45, the huge positive peak of the book (and of any other King book so far) is the introduction and history of Mother Abigail, the representative of God on Earth. 48, on the other hand, is the story of how Trashcan Man ended his time with the peculiar little JD hood named The Kid and how he came to Las Vegas, which seemed like a utopia until Flagg proved it wasn’t. It’s our first major look at Vegas, at Flagg, and especially at the descent of Trashy from pathetic figure of tragedy to architect of his own destruction. The wild swing between the two sets out the Adversaries: Mother Abigail at the positive peak and Flagg at the negative. The rest of the book revolves around this duality.
Between the two, incidentally, is 47, a negative peak that actually features Stu and company, but of course it’s where everything almost goes to hell after the party encounters a lawless set of road bandits intent on collecting a harem of women to rape. It’s a reminder that, even though much of the imagery that comes before it is surreal and dream-like, the post-apocalyptic world is also violent and potentially lethal. The negative sentiment here is also offset slightly by Stu and Fran getting together romantically.
51 marks another positive peak and this is where everyone in Boulder is getting together, planning on how to make it into a new American home, getting the lights going, and bullshitting each other about how they’re going to deal with Flagg, the Dark Man. It’s a very interesting sentiment peak because as King tells it, it was very nearly the end of the book entirely. He wasn’t sure where to go from there, and you can tell from the sentiment path. Most of the chapters coming after 51 are positive-sentiment chapters, a rarity from what we’ve seen of King’s work so far. People are coming together, making new lives for themselves, meeting each other and forming an Ad Hoc Committee to do the real business of running the government of Boulder. However, as King realized (and as he has Mother Abigail explain much later) the whole point of the book and of facing down the Adversary wasn’t to form cutesy little governments and to get the lights running. It was to face down Flagg. Thus, the chapters between 51 and 58 are mostly feel-good, the world-is-coming-together chapters that feel like a bit of a slog because they spiral off into an almost aimless storyline. Thus, in 58, when it crashes back down into a negative spike, it’s when Harold and Nadine blow up the Committee meeting and kill Nick Andros.
After that, there’s two big peaks: 65-66 and 72-74. 65 is where Flagg consumates his relationship with Nadine under “glittering desert stars”; 66 is where Lloyd confronts the idea that Flagg’s artillery captain Trashy has gone rogue and that maybe the big guy isn’t all-powerful after all. 72-74, meanwhile, is where the final quartet – Stu, Glen, Ralph, and Larry – head west. In 72 Stu is stranded by an accident and left behind. In 73, as the peak shows, the climax happens – the remaining three face down Flagg in the heart of Las Vegas and when Trashy returns with an atomic bomb he blows up everyone and everything in the city (except for Flagg, who escapes at the last minute). 74 shows us Stu, sick and dying, watching the mushroom cloud grow and dissipate over Vegas. He’s discovered by Tom Cullen, and Tom has to care for him as they try to make it back to Boulder. They make it to a Colorado hotel in the teeth of a blizzard and it ends on Stu waiting to live or die.
That’s the end, basically. Stu living, and by extent Fran’s baby living, are foregone conclusions and there’s little terrifying or tense about them. It’s just details, as the sentiment scores show. The question of Stu’s survival after being left behind is the final climax of the book.
As an afterword (haha) here are the top contributions to sentiment by word:
“Dark” is pretty self-explanatory – the antagonist is the “dark man”, after all. Dead also makes sense, given that 99.9% of the human population dies in the course of the book. “Cold” is interesting, since that’s the general experience most people seem to have when in Flagg’s company.
So this one had some interesting things to show once visualized. The fact that it explodes into a mid-section that’s at least double normal intensity is interesting, as is the matchup of huge emotional swings with chapters that base themselves in the two adversaries, Flagg and Mother Abigail. There’s a good question here whether the large sentiment scores are the result of the much larger chapter sizes; we’ll have to see whether similarly large scores are noted in shorter books. It’s also worth noting that, if we remove the massive peak in 48 (due to the fact that it is much larger than a lot of the other chapters) then the sentiment peak of the book is really 35, the Escape From New York chapter. This is, again, one of the more terrifying chapters in King’s bibliography and it’s fascinating to see that play out in the sentiment scores.