The Stand is part of a lengthy science-fiction tradition of post-holocaust tales extending back to Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) through such works as Hermann Lang’s The Air Battle (1859), Richard Jefferies’ After London (1885), Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague (1915), and S. Fowler Wright’s Deluge (1928). Stephen King has acknowledged all these authors and works as influences.

Within the familiar scenario of survivors trying to cope with and refashion a devastated world, King emphasizes a theme that he has made familiar to his readers: the eternal struggle between good and evil. In The Stand, as in many of his other novels, King depicts most of his central characters as neither entirely good nor entirely bad, but he leaves no doubt about his belief in the existence of powers and personalities that embody pure good and pure evil beyond the range of normal human activity.

These are the fundamental “givens” in King’s fictional universe, in which evil, however often defeated, persists as if sustained by a law of physics. His “normal” characters, however, are slow to comprehend or to act on this principle. Instead, The Stand’s most perceptive characters are the aged Mother Abigail, the deaf-mute Nick Andros, and the retarded Tom Cullen—or they are children, whom King often describes as more insightful about fundamental morality than are most...

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