A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
There’s always been a dynamic relationship between speculative fiction—the art of the possible or what could be possible—and the world of quotidian reality. Speculative fiction slides into reality through its back door, and then often exposes a warning to its reader or viewer: the danger inherent in behavior that explores forbidden places where humans ought to be wary of transgressing. Stephen King, a novelist I have been teaching and writing about for decades, specializes in creating such cautionary tales. Most recently, a bestselling novel he published in 1978, The Stand, a narrative that centers on a pandemic virus that decimates 99% of the world’s population, has perhaps hit a bit too close to home, effectively erasing whatever barriers separate speculative fiction and reality. It’s therefore no accident that Covid-19 has reactivated interest in King’s book and that a second televised miniseries based on the novel is currently streaming on CBS.
The story of The Stand commences with a scientifically designed superflu virus that escapes out of a military laboratory in California. Although the world’s current version of its own plague, Covid-19, most likely originated from an interspecies transmission that occurred in China, the contagiousness, if not its speed, with which this infection has spread resembles King’s virus. King’s plague has also, fortunately, so far proven to be far more lethal than the active Coronavirus strain the world is currently facing, but at this writing the Coronavirus is nonetheless responsible for 1.8 million deaths worldwide and over 365,000 deaths and 22 million infections in the U.S. alone, an average of 237,645 cases per day.
The Stand is an apocalyptic book about the end of the human world, at the same time that it is also a narrative about hope and reinvention. King’s dystopic vision of the future ends with a final element of survival; the Americans in his novel who manage to endure do so because of their courage, their resiliency, and their luck. Our world will likewise survive Covid-19, but what King is most interested in asking is: At what cost, and what, if anything, do we take away from the entirety of this experience? Particularly through the voice of its resident philosopher, Glen Bateman, the Associate Professor of Sociology bearing an MFA degree, The Stand laments that human societies will always be in competition against each other, and, worse, that eventually this level of antipathy will grow so great that each society will pursue ways of destroying the others: “All of that stuff is lying around, waiting to be picked up. And if Communities A and B both have pet technicians, they might work up some kind of rusty nuclear exchange over religion, or territoriality, or some paltry ideological indifference . . . Man may have been made in the image of God, but human society was made in the image of His opposite number, and is always trying to get back home.” Bateman’s fear is underscored in the very commission of the superflu itself conceived as a military weapon. Throughout The Stand, the secreted governmental agencies responsible for unleashing the plague lie and do their best to downplay the infection’s potency, to deny culpability, and even resort to mass murder in an effort to keep the remaining American citizens trapped in Manhattan. Their futile effort to control the spread of the infection forces the military to engage desperate measures to contain the frantic movements of a panicked population.
While the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic came from an Asian wet food market rather than a military laboratory, evidence of Bateman’s societal pessimism finds its way into reality in China’s attempts to cover up the origins of the plague—as well as in their failure to warn and work with the rest of the global community (at one point even blaming “American soldiers” for introducing it as an act of war); lied to its own people about the extent of the pandemic and the number of dead; and as a consequence of all this duplicitous secrecy, failed to pursue help in dealing with the outbreak from the larger, international scientific community. As Kenneth Roth argued back in March when the epidemic was first unleashed in America, the Chinese government silenced and reprimanded doctors in Wuhan who tried to sound the alarm to the rest of the world. The failure to transmit the danger gave Covid-19 at least a three-week head start.
The American response, via the block-headed macho posturizing of the Trump administration, was not much more enlightened. Instead of immediately closing American borders to travelers to and from China once it was evident there was an outbreak of infections in Wuhan (December 2019) in an effort to contain the virus, Trump was reluctant to grasp the seriousness of the pandemic; moreover, many tragedies could have been circumvented had Trump’s administration offered a less unpredictable and more structured and consistent Federal response towards subsequent prevention and containment of the disease. Instead, the President chose to abdicate his responsibility to perform as a leader, essentially handing the onus of dealing with the problem over to the states. Trump accomplished little more than to blame the Chinese, consistently and derisively labelling Covid-19, “the Chinese flu,” as if establishing the pandemic’s origins marked it as someone else’s obligation. At least part of the reason for Trump’s recent re-election failure can be blamed on the public’s awareness of his incompetence regarding the pandemic, and it should come as no surprise if we end up discovering further duplicitous presidential conduct towards solving the virus crisis beyond media coverage after he leaves office. Even once the vaccines became available in December 2020, the Trump government, in ironic defiance of their own “Warp Speed” initiative, failed to deliver the vaccines expeditiously to a population desperate to have them. His clueless response in downplaying the potency of the virus, insisting that in most cases it was like having a bad cold, while on forty separate occasions during 2020 relying on magical thinking that the coronavirus would just disappear finds a haunting parallel in an American presidential speech delivered at the height of the pandemic in The Stand: “There is no truth—no truth—to the rumor that this strain of flu is fatal. In the greatest majority of cases, the person afflicted can expect to be up and around feeling fine within a week.” Thus, in both The Stand and Trump’s reaction to their respective pandemics, the American government bears culpability for either producing the virus itself or allowing it to spread because of administrative incompetence.
The virus crises in both King’s novel and in our own time have legitimized authoritarian responses on the parts of both governments and individuals in positions of power. In 2020, governments in Thailand, Egypt, Venezuela, Turkey, South Korea, and China imposed additional restrictions on the movements of their citizens and the reporting of journalists writing about the pandemic. Trump called the coronavirus a “hoax,” yet has used its existence as a means for discouraging requests under the Freedom of Information Act. The Trump administration has deliberately distorted and obfuscated pandemic facts to the American people in an effort to manipulate the number of reported Covid-19 infections as well as the number of unemployed and dead Americans as a direct result of the pandemic. In his effort to win re-election, Trump put additional pressure (even ordering them) on schools and businesses to remain open to keep the economy from tanking in spite of the risk of large group super-spreader infections. In Randall Flagg’s America, which emerges once the plague has done its devastating work, the Trumpian attraction to authoritarianism becomes fully realized. The destruction of democratic government in the wake of the superflu provides Flagg with an opportunity to impose a dictatorship over the newly created population of Las Vegas. Flagg rules with an iron fist, crucifying those who question his authority and resurrecting America’s nuclear arsenal in preparation to eliminate the other city-states that are re-forming in the wake of the plague.
While our world awaits mass distribution of the various manufactured vaccines that we hope will prove resistant to the coronavirus, we have come to share much in common with the survivors of King’s narrative. As the novel unfolds early around the quotidian lives of King’s central characters, King frequently interrupts their storylines with a reminder of the imminent destruction occurring as a result of the plague on the cusp of overwhelming all that was once considered “normal.” In the past year, global societies have undergone a similar sense of disruption; even as we all try to continue working and strive to keep schools and businesses safely open, the evening news has been a constant reminder of just how dramatically our lives have been interrupted and transformed. Even the phrase “Is it a cold, the flu, or Covid-19?” is an indication of the precariousness of our present lives. Perhaps we suffer from a different version of anxiety and isolation than those survivors who wander the highways of King’s fiction. Surrounded by potential pathogenic exposure, since Covid’s emergence we have lived in constant fear of one another, of contaminated door handles and objects touched by friends and strangers alike, of inhaling the same potentially contaminated air. As a result, it has increased our levels of anxiety, loneliness, mental illness, and drug usage exponentially. Most of King’s isolated survivors yearn for confirmation that they are not alone in the world, and seek to reestablish contact with other people; Covid-19 survivors likewise yearn for a lost human contact, but we must remind themselves constantly to remain isolated, or at least six feet apart. These surviving victims of each respective plague share a similar restlessness, paranoia, and fear: King’s characters wander the highways of a broken America in search of other people, haunted by a dead past, while Covid-19 victims remain trapped inside their homes, avoiding travel, large group gatherings and each other, hungrily anticipating a future return to “normality.” We have been forced to experience life vicariously for the past year, through video and computer screens and other remote technologies rendered useless with the loss of electricity in King’s post-plague dystopia; his characters find themselves occupying a more basic, almost primitive form of existence, relying on earlier, more rudimentary forms of communication and transportation.
The survivors in The Stand have no need to fear transmission of the contagion from one another—they are survivors because their bodies have proven immune to the disease. Their good fortune, however, is short-lived because without the protections of civilization susceptible to the ravages of anarchy—just as post-plague democracies prove susceptible to authoritarianism—including accidents and non-plague illness, random acts of violence, and rape. In a novel that fantasizes the abrupt dissolution of human civilization as we know it, and forces those who have survived into a profoundly existential awareness of the human condition stripped of social veneers, it is most appropriate that King should distill his emphasis on the resulting cosmic struggle between good and evil into the most personal and fundamental of human responses: sexuality. The issue of sexual violence is especially pronounced as a consequence of Captain Trips, since women come to realize the danger associated with a lawless society and their dependence on men. In The Stand, particularly in the case of the 1990 revised and uncut edition, a character’s sexual responsiveness is a way of signaling his or her place on the moral continuum of good and evil. The issue of sexual abuse and assault, especially in the form of rape, haunts the forsaken landscape of King’s novel. Those individuals who choose to express themselves through a violent or dehumanized sexuality are Flagg’s kindred and gravitate towards the latter’s empire in Las Vegas. In contrast, the capacity to control sexual lust and violence—maintaining a responsible attitude toward sexuality as a means for the expression of love—is related to the ability to resist evil and choose decency despite the loss of civilized mores. At the opposite extreme of the self-control extolled by Glen Bateman and others encamped in Boulder, Colorado, King provides a group of immoral men who have used the collapse of civilization to indulge their misogyny. The four men who maintain “the zoo” have kidnapped eight women and hold them as sexual slaves. “I’d get up in the morning, be raped two or three times, and then wait for Doc to hand out the pills,” says one of their victims. Using drugs to maintain female compliance, the “zoo-keepers” are indicative of a return to primitive life that confirms Stu Redman’s worst fears about the dangers inherent in the abdication of civilized law.
In the end, The Stand, like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings upon which it owes a great debt of influence, is really a religious allegory: the post-apocalyptic world that is distilled into Boulder and Las Vegas becomes a kind of secular Last Judgment for what remains of humankind. Good or evil—what will it be? King leaves the fate of this judgment decidedly open for each individual. But the novel’s ending comes down to free will and human choice. What will his survivors take away into the future based on the mistakes that have destroyed their collective past? While it is clear that King’s vision of a post-plague America is more drastic and fatally consequential than where Covid-19 has so far rendered us, we share with his protagonists the need to adjust constantly to circumstances that continue to change in concordance with the consequences of a pernicious virus. Who would have thought that in less than a year, a pandemic would have us emphasizing the wearing of masks and social distancing, our hospitals filled to capacity with the sick and dying, refrigerator trucks piled with corpses awaiting burial, and an economy on the verge of a global recession? Global science has created several vaccines that were unavailable to King’s characters because of the speed and lethal virulency of a man-made superflu that literally overwhelmed the world’s population in a matter of days. At this point in our own pandemic’s history, we do not yet share the level of desperation associated with the situation facing King’s cast of characters. However, before we get too complacent in rending King’s dystopic drama as pure fantasy, let’s ask a few sobering questions of our own: what happens if Covid-19 mutates into a more virulent strain? What if the various vaccines we are currently deploying to produce herd immunity fail to do so? It is estimated that it may take three to four years to get the earth’s population vaccinated against this virus; can the third world afford to wait that long? And what of the next coronavirus that is already out there dwelling in some remote cave in the wild already on the verge of being encroached upon by a human civilization that requires more space and more food for its escalating population?
 Kenneth Roth, “How Authoritarians Are Exploiting the Covid-19 Crisis to Grab Power,” New York Review of Books, 31Mar. 2020. https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2020/03/31/how-authoritarians-are-exploiting-the-covid-19-crisis-to-grab-power/
Copyright 2021 Tony Magistrale
Tony Magistrale, a poet and professor of English at the University of Vermont, has written several books about Stephen King. In 2000 King employed Magistrale as a research assistant, and as an expert on King’s work, Magistrale has been called upon to provide commentary tracks when movies based on King’s work are released on video.