I’m a serious fan of all things in the post-apocalypse genre, and I just finished Stephen King’s The Stand for the second time in my life. Well actually, this version was the complete and uncut edition that runs an additional 345 pages longer than the original. The original version circa 1978, is an 800+ page epic about a super-charged strain of the flu virus — developed by the U.S. government as a biological weapon — which escapes from its testing facility and kills over 99 percent of the world’s population. The survivors in America are drawn to a “good” community in Boulder, Colorado and an “evil” community in Las Vegas. As the threat of evil looms, several members of the Boulder community journey to Las Vegas to confront it. The Stand is a masterpiece.
A big part of the novel’s power is the way King depicts a world coming to grips with the fact that it’s all over in the first 200 pages or so. That’s still the gold standard for apocalyptic writing, because the first 50 pages or so describe a normal world that can’t accept that the flu is going to kill almost everybody off. Even the reader is lulled into a state of complacency, because King is deeply underrated as a social realist. You really are convinced that the world as everybody knows it isn’t going to end, because King is good at capturing the details of normal mundane American life. And then it does.
Seriously, Stephen King is to American literature as Bruce Springsteen is to American Rock N Roll. I think some of the best parts of The Stand are small bits and pieces of how society is literally melting down around the main characters.
Things like the crazy TV broadcast showing the infected Marines playing a weird gameshow where they are executing people whether they are sick or not.
The ‘passing’ of the virus between families and strangers showing the lethality of it through the most minor contact and their subsequent deaths.
The radio broadcast where one DJ finally breaks protocol and starts really talking about the coverup to deadly consequences.
The small stories about the survivors who meet other fates either through accidents or by their own stupidity. I remember the one where the damaged woman tries to kill some stranger on the street only to have the gun blow up in her hand.
The fate of ‘The Kid’
I always thought it was fascinating to imagine the breakdown of society in the wake of this global pandemic. I also really loved the last part of the book, which takes time to chronicle the attempt to rebuild society after all the Good Vs Evil conflict had been resolved. Getting power running again. Re-establishing a form of law and order. There’s this romantic/naive idea that if you could wipe the slate clean with all of these broken systems in society, you could rebuild things better and — I like that this story depicts these things are complicated, because people are complicated and imperfect. I think King is just sort of plugged into some sort of uniquely American mania, and that’s what he’ll be studied for in the future.
I do think we’re going to see the end of apocalypse fiction, or more properly, its evolution, sometime this decade. Because one thing that stories like this do is present the apocalypse as an event, a singularity, whereas it’s becoming more and more apparent that the “apocalypse” we’re dealing with in reality is more of a process or a series of process than one unified thing. Life is art. Art is life.