Captain Trips. It sounds like a name for children’s cereal and not a deadly superbug that kills 99% of humanity. When Stephen King first wrote The Stand in 1978, he probably didn’t think it would be this relevant today. The instigating moment for its entire plot is when an infected security guard manages to escape from a biological testing facility before they were able to “lockdown” their gates, a word we are now all too familiar with. From there, everything spins out of control as the virus spreads rapidly both within and outside the United States.
King manages to make The Stand a world in which the presence of the
supernatural fundamentally alters the state of reality in which his characters live, yet his writing is almost brutally honest about the chaos, callousness, and apathy that can grip everyday, normal folks in those moments between calamity and outright pandemonium. How do you cope if your loved ones are dying from a disease you know nothing about? How do you lay them to rest if your hospitals and funeral homes are overflowing? What happens to those who were forgotten by the system; the
incarcerated, the disabled, the homeless, the elderly? These are all questions that King explores and that we continue to see play out in real-time in our own communities.
As the survivors attempt to come to terms with a new world order, they are supernaturally drawn to what is The Stand’s embodiment of pure evil in Randall Flagg and of goodness in Mother Abigail, each appearing in dreams which either give the individual a sense of peace or pure terror. At first, these characters seemed like caricatures. Flagg is often described as evil incarnate, a demon, and Mother Abigail, the opposite. Despite being the “counterpart” for Flagg’s evil, Mother Abigail is not a paragon. She is more
flawed and thus, more deeply human. She is kind and nurturing but even at
the age of 108, she struggles with her faith and the role she believes she has to play in the plague. As I began to learn more about the other characters, I felt the drastic spectrum of morality represented by Flagg and Mother Abigail was necessary because it highlighted how King’s other protagonists covered every shade of morality. Theirs are the instincts that are much more relatable; those are the characters dealing with depression, rejection, loneliness, jealousy, hunger, desperation, and fear at levels that we have all experienced in our lives. The novel explores how these base emotions, unchecked, can be manipulated by those with bad intentions, those who want to use the opportunity to carve out positions of power and influence for themselves.
This story also reflects, however, the resilience of the human spirit, which
often comes out during times of crisis. Not everyone succumbs to those base
instincts. Survivors find each other, and, drawn to Mother Abigail, form new communities. Ultimately, they manage to hold their own against Flagg’s forces. But it’s not the climactic collision between these forces that is King’s masterstroke. Even in these extraordinary circumstances, King’s characters can’t help but be human. A pregnant mother is still fiercely protective of her child, people still meet and fall in love, and there is a sincere affection within that community. King really encapsulates that inherent contradiction of being human.
He ends his story with the birth of a child. Although the child gets the superbug, it manages to fight it off. King doesn’t leave us on that hopeful note though. The last big question the novel poses comes from the child’s parents. They wonder, “Do you think people ever learn anything?” King gives us the only honest response to this: “I don’t know.”
This isn’t the first pandemic, and it won’t be the last. Although we know so much more now than we did during the time when The Stand is set, King’s story still captures the vital element that is the key to surviving any pandemic (minus the supernatural variable; science doesn’t have units for that). Human decency; our concern for each other as a community. Scientists and public health officials can point us in the right direction, but ultimately, it will and should be our concern for our communities that will prove the success of any public health initiative. Wouldn’t it be great to honestly answer King’s question with a “Yes, yes they do.”
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