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Fighting the Flu

Image (partial) from a Marvel Comic version of The Stand.

The mobilization of the military to control the spread of the current outbreak of a rare strain of the swine flu in Mexico City is right out of Stephen King’s The Stand.

The Stand

Publisher: Penguin
Length: 1168
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 9780451169532
Author: Stephen King
US publication date: 1991-05

The Stand

Distributor: Republic
Cast: Rick Aviles, Ossie Davis
Network: ABC
First date: 1994
US Release Date: 2002-08-20

One of the most important structural characteristics of the science fiction genre is the forecasting of how future scientific and technological developments will affect human culture, biology, and environment. But quite often this genre gets intermixed with horror elements. In such a case, these narratives not only attempt to predict the things to come, but they also become cautionary tales that warn against the potential dangers of the premeditated or irresponsible misuse and abuse of revolutionary scientific work.

Indeed, murdering robots, tragedies aboard spaceships, mishaps with time machines, and rampaging monsters resulting from genetic manipulation are just a few of the archetypical situations found at the crossroads between horror and science fiction. Interestingly enough, even though these cautionary tales exploit the potentially negative impact of modern science, these dire situations are often resolved with some other form of advanced technology. Therefore, most of these books and films ultimately present the thesis that science is good, but mankind should proceed with caution and moderation.

Let us briefly consider the case of The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984), undoubtedly one of the most dramatic technophobic tales from recent years. In this landmark film, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) not only is menaced by the unstoppable cyborg from the future (Arnold Schwarzenegger), but also smaller technological gadgets appear to conspire against her. Indeed, a broken telephone impedes her from calling the police, an answering machine gives away her location, and Dr. Silberman (Earl Boen) fails to see the killing machine because he is distracted answering his beeper.

However, Sarah and Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) constantly use science and technology to battle the metallic killer. For instance, they use sophisticated firepower and even build home improvised explosive devices. Moreover, in a rather ironic finale, a primitive machine is ultimately used to demolish the futuristic machine. As such, The Terminator warns us about a future literally dominated by technology, but it also acknowledges the benefits of employing this same technology to our advantage. In this film, technology itself is neither good nor evil.

On the other hand, Stephen King’s The Stand (1978) is the ultimate technophobic fantasy that warns us against the misuse and abuse of science and technology, and it never provides any redeemable value for their use. Science and technology are moralized as evil, while spirituality and religion become the epitome of good. The evil vs. good confrontation presented in The Stand ultimately boils down to a battle between science and spirituality. This subversive presentation of science and technology is one of the reasons that make The Stand so unique in the history of the horror and science fiction genres.

The demonization of science and technology in The Stand is evident from the very first pages, where it is revealed that the end of the world is caused by the accidental release of a super-flu virus from a secret military laboratory. Written during the ‘70s, this scenario can be appreciated as a natural reaction to the turbulent political climate that characterized the Cold War years, the real prospect of an apocalyptic World War III, and the generalized paranoia and distrust felt towards traditional authority institutions.

In the hands of another author, this apocalyptic setting would have developed into the archetypical story of a handful of survivors struggling to find a cure for the deadly disease while trying to survive the dying Earth. Indeed, this situation is reminiscent of books such as Richard Matheson’s I am Legend (1954), and films like On the Beach (Stanley Kramer, 1959) and The World, the Flesh and the Devil (Ranald MacDougall, 1959). In these three examples, the survivors of a manmade Armageddon use whatever technology is still available to them to survive and understand their place in a crumbling world.

King, however, had the brilliance to take his readers for a more sophisticated ride, with heavy philosophical, theological, metaphysical, and existential overtones. In The Stand, the subsequent post-apocalyptic world is quickly polarized into two distinct bands characterized not only by their morality, but also by their reliance on modern technology. Randall Flagg and his evil minions employ advanced technology and pre-apocalyptic luxuries to build a new empire. On the other hand, the benevolent Mother Abagail and her troops form a society more concerned with esoteric practices, mysticism, spirituality, and religion.

To set the stage for the final battle between the forces of good and evil, Mother Abagail summons Stu, Larry, Ralph, and Glenn. She orders them to confront Randall Flagg on his own territory. But to fulfill their challenge the heroes are required to walk for miles, all the way from Boulder, Colorado to Las Vegas, Nevada. They cannot carry weapons or any other tools. As such, their long walk can be understood an act of cleansing and purification from the influence of science and technology. In King’s groundbreaking book, the stand of good against evil becomes a stand of spirituality against science.

While King has confessed that he envisioned The Stand as “The Lord of the Rings with an American background”, such a connection is not superficially evident. However, the moralization of technology as it is confronted against the power of spirituality becomes the structural characteristic that makes The Stand a close relative of Tolkein’s trilogy. Indeed, many scholars agree that Tolkein used Middle Earth as a subtle and veiled allegory to convey his deep aversion for industrialization, his fears for the harmful effects of environmental pollution, and to expose the horrors that he endured during both World Wars. For Tolkein as for King, science and technology are moralized as evil with no redeemable values, and ultimately both should be discarded in place of mysticism, spirituality, and religion.

The moralization of science observed in The Stand also makes us consider its thematic connection to the works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft. In stories such as From Beyond, The Dreams in the Witch House, and At the Mountains of Madness, Lovecraft presented human science and technology as the unintended doorway to a terrifying parallel universe populated with unspeakable horrors that coexist alongside our reality. In The Dreams in the Witch House, for instance, Lovecraft writes:

Gilman could not have told what he expected to find there, but he knew he wanted to be in the building where some circumstance had more or less suddenly given a mediocre old woman of the seventeenth century an insight into mathematical depths perhaps beyond the utmost modern delvings of Planck, Heisenberg, Einstein, and de Sitter.

Science and technology are never considered as evil in Lovecraft’s work. Even clear cautionary tales such as Herbert West: Re-Animator avoid a moralizing structure such as that found in The Stand. Perhaps Lovecraft simply had a nihilistic view on the scope and effect of most human endeavors. Lovecraft often linked science and technology to metaphysical horrors and God-like creatures eager to conquer our planet, for which mankind was no match. Any type of manmade super-weapon to fight these terrifying entities would have been a completely futile exercise. Thus, the physical structure of our cosmos, with all its unspeakable horrors, is just a fact of life that offers no objective and reliable moral context to better understand our surroundings.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that one can feel the influence of Lovecraft in King’s The Stand. This is particularly true when we consider the Randall Flagg character as developed not only in the expanded edition of The Stand, but also in The Dark Tower series. In these books, Randall Flagg is a true metaphysical horror and a God-like bearer of frightening situations. In the revised ending of The Stand, for instance, Randall Flagg emerges on an alternate reality ready to fabricate a new apocalypse.

By combining selected elements from the technophobic scenarios envisioned by Lovecraft, Matheson, and Tolkein, King managed to create in The Stand a unique and compelling manmade apocalypse where science and technology are perfectly aligned to the forces of evil. But then again, such influences and inspirations should not be surprising. After all, King has confessed multiple times that his books have been deeply influenced by the work of these three masters of the fantastic.

In any event, the literary genius of Stephen King is undisputable and The Stand remains one of his most powerful books. Even after 30 years, The Stand remains relevant to current technological fears and anxieties. Just consider, nowadays we are as terrified as ever about the prospect of terrorist groups deploying biological weapons in our cities.

And perhaps more dramatic, the recent outbreak of the rare strain of the swine flu in Mexico City prompted the Mexican Congress to grant special powers to the President to effectively deal with the growing crisis. As a consequence, the Mexican army has been mobilized to test, usher, contain, and quarantine those who exhibit flu-like symptoms. Such an scenario is right out of Stephen King’s The Stand. As the World Health Organization and other international institutions fear that this situation will lead to a deadly global pandemic, we can only hope that The Stand will not become a prophecy.

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