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.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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