Living in a Stephen King nightmare

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Street mural photographed by Noel Holston

In an article for The Guardian, Stephen King, man of letters and master of horrors, talked about two characters he created who kinda-sorta predict the rise of Donald J. Trump.

In The Dead Zone (1979), there’s Greg Stillson, a snake-oily Bible salesman who flimflams his way to a mayor’s post, the U.S. House and finally the Presidency, where he starts a world war. King also points to Under the Dome (2009), in which he gave readers Big Jim Rennie, a self-promoting car salesman and small-town alderman whose authoritarian tendencies grow stronger and sociopathic when his community is cut off from world by a mysterious, impenetrable bubble.

I can see King’s points, especially the huckster aspect, but for me, his more prescient novel is The Stand, that epic tale of life in America after a laboratory-engineered super-flu wipes out 99 percent of the human population. Published in 1978, The Stand was soon being hailed for its uncanny anticipation of AIDS and other virulent new threats to human health.

That’s not the prescience I’m talking about. The more interesting parallel today is King’s meticulous laying out of a crisis of American democracy.

We hear constantly about the “polarization” afoot in our supposedly United States, of red-blue rifts over immigration, guns, minority rights and government’s societal role that end friendships, divide families, even provoke mass shooters.

The website FiveThirtyEight recently posted an interview with a guy who believes our nation has become ungovernable, has “run its course,” and should be divided up into five or six separate countries: a Left Coast strip that includes California, for instance, and a Dixie-fried aggregation that includes most of the old Confederacy.

And speaking of the Great Secession, we’ve all heard murmurings, nervous speculation, that we could be headed for an actual civil war. Heard it, or read it on Facebook or Twitter.

In The Stand’s decimated America, the poles are amplified. Survivors of the apocalyptic disease are assembling under distinct banners for a war for the nation’s soul. (Heard that phrase lately? If not, you obviously haven’t been watching the Democratic Party’s televised debates.)

In Las Vegas, good ol’ Sin City, an army’s worth of the criminal, the bitter, the resentful, the envious and the toady — a real basket of deplorables, some might call them — is in the sway a seductive demagogue-cum-devil who goes by the name of Randall Flagg and makes them all feel important, useful, wanted. They’ve happily embraced tyranny.

On the other side of the Rockies, in Boulder, Colorado, another legion is forming, this one united around the notion of rebooting the nation that the super-flu has laid to waste, not just the machinery but the republic that was.

In a key passage, Stuart Redman, one of the novel’s primary characters, a classic reticent-reluctant American hero, gets down to brass tacks over a jug of wine with Glen Bateman, a sociology professor who exists as a character in large part to theorize and philosophize on behalf of author.

Bateman says the Boulder aggregation’s first task must be to “re-create” America, albeit in miniature. He says they’d need to call a meeting of all the survivors in Boulder and “read and ratify” the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

“Christ, Glen, we’re all Americans…,” Redman interjects.

“No, that’s where you’re wrong,” Bateman responds. “We’re a bunch of survivors with no government at all. We’re a hodgepodge collection from every age group, religious group, class group and racial group. Government is an idea, Stu.”

He goes on to say they need to act quickly. “Our people here are very soon going to wake up to the fact that the old ways are gone, and that they can restructure society any old way they want. We want — we need — to catch them before they wake up and do something nutty.”

We obviously still have a government, gridlocked though it too often is. And Trump is no Randall Flagg; he’s a needy, greedy man, not a supernatural creature. Nonetheless, we do find ourselves in a tricky situation, disorganized and disunited. And arguably the scariest thing, with regard to our Republic’s vulnerability, is that it didn’t take a plague to get us here.

I’m not quite finished reading The Stand, by the way. No sure how it turns out. Don’t tell me.

Written by

Mississippi native, award-winning veteran of The Orlando Sentinel, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Newsday, stand-up storyteller, lives in Athens, Ga.

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