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The definitive work of art about COVID-19 was written by Stephen King in 1978. It’s called The Stand , and it’s widely considered the popular horror author’s masterpiece — an engrossing, sweat-inducing, eerily plausible 1,400-page epic about the inception and spread of an extremely deadly global pandemic, kick-started inside an underground biological testing facility in the Mojave desert and sent hurtling in all directions across the world with irrepressible speed.
There’s never been a better time to read King’s illness opus than right now. For one thing, we have more free time than ever, and if nothing else, being cooped up in self-isolation is an ideal opportunity to tackle such a daunting read. For another, the book has a lot to tell us about our current situation — about the things we’re afraid of and of how much worse this could be.
Dreamed up more than 40 years before the world had ever heard of a coronavirus, it features so many striking parallels with our current international crisis that it became a prevailing point of comparison as soon as the disease first appeared — so much so that King himself was compelled to comment. “No, coronavirus is not like The Stand ,” he tweeted in early March . “It’s not anywhere near as serious. It’s eminently survivable.”
King’s superflu — or “Captain Trips,” as it’s colloquially known in the book — does indeed differ from our coronavirus significantly. Wildly contagious, with a mortality rate somewhere around the 99th percentile, Trips takes the shape of a vicious flu mutation, a totally incurable malady that steamrolls the human immune system and can kill in a matter of hours. The Stand is mainly about the aftermath of the catastrophe, when humanity has been virtually eradicated and the few thousand survivors endeavour to rebuild society from its dilapidated remains.
No matter how severely we’re battered by COVID-19, no matter how badly we manage to keep its spread contained, it’s not going to wipe out all of mankind. But while we are certainly blessed to be contending with a less fatal disease than the one that King devised, the way Captain Trips’ spread seems eerily similar to what we are dealing with right now.
As it briskly sweeps the nation — King describes it as “a very lethal chain letter,” unforgettably — we come to dread his allusions to mundane symptoms, to the mild coughs and runny noses and the death and destruction they herald. “Her nose began to tickle,” King writes, of a nurse on duty at a hospital where the sick are under quarantine. “She got her hankie out of her pocket and sneezed lightly three times.” What he means to imply is clear. The poor nurse, and indeed the entire hospital, is done for. Seen anybody coughing or sneezing in pubic lately? You will know what King’s talking about. And it’ll seriously freak you out.
“My fellow Americans,” the president of the United States begins an address to the nation as the disease is ramping up, “I urge you to stay at home. If you feel ill, stay in bed, take Aspirin, and drink plenty of clear liquids. Be confident that you will feel better in a week at most .” King’s guileful government figureheads grossly downplay the severity of Captain Trips, denying “the rumour that this strain of flu is fatal,” even as half the country is bedridden with infection and thousands are succumbing to it by the hour.
When the book was published, this might have read as somewhat cartoonishly satire — a bleak bit of exaggeration for darkly comic effect. In light of how the real president has responded to COVID-19, it doesn’t seem like satire. “We ask that you remain calm and secure in the knowledge that that late this week or early next, a flu vaccine will be available for those not already on the mend,” the fictional president declares. His address is interrupted by “a spasm of coughing.”
What makes The Stand so effective is its uncanny realism — the sense that King has come up with not some far-fetched science-fiction scenario, but a credible account of how a terminal super-virus might plausibly spread. He correctly surmised the alarm and confusion that would surround the rapid expansion of a disease that isn’t well understood, and the panic that would seep into the hearts and minds of the public as they attempt to discern the seriousness of the threat.
Most disturbingly, he predicted how rapidly a disease like this could spread without measures to flatten the curve. Two weeks after he’d insisted coronavirus wasn’t like his superflu, in fact, King returned to Twitter to clarify that , while his disease wasn’t as deadly, the spread was the same. “This is how it works,” he wrote. “Heed.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020