Death, Disease & Pandemic: How Horror Writers of the Past Translated Illness (Part 2: Stephen King, Richard Matheson & Dean Koontz)


Another way writers wrangle the concept of a pandemic is to imagine one.

Only a few months ago, the very idea of a worldwide pandemic – one that could stop and rearrange everything we thought we knew about the world and ourselves was, well – an idea, an event that happened a long time ago or very far away.

Now that we are faced with a reality that itself reinvents the world, that does not stop hand-delivering difficult truths to us, it seems even harder to credit Horror writers with their earlier efforts to imagine the worst and carry it off with any accuracy. We can look at fiction and see it as superfluous – perhaps even “pointless.” Because in the face of reality, fiction always pales…

But Horror is never pointless – not at its true heart. Horror is the handmaid of horrible truths. And there is nothing like pandemics gone global that deliver our failings on a golden platter.

Here we will look at three Horror versions of the pandemic – Stephen King’s The Stand (a work that rings true in both the delivery of this disease and how we are handling this pandemic); Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (a work dedicated to the personal meaning of social distancing in the book version, and in the most modern film version an echo of the fears we have had and now entertain broadly at China’s expense of science escaping the lab); and Dean Koontz’s The Eyes of Darkness (for its now-viral reputation for eerie prediction of this pandemic within a single passage. Note: it is not a book about pandemic, but it is a lesson in naivete, fact-checking, and our modern tendency to believe anything we see on the internet).

K1

Stephen King and The Stand: When Reality Meets Criticism

When we think of modern pandemic Horror, many of us often think first of Stephen King’s The Stand. How could we not? It was one of the first King blockbusters, and is likely one of the first novels that come to mind when we think of pandemics in fiction… a tale about what a Super-flu might be like as a tool of Apocalypse – innocuous, yet savage in a world-order-changing kind of way.

Published in 1978, it happened upon the reading public just at the moment common folk were globally becoming aware of the way diseases spread and decimate… it happened when air travel proved it could deliver all manner of disease in record time and without detection… And when we had begun to realize that all governments (including our own) just might be thinking of disease again (and as we once did before) as a handy way to wage wars…if not to purge undesirable populations.

In that way, The Stand was not prophetic, but it was timely.

In the 1980’s, we first started to understand that disease could be the undoing of us all, and that fact kept The Stand in circulation for some time. All that globe-trotting and the rise of AIDS made us realize that weaponized disease could be a real and scary future for us. Coincidentally, the first step in dealing with a problem is to imagine it. And thanks to the dominance of the paperback (especially in places like supermarkets and – yep – airports), The Stand was one of our first popular modern fictional imaginings. It came at a time when we precisely needed to consider what an event like a Plague could do to a modern and mobile society.

So while some might be tempted to call it a prediction or an interesting stretch in the fictional imagination, it was already a popular discussed topic most preferred not to imagine. It was (frighteningly enough) already an expectation in the scientific community that simple influenzas were on their way to not being so simple. We were already starting to overprescribe antibiotics and see farmed animals moved to packed, unpastured communes that demanded even more frequent antibiotic use in animals.

We were calling this new, looming fear the Super Flu – “known to public health experts as pandemic influenza…which would cause substantial disruption of society and commerce” https://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/news/20040826/us-super-flu-plan-reveals-gaps-in-readiness#1 . The last one by King’s novel’s time was the 1968 Hong Kong flu pandemic, “which killed some 34,000 Americans” but was nothing compared to the title holder – the 1918 Spanish flu, which “was responsible for 675,000 U.S. deaths…” History aside, however, it was the newer discussions held by the scientific community that kept the fears alive and fanned the concerns over a repeat of that history. None of us wanted to go there, but by the late 1970’s it was clear that we were pointed in that direction.

Stephen King did what many of us didn’t want to do – to imagine it and what it would be like to live through a pandemic. And rather than weigh the Literary Craft questions so many are wont to do, what I find most interesting in this King mega-novel is the Literary World View questions King raised but is so often attacked for not (or not thoroughly enough) exhibiting: what does the role of cultural society play in our reaction to an apocalyptic pandemic, and what is the role of religion in our interpretation of pandemic?

Keep in mind that I am not saying King did enough with those questions considering the size of the book, but he did provide quite the interesting national portrait of our country – one which rings true with today’s pandemic as mirrored in The Stand right down to the overinflated sense of patriotism as a backdrop and the ready belief in an underlying battle of good versus evil with the United States as the only relevant battle ground… keeping in mind that today’s coronavirus is not as thorough an executioner as King’s flu.

Long Criticized for not really including The Rest of the World (except in an honorable-mention sort of way), King nailed our now fully-realized selfish, myopic view of ourselves. Maybe Critics did not want to believe that such a reaction would be true – especially given our cultural mythology as the “conscience and savior of the world.” But as the coronavirus has proven, King was indeed correct about our lack of interest in virtually anyone else. And what an ugly theory to be proven true…

In the novel, a Super-flu overtakes the world rather suddenly, leaving small pools of survivors, who soon realize that the pandemic is being used as the stage for the Ultimate Battle between Good and Evil. Once again — even with the religious overtone – the entire book never really concerns itself with the rest of the world. For our own egotistical reasons, the U.S. is the center of the religious universe as well as the human one. Nothing is ever mentioned about why the United States is where Heaven and Hell would choose to argue their differences, but those of us who live here – especially now with such a loud media presence of evangelicals promoting radical views that we are the envy and target of the world because we are religiously right – well, we can see this was all brewing as part of our national self-image as far back as 1978…

(Never mind what stark truths that might bring to our international relations through those same years, or what picture that might paint about a certain set of towers in New York…)

For all of the Criticisms King has taken for The Stand – and indeed there are some Craft/logic issues – what I find significant is that in the book his American characters act as isolationist, evangelical, and self-centered as we really are, and today as we are proving ourselves to be.

Have we not pushed away the World Health Organization (and their coronavirus tests, by the way) as well as any official international collaborations? Has our President not attempted to corner the patent on any vaccine discovered in the U.S. with plans to ransom it to the rest of the world if not our own lower classes?

Do we not toss religious judgment out there when large segments of our population are dying of Covid 19? Is that not the argument certain vocal pockets of the national population are arguing in the subtext of demanding the reopening of churches as “essential” businesses, as though the righteousness of being in a pew guarantees Divine Intervention and lack of virus exposure?

Are we not smirking at the sins of New York and winking at the Purity of the Midwest? Have our political parties not called each other Evil? Are we not  flag-waving, belligerent, and determined at rifle-point to re-establish the government in our own image selves while pandemic chaos rules?

King called it. Just because Critics don’t want to say so, doesn’t make that any less accurate.

The fact that King reframes the pandemic as religious is an important World View statement. Perhaps we don’t have the rise of a Randall Flagg (so far as we could prove it, anyway), but all of the arguments in play today are caricatured to some degree (accidentally or on purpose) in King’s novel – right down to the common Literary Critical criticism that his characters speak in pedestrian language with lots of cursing (Joshi 79-81). Have the Critics been WATCHING the news? Have they been OUT in American cities and towns? THAT IS how we speak and act. Albeit sadly.

And clearly, a real pandemic isn’t going to change that.

Include the interesting point that King used a main character to focus on what would happen in prisons to prisoners in a pandemic and THERE is an interesting prediction. Are we not seeing a slightly scaled down version today in King’s prisoners sealed in and left to die in cells with dead guards and few in charge who care?

And are we not seeing the rise of militant groups that think we need to re-take our own government, re-make our own government, reinvent the government we have convinced ourselves once ruled gloriously in this land…

While we do have to look Critically at our genre works and admit that there might just be some Craft failings here and there, I do think that we are not giving King credit for at least hitting on World View cylinders in this one. Was it too long, too circuitous? Yes, I believe that to be true. Could editing have been better? Yes, I believe that also.

But if we are going to attack contemporary writers for mimicking older styles, then how about at least a nod toward a modern take on the genre – even if and may especially if it is told in our modern vernacular. I think it is quite relevant sitting here in quarantine at the moment.

The Stand offers an old theme of pandemic apocalypse with a modern twist, modern setting, modern characters (though lightly developed)… he employs the Good versus Evil trope, and in the course of the book shows us King’s take on how we might react to it. If we criticize it as being not deep enough, too shallow to compete with Literature, then one has to ask is not King’s audience the perfect accomplice in the book’s popularity – not because we are incapable of appreciating or expecting Literature, but because we are no longer taught how to appreciate or expect it? Is that not also evocative of World View?

This book is all about imagining that which had not yet fully gripped us yet – the threat of pandemic on an ill-prepared nation, the religious reckoning that still functions as subtext in this country, and the “pedestrian” way we are likely to handle it… pandemic drives the plot (although it feels sometimes like a tortured drive and not a well-paced one). King has, after all, described it as his personal Vietnam… and at times it does read that way. But I still find it interesting – especially in light of our current pandemic times.

Is this a groundbreaker in Literature? Probably not. King has always been the writer for the masses, the author of Adult Horror fiction for the Young Adult in all of us… If he inspires others to go longer or deeper or to just keep writing and reading Horror, I am thinking he is doing his job. And with The Stand, he has returned the pandemic to Horror as a plot driver…something not done well since Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend…

So if you haven’t read this tome, now might be the time. And if you wind up having Criticisms, start drafting a work showing how you think it could have been done differently… We’re going to need all of the examples we can get…

K2

Richard Matheson: I Am Legend & the Rise of the Vampire-Zombie Apocalypse

Zombies. Can we not think of the beginning of the Zombie craze without assuming Richard Matheson’s first novel might be to blame? Well if you do blame him, rethink it. Hollywood changed Matheson’s Vampires into Zombies – all likely to the way we look at monsters in the modern world – Zombies being so much more like us than Vampires (or so we think), and Matheson’s pandemic so much more suitable to the Zombie mythology (since we don’t see Vampires as roaming in packs). Since its publication in 1954, the book has been made into three movies – The Omega Man, The Last Man on Earth, and the more modern I Am Legend with popular actor Will Smith. So what has been the creative seed about this novel that we cannot cease to pick at it? Perhaps it is the long shadow that a pandemic threat casts.

Yet why aren’t we bigger fans of it today? We could blame the date it was written… thinking it would be like reading older prophetic Science Fiction – a bit of a let down for some things, amusing for others. Or maybe it is because Hollywood re-shaped it as Science Fiction… Or we could just smirk at the use of Horror monsters to define a real threat of apocalypse-by-disease.

Yet what Matheson gets right is at the very least – interesting. Because the book is often considered to be one of the best in the Literary handling of the topic of human loneliness… something a little social distancing has made perfectly clear to most of us.

I Am Legend is yet another modern take on the pandemic in modern times, a mutation of a virus that leads to the end of the world. Ironically, according to a Literary Analysis from DePauw University’s website https://sites.google.com/a/depauw.edu/i-am-legend/critiques-of-the-novel “the most common theme of this novel is an emphasis on human emotion and how we interact with others”… making it timely, if not in some ways just plain accurate.

Matheson (in the eyes of modern Critics) handles the Literary concept of apocalyptic pandemic in a much more competent fashion than most other Horror writers, but was not so well-received Critically in his day. But does it really catch fire with modern masses in the same way as King? It doesn’t seem to. And maybe that is because none of us like to admit we have a problem with loneliness in particular…let alone the idea of dying a non-glorious death by disease. Worse, we are not sure what we want out of Horror today as readers. And that indecisiveness makes us…fickle.

Interestingly, he sets the novel in 1976 – The Year of the Pandemic – if what plays on protagonist Robert Neville’s turntable in the opening scene is to be believed. He incorporates the then-modern world, he weaves in the necessary Horror accoutrement – including crosses, mirrors, stakes and mallets and garlic – all to serve as Horror placeholders as he unveils the real threat behind the monsters – uncontrolled disease and the Horror of isolation. Yet the book did better once it was re-cast as almost-Science Fiction and film.

Perhaps Matheson wrote genre Horror too literally, anchoring it to genre formula inadequately rather than clearly to the Literary point. Perhaps even he did not see it… Perhaps the general population – as yet un-Kinged by blockbuster Horror – would have received it better as a scientific thriller (like Coma by Robin Cook, for example)… It just seems Matheson had a tale to tell that was bigger than the Horror used to frame it. So perhaps he chose the wrong genre to tell the story in.

Ironically, I think that the reason it appears lackluster is because Matheson uses actual Horror tropes the way they are expected to be used – to the point that they seem trite. According to one Critic (Damon Knight, 1956), “The book is full of good ideas, every other one of which is kicked out of sight…if only the author, or somebody, had not insisted on encumbering it with the year’s most childish set of ‘scientific’ rationalizations….” Yet isn’t that what one would expect when introducing a science-based story concept to a Horror audience? Are we not told to anchor our plot, to provide explanation for how a Horror comes to be?

Matheson chooses Vampires, which Hollywood replaced with Zombies – and that allows a reader to minimize the reality of a pandemic’s effect by almost mocking it with monsters. This book (after all) provided the origin (if not the inspiration) of the concept of The Zombie Apocalypse. But the most amazing thing is that it was all written in 1954 – talk about dancing with the prophetic… (and we could mean pandemic, or even water-cooler expectations of a Zombie Apocalypse…)

Matheson does with pandemic what a good Horror writer should – using the monster to define a Literary World View – that we need each other… Yet unfortunately it can also be said that because his Vampires were “not traditional enough” – not of the Polidori style and more akin to Zombies – that maybe alienation of the Vampire fan was the undoing of it in our genre… We simply fell into the two traditional camps of Horror: those who love pulp roots and demand strict adherence to established handling of tropes, and those who want innovation and Literary elements. It seems to be the undoing of many great writers in our genre… But what he did with I Am Legend is an important example for Horror writers looking for an angle on how to tell a pandemic story in Literary terms.

Clearly it involves flirting with other genres if not Literature itself. But it also means walking that tightrope between Critics and fan expectations. We have to choose. And it would appear Matheson ultimately chose right.

Pandemic and poorly loved Vampires aside, Matheson is the author of titles like Stir of Echoes, Cell, The Legend of Hell House, What Dreams May Come, and stories that went on to become television short story episodes as in TV series Kolchak: the Night Stalker, and several more episodes in Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and The Outer Limits. He was awarded the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement (1984), Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime achievement (1991) and was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2010. All in all, not half-bad for a Horror writer whose work often crossed into other genres…and clearly when we are talking pandemic, it pays to think outside the box.

Richard Matheson died June 23, 2013.

K3

Dean Koontz: When Precognition Just…Isn’t

There is a rumor spinning around the internet today about a Dean Koontz thriller written in 1981. There is a passage in the thriller (about a grieving mother who believes she has seen her deceased child in a passing car and begins a grief-driven roller-coaster ride in trying to find him) which eerily predicts a pandemic – this current pandemic – right down to the year, the country and city of origin, and its origin as a respiratory affliction. Or so it would seem.

Have we entered the oft-chartered territory of Science Fiction writers in precognitive fiction?

Try not to get too excited. Even author Dean Koontz insists this is no uncanny prediction – but rather a marketing strategy that panned out.

First, a little about Horror author Dean Koontz, who we have now roundly lost to the Suspense/Thriller genre.

Dean Koontz (born July 9, 1945 in Everett, PA) is another writer who found other work in parallel genres when the Horror Boom dried up. Fourteen hardcovers and sixteen paperbacks reached Number One on the bestseller charts over the years, and most of his earlier work was part of that once-giant Horror section we once commanded as a genre. His work can also be found under pseudonyms David Axton, Leigh Nichols, Brian Coffey, and Deanna Dwyer. Awards include the World Horror Grand Master Award (1996) and the Ross Macdonald Literary Award (2003), with nominations for the Prometheus Award, the Hugo Award, and three Locus Award nominations.

For those of us who grew up Horror fans in the 1970s and 80s, Dean Koontz was a staple. I remember many of his titles being the dog-eared paperbacks we traded in high school – iconic – teen fodder – devoured. Titles like Hell’s Gate, Demon Child, Children of the Storm, Whispers, Phantoms, Strangers, and Watchers… These were the books that fed the Boom, that supplemented books by King, by Bentley Little, Peter Straub, Dan Simmons, Anne Rice, V.C. Andrews, John Saul, and Tanith Lee. These were the books so often picked up in airports and supermarkets, read to pass the time and stoke our love of scary things. For the paperback masses, his name was constant and familiar… and now –prolific as he has been – his section in a bookstore is almost as big as King’s…

But it was none of these books that bring him to my attention now. Koontz did not write a pandemic-specific novel. However, this little rumor of prognostication needs to be cleared up…

Recently, a rediscovery of his book The Eyes of Darkness has found new life on the internet – being touted by some as having an eerie set of passages about what looks like a prediction of today’s coronavirus. And while I freely admit I have not read this title by Koontz, a little research online is important to mention.

Here are the larger-than-life “coincidences” being showcased:

K4

 

Yeah. Wow. Woooo.

But really, what is this all about? Are we really having a Science Fiction moment?

Dean Koontz himself says not. But even if we were and never having read this title, what I CAN tell you about living as a young adult during the 1980’s is this: the idea of pandemic used as a biological weapon by one of our rivals/enemies was an increasingly popular topic of national conversation (because the scientific threat was increasing). The rise of the medical thriller at the time only fanned the flames, and a little consciousness was all that was required to consider the plot or plot device of such a thing, and besides China and Russia, who else would be a likely cold war foil? A little research for one’s novel could easily land one in a place like Wujan, and imagine a Chinese Communist plot to overthrow democracy.

That said, is even this information in the book correct?

Actually, it isn’t, according to website https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/dean-koontz-predicted-coronavirus/ which reveals that the original printing claimed the virus was called – not Wujan 400, but Gorki 400… and that some future editions were re-edited to list Wujan as the city of origin.

Well. Does that mean it is any less…eerily coincidental? Yes, if we want to claim it as a 1981 prediction. I mean let’s face it: as world concerns about pandemics and hostile governments with evil intentions have grown, China has played a greater, more prominent part in our fears and national security concerns. Likewise, I am certain we play starring roles in their nightmares as well, and we have only a bunch of gifted smallpox blankets to Native Americans to thank for that. With a virus research lab located there, Wujan was probably on the map for any thriller writer looking for a pandemic source.

In addition, keep in mind that during the late 1980’s the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union returned to being Russia, and for a brief time there was even hope that we would finally make peace with our former world rivals as Russia struggled to redefine itself. Russia, in the 1980’s, was not the Big Scary Enemy of the past… in fact it was just not as much a part of the national subtext as the Cold War cooled. And a book like The Eyes of Darkness would possibly benefit from a modern rewrite with a new Big Scary Enemy to keep it relevant and less-dated – and China was rising to fit the bill. Keep in mind the rewrite of this passage was meant to reorient the book, to update it so the dated parts would not turn off readers – no other reason.

While the fact-checking site does not mention when the rewrite occurred, the copyright page on a book on Amazon does show a second copyright of 1996 – and I suspect that was to include the revision.

And yes, that kind of sucks the life out of the “prediction” (which is now more like a scientific guess with lottery characteristics).

The fact remains, however, that whether this is an editorial decision to make the old novel more modernly relevant, or some spooky coincidence… anyone who does research on epidemics, pandemics, and viral spillover will smash into China, Africa, and any country that participates by necessity in “wet markets” to survive. The choice of China is convenient and somewhat inevitable as the likely antagonist if we want a political thriller element in our novel or to modernize one; that is the price of having one of the world’s largest populations and being a rising economic and military power.

So was it a strange coincidence? Possibly. Weird? You betcha. But an uncanny prediction from 1981? Nope. Just good old marketing savvy mixed with…luck.

 

REFERENCES

DePauw University, “Critiques and Literary Analysis: I Am Legend/Richard Matheson” retrieved 5-9-2020 from https://sites.google.com/a/depauw.edu/i-am-legend/critiques-of-the-novel

Evon, Dan. “Was Coronavirus Predicted in a1981 Dean Koontz Novel? A Speculative Anticipation of a Possibility is Very Different Than a Prediction” www.snopes.com, 18 February 2020, retrieved 5-15-2020 from https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/dean-koontz-predicted-coronavirus/

Joshi, S.T. McFarland & Company, Inc.: North Carolina, c2001

Knight, Damon (1967). In Search of Wonder. Chicago: Advent

 

26 thoughts on “Death, Disease & Pandemic: How Horror Writers of the Past Translated Illness (Part 2: Stephen King, Richard Matheson & Dean Koontz)

  1. A truly stunning analysis. I’ve been reading horror for a long time, and have often lamented the lack of academic discussion of the genre. So I really appreciate all of your posts, and this topic is particularly engaging right now. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a high compliment (and I thank you from the bottom of my amateur heart)! I, too, have been frustrated with the lack of academic conversation. However we have to understand that the dynamic of an academic field in professional transition (Literary Criticism) and that massive influx of paperback publishing in the last few decades has created more work than qualified people to academically debate it.

      Fortunately things are beginning to change, and I encourage anyone interested in watching the transition of Horror from a pulp genre to a Literary one to also watch Critics S.T. Joshi and China Mieville closely, I also strongly encourage English majors looking for a place to go with the major to strongly consider entering the field of Literary Criticism… the field itself is not only desperately needed right now, but desperately needs young voices who want to understand contemporary fiction (including Horror) and Literature itself. Add to the mix the fact that when a genre moves into Literature as a Literary genre, THOSE Critics will be assembling, debating, and building our section of the Literary canon (a once in a millennia opportunity)…Well this is a chance to make an immortal mark! May we get those young Critics started!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I majored in English Literature as an undergrad (although I ended up going in a different direction in my postgrad work), and outside of an elective class that I believe was actually called “Popular Literature”, there was little to no discussion of horror. I vividly recall one professor asking students for their favorite authors, and then sharply criticizing any mention of horror (although that was a one off-the rest of my professors were respectful of students’ reading preferences, even if they didn’t necessarily agree with their choices). Thanks for recommending those critics-I’m going to look them up and start reading. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. KC, thank you for another excellent post! I hope, let me repeat I hope, that you will expand your analysis into a book; you would create an excellent work, one that would be as strong as any created by a so-called professional critic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that as we begin to try to reassemble Literature as mainstream, it helps to see examples from the lauded past… For some reason it is “easier” to see “flaws” and “strengths” in older works…And it is reassuring to learn that a writer does not have to be Perfect to write something that has a place in canon AND imagination!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Indeed it is reassuring. Our local media reports that pandemic books are flying off the shelves in local bookstores. Personally, I’d rather read anything else at the moment until the worst is over.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. The first thing I think about when someone mentions Koontz’ The Eyes of Darkness is the power of grief. I didn’t even notice there was a pandemic reference in there. I guess that shows that what we see depends on what we bring to the table. Awesome analyses, as usual.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think Koontz is under-credited for tackling some scopey subjects… But then, Horror fans (and Critics) do seem to shy away from those works and authors who don’t fit their own definitions of the genre (especially when they touch on the Literary angle) — which is why we NEED definitions in the genre…Thanks for pointing out the obvious in this title!

      Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s