Death, Disease & Pandemic: How Horror Writers In The Past Have Translated Illness (Part 3: Edgar Allan Poe and Anne Rice)


In the example of Bram Stoker we see how a writer makes sense of a pandemic when he or she is a witness to the event. With King and Matheson, we saw how a writer imagines living through the event. But what if pandemic actually claims someone you love?

Horror has two prominent writers whose lives were touched by such a personal loss in profound and painful ways, tearing at their very souls to the point that they did not so much choose to write about it, as much as they were tormented into doing so.

Both Edgar Allan Poe and Anne Rice lost close family members to the unthinkable: Poe repeatedly lost the women in his life to disease – most commonly tuberculosis, a pandemic that seemed unstoppable and endless in his lifetime. And Anne Rice lost her daughter to a new kind of pandemic: the kind that goes undeclared because the contagion of it is not that of more familiar viruses and flus, but because they ravage our population as silent killers, misunderstood and curiously accepted as they pick us off one by one. With Rice, we are talking cancer – not your typical pandemic disease, but one which by its numbers seems to indicate an undeclared epidemic, one with multiple yet universal origins. But just in case you were wont to dismiss it in the face of the coronavirus, understand that no less than eight viruses have been linked to causing or contributing to the development of cancer.

 

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Poe: Masque of the Red Death… and Everything Else He Wrote

Everything that came from Edgar Allan Poe’s pen reeks of premature death, decay, and the decomposition of life – sometimes (as in the “Fall of the House of Usher”) of culture or literal ways of life. Poe was not born of privilege, nor was he ever far from experiencing the judgment of class and condemnation of his contemporaries. Born the child of two actors (not considered a reputable profession at the time) on January 19, 1809 in Boston, Massachusetts, “a city that later in life he would loathe” (Montague 12), his was a life of struggle and loss. Disease dogged his every ambition.

Yet we in Horror hold him particularly close, especially in the United States, because he was the first to remake Horror we knew as definitively British into something local, and organically American. He translated Horror for us, and helped us see the futility in repurposing folklore without nurturing native roots. He became the most Literary and most original of our Horror writers…and he was the one H.P. Lovecraft (the presumed Father of Modern Horror) declared to be the most influential writer for him. (Montague 172)

Historically, he strikes us as a sad, macabre figure, an addict and alcoholic whose craft with language was eloquent and lyric. Yet those works we read as twisted and carefully crafted into perfect Horror in some joyous creative act was (n reality) one writer’s response to both his own grief and the poverty that served as the machinery behind those diseases of mind and body that plagued his life. It is with Poe that we see perfectly embodied the very modern argument that poverty enables premature death, addiction, and mental anguish.

And it is also with Poe that we see something else we prefer not to believe happens even today: the very public criticism and judgment of his failings – from his personal ones to his professional ones – by the very people who should have been able to rise above their own prejudices, but who (like we do right now in modern times) chose to consider themselves his moral superiors and therefore immune from death by such disease as haunted Poe’s existence.

Tuberculosis was the pandemic of Poe’s short lifetime (1809-1849) – taking his mother when he was just a toddler, and no doubt fixing in his mind the effects of that terrible wasting disease on the human body as it steadily stole away so many of the vibrant women in his life. The effect on his poet’s mind was clearly profound – inciting fears of the presence of blood, of the imminent threat to the young and old alike, to the possibility of premature burial, and the pale, vampiric presence of his contemporaries.

Poe was poor. He was born into poverty and remained there most of his life. And he is the example of what it costs us as a society to dismiss the poor to the association that it is the result of something that they have done to themselves (i.e., failure to just “do” better, to work “harder,” to have proper “ambition”) that blocks their pathway to the right to health, and the fault or responsibility of no one else. It is during his time that we cement our modern view that the poor somehow “deserve” their fate, that the poor are “dirty” and purveyors of mental illness and disease, that there is just naturally something “wrong” with them and disease is merely nature’s unfortunate way of weeding them from the herd.

With the rise of epidemics like tuberculosis, we cemented our belief that disease is caused by improper morals and “questionable” behaviors, facilitated by immigrants and undesirables filling boats that deliver them to our pristine American shores. Alcoholism and drug abuse was rampant then as now among the impoverished (even as it was “discreetly” indulged in by the higher classes). Yet by social design we intentionally disregarded the clear connection disease and addiction made between poverty and health, length and quality of life – despite the message being trumpeted by cherished writers of the time like Charles Dickens.

In fact, we have exercised our discrimination often disguised as “precautionary” action against disease – disease being something all people fear equally, and the rich and bigoted can use to exclude Others from the American Dream. We have to look only as far as our immigration practices at Ellis Island, right in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty:

“From 1892 to 1924, about 12 million people from other countries arrived at Ellis Island in New York. Those in steerage were subject to health screenings by physicians from the U.S. Public Health Service. The doctors checked for trachoma, an eye disease that often led to blindness, and watched for other conditions. The process could take anywhere from three to seven hours. Female physicians conducted some of the immigrant screenings on women who were modest and not comfortable undressing before a man…About 1 in 5 arrivals required more complete assessments, and those deemed a risk were quarantined at the Ellis Island Hospital, which closed 60 years ago and recently opened for limited public tours….Nurses cared for the 1.2 million patients suffering from heart disease, measles, scarlet fever and other conditions. Those considered infectious were placed on the wards of the 450-bed Contagious Disease facilities, on the farthest island from arriving immigrants. Those with mental illness were held at the 50-bed psychiatric facility until they could be deported. About 355 babies were born at the hospital, and 3,500 people expired during their quarantine….”   http://essynursingservices.com/ellis-island-immigrant-screening-and-quarantine-is-nothing-new/

Did it pass your notice that it was steerage passengers who were subject to screening? As if the wealthy could not, would not, or were morally immune from carrying disease. Steerage was where passengers with the cheapest tickets would be kept (and that would mean simply The Poor). This was the world Poe was living in… as a poor person, an alcoholic, an addict, and one often simply thought of as “mad.” And we live in similar times now, where both the poor and immigrants are seen as the harbingers of pandemic… Do we not at times feel made a bit “mad” ourselves?

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Today we still see this “screening” happening, albeit in different ways. We denounce Others as immigrants first by anticipated moral failings (“rapists and murderers”) because being likely not-Protestant doesn’t work to scare a nation torn between agnosticism and evangelicalism. But if that fails, we resort to “dirty and diseased.” Take a peek at our current immigration policy as applied to our Southern border for proof…

We have long waged war against the poor. And it is a war we are losing as we willfully decimate the Middle Class to benefit the wealthy, disguising it as the failure of lower classes to properly educate and prepare themselves. We tuck it behind the Technology Revolution, implying when not outright saying it is related to an intelligence if not moral failing that certain people are being “left behind” and that it should never be the responsibility of successful Americans to ensure the education, health, and welfare of the poorest of Americans – especially if they are of color.  We remain tone deaf to a subtext that has begun to push to the surface. And we can see from the life of Poe and Stoker that this has been baking in our national culture for quite some time.

This same attitude held Poe down: his reputation took hit after hit, the name-calling was venomous, the professional and Literary Criticism relentless in its moral condemnations of his alcoholism, drug abuse, and “unsavory” character.

Poe fought back – sometimes lowering himself to his critics’ level, sometimes rising above in stunning Literary Critical essays of the quality that impresses today’s Critics…

He was accused of plagiarism by novelist William Gilmore Simms, and engaged in numerous professional battles resulting in libel suits and “scandalous rows” marked by fistfights and public scenes (Montague 130-131). He had “questionable” relationships with women.  Poe, caught in the web of grief and addiction, seemed unwilling if not unable to help himself. The worst was thought of him while his personal life was quite publicly ravaged by his addictions — clearly fanned by the staggering loss of women intimate to him to disease – especially tuberculosis. Poe is not, then, the best of examples as to how to turn pandemic loss into writing – but he is most certainly living proof that when Life happens to a writer of talent, magic might well be spun from the agonies that torment the grieving mind.  He was also “the first American writer to support himself entirely from the proceeds of his pen” (76 Montague)…

Poe is proof that a writer cannot turn off the words meant to define life. He is proof that even attempts to drown or mutilate the Muse will not succeed. She will, instead, haunt us until we write what we see.

That Poe saw in his poet’s mind what can be seen as vampiric women is also not so unexpected, then, because they are a natural extension of what he saw as a child and experienced as an adult (much like that which affected Bram Stoker). But they are also a natural extension of what writers of Poe’s time witnessed in the premature deaths of women, seen throughout his works like Legeia, and “The Fall of the House of Usher”… both haunted by the notions of life after death and “an emaciated, dying woman…” (Montague 59)

That constant ravaging of his life and loves by death and disease are why we have his incredible writing. Writing through his emotions his images of pale, decimated women haunt us like few others, because they are rooted in truth and genuine grief, in anger and denial, and the cruel acceptance of a life he had no control over.  “He died in a hospital, on Sunday, 7 October 1849, a sad and beleaguered end to an unhappy and harassed life. He was forty years old.” (Akroyd 190)

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Death of a Child: Anne Rice and Interview With The Vampire

Born Howard Allen O’Brien October 4, 1941 (yes, Howard) in New Orleans, Louisiana, the woman we all came to love as the author of The Vampire Chronicles, Anne Rice, has single-handedly reshaped the Vampire in modern Horror.

Would it surprise you to know it was because of the death of her child that all of the right questions took shape in her books to elevate a good story to a Literary one? Would it surprise you that Cancer has a root in viruses?

For many of us, cancer is not a typical “pandemic”… it does not spread by contagion. It has a “routineness,” a “familiarity” for us… an expectation of survival in percentages. For modern people, cancer is a ghostly familiar – stalking us, devouring us, yet minimized by “treatments” and our own preferred ignorance of the disease within the lottery of our lives.

Yet is has been connected to viruses in our modern research of the disease. So maybe our early human instincts to shy away from those diagnosed with cancer had some preternatural sense at play. Or maybe we were just shocked and overwhelmed by the horrors this disease can deliver – and the terrors of the first treatments we tried to defeat it.

One has only to drift back to the 1960s and 1970s to see that it is there – in those decades – that we realized how prevalent it was to the human species, how terrible, how…fatal. Because we were better at identifying it at the precise time we were environmentally enabling it… cancer felt very much like a pandemic – so much so the common person even today still has trouble really believing we can’t “catch it” from each other.

Cancer is everywhere… quietly rubbing out vast numbers of us. Our governments are silent. Our researchers…struggling in what seems like competition with every other researcher for funds to find a cure.

But for many in my generation, the most vivid memory of cancer’s emergence into our mainstream consciousness is the pure Horror of random and horrific loss.

To understand where we were during the time Anne Rice was facing her loss, movies like Sunshine, Brian’s Song, and Love Story will give you a clear picture as to where we were in cancer diagnosis, treatment, and our loss ratios.

A cancer diagnosis was so horrific, friends and family often fled. And I can tell you that even in 1997 when my mother battled cancer, her friends and family (having clear expectations of what was about to transpire from those very films and life experience) … largely evaporated… rendered emotionally incompetent to deal with her dying, fleeing like her terminal diagnosis was…contagious.

It turns out, we come by this superstition honestly.  According to an article in Healthline titled “8 Viruses That Can Increase Your Cancer Risk” “It is estimated that viruses account for about 20 percent of cancers. And there may be more oncogenic viruses that experts aren’t aware of yet.”

Whether we sense this or simply fear it, we cannot seem to help ourselves when it comes to treating cancer like a contagious virus, and its victims become inexplicably feared.  Virus (to most lay people) means “infectious…transmittable…dangerous.” We are unwilling to believe we have such viruses resting dormant in many of our bodies as a part of simply living. We NEED – desperately – to believe we can control “catching” something as horrible as cancer. We need to believe we do NOT contract it because we were better, smarter, more faithful – and not because we were luckier. Cancer victims remind us we are living in a duck-shoot.

And here it should be said clearly that with regard to cancer-causing viruses: “Keep in mind that having an infection by an oncogenic virus doesn’t mean you’ll develop cancer. It simply means you may have a higher risk than someone who’s never had the infection.”  And keep in mind that had to be said to assuage the fear the words  both “cancer” and “virus” have come to embody.

Hence, I place Anne Rice here among the more traditional pandemic writers. Rice endured the terribleness of a cancer in her child at these early times in our attempts to understand, define, and treat cancer. And with her writing we see the evisceration of a parent trying in vain to save her daughter, to navigate the roller coaster of treatment and prognosis, to bargain with God for the life of her child.

Death changes everything.

And when it takes a child the parents’ world is turned inside out no matter what the era or reason, no matter what is happening in the rest of the world. Despite the almost routine commonality of child deaths until the late twentieth century which saw the development of medicine and discoveries of vaccines (and then even more so within the developed nations where privilege takes on newer and more insidious dimensions)… the death of a child seems always wrong – inverted, out of order, unnatural…

And to any who have experienced such a loss, the profound question of “why” is perilously pushed to the forefront, dragging God and religion behind it. We start asking the deeper questions – everything from why any God would allow such a thing to happen, to what does death mean, what role does immortality play in our processing of a child’s death, and even questioning ourselves as to why we go through a stage of bargaining with God before, during and after that child’s death.

The loss of Anne Rice’s daughter to leukemia shaped almost all of her writing. She handles depictions of children, of pandemics and epidemics, of mother-daughter relationships with a delicate yet firm hand. And once the knowledge of her loss is revealed, we read her works differently… we see… we understand….

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In Rice’s most popular work Interview With The Vampire, we meet Claudia – a child Vampire whose immortality becomes its own curse. Here Rice has laid raw the quandry of every parent who has ever lost a child: what would you do to get them back? And if you got them back, how would they feel about being dragged back? Does death have a necessary purpose?

Rice tackles all of the big questions about death and religion. She does this not to prove her Literary worth, but because she is living those questions. She is asking those questions for herself.

This is why her work has authenticity. And authenticity is why we believe her Vampires, her stories… This is also why her characters ask the same questions she herself has – making them real… and dragging behind those are the other questions we initially mistake as the theme of the Vampire novels — the very real modern issues of sexuality and gender identity, of societal and cultural mores… issues we often see first because the heaviness of religious questioning opens unwelcome chasms in ourselves.

When we as readers first read Interview, we see the socio/sexual/gender issues immediately and we think “how brilliant!”… how competently she wields the Vampire trope to expound a Literary argument… Yet any reader/fan of Anne Rice will be haunted by one single character: the child vampire Claudia. She dominates. She scene-steals. And we cannot take our Literary eyes of her… There is a subtextual reason for that, but in many ways we are clueless without the detail of her personal biography. Claudia is a big red flag that there is something else, something bigger being hinted at by its screams from another room.

Here is where two things happen for Critics. Either they have to look at the author’s catalog of works to deduce the pattern of religious questioning regarding children and death, or they have to use biography to Critically fully assess the Literary values. Fans will likely read the catalog and possibly come to similar conclusions. But Critics will likely attempt to weigh and argue everything. (Again, this plays into the modern Critical debate about the use of details from an author’s life to weigh the success of their work.)

And then we as fans stumble across Rice’s biographical detail like so many Critics, and then we also see… the scales fall from our eyes… there is something much, much bigger at work in the writings of Anne Rice… necessary to sense the ghost of something much larger moving behind the obvious prose. It is not necessary to treasure Claudia, to elevate her to being a favorite character we are content to let argue subtextually the religious questions that surround the death of a child. We are content to let Claudia as a secondary character leave the questions poignantly pregnant and unanswered as they are to most of us in reality. Because these are the most unpalatable of questions. We are content, then, to distract ourselves….

Why did Rice (like Matheson and Stoker) also choose the Vampire? Which monster is more suitable to question the existence and motives of God? And how innovative to create contemplative, empathetic Vampires!

But was it artistic vision, or simply a mother’s grief?

When we know her biography, we see Rice had no real choice but to write her story the way she did. And THAT is the lesson of writing not only honestly, but writing through grief: the tale cannot be told any other way but the way it is. This means it is not so much a conscious decision about reinventing a monster in the genre – but a necessary means to tell the story that HAS to be told. That natural comingling of need and opportunity becomes genius. One can never read Anne Rice and feel that the story is contrived, because her questions are always sincere.

In her book titled Prism of the Night: a Biography of Anne Rice, Katherine Ramsland explains: “Had any vestige of Anne’s Catholic faith survived the death of her mother, her intellectual doubt, then her emotional crisis from years before, it was utterly destroyed now. The prayers of her family had been useless, empty. There was no God, or at least not one who cared. She rejected any heaven that demanded the sacrifice of a child – especially her perfect, beautiful little girl.

“Two years later she would put this loss into words through the character Louis [from Interview With The Vampire] as he said in despair:

I looked up and saw myself in a most palpable vision ascending the altar steps, opening the tiny sacrosanct tabernacle, reaching with monstrous hands for the consecrated ciborium, and taking the Body of Christ and strewing Its white wafers all over the carpet; and walking then on the sacred wafers…giving Holy Communion to the dust…God did not live in this church; these statues gave an image to nothingness…”  (Ramsland 130)

Grief, made real, begets terrible truths about our own humanity.

And we can also never see the Vampire in the same way: we have to admit that it is the perfect monster for pandemic – forcing all of the right questions to the surface, dangling our innocent and naïve understanding of what immortality is all about.

The new question is: is it the only monster that can do so? Or is there one out there we haven’t discovered yet?

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The Secret of the Best Horror Writings of Pandemic

So what can we conclude from the successes of these six authors?

Each one of them did not set out to write Literature in particular – just good Horror and good stories – and they used their knowledge of, fears of, worst imaginings of, and loss from death, disease and pandemic. For each one the weaving of genre Horror and Real Life Horror involved the supernatural…each to different effect, each with different degrees. All of them could not separate religion completely from the equation, because when humanity is faced with death on a large scale, human beings start looking for the reason in it, and the purpose of our lives if such are to be cut so unfairly short. And all of them danced with the Vampire if not the question of the presence and influence of Good and Evil itself.

The trick has been to balance the Horrors of Real Life and those Literary elements with genre tropes. We still see that struggle happening in today’s Horror, where the Horror often plays a losing role. It is difficult then, to frame reality with what so often comes to feel trite.

Yet do we not love both the monsters and the victims in all of these stories?

The very best of them allow us to read a work strictly as Horror, or as a Literary offering where Something Bigger is being addressed. We see that all-important double entendre brewing.

Did you feel the difference in the three who did it best – Bram Stoker, Poe, and Anne Rice? And did you do so because you almost felt tricked into it? You read the story, thought sincerely you were just reading a genre story of Horror, and when someone pointed out the author’s histories and the possibilities of what all was being discussed, there was an Ah-ha! Moment… one that reinforced that uncanny feeling you had when reading them.

That is how a work “becomes” Literature. It starts with the author’s personal experiences and fears…it is transformed by those fears into a mirror of Real Life whose Supernatural reflection anchors it within the Horror genre.

I say again that it is my opinion that details of the lives of authors should never be the determining factor in interpreting the work. It is, however, a long tradition of Literary Critics to examine those life-details, and a current debate within the field as to the ultimate importance in examining and analyzing a work for its place in Literature. Knowledge derived from author biographies and their intimate secrets of the lives of authors should only enhance their work for a reader or Critic. Those details should contribute to a reading of a work or an appreciation of how an author creates Literature. Those details should be inspirational to common readers and aspiring Literary writers, but knowing them “going in” can only shade and distort our expectations of the work – planting seeds the author never wanted visible, but merely sensed. 

We have to ask: did they do that without us knowing the intimate details – the story behind the story? Or did we need the biography to decipher the Literary elements? Can we savor just the genre if a reader wants to?

How successfully this is done determines the value of the work as Literature. Too much Horror and Critics may see it as a mishandled mockery of Literature, too little Horror and the genre and its fans shy away. It is a delicate balance –but a necessary one to identify if new writers never taught about Literature and what Critics do are to come to an understanding and appreciation OF Literature – and even more so if we are expected to create new Literature.

What these works show us as uneducated readers and writers (that is uneducated in the ways of Literature) is that the Supernatural has to be more than hinted at, more than a prop – it must have an integral and working role in the story.

Horror should never be mere decoration, draped around a story to wedge it into genre: it should fit naturally. It should breathe.

So if we are to write some great, potentially Literary-level Horror during and after this pandemic, the lesson is that there must be authenticity in both the story and the Horror meant to tell it.

Imbue your monsters with Life – like Anne Rice (who changed our ideas about Vampires for us forever). Imbue your monsters with reality – like Poe did (by wrenching our terrors from our imaginations and having his characters live them literally). Imbue your monsters with the power of death –  like Bram Stoker did (by letting the slow dread of creeping disease ransom our reason in our Horror of death). Imbue them with humanity — like Richard Matheson did (by drowning his protagonist in Vampires while battling the crippling Horror of human loneliness). Imbue them with cultural myth – like Stephen King did (by showing us that who we are as people determines real outcomes in times of pandemic, and that such is choice). And don’t date your work by too much name dropping and dated material that might necessitate rewrites if not later explanation –  like Dean Koontz did (by proving our ignorance of the future can cause whole new interest and eager – if not misguided – reinterpretations of our work long after we ourselves have given up on it).

Knowing these things now… won’t you re-read “classics” differently?”

And more importantly, aren’t you inspired to try to write one?

  

 

REFERENCES

Ackroyd, Peter. Poe: a Life Cut Short. New York: Doubleday, c2008.

Healthline Newsletter. “8 Viruses That Can Increase Your Cancer Risk”  retrieved on 6/25/2020 from https://www.healthline.com/health/cancer-virus  

Montague, Charlotte. Edgar Allan Poe: the Strange Man Standing Deep in the Shadows. Oxford: Chartwell Books, c2015.

Ramsland, Katherine. Prism of the Night: a Biography of Anne Rice. New York: Plume, c1

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).

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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…

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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.

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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:

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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