My most paradoxical pandemic guilty pleasure consisted of long walks through my neighborhood while listening to an audiobook version of Stephen King’s “The Stand.”
Pacing through empty streets and foot paths, the 47-hour masterpiece acted as a surreal soundtrack to a world caught in stay-at-home orders.
While the first part of the book seemed too on the nose, it’s the second and third parts that gave me the most concern. Recent confrontations in our own world make me concerned that we may be headed down the same metaphorical road.
King’s opening act details the spread of a deadly superflu, the obvious hook during the coronavirus era. Compared to coronavirus, King’s killer strain is even more contagious and deadly. Almost the entirely population becomes rapidly infected – apparently, they didn’t understand how to properly social distance – with 99.4% dying from the disease.
Alternately called the “superflu,” “Blue Virus,” “choking sickness,” “tube neck,” or “Captain Trips,” the virus only served to set the apocalyptic stage King needed for the rest of his tale.
The rest of the book centers on the division of people into two different camps in conflict with each other. After the initial wave of infection wiped out most of the population, the survivors in King’s novel are drawn alternatively to two cities: Las Vegas and Boulder.
While any Coloradan can enjoy the cameo roles played by Sterling, Julesburg, Avon, Loveland Pass and the Eisenhower tunnel, as a three-time CU Buff I took particular pleasure in the detailed accounts that took place around Boulder.
In my mind’s eye I saw Pearl Street, Chatauqua Park and the corner of Baseline and Broadway even more vividly than the master storyteller described them.
As is King’s wont, the two cities represent the congregation of two sides of humanity. Those traveling to Las Vegas followed Randall Flagg, a sinister character who exploited weakness and sowed division. The Boulder-bound survivors went with Abagail Freemantle, the 108-year-old daughter of freed slaves and King’s epitome of virtue.
Watching protests against stay-at-home orders in states across America, I couldn’t help but see the same polarizing force acting out in real life.
The initial wave of “we’re in it together” mentality at the outset of the coronavirus outbreak has begun to show cracks. Those cracks have become particularly evident as the virus’ secondary effects on the economy set in deeper.
With little else to compete for media coverage, the outsized voice of those few will likely draw increasingly significant numbers.
Unlike King’s fictional world, though, the two sides aren’t easily characterized into good and bad. I believe both represent one side of the same coin. Both are driven by real concern and fear. The difference is only in the priority of their worry.
I imagine both sides would lay claim to represent King’s “Free Zone” – though notably, Gov. Jared Polis instituted Colorado’s stay-at-home order and is a Boulder native.
And disagreements like those can and should be discussed openly and earnestly. It is only when people begin retreating into ugly name-calling and violence that we descend closer to the nightmare world King created. There should be absolutely no place for such abominable behavior in our current dire circumstances.
The book ends with two protagonists moving on from Boulder, headed back to Maine, King’s home state and the setting for many of his stories. If there is any hope and over-arching lesson to be drawn from this classic tale, that might be it.
When this is all over and we move back into our lives, many of us should attempt to leave the stark divide of two polarities in the past and attempt a new road forward.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq
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