Stephen King’s The Stand was not the first dystopian novel, but for a generation of young adult post-Baby Boomers, it was our Hunger Games trilogy rolled into one extremely large package—part apocalypse, part morality tale, part soap opera. The Stand also is arguably the first modern dystopia novel, a product of complex social changes that remain relevant despite the book’s ripe old age of 33.
Those of us who were kids or young adults when The Stand was released had grown up in a sanitized, self-consciously innocent America. Vietnam was long gone, Watergate had reinforced a systemic distrust of politicians, and the Cold War drills were no more than quaint tales our parents and older siblings told. Our world of disco and polyester symbolized the slick, emotionless happy zone that was America.
But ugly things were stirring, and we knew it.
Inflation ran rampant. A recession brewed. We’d seen our first gas shortages. Trouble roiled in the Middle East. American factories were moving jobs overseas and jacking up unemployment rates. Nuclear and environmental safety questions had begun to nag at us. Some danced blithely on beneath the glitter ball, but others of us realized the bedrock beneath our platform shoes had some serious cracks in it.
It was the perfect petri dish into which a young horror writer named Stephen King, already mastering the art of jabbing a claw into what he calls the “phobic pressure points” of his readers, could stir his own ideas and dark imaginings.
See if this sounds familiar. In the opening chapter of The Stand, a weaving Chevy full of dead and dying victims of an Army biochemical weapons plant accidentally plows down the gas pumps at Hap’s Texaco in Arnett, Texas. One of the five guys sitting around the station spinning yarns is in a panic because his unemployment has run out, the station owner ponders whether he can get away with supplementing his retirement income with a little counterfeit operation, and the two others—including hero Stu Redmond—are down-on-their-luck workers at the calculator factory whose time has been cut down to 30 hours a week.
In Danse Macabre, his 1981 exploration of the horror genre (updated in 2010), King talks about the world in which The Stand was written:
Its writing came during a troubled period for the world in general and America in particular; we were suffering from our first gas pains in history, we had just witnessed the sorry end of the Nixon administration and the first presidential resignation in history, we had been resoundingly defeated in Southeast Asia, and we were grappling with a host of domestic problems, from the troubling question of abortion-on-demand to an inflation rate that was beginning to spiral upward in a positively scary way…The America I had grown up in seemed to be crumbling beneath my feet.
If we accept the idea that The Stand was our first modern dystopian novel, we also have to acknowledge where our current rash of dystopian fiction differs. Think of them as The Stand’s cynical, depressed godchildren. Because for all its similarities, there is an ultimate optimism, a sweetness if you will, running through The Stand. From Tom Cullen’s simple, unfiltered joy and faith, to Stu’s solid bravery, to Nick’s mysticism, and to Larry, the selfish, irresponsible guy who grows into an unlikely hero, we come away with the reassurance that good will win over evil, that in the end, things will be okay. The center will hold. Things will not fall apart.
Those of us who grew up with The Stand as our dystopian bible are writing our own nihilistic worlds now, and our tales are darker and more brutal. Our books’ heroism is more often measured in individual bursts of nobility rather than grand showdowns of bonded, ultimately good-hearted, humankind.
Why? I think it’s because we’ve seen some shit since 1978. Too much of it. As I write this, a nuclear plant north of Tokyo threatens meltdown in the middle of an annihilated landscape. We’ve survived Katrina and Lockerbie and Haiti and, by God, we watched those planes fly into the Twin Towers over and over. We watched ash-covered Americans running through the streets of Manhattan as if the Walkin’ Dude himself was in pursuit, laughing, his boot heels clicking on the pavement.
Terror is no longer hypothetical, so we do what writers and readers have always done when things get scary and we suspect they might get a whole lot worse: we plunge ourselves into dystopian worst-case scenarios, seeing how the human spirit might flower and thrive in the midst of newly imagined futures that are worse than anything Stu Redmond or Nick Andros faced. They, after all, had Mother Abigail.
Author Suzanne Johnson’s new urban fantasy series, scheduled to begin with the release of Royal Street in April 2012 by Tor Books, is set in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina—her own dystopian world. Find Suzanne on Twitter.