Chapter 26 of Stephen King’s 1990 novel The Stand: The Complete & Uncut Edition might rank as the most horrifying chapter the author ever wrote. It presents a montage of scenes dramatizing the disintegration of American civilization as the “Captain Trips” superflu virus wreaks havoc on the populace and precipitates mass rioting and murderous rampaging across the nation. For instance:
TV newscasters held at gunpoint by army thugs and forced to feed misinformation about the outbreak manage a brief coup (before being “summarily executed on charges of treason” ), during which they air footage of a military vehicle dumping bodies onto a barge in Boston Harbor: “women, old men, children, police, nurses; they came in a cartwheeling flood that seemed never to end. At some point during the film-clip it became clear that the soldiers were using pitchforks to get them out” (213-14). In Duluth, Minnesota, a man walking the street wearing a sandwich board bearing such handwritten wisdom as “THE EVIL DAYS ARE AT HAND” learns the hard way the meaning of self-fulfilling prophecy: “Four young men in motorcycle jackets, all of them with bad coughs and runny noses, set upon the man in the khaki shorts and beat him unconscious with his own sandwich board. then they fled, one of them calling back hysterically over his shoulder: ‘Teach you to scare people! Teach you to scare people, you half-baked freak!'” (217) At Kent State University, thousands of nonviolent protesters are mowed down by machine-gun fire; in the midst of this “turkey shoot” (224), the soldiers turn their weapons on one another. Downtown Des Moines, Iowa, is “gutted” by widespread rioting and looting; “as daylight left this flat green land,” the city “looked like the aftermath of some monster New Year’s Eve party after sodden sleep had claimed the last of the revelers” (228).
Perhaps the most disturbing section of the chapter, though, details an episode of ultraviolent reality TV: “At 9:16 P.M., EST, those still well enough to watch television in the Portland, Maine, area, tuned in WCSH-TV and watched with numbed horror as a huge black man, naked except for a pink leather loincloth and a Marine officer’s cap, obviously, ill, performed a series of sixty-two public executions” (226). This hulking lunatic is the leader of a black “junta” of deserting soldiers that has taken over the set of the “Dialing for Dollars” game show and uses a large glass drum to draw the driver’s licenses of some unlucky winners: “‘Inthenameofthefathersonandholyghost,’ the big black man intoned, grinning, and pulled the trigger. There was a large smear of blood and brains behind the spot where PFC Stern was being forced to kneel, and now he added his own contribution.” Further pandemonium occurs when the regular army breaks into the studio and goes to war with the deserters:
The black man in the loincloth went down almost immediately, cursing, sweating, riddled with bullets, and firing his automatic pistol crazily into the floor. The renegade who had been operating the #2 camera was shot in the belly, and as he leaned forward to catch his spilling guts, his camera pivoted slowly around, giving his audience a leisurely pan shot of hell. The semi-naked guards were returning fire, and the soldiers in the respirators were spraying the entire audience area. The unarmed soldiers in the middle , instead of being rescued, found that their executions had only been speeded up. (227)
Underscoring the blackly comic absurdity of the scene, the bloody orgy is finally “replaced on home screens by a picture of a cartoon man who was staring glumly at a cartoon TV. On the cartoon TV was a sign that said: SORRY, WE’RE HAVING PROBLEMS!” (228).
King punctuates the chapter with a transcript of a State of the Union address that evening, in which the President’s claims about the virulence of this flu strain are belied by his own fits of coughing and sneezing. Likewise, the disingenuity of the President’s attempt to pass off occupying army forces as mere National Guardsmen “called out in some areas to protect the populace against hooligans, vandals, and scare-mongers” (230) is proven by the various preceding scenes of mayhem in the chapter.
Chapter 26 of The Stand is frighteningly plausible; readers in this present time of the coronavirus pan(dem)ic can only hope that it is not also terribly prescient. Let us pray that we can trust more in the truth of King’s recently-tweeted PSA than in the nightmare scenario of his fiction.
King, Stephen. The Stand: The Complete & Uncut Edition. New York: Doubleday, 1990.