Where do stories come from? Not important or interesting. Why are some stories shot out like a cannonball from an artist’s brain in a matter of days like Kerouac’s “On The Road” and even written on a scroll; whereas, some stories take a decade or more of developing until they are born like Stephen King’s The Stand? Very Important and Very Interesting! I will not be discussing King’s opus The Stand, but rather how it evolved from Night Surf.
Night Surf was written for the University of Maine literary magazine in 1969 when King was twenty-two. Night Surf introduces us to the plague that kills off mankind and how people can be pulled to darkness when no one is looking. The disease is even called “A6” just as it was called in The Stand, but The Stand didn’t get published until 1978. Why did it take so long for The Stand to incubate and his other stories seem to shoot from him like they are on a sluice?
I see this dichotomy in my own writing. For some stories, I’ll get pieces of dialogue and scenes in my head that kick around for years, but I don’t know how they fit together like a jigsaw puzzle with too many smooth edges. I can’t speak for Stephen King, but for me the longer developing stories occur when I’m picking at something personal like an emotional wound that’s been puffed out by pus, but not yet ready to drain. I guess I just want to hold onto the pain; maybe, King does too?
Night Surf takes place on the New England coastline when summer’s ending, but it’s not just the leaves dying on the trees; humanity is blowing out from a massive viral extinction event. The disease is called A6- a superflu. In The Stand, he refers to the virus also as Tube Neck and Captain Trips. The world is not quite dead yet, but it’s getting there. The story is narrated by Bernie who is spending humanity’s last days at a beach town. At first, the group believes that they are immune from the disease and demonstrate their superior immunity with the most primitive act of all: Human Sacrifice. A man who’s dying from the flu comes to their town and, instead of caring for him and helping him die, they burn him to death in a bonfire.
Why burn him? They describe it almost like a sacrifice to the beach itself. The act seemed to me to be more like a line in the stand between the dying world and themselves. The mere mortals are simply cord wood and can be used for fuel. Their perception as the kings of humanity is vindicated by their health because they are immune and the rest of humanity perished. It harkens to the idea of the Puritans where the Select were touched by God and were guaranteed success in life and VIP treatment on the ethereal plane. Of course, the Puritans would balk at using lesser people as a duraflame.
Soon after burning the flu victim alive, Bernie realizes that one of his comrades has A6 symptoms and will soon die, indicating all of them might expire soon. The story forces us to look at what allows us to be moral. Are we only good because society will punish us if we are bad? It could be argued that they looked at the immolation as a last hurrah, but I think that is wrong because at the time in the story, they believed they were immune. If their friend had developed symptoms before the unlucky traveler arrived, would they see him as their brother or would they have burned them both to adamantly declare their superiority?
The theme of people being seduced to darkness is throughout The Stand, but in this story, they don’t get the devil made me do it excuse; the group murdered because they could and felt like doing it. After the immolation, we return to Bernie’s backstory, humanizing him even more. It seems King is saying that this horrendous act was just another act in a number of countless acts that Bernie did from birth to his upcoming demise. Maybe doing evil is just as common as getting the paper? I hope not, but as the great philosopher Bobby Dylan said, It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.
This story is more relevant to me today than when I first read it years ago. What makes it more difficult for me is that the people in the story are just so normal. I hope none of my readers will ever have to do this, but I’ve looked right into the face of evil once and the man looked like he could have been a cousin. When I remember the encounter, it still chills me to the bone. I met a Bernie once; maybe, you have too, but you didn’t know it.