Why do authors set apocalyptic fiction in Colorado? There's an easy explanation for the setting of Peter Heller's The Dog Stars: The author lives here. And Katherine Anne Porter was a reporter at the Rocky Mountain News when she became a victim of the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918; she recounted that time in the classic “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.”
While Porter's short story is lyrical, sometimes even lovely in its feverish description, Stephen King's The Stand is a much more brutal look at a pandemic that hits close to home; never has a single book been so soaked with sputum. But despite its shower-inducing description of the disease known as Captain Trips, King’s 1978 post-apocalyptic horror/fantasy novel has a few guilty pleasures in store for local readers. Because the bad people who survive this deadly flu go to Las Vegas, while the good people go...where else?...to Boulder.
For the record, King does not believe there's any comparison between the coronavirus and the deadly epidemic chronicled in The Stand. On March 8, King tweeted: "No, coronavirus is NOT like THE STAND. It's not anywhere near as serious. It's eminently survivable. Keep calm and take all reasonable precautions."
And then he followed that message with this: "It will give more peeps a chance to stay home and read THE UNWILLING. No better time to get carried away to another world!"
King can afford to tout a book by another author (The Unwilling is by Kelly Braffet). He's been a successful author for decades, a career that got its start when he and his family were living in Boulder in the ’70s. That's when he started writing The Shining; the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park provided the inspiration for the spooky hotel in that book.
He started The Stand a few years later, and, as he explains on stephenking.com:
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“For a long time — ten years, at least — I had wanted to write a fantasy epic like The Lord of the Rings, only with an American setting. I just couldn’t figure out how to do it. Then, slowly after my wife and kids and I moved to Boulder, Colorado, I saw a 60 Minutes segment on CBW (chemical-biological warfare). I never forgot the gruesome footage of the test mice shuddering, convulsing, and dying, all in twenty seconds or less. That got me remembering a chemical spill in Utah that killed a bunch of sheep (these were canisters on their way to some burial ground; they fell off the truck and ruptured). I remembered a news reporter saying, ‘If the winds had been blowing the other way, there was Salt Lake City.’ This incident later served as the basis of a movie called Rage, starring George C. Scott, but before it was released, I was deep into The Stand, finally writing my American fantasy epic, set in a plague-decimated USA. Only instead of a hobbit, my hero was a Texan named Stu Redman, and instead of a Dark Lord, my villain was a ruthless drifter and supernatural madman named Randall Flagg. The land of Mordor (‘where the shadows lie,’ according to Tolkien), was played by Las Vegas.”
King doesn’t provide a similar explanation for how Boulder became home of the Free Zone (although could there be a prettier place to plan a revived democracy than Chautauqua Auditorium?), but the book itself offers this timely reminder for people getting endless epidemic updates:
No one can tell what goes on in between the person you were and the person you become. No one can chart that blue and lonely section of hell. There are no maps of the change. You just come out the other side.
Or you don’t.