As a novel strain of coronavirus struts across the globe, stretching its spindly spider-legs from horizon to burning horizon, how are you doing? Have you been following the new s and staying up-to-date on how to avoid infection? Have you been, perhaps, hoarding toilet paper? (If you’ve been doing that, knock it off by the way) If you are anything like me, you’ve been split between the need to stay informed and the desire to withdraw completely from the acid bath of stress and negative stimuli that the news can be at times. Thus it is with some trepidation that I make the following suggestion, although I do stand by it: have you considered mixing some plague-related media into your diet of fiction?
Context, knowledge, and history are all sources of tremendous power and great comfort when contemplating dangerous or scary times; very little that transpires in human affairs has no precedent, and when It comes to plague, we’ve been coping with it as long as we’ve had agriculture and cities (according to most accounts). As a result artists have for millennia been reckoning with the same fear that many of us are now dealing with. It is not an entirely outlandish thought that one might find something of value in what those artists have to say. Something of, if not comfort, at least acknowledgement – and that is, now that I think about it, by its very nature a potent form of comfort.
The Stand is one of modern horror’s most epic and sprawling tales, and one of Stephen King’s finest creations. The plot is far too complex to summarize here, but suffice it to say that The Stand tells the story of the end of the world via plague, and of what transpires both during full societal collapse and in the aftermath. Depending on exactly how much time you plan on spending in quarantine, I’d recommend either the 1994 TV miniseries adaptation (366 minutes total) or the actual novel, which clocks in at an awe-inspiring 823 pages (1,152 freaking pages in its unabridged edition, I might add). The Stand is a touchstone for so much – not just in King’s work but the wider world of horror, literary reference, and modern pop culture – that despite its skeleton-fossilizing length, I’m afraid I have to insist that you put The Stand in your life.
28 Days Later / 28 Weeks Later
In 2020, it’s easy to stand atop a sprawling mountain of zombie-based entertainment, gaze upon a landscape choked with the living dead, and forget that there was a time before Danny Boyle changed the zombie game – but there was! Prior to 2002’s 28 Days Later, Boyle was predominantly known for his adaptations of Trainspotting and The Beach (both fantastic film versions of excellent books). Zombies, back then, were known as slow, lumbering corpses. Boyle changed all that, and it’s easy to forget that the so-called “fast zombie” of the modern zombie craze is a product of a plague narrative. Indeed, most zombie-based entertainment relies on some sort of explanation for zombies that has its roots in disease rather than a mysterious comet or the workings of voodoo. Modern zombies have, in a sense, been taken from the grave and given to the plague, and if you’d like to one of the sources of that change, you should check out both 28 Days Later and its little bro of a sequel, 28 Weeks Later.
The Masque of the Red Death
Edgar Allen Poe is a momentous figure, a linchpin not only of America’s contributions to literature, but of popular writing, as well. Poe invented the detective story. He fleshed out and developed the tropes and boundaries of what we now call horror. He was a gifted writer of both prose and poetry, and while he’s best known for “The Raven,” much of his work is far weirder and darker than that charming and Halloween-friendly verse might suggest. For example; The Masque of the Red Death is a short story, initially published in 1842 and widely available in any halfway-decent Poe anthology. I won’t give the plot away, as it’s very simple but also full of twists. What I will say is that when it comes to stories of class, politics, disease, fear, and madness, it’s a doozy. It’s a story that lodged in my mind the first time I read it, and it has had a profound impact over the years on both my dream life and my writing. In this, the age of coronavirus, I think The Masque of the Red Death has a lot to tell us. Not a lot of what it has to tell us, unfortunately, is happy.
The graphic novel as a medium is underutilized in both horror and historical narratives. Julia Gfrörer is here to change that with Laid Waste. Intimate, graphic, loving, and absolutely horrifying at the same time, Gfrörer’s bare-bones (sometimes literally) art, sparse dialogue, and subtle scenes of emotion are interspersed with tableaus of utter and grotesque devastation. Laid Waste brings us inside the emotional and day-to-day toll of the Black Death in medieval Europe in a way that few tales have. If you decide to sample Gfrörer’s book – and I suggest you do – brace yourself for the reign of Death, but be prepared for scenes of surprising beauty as well.
Demon – “The Plague”
Truly, Demon were one of the lesser lights of 80s and early 90s metal – or pop-metal, if you prefer to think of them as such. They were a decent, hardworking band, a middle-of-the-pack contributor to the kind of upbeat power-pop metal that has been re-popularized by bands like Ghost as of late. I would argue that Ghost is the far superior incarnation of the sound, but Demon blazed a trail (perhaps while falling from Heaven?), and deserve credit for such. They also happened to record a concept album about the plague called…you guessed it, “The Plague!” It’s a tuneful, hard-rocking little album with some real headbangers hidden up where its sleeves would be, had they not been torn off. The title track in particular is one that will stick with you, and its upbeat, catchy, and filled to the brim with horrifying lyrics about disease!
Entertainment, escapism, these things are all well and good, but please – pay attention to what the CDC and the WHO are telling you in terms of current advisories. And be smart; practice social distancing, avoid public gatherings, and we’ll get through this thing. One way or the other.
American Cult Anthology$0.99 – $5.99