The novel is a post-apocalyptic horror/fantasy story that re-works the scenario of King's earlier short story, "Night Surf." A longer edition of the novel was later released in May of 1990; King restored some text originally cut for brevity, added and revised sections, changed the time frame of the story from 1980 to 1990, and updated several pop culture references accordingly to the time.
A deadly virus called "Captain Trips", engineered as a advanced biological weapon by the government, is accidentally spread across America, causing 99.4% of the population to die. The 0.6% who survive struggle to find their bearings in the aftermath of the plague. They all dream about two opposing figures: Randall Flagg, the Dark Man, and Mother Abagail, who is receiving visions from God. The survivors split into two factions, one led by Flagg, and one led by Mother Abigail, and prepare for the final stand between good and evil.
The first takes place over nineteen days, with the escape and spread of a human-made biological weapon, a superflu virus known formally as "Project Blue" but most commonly as "Captain Trips" (among other colloquialisms). The epidemic leads directly to the death of an estimated 99.4% of the world's human population.
King outlines the total breakdown and destruction of society through widespread violence, the failure of martial law to contain the outbreak, and eventually the death of virtually the entire population. The human toll is also dealt with, as the few survivors must care for their families and friends, dealing with confusion and grief as their loved ones succumb to the flu.
The expanded edition opens with a prologue titled "The Circle Opens" that offers greater detail into the circumstances surrounding the development of the virus and the security breach that allowed its escape from the secret laboratory compound where it was created
On the BorderEdit
Intertwining cross-country odysseys are undertaken by a small number of survivors, including:
- Stu's party:
- Stuart Redman, a factory worker from the fictional tiny town of Arnette, Texas
- Frances Goldsmith, a pregnant college student from Ogunquit, Maine
- Harold Lauder, an overweight high school outcast, also from Ogunquit
- Glen Bateman, a quick-witted, pessimistic sociology professor from Woodsville, New Hampshire
- Kojak (formerly "Big Steve") an Irish Setter adopted by Glen, and one of very few dogs immune to the plague
- Perion McCarthy and Mark Braddock, two lovers who are already a couple when they meet Stu's group
- Dayna Jurgens, a hard-headed and determined woman from Xenia, Ohio
- Susan Stern, a former student from Kent State University
- Patty Kroger, a beautiful young girl in her teen years
- Nick's party:
- Nick Andros, an insightful deaf-mute drifter originally from (fictional) Caslin, Nebraska
- Tom Cullen, a kind-hearted mentally challenged man from May, Oklahoma
- Ralph Brentner, a jolly, easy-going farmer, also from Oklahoma
- Dick Ellis, a former veterinarian in his early 50s
- Gina McCone, a little girl
- Olivia Walker, a sympathetic older woman
- June Brinkmeyer, a redhead woman in her mid-20s
- Larry's party:
- Larry Underwood, a disillusioned pop musician from New York City
- Rita Blakemoor, a rich middle-aged woman also from New York City
- Nadine Cross, a grade-school teacher with a dark secret from South Barnstead, New Hampshire
- Leo Rockway, a traumatized, temporarily feral boy from Epsom, New Hampshire
- Lucy Swann, a twenty-five year old former housewife and mother from Enfield, New Hampshire
- Judge Farris, a seventy-year-old retired judge from Peoria, Illinois
They are drawn together by both circumstances and their shared dreams of a 108-year-old black woman from Hemingford Home, Nebraska, whom they see as a refuge and a representation of good in the struggle of good versus evil. This woman, Abagail Freemantle (known as "Mother Abagail"), becomes the spiritual leader of this group of survivors, directing them to Boulder, Colorado. Eventually the settlement is referred to as the "Boulder Free Zone", after the call-sign used by Ralph Brentner in his radio transmissions to guide survivors in. There they begin to reestablish a democratic society; much of this section of the book involves the struggles to create an orderly society more or less from scratch. Boulder is found to be hosting the dead bodies of considerably fewer plague victims than other cities due to a mass exodus following a false rumor in the early stages of the plague that the outbreak originated in the Boulder Air Test Center. While many corpses are present there, they number far fewer than any other major city in North America.
Meanwhile, another group of survivors includes:
- Lloyd Henreid, a not-too-bright common thief and murderer
- Donald Merwin Elbert, known as "the Trashcan Man", a schizophrenic pyromaniac
- Whitney Horgan, an ex-Army cook and butcher
- Julie Lawry, an unstable, oversexed teenager
- "The Rat Man", a pirate-like hood
- Barry Dorgan, a former detective of the Santa Monica Police Department
- Jenny Engstrom, a nightclub dancer and later construction worker
- Hector "Heck" Drogan, a civilian who is executed for drug abuse by Flagg's punishment system
They are drawn to Las Vegas, Nevada by Randall Flagg (also known as "the Dark Man", "the Hardcase", "the Tall Man", and "the Walkin’ Dude".) Although technically an agent of chaos, Flagg attracts people who like order and stability, even if it comes at the cost of fascism. But it is "not just the evil ones like him" who are receptive to Flagg's summons, according to Mother Abagail, "but the weak ones...the lonely ones...and those who have left God out of their hearts."
Like any other despot Flagg rewards his followers with rank and creature comforts, while using cruel measures — crucifixion, torture — to punish those who violate his laws.
His group is able to quickly reorganize their society, restore power to Las Vegas, and rebuild the city as many technical professionals have migrated to the city. The book notes that at Las Vegas, Flagg's group is constantly working and has organized a strong but harsh structure while at the Free Zone, some survivors lounge idly and do not work as hard. Flagg's group also has started a schooling system and weapons program with survivor Carl Hough as a helicopter pilot and the Trashcan Man searching the country for weapons.
The Free Zone's democratic society is not without its problems. Mother Abagail, feeling that she has become prideful and sinned due to her pleasure at being a public figure, disappears into the desert on a journey of spiritual reconciliation. Meanwhile, Harold's bitterness over his unrequited love for Fran and Nadine's secret commitment to Flagg lead the two of them to detonate a dynamite bomb at a meeting of the Free Zone committee. The explosion, which kills several people (including Nick Andros), takes place at the same time that Mother Abagail is discovered, severely weakened by her time in the wilderness.
The stage is now set for the final confrontation as the two camps become aware of one another, and each recognizes the other as a threat to its survival, leading to the "stand" of good against evil. There is no pitched battle, however. Instead, at Mother Abagail's dying behest, Stu, Larry, Ralph and Glen set off on foot towards Las Vegas on an expedition to confront Randall Flagg. Stu breaks his leg en route and drops out. He encourages the others to leave without him, telling them that God will provide for him. Glen's dog stays behind with Stu. Glen, Ralph, and Larry soon encounter Flagg's men, who take them prisoner. When Glen rejects an opportunity to be spared if he kneels and begs Flagg, he is shot by Lloyd Henreid, on Flagg's direct order. Flagg gathers his entire collective to witness the execution of the other two, but before it can take place, Trashcan Man arrives with a nuclear warhead and a giant glowing hand—"The Hand of God"—detonates the bomb, destroying Flagg's followers and the two remaining prisoners.
Stu, with the aid of Kojak and later Tom Cullen, survives injury, illness, and a harsh Rocky Mountain winter. The three of them arrive back in Boulder soon after the birth of Fran’s baby. Although the baby falls ill with the superflu, he is able to fight it off. In the end, Stu and Fran decide to return to Maine, and the original edition of the novel ends with the two of them questioning whether the human race can learn from its mistakes. The answer, given in the last line, is ambiguous: "I don’t know."
The expanded edition follows this with a brief coda called "The Circle Closes", which leaves a darker impression and fits in with King’s ongoing "wheel of ka" theme. Randall Flagg, using the alias "Russell Faraday", arrives on a beach and begins recruiting adherents among a preliterate, dark-skinned people.
Links to Other WorksEdit
The events of the fourth Dark Tower novel, Wizard and Glass, reveal the setting of this novel to be an alternate level of the Dark Tower. The main characters of that novel spend the night on this level after defeating Blaine the Mono, and confront Flagg, who demands that they abandon their quest to reach the Dark Tower. When they refuse, he escapes.
From September of 2008 to January of 2012, Marvel Comics adapted the novel into a series of graphic novels.
In January of 2011, Warner Bros. announced plans to adapt the novel into a feature film.