I spent a lot of time at my local library as a kid. (Surprised, aren’t you.) I think the two summers between 1999 and 2000, whenever I didn’t have permission to take the T system down to the mall, I was at the library. I wish I could say I was gobbling up great works of literature during this time—although this is right before I started discovering Stephen King– but I was firmly stuck in the teen section, checking out the YA equivalent of M&Ms: teen series.
Granted, every YA iteration has had these books in the pre-Harry Potter days: quick, cheap paperbacks that came out every few months. I don’t see as many of these books nowadays, but back when I was thirteen, they were everywhere. Most prolific were the TV tie-ins, but there were many one-off series that I could only ever find the first or second book and never find anymore. (Curiously, one of these was a book called Shadowland written under the name Jenny Carroll. She went on to write The Princess Diaries and very quickly became one of my favorite authors…and I didn’t make the connection until a few years later.)
One of the books that always stuck in the back of my head was about a group of teenagers in Manhattan after some sort of Rapture-like event. They were stuck in a converted bomb-shelter/classroom, and when they finally go to see what happened to their teacher, everyone in the city is gone. The first book dealt with the shock of the event, and how the various teens were coping. There were some trying to uncover what had happened to everyone, if there were any other people left elsewhere; some were grieving; and others were just having a grand old time breaking into the Met or the Plaza or other famous NYC attraction of their choice.
“Night Surf” reminds me a lot of that book.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with this story, “Night Surf” was originally published in the magazine Cavalier in 1974, and then collected in Night Shift a few years later. It’s very much a precursor to The Stand—it’s where the Captain Trips moniker of the superflu begins, and we get to see some of the early details of how the flu works. It feels like King was testing the waters with the story; trying to figure out the smaller details of how things would escalate. Or maybe he just reused Captain Trips, made a few tweaks and set into the larger universe of The Stand. There’s only so much that I can guess from assorted materials.
After the guy was dead and the smell of his burning flesh was off the air, we all went back down to the beach.
Brr. I love this opening line so much. It’s chilling and disturbing in how casual it sounds.
There’s no real plot in “Night Surf” to speak, just a lot of young adults running amok as the world’s dying all around them. Everyone else may have the superflu, but they’re young and not sick so let’s drink beer and have sex on the beach and listen to the Stones. The main character is a kid named Bernie, who treats his girlfriend like crap and thinks she’s too fat. Another one of his friends, Needles (well, not friends; it’s mentioned that he just happened on the group), reveals that he, too, has Captain Trips and will probably die within a few days.
It’s a contemplative story—the kind where everyone navel-gazes and makes some sort of deep insight about the world and nothing really happens. The beginning has a great, horrifying mention of a guy these kids burn on the beach—Bernie says that they wanted to put him out of his misery, but there’s this great sacrificial imagery that gives the incident a nice touch—and the rest lacks. It’s a good story to sit and think on. (Actually what it reminds me of is “Stud City,” one of the nestled stories in The Body—mostly flat characters who don’t do much.)
As compared to The Stand, though… Well, you obviously can’t really pit the forces of good and evil in just ten pages. Well, you can, but it doesn’t have quite the same epic quality or thoughts as a nine hundred page novel. I think that “Night Surf” hits the main points of the first part of The Stand, how fleeting life is and that the downfall of humanity wasn’t a nuclear blowout or a meteor, but it was something so simple.
Just the flu.
My personal headcanon is that “Night Surf” does happen in the larger universe of The Stand. It’s like with Chapter 38, when we break away from the main core of characters and get glimpses into what’s happening elsewhere. It’s not important to the larger story, but it adds so much to the universe. We may never meet Bernie or his friends in the book, but I like to think that they’re out there on some beach, partying until the end of the world. And if they do survive, maybe they do make their way to Boulder. Or Vegas. Or maybe they make their own community out there. We never know for sure. But that’s what I like to think.