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.
A deadly virus called "Captain Trips", engineered as a 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 Border
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 (Frannie) Goldsmith and Harold Lauder, a pregnant college student and an overweight high school outcast, respectively, both from Ogunquit, Maine
- Glen Bateman, a quick-witted, pessimistic sociology professor from New Hampshire, and his dog, an Irish Setter named Kojak (or Big Steve, as he later reveals himself)— one of the 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 wanderer originally from fictional Caslin, Nebraska
- Tom Cullen, a kind-hearted mentally challenged man from May, Oklahoma
- Ralph Brentner, a jolly, easy-going farmer 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 from New York City
- Nadine Cross, a virginal kindergarten teacher with a dark secret from New Hampshire
- Leo "Joe" Rockway, a savage, amnesiac, and telepathic boy
- Lucy Swann, a 24-year-old housewife from New Hampshire
- Judge Farris, a man in his late seventies
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, referred to as "the Free Zone" (officially "The Boulder Free Zone"), where 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 (known as "the Dark Man", "the Hardcase", "the Tall Man", and "the Walkin’ Dude"), an evil being with supernatural powers; he represents evil, the opposite influence of Mother Abagail. Flagg’s rule is tyrannical and brutal, using crucifixion, torture and other torments as punishment for those who are disloyal and disobedient. 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 Works
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.