After Stephen King finished The Shining, he wrote the novella “Apt Pupil” before going back to work on his Patty Hearst novel, The House on Value Street. After six weeks, he once again felt the book wasn’t coming together for him.
A few incidents in the news caught his attention. The first was an accident in Utah where canisters of a deadly chemical fell from a truck, split open, and killed some sheep. If the wind had been blowing in a different direction, many people might have died. He still had the Symbionese Liberation Army on his mind, so he wondered what would happen if a disease got loose and destroyed most of the world’s population—as in the George R. Stewart novel Earth Abides, which he had read in high school, and M. P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud—but members of the SLA were immune for some reason. Then he read about the first-ever outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease at the American Legion Convention in Philadelphia in 1976. When he heard a radio preacher utter the phrase “once in every generation the plague will fall among them,” he liked it enough to write it down and post it on his desk.
He had written about the survivors of a viral epidemic before, in the short story “Night Surf,” which was first published in Ubris in 1969 and reworked for subsequent publication in Cavalier in 1974. Though that virus was called A6, the survivors referred to it as Captain Trips. At that earlier time, he wanted to write more about the world after the apocalypse, but he didn’t feel ready to tackle such an enormous project.
He was also inspired to try to write an epic fantasy on the scale of The Lord of the Rings, but with a familiar setting. The problem with so much of high fantasy, he felt, was that readers had to learn a new language and geography to enjoy those books, whereas his would be set in contemporary America. » Read more