Guest Editorial: The Dead Zone
By Sarah Lotz
‘You couldn’t make it up.’
I heard this a lot—especially from fiction writers—after the news about Trump’s win hit. The subtext behind this statement was, of course, that reality is always weirder than fiction, and it’s not fair that writers can’t get away with the coincidences and craziness that happens in real life. Voting Trump into power is a plot twist even the writers of Sharknado III would have balked at. ‘If you wrote it, no one would believe it,’ whinged everyone, including me.
A few years ago, I wrote a novel that ended with a megalomaniacal U.S. presidential candidate getting into power, destroying relations with old allies in East Asia and basically fucking up the world. The book is currently being adapted into a TV show, and in one of my first meetings with the producer, she said, ‘Of course we’ll have to drop the whole political element of it. It’s too outlandish. No one would ever vote for a nut-job like that.’ This was in the heady days of Obama, and I agreed with her. Of course I did. I’d only just about got away with that side of things in the novel, and this element wouldn’t translate onto the screen without straining the limits of credibility. I won’t go into the plot, except to say that after a series of appalling events—involving plane crashes, conspiracies, and the actions of three possibly evil children (bear with me here)—a sufficient number of the voting populous begins to believe that these events are prophesies that foreshadow the End Times. Fuelled by fear, a majority then vote to put a power-hungry super-church honcho into the White House, who eventually sets the end of the world in motion. Incidentally, I didn’t set out to write a novel criticising eschatologically-minded Christians (I’m an equal-opportunity atheist), but to explore how potent a force fear could be in the political sphere. There’s no doubt I was influenced by the run-up to the 2012 election, when the Tea Party was flexing its ‘family values’ muscles and latching on to fake news like the Obama Birther shit (endorsed, of course, by Trump). At that time, white evangelicals (end timers are only a subset of this number) made up the largest religious demographic in the U.S., and for decades wooing their support had been fundamental in securing a nomination. Plus, I was fascinated by the rumours that Bush’s foreign policy regarding Iraq and Israel was partly influenced by the fact that End Timers believe the bible teaches that the Jews must possess their own country in the Holy Land before Jesus can return. I was—and still am—gobsmacked that there are millions of Americans who truly do believe that the apocalypse is nigh, and are actually looking forward to it. (And, as four out of five evangelicals voted for Trump, perhaps they’ll get their wish sooner than they think.) But that’s another article.
Terrible and/or inept presidents are nothing new in fiction, especially film. The closest to the current incumbent are probably Frank Underwood from House of Cards and Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Camacho from Idiocracy, but the one that springs to mind for me is presidential candidate Greg Stillson from Stephen King’s Dead Zone. Greg hides his true monstrous nature behind a veneer of slickness; there’s no ‘grabbing them by the pussy’ or spouting about the ‘Muslim threat’ in his rhetoric. The only person who knows his true nature is mild-mannered Johnny Smith, who, cursed with the gift of precognition after a couple of severe head injuries, has to make a difficult choice—wipe out the future president or face a nuclear-war blighted future. Written in 1979, it fed into the fears of the times, which have come full circle. But it turns out that in real life to vote in an unrealistic leader you don’t need to build in a series of unfathomable events, or have your president hide behind the mask of politically-correct politician’s smarm. Turns out all you need is to make Meat Loaf cry on a reality show and spew empty words about ‘making America great again.’ In fiction, no one would have believed it.
To steal from Penn Jillette, we’ve voted a whackjob with hair like piss-stained candyfloss into the highest position in the world. There’s a part of me, a small, dark part, that desperately wants to know how the story will end—and it if it will be with a bang or a whimper. Either way, one thing’s for sure: plot-wise the world really has jumped the shark.