Well, we’ve all been stuck indoors for weeks now, and quite possibly with time on our hands. What better time to read about literary visions of plagues and pestilential apocalypse?
Since The Book of Revelation, writers have come up with their own version of what could bring humanity to an end. I guess no-one thought it could involve a bat in a Chinese food market, but let’s look at some of the best examples out there.
1. The Rats by James Herbert
Sometimes plagues are supernatural, sometimes they’re caused by scientific meddling, and sometimes they are just because everything is just… bad. This is very much the case with The Rats, whose bleak, basic prose captures the grim atmosphere of a derelict East End of London in the 1970s. (It’s no coincidence that the first album by punk band The Stranglers, Rattus Norevegicus, released just a few years later, was named after the common brown rat. Both saw the city as a sewer).
"The Rats still has a raw power that makes it a thrilling, fast-paced read"
A plague of rats overruns London, emboldened by the decline and neglect throughout the city, and the indifference and fecklessness of the government. It’s by no means sophisticated: the main character Harris seems to be a bit of an idealised author-identification, and the sexual politics are, at best, of their time.
But The Rats still has a raw power that makes it a thrilling, fast-paced read. (If you want more books like this, Slugs by Shaun Hutson is an inferior knock-off with, um, carnivorous slugs instead of rats).
2. The Stand by Stephen King
King has written about how his ambition was to write an American version of The Lord of the Rings. There are no hobbits in The Stand, but in its breadth, ambition and vision, he pulls off what many feel like the best novel of his storied career.
A “superflu” concocted in a US bioweapons lab is 99.7 per cent lethal, but manages to get released into the general population through a series of unfortunate misadventures. We’re presented with a kaleidoscope of immune characters from around the US: Franny Goldsmith in Maine, Stuart Redman in East Texas, Larry Underwood in New York City, and Nick Andros in Shoyo, Arkansas; and from their perspective we see the superflu—known as Captain Trips—take down civilisation as we know it. (Or as the US knows it: few countries get even a passing mention). Then there’s a theological battle as the survivors split into two camps, inspired by Mother Abigail on the one side, and the Dark Man, Randall Flagg, on the other.
The Stand was published in two versions: the initial, 800-page 1978 version set in 1980, and a 1,153-page version set in 1990. I prefer the former, because in the latter the references are too dated, its anxieties very late-1970s. But if you just can’t get enough of King, the full-fat version will be the one for you.
"It taps straight into the nuclear anxieties of the 1950s in a wonderfully understated, English way"
3. The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
Okay, the premise—plants that can move about and kill you—seems rather hokey. We’re not exactly talking plagues of zombies or killer rats here. But as an imagining of how the people could be supplanted—blinded by a meteor shower, at the mercy of plants which may have been bioengineered by the USSR—it taps straight into the nuclear anxieties of the 1950s in a wonderfully understated, English way. (It’s very much set in the Home Counties, and the hero, Bill Masen, could be out of Enid Blyton). The Day of the Triffids isn’t an action-adventure novel; it moves slowly and even rather gracefully. But its vision of the collapse of society is wonderfully, chillingly plausible.
4. The Plague (La Peste) by Albert Camus
Though The Stranger (L’Entranger) is perhaps Camus’ best known novel (which other French existentialist had The Cure write a song on one of their books?), The Plague is an excellent philosophical exploration of the human condition at a time of great strife. In The Plague it’s the disease sweeping the French Algerian city of Oran (caused by rats sweeping through the streets). The city is sealed off, those who attempt to escape are shot, and riots and looting break out, while other inhabitants waste away both physically and emotionally.
In the midst of all this, there is hope, and humanity: at the end, the narrator says he wrote a chronicle of the time “to simply say what we learn in the midst of plagues: there are more things to admire in men than to despise". Like The Stranger, The Plague is written in a low-key, unemphatic style, making the darkness more terrible by implication than by splashy articulation. But if you want to probe humanity in the midnight of the soul, this might well be the book for you.
5. The Last Battle by C S Lewis
C S Lewis’ “Narnia” books take a rather dark turn towards the end of the series, with The Silver Chair and especially The Last Battle. In this last book we read about the end of days, the Armageddon which finally brings the entire Narnia world to an end, through the confusion, war and betrayal in a time when memories of Aslan have largely faded away.
Puzzle the Ape persuades Shift, a nice but simple-minded donkey, to pretend to be Aslan when they find a lion’s skin, so Puzzle can order the other animals around. Some of the scenes are horrifying, even for a children’s book, as when the evil god Tash is released into Narnia, or, most tragically, when finally the Bear dies, still bewildered, saying, “I—I don’t—understand.” The ending however is a great counterpoint to all the darkness, and is one of the most joyful in any book I’ve ever read.
If these books haven’t sent you hiding under the covers, how about trying one of the bleakest films ever made? Threads was written by Barry Hines (author of A Kestrel For a Knave, better known for the film adaptation, Kes), and is a 1984 vision of how nuclear war could end life on earth.
It’s not just that the bombs go off and wipe out most of civilisation. The darkest part comes afterwards, when we see how the survivors scrabble to remain alive amidst the rubble and as radiation, famine and a nuclear winter gradually kill them off. It’s in some ways a delightful period piece, chock-full of 1980s standard characters and Cold War paranoia. But take heed: it is no Sunday afternoon family viewing.
Read more: 10 Interesting facts about Emily Dickinson
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