Stock markets plunging. World oil prices tanking. Coronavirus, social distancing, toilet paper hoarding. It seems like things couldn’t get any worse. But yes, they could. So, take a deep breath and stay calm.
Humans have long had a fascination with the end of the world. Whether it’s churning out apocalyptic movies or predicting when that end will come, we’ve been concerned with our planet’s mortality ever since we’ve grasped our little place in it.
Writers love a good plague story. In its simplest terms, it presents an opportunity for heightened tension in which the stakes are life and death. Characters become acutely aware of their own mortality and as they grapple with the big questions, readers invariably empathize with an odd rash on the hero’s skin, or the heat of a fever spreading across our heroine’s face. Alongside the suspense, readers are reminded of our own vulnerability amidst the larger plot.
On another level, a plague can be a metaphor for other evils such as war and the effects of these mythical plagues are often strangely uniform. Wealthy men are made poor by the ruin of their businesses, or wealth is showered upon paupers who inherit the riches of their deceased relatives. Political and religious authority collapses, and social hierarchies are transgressed and then, abolished. The plague affects all, the great social leveler.
So, in keeping with today’s doom and gloom, let’s look at some of literature’s best plague fiction.
The Plague by Albert Camus
Often seen as an allegory of the Nazi occupation of France, Camus’s probable model was a 19th century outbreak. The novel is widely regarded as one of literatures most elegantly told parables about the necessity of human solidarity in the face of an absurd universe.
The Stand by Stephen King
Always popular to blame the government for society’s ills, the novel blames the U.S. military for allowing a strain of influenza designed for use as a potential bio-weapon to escape and affect the population. What’s left is a handful of panicky survivors who chose which side they’re on.
The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian
In this 2006 novel, the hospital becomes the last refuge of humanity after Earth is flooded. As survivors attempt to maintain some sort of civilization in the face of concerns, both supernatural and mundane, a plague begins to decimate them. There are some horrific images and they are a terrifying harbinger of where the story is headed.
The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera
As a plague settles over the city, a man referred to as The Redeemer is attempting to reduce tension between two warring families. The disease and the fear it inspires spark a change in society that has the potential for it to emerge as something different, and ultimately, better.
Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was by Icelandic author Sjon
Set against the backdrop of the Spanish flu of 1918, the story’s protagonist is increasingly aware something has gone very wrong in the world. Epidemics can lead to advances in medicine and other positive outcomes, but they can also reveal the most unpleasant traits of people in those societies.
MaddAddam trilogy by Margaret Atwood
Atwood’s wildly successful trilogy (Oryx & Crake, The Year of the Flood, MaddAddam) begins with a compelling vision of the future that is at once familiar and beyond our imagination. The story unfolds as a natural disaster alters the earth and obliterates most human life. The thrilling conclusion points towards the ultimate endurance of community and love.
Plague Times trilogy by Louise Welsh
A flu-like epidemic ravaged the world’s population, plunging the survivors into chaos. Ultimately, hope is allowed to leak subtly and believably into this post-apocalypse world. People, and the human race, will survive.
A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe
Written in 1722, the novel recounts one man’s experiences in 1665 London as it is ravished by bubonic plague. It deploys a wealth of detail to simulate a text found rather than created and poses the timeless question: when pestilence descends, will you flee or stay to help others?
Blindness by Jose Saramago
A nearly-universal epidemic of blindness afflicts an unknown city and like Camus’s The Plague, it invites metaphorical readings.
None of these books will help you deal with the current crisis but they do pose a lot of interesting questions about the nature of our destiny and our existence. As scary as things are right now, there will be better days ahead. Stay safe, stay home if you can, be kind to others, and wash your hands. A lot. Here’s hoping it all looks different soon.
In the meantime, happy reading!