If pushed to name a favourite genre, post-apocalyptic would come close. Depending on my mood, it would often be top. That’s the thing with naming your favourite anything, from food to film to song to book: it depends how you are feeling when deliberating. I’ve talked in a previous post about my love for this genre and how I first became attracted to it by watching the film The Omega Man when I was a child, and I’m not going to rehash that. Instead, I want to mention some of my favourite apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic novels. (I’m not going to discuss dystopian books where there hasn’t been an apocalyptic event, or there has but it isn’t key to the story—dystopia has its own post.)
This is a category crammed with excellent novels. Harder to know what to leave out than include, but what follows is a mention of many of my favourites (which, of course, on another day might have included one or more of the books I’ve today omitted).
Let’s start with one of my favourite authors. If you know me, you’ll realise I refer to Stephen King. Can’t recall how old I was when I first read The Stand, but I’m guessing I was around seventeen. The tale of civilisation coming to an end through the accidental release of a lab-engineered strain of influenza blew me away and cemented SK as my go-to author. (As an aside, one or two reviewers of my own apocalyptic novel, The Cleansing, commented that it reminded them of The Stand. True, my tale also involves a manufactured virus which virtually wipes out humankind, but that’s where the resemblance ends. Tenuous though the comparison is, I usually shrug and take it as a compliment, even where it’s clear it’s not intended as one.)
Another PA novel I read in my teens was On the Beach by Nevil Shute. Set in Australia in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, it tells of the last days of humanity while the survivors wait for the fallout to reach them. It was published in 1957, which perhaps explains why I felt in some ways it was a little unrealistic. I mean, for people awaiting certain death, they behave in an awfully civilised manner—stiff upper lip and all that. Still, it’s a sombre evocation of how the world might end (‘not with a bang but a whimper’*), with the government doling out suicide capsules so the people might be spared the slow, lingering end of radiation poisoning, and entire families popping them together.
Another favourite of my younger days was Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. The apocalyptic event doesn’t take place until towards the end of the tale, but when it does, it’s about as life-ending as it’s possible to imagine. And that’s all life, not only human.
A couple of books I’d describe as curious, both disturbing in their own ways. The Death of Grass by John Christopher presents a grim (grim? It’s PA—of course it’s bloody grim) look at how humankind might react in the event suggested by the title, with the British government responding to the crisis in a dramatic and overly drastic way, and what is left of society descending almost instantly into mob rule. And Night Work by Thomas Glavinic. It’s not giving anything away to say that it’s about a man who wakes up one day to find that he appears to be the only person left alive on the entire planet. Can’t say more because spoilers, but it’s a dark and intriguing read.
The next two books have something in common: they both involve a form of vampirism. In Justin Cronin’s The Passage, we see the event unfold. The story continues in two sequels and it’s a fine trilogy indeed. In Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (the book upon which the film The Omega Man is loosely based), the event has already taken place and we witness the aftermath. Unlike the film versions, the book’s ending is deliciously dark; pity the film makers didn’t have the courage to stick with it.
Next, a Marmite novel: The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I’m firmly in the ‘love it’ camp (that’s the book, not Marmite). It’s unremittingly bleak and utterly gripping. They didn’t do a bad job with the film version, either.
A few more crackers (most of the books included in this post are crackers). Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood and Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. Both captivated me for different reasons: Atwood’s for its sense of lyricism and surrealism mixed with a scenario all too realistic, Mandel’s due mainly to the intrigue I felt as to how the present would tie-in with the back story, though this is beautifully written as well. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller is a classic PA novel, though it reads more like three long short stories, which is how they were originally written.
For someone who’s a huge fan of TV’s The Walking Dead, strange that I’m not really one for novels about zombies. They simply don’t interest me. The exception is World War Z by Max Brooks. I bought it as one of my books to take on holiday to Greece a few years ago. It took me a while to grow used to the style of the novel—it has no central narrative, as such, but is told after the event through a series of interviews with characters who played a central role in the ‘war’—but once I had, Wow! A rip-roaring read that I didn’t want to end.
To finish, a novel that haunted me for weeks after I’d finished it and one that I want to read again: Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. The story is set in the south-east of England, far into the future, hundreds of years after the apocalyptic event. I’m hazy on the details because it’s been more than five years since I read it, but I still recall how the tale resonated with me. The author developed a form of pidgin English in which his characters speak and, due mainly to that, it’s a difficult book to get into. But, boy, was it worth persevering. If you enjoy works of apocalyptic fiction, I’d strongly recommend this, and every other book mentioned in this post.
* this is a line from a poem by T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men, the same poem from which Shute took the title of his novel, and I took the title of this piece.