Just as George Orwell’s 1984 and Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism enjoyed a revival in American best-selling charts in the first year of the Donald Trump administration, the past week has seen the entry of Stephen King’s post-apocalyptic novel The Stand in Amazon.com’s Top 20.
This sudden interest in the 1978 novel, in which the world is ravaged by a sweeping global pandemic, with the survivors separating into forces of good and evil and going to war, hardly needs any explanation as the Covid-19 outbreak rages around the planet.
Twitter users have been asking for recommendations for plague-related books and films – as though there wasn’t enough of it already in real life – and Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film Contagion, which follows several countries grappling with an infectious disease, is being rediscovered and revisited just like The Stand.
What after those two, though? Here is a list of 10 books that look at pandemics from different angles; the breakdown of society, the inaction of governments, the rise in religious fanaticism. Almost always, the protagonist is someone magically immune to the disease. You may, however, find the non-fiction picks more horrifying than the fictional works because truth is, etc.
A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), Daniel Defoe
The book follows as an eyewitness account of the bubonic plague epidemic that struck London between 1665 and 1666, which led to over 1,00,000 deaths. Defoe was only five years old at the time, and he reconstructed the events of the epidemic through painstaking research. The book, narrated by a man with the initials HF, was initially regarded as a genuine first-hand account and thus read as non-fiction, but by 1780, Defoe’s authorship became known.
The Plague (1947), Albert Camus
“But again and again there comes a time in history when the man who dares to say that two and two make four is punished with death. The schoolteacher is well aware of this. And the question is not one of knowing what punishment or reward attends the making of this calculation. The question is one of knowing whether two and two do make four.”
Camus’ novel goes unfolds through the same stages of a pandemic that we are seeing. First, the authorities of the French-Algerian city of Oran are reluctant to accept that a plague is afoot, and then they turn out to be thoroughly incompetent as an administration. As panic sets in, some turn to orthodox religion while a salesman tries to profit from the situation. It is only a few good men working tirelessly, risking their lives, who try to fix the situation.
Beauty Salon (1994), Mario Bellatin
A response to the HIV/AIDS outbreak in the 1980s, the novel is set in a large unnamed city struck by a plague which is killing young men. The state’s institutions have abandoned them, and this is when the protagonist, a transvestite hair stylist, opens up his salon to provide shelter to these dying and rejected men. “It wasn’t death that got me,” he says, “the only thing I wanted was to make sure these people, abandoned by state hospitals, didn’t die like dogs in the middle of the street.”
Blindness (1997), Jose Saramago
When a mass epidemic of blindness strikes an unnamed city, law and order breaks down and the government opts for increasingly authoritarian but hare-brained measures to keep the city in control. The protagonist, the novel’s only character who does not lose her sight, is the beacon of reason and hope as she and her husband, a doctor, try to survive in a city where institutions have stopped functioning, families have been broken up, and there are riots on the streets.
Oryx and Crake (2003), Margaret Atwood
We have been seeing a lot of social media posts and tweets on the lines of “humans are the real virus”, haven’t we? That’s what Crake, a brilliant geneticist, believes. He creates a wonder drug, purported to bring health and happiness to all, but which actually creates a pandemic that wipes out the entire human population. What is left behind are crakers, human-like creatures, who are peaceful, lustless, and not as damaging to the environment as humans. The novel goes back into the pasts of Crake and his friend Jimmy, the protagonist, to show how the world came to be like this.
The Road (2006), Cormac McCarthy
“He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”
In contrast to the macroscopic canvas of The Plague, Blindness, and Oryx and Crake, this novel focuses at the relationship between a survivalist father and son who try to get by in an apocalyptic wasteland. Humanity has been all but wiped out of earth because of something that’s never quite apparent. All around, there’s scarcity of food, humans have devolved into cannibals, the strong prey upon the weak, and every day is a matter of life and death.
World War Z (2006), Max Brooks
There is nothing pulpy about this zombie novel. Set 20 years after the world became infested with superhuman zombies, and humanity won the war against them, an investigator from the United Nations travels the world to understand how exactly the zombie war went down. He discovers how countries went into war with one another, or against their own citizens, in the face of a monstrous pandemic. There are eerie parallels between the book and the ongoing crisis – for example, the zombie outbreak in the book occurs during election year in the United States and the authorities are lax about tackling the problem early on, which worsens the crisis in the long run.
The Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus (1994), Richard Preston
The first of three non-fiction books on this list, The Hot Zone looks at the origins of the Ebola virus and its relative viruses like the Sudan virus and Reston virus, the way they spread from animals to humans, and the progression of severely painful diseases caused by these. Preston’s book, while being informative, is also dramatic (“Imagine a virus with the infectiousness of influenza and the mortality rate of the black plague in the Middle Ages – that’s what we’re talking about.”), and Stephen King once said that its first chapter is “one of the most horrifying things I’ve read in my whole life.”
The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance (1995), Laurie Garrett
HIV, Ebola, SARS, SIV – the world has been witnessing newer and stronger forms of virus breaking into human life and wrecking havoc every few years in the past few decades. In her book, Garrett blames the mass migration of refugees, unchecked industrialisation and the resulting pollution leading to a contaminated atmosphere, excessive use of antibiotics, uncontrolled drug use and other public health issues. All of these is resulting in fresh epidemics, and worse, microbes, which were earlier under control, mutating to become resistant to modern medicines.
The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History (2005), John M Barry
The 1918 flu pandemic, also wrongly known as Spanish flu, infected up to a quarter of the world’s population at the time and killed at least 5% of the world’s population, within just two years. Barry’s book pinpoints the origin of the virus as Kansas, from where it spread across the globe due to the movements of soldiers during the World War I. The book follows the progress of the pandemic, which Barry describes as “the first great collision between nature and modern science”, and how the scientific community responded to the demands of the time.