Whether peering into a distant past, or a near future, books featuring pandemics have long had a place in the canon. Discussing the longtime fascination with "fables of contagion" in the New Yorker, Jill Lepore wrote that reading itself is, in many ways, an infection. "Every story of epidemic," she writes, "is a story of illiteracy, language made powerless, man made brute.... But, then, the existence of books, no matter how grim the tale, is itself a sign, evidence that humanity endures, in the very contagion of reading." We're inclined to agree.
So what literary contagions have remained with us? Here are 13 of our favorites.
A Beginning at the End
The rebuild after a plague is the focus of this novel, which follows three San Franciscans trying to put the pieces back together after a disease known as MGS has taken out over half the population. The three acquaintances—a single dad, a former pop star, and a consultant who helps people cope with the tragedy—are put together by chance, but begin to bond as various threats surface. Chen's novel is a more hopeful take on end of the world that "manages to imbue the apocalypse with heart, hope, and humanity."
In Lepucki's 2014 debut, a couple flees a crumbling Los Angeles to start life over in the woods. Struggling to survive, Cal and Frida are thrown another curve when Frida realizes she's pregnant. Finding solace in another group of survivors, the couple quickly become unnerved by the encampment, where, among other red flags, there are no children and a fearsome leader. We said the suspenseful tale builds "to an explosive climax that few readers will see coming."
The Dog Stars
A pandemic has killed almost everyone on earth and Hig, his dog and a well-armed misanthropic geezer are living at an abandoned airfield in Colorado, muddling through their days, reminiscing, and fighting off occasional bands of marauders. Hig is convinced there's still some semblance of the former civilized world out there to discover and routinely takes his pooch up in an old prop plane to patrol the surrounding mountains and valleys. What is different and most appealing about this literary take on the end of the world is its lack of cynicism. Yes, it has has all the tension, excitement and dread of your typical dystopian yarn, but it is also tempered with just the right amount of hope.
The sophomore novel from Walker (who made a splash with her 2012 debut The Age of Miracles) opens with a college freshman coming down with what she assumes to be the flu. It, of course, isn't. Instead it's a bizarre ailment that causes its victims to fall into a deep sleep from which they cannot be awoken. As the disease spreads, quarantines follow. With strong characters and a twisty plot, the novel, we said, is "skillful, complex, and thoroughly satisfying."
The End of October
This thriller, which releases next month, follows a World Health Organization doctor who begins sounding the alarm about an impending pandemic after an Indonesian refugee camp is decimated by a seemingly new disease. Pulitzer Prize-winner Wright has been getting lots of buzz for this novel, which we called a "timely literary page-turner."
In a Perfect World
Phoenix flu is the pandemic afoot in this novel from the poet and novelist Kasischke. A flight attendant accepts a marriage proposal from a pilot and widower, believing she's found a way out of the uncertainty and danger presented by the country's spreading infection. When her fiance is unexpectedly held overseas, though, the heroine must come together with her stepchildren to form an instant family. We called the novel "startling," noting that it features a "fictional world where terror, beauty and chaos walk hand in hand."
A Journal of the Plague Year
Daniel Defoe. Dover Publications, ISBN 978-0-486-41919-0
One of the original pandemic novels, at least in Western literature, is Defoe's 1722 survivor's account of the bubonic plague. Published roughly 60 years after the so-called Black Death ravaged England, and thought to be based on the diary of Defoe's uncle, the book follows a Londoner named H.F. who witnesses the horror and devastation wrought by the epidemic. Thought by many to be nonfiction when it was published, the novel is an ideal option for those looking to see the template for pandemic literature.
A Prayer for the Dying
The first thing to like about Stewart O'Nan's slim, gruesome novel is that its hero wears three hats—he's the local sheriff, undertaker and priest in the town of Friendship, Wisc. That combo becomes a particularly tough role when the outpost is consumed by a brutal epidemic that is killing the locals in shocking fashion. Part-Western, part horror story, this post-Civil War tale, like too much of O'Nan's work, is an underrated gem.
The apocalypse usually brings dread. Not in Ma's amusing debut, where a plague infecting the world is wreaking a debilitating onslaught of nostalgia. Shen Fever, which becomes known as a "disease of remembering," causes its victims to repeat their old routines in a zombie-like fashion. For Candace Chen, who lives in Manhattan and works at a local publisher in charge of its Bible-printing operation, the pandemic's spread forces her to begin thinking about her future--should she pursue her artistic dreams, or hold on to her steady, corporate job? We said this "clever and dextrous" work cleverly uses the "walking dead conceit to reflect on what constitutes the good life."
A Song for a New Day
Pinsker's novel is set in a post-pandemic U.S. where large gatherings are banned and the only way to experience live music is virtually. Kinda like now. But scrappy groups of musicians and fans get together in secret, in warehouses and basements and barns, bonding and building community. Reading the book now is a little unsettling since we’re in the before and the during, but it gives hope for what might come after.
This beautiful, and eerily prescient, novel opens as a flu pandemic has decimated much of the human population. Twenty years later, a small troupe of Shakespearean actors and musicians travels about the Great Lakes region, performing for remote communities of shell-shocked survivors, doing their best to keep art and culture alive in a post-apocalyptic world. It's a powerful read during the current crisis.
In what we called an "incisive debut" a group of young women are under lockdown at their Maine boarding school after a pandemic, known as "the Tox," has wrought havoc. The girls—16-year-old best friends Hetty, Byatt, and Reese—are now the only remaining students at the Raxter School for Girls, trying to survive on diminishing amounts of food as they wait for a cure on their coastal island. Touted as a "feminist Lord of the Flies" by its publisher, this lauded YA novel is even more resonant now, than when it came out last summer.
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
This bestseller-turned-blockbuster film is set after a zombie plague has decimated the global population. It's a compilation of as-told-to accounts from various survivors from around the world. (In a now-eerie-twist, one of the accounts is from a Chinese doctor who is among the first to encounter the contagion, just as his government is trying to suppress information about the outbreak.) Calling the book "surprisingly hard to put down," we said its "subtle, and not so subtle, jabs at various contemporary politicians and policies are an added bonus."
Rachel Deahl, Ed Nawotka, Carolyn Juris, Drucilla Shultz, and Claire Kirch contributed to this article.