The apocalypse has long been fertile ground for the literary imagination. There’s something irresistably fascinating, it seems, in the idea of total destruction – whether that be by means of war, plague, natural disaster, or something more odd and unpredictable.
Now more than ever, a sense of doom seems appropriate – and with our apocalypse-themed issue on the distant horizon, we thought we’d put together a series of posts on the apocalypse as it appears in all manner of literary forms.
Here you’ll find our five favourite books about the end of the world… but we also plan on sharing our favourite cataclysmic short stories, poems, games and films. We hope you find this fabulously bleak reading material inspiring. If you do, submissions to the magazine are currently open…
It seems odd to call such a brutally depressing book beautiful, but McCarthy’s prose is a pleasure to read, even when it’s describing a planet burned beyond recognition by an unspecified (but likely manmade) disaster. The story is simple: a man and his child amble across the blasted continent of North America in search of food, shelther and salvation, but find very little of anything. The Road is a deeply affecting read – one that can be, at times, difficult to face. If you fancy an easier ride, try the movie: it features Viggo Mortensen and completely misses the point of the book, but is, at least, a little less bleak.
The half-finished manuscript of this classic young adult novel was completed by the author’s wife and daughter following his death. The book, published posthumously, tells the story of Ann Burden – a teenage girl who believes herself to be the last human left alive after a deadly nuclear war. When this turns out not to be the case after all, she is forced into a terrifying game of cat and mouse with another survivor. With the protagonist trapped by radiation in the valley that was once her home, Z For Zachariah has a lot in common with classic horror stories, but there’s enough apocalyptic majesty to make it feel distinct and interesting.
This 1959 novel tells the story of a nameless soldier forced to take shelter deep underground in preparation for a global nuclear war. Taking the form of a diary, the narrative avoids situating itself in any particular country or province – instead referring only to “enemies” and “neutrals” in the world outside. Given that most of the action takes place in a deep underground bunker, the sense of suffocating helplessness is palpable, and only grows stronger as events unfold. Level Seven is clearly intended as a warning against the folly of nuclear war, and – saturated with utter despair as it is – it should be a fairly effective one. A pity, then, that nobody who actually has access to a nuclear button is ever likely to read it.
At over eight-hundred pages in length, it’s safe to say that The Stand is something of an epic. It begins with the accidental release of a strain of weaponised superflu, and goes on to describe the collapse of civilisation. In the aftermath, survivors gather to form two new communities – one basically good, and one very obviously evil (The Stand is the first novel to feature King’s recurring antagonist Randall Flagg). Hints of the supernatural give this three-part story a fantasy flavour, but in King’s talented hands the magical elements don’t feel corny or overdone, and there’s plenty of good old-fashioned end-of-the-world-ness to languish in.
This wide-ranging science-fiction novel examines an unusual apocalypse, which has a tenuous but fascinating grounding in real science: underground oceans are swelling the earth’s sea levels, swallowing up more and more land each day. Billions of refugees are driven ahead of the steadily rising tide, while others take shelter on self-contained cruise ships, in raft cities, in submarines, or in domes at the bottom of the ocean. Baxter’s narrative spans many years, but feels consistently fast-paced and urgent – and there’s even a sequel (Ark) if you want to know what happens to the few survivors who decide that a watery Earth really isn’t worth the hassle.