John Singer Sargent. Man reading (1904 - 1908)

    7 literary plagues to ponder in quarantine

    23 March 2020

    Epidemics have been a muse for film makers for decades, as I explored in my last piece, but you could argue it all began with novels. We all have a ghoulish side – don’t tell me you haven’t googled your symptoms at least once in your life and come to the conclusion you are about to die. Literature’s finest writers have been tapping into our paranoia since time immemorial.

    As sales in novels about plagues boom, and more of us are being forced to self-isolate, here are 7 books about fictional epidemics to help you through the next few months.

    La Peste

    A classic – perhaps the classic – of the genre. Albert Camus’ opus, which explores a plague unleashed by rats burning through a French city, is at once gripping and believable. As the world braces itself to absorb COVID-19, The Plague asks the existential questions which many of us will be considering now. The book’s philosophy is wry and bitter; our morals – the ethical standards which you or I may hold ourselves to – find themselves crumbling in the wake of nature’s onslaught. But there is still individual kindness, and hope. It is not so much an attack on capitalism, as on materialism – the same self-centred materialism that drives people to borrow beyond their means to secure a new car, or fall apart at the thought they can’t afford the latest iPhone. Professor Rieux finds flashes of optimism amongst the decay; we cannot thwart the inevitable, but we can still find solace and comfort in individual relationships. As long as we stop stock-piling toilet roll.

    The Rats

    In La Peste, rats carry the plague, in The Rats they are the plague. James Herbert receives a fair degree of criticism from people-who-think-they-can-write-better-but-can’t for his blunt, brutalist prose. The truth, however, is that Herbert is a master of immediately accessible horror. The joy is not in the plot – which is, well, thin – but the skill with which this book takes you right into the gore and carnage. The violent deaths begin immediately, and never stop escalating. One warning: it’s not PC – references to ‘crumpet’ feature – so best avoided if you buy The Guardian (unless you only did so due to the Andrex shortages). But it is gruesome and relentless, like the dog-sized rat-mutants themselves.

    The Children of Men

    Alfonso Cuarón’s film Children of Men may have received critical acclaim for its clever script and bravura performances (Michael Caine steals every scene he’s in as farting, pot-smoking Jasper Palmer), but for the full fat experience it’s still better to read the book. P. D. James, most famous for her crime novels, skilfully weaves a rich, dystopian, allegorical narrative. As humanity depopulates – the result of an infertility epidemic – British society divides between Omegas (the last born) and a wearied citizenry, under the rule of ‘the Warden’. The novel explores religion and politics; and our individual survival instinct. Will mankind survive?

    The Empty World

    A fast-paced adolescent jumping-on point for future nihilists. John Christopher’s sci-fi – aimed primarily at teenagers – takes the excitement and vigour of his Tripods series and applies it to the story of Neil Miller, who finds himself alone in the world following an epidemic of the ‘Calcutta Plague’. Christopher was not afraid of writing deaths into his novels; aside from the millions being killed by the disease (which rapidly ages its victims), the book also features murder and violent brawling – a mere foretaste of what parents across the land have in store now that the schools are shut, and that’s before you even get to the rapid ageing. Kids, however, will love this book all the more for the gore.

    The Day of the Triffids

    One of those books which is as much fun for an adult as a child. In fact, all John Wyndham’s novels are worth a read – get the lot, and settle into your quarantine. But The Day of the Triffids is a classic – and for a reason. Yes, the Hammer film is fun, and the 1981 BBC TV series is even better (though the 2009 effort with Eddie Izzard is probably one of the worst things ever made, and I’ve seen Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor Who) – but, as the Bibliophiles say, you can’t beat the book. Waking up in hospital, our hero Bill finds that most of the world has been blinded by a meteor shower, allowing a plague of deadly ‘walking’ plants to quickly establish themselves. Bill must connect with other survivors and find safety. Triffids works as both an adventure story and as something deeper, and can be enjoyed by all the family – though, if sharing during quarantine, Dettol the cover first.

    The Bible

    Perhaps you’re looking for spiritual comfort, perhaps you just fancy a good story. The Bible is full of both – and plenty of plague and pestilence, too. Enjoy the Nile turning to blood, frogs, boils, flies, fire, and death – all without Our NHS to save us. Or Jeremy Corbyn to save it. So get going on The Book of Exodus. Pro-tip: skip over the more rambling passages – unless you genuinely want to lift up your mind, and your soul – which, now more than ever, may be advisable.

    World War Z

    Who doesn’t love zombies? (Well, except for people actually being chased by them.) Max Brooks’ World War Z – ‘an oral history of the zombie war’ – is essentially a really, really, really good zombie movie in book form. For a start, it doesn’t care its schlock; it’s great because it’s schlock. But it’s more than that; the beating heart of the book is a meditation on a Western culture which has become fat and indolent. World War Z is a multi-textured page turner on a global scale, with plenty of high politics if that’s your thing. Plus face-eating zombies. Which is mine.

    So there where have it. Happy reading, plague-victims!