Apocalyptic literature is as old as literature itself. In fact the term ‘apocalypse’ means ‘revelation’; its current connotation of mass destruction and the end of civilization derives from the most complete and comprehensive piece of apocalyptic literature, the Book of Revelation in the New Testament.
It could be argued that modern apocalyptic fiction started with Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, which was first published in 1826. In 1898 H G Wells published The War of the Worlds, in which aliens from Mars destroy Victorian England. Thanks to various film adaptations and Orson Welles’ infamous radio play, The War of the Worlds became a template for apocalyptic fiction. However, it wasn’t until after the end of World War II, when the true power of nuclear weapons was demonstrated and the subsequent onset of the Cold War made worldwide annihilation a possibility, that the genre really became popular.
My introduction to apocalyptic fiction came in the form of Robert C. O’Brien’s 1973 novel Z for Zachariah, which I picked up, entirely by accident, from my school library. Although it is a children’s book, it has definite crossover appeal, as well as being a good way to introduce younger readers to the genre. It features a strong, believable female protagonist who is struggling to survive alone among nuclear fallout that has left her stranded in a valley that has somehow remained uncontaminated. It is both challenging and hopeful and it had a lasting effect on me, remaining one of the most memorable books I read as a child.
Robert R. McCammon’s 1987 epic Swan Song (currently out of print in the UK) is another, more adult novel, about a post-nuclear America. It tells three intertwining stories about some of the survivors. As is common in the genre, there is a central theme of good versus evil, taking the form of a young girl called Swan, who has the power to renew the ecosystem, and a shapeshifter known as the man with the scarlet eye, an incarnation of the devil. Swan Song is often likened to Stephen King’s 1978 The Stand, another epic novel that takes place in the aftermath of a superflu pandemic that wipes out 99.4% of the world’s population, leaving a small number of survivors immune to the disease, who form opposing societies of good and evil. Although similar on the surface, these books stand as separate pinnacles within the genre, The Stand often cited as one of King’s best works.
I Am Legend, Richard Matheson’s highly influential 1954 novel tackles a different kind of pandemic, in which the world’s inhabitants have not been wiped out but instead have turned into a vampiric horde. The apparently sole unaffected survivor is Robert Neville, a scientist who attempts to seek out and cure the infected. Although Neville describes them as vampires, they bear a far stronger resemblance to what we now call zombies; in fact, George Romero has cited I Am Legend as being the primary influence on his pioneering zombie film Night of the Living Dead.
Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-winning 2006 novel The Road, is a rare example of post-apocalyptic fiction in which the event that caused the end of civilization is never disclosed, the emphasis being entirely on the results and their effect on mankind. A deeply personal tale written in McCarthy’s unique prose style, it is unrelenting in its bleakness, offering only glimmers of hope in the form of the relationship between the central protagonists, a father and son, who are never named. The names, much like the catastrophic event leading to the events of the novel, are unimportant; what is, is the boy’s innate humanity – the fact that it exists within him even though he has no memory of the time before the disaster, and despite his daily struggles in a world of violent gangs of cannibals and opportunists. The Road stands as my personal favourite within this genre.