Apocalyptic

Recommended Reads: Covid-19

“He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good…”

That line, of course, is from Albert Camus’ 1947 masterpiece, The Plague, a book that has the distinction of being in my top 20 all-time reading list, yet is only my third favorite work by Camus.

Published three decades after the Spanish flu epidemic, and only a few years removed from World War II, Camus used the backdrop of the Bubonic plague to dramatize the philosophies of Existentialism and the Absurd.

This brilliant novel is back in demand and selling by the thousands. Of course, The Plague was a parable about fascism and a post-Nazi warning to future generations, which makes it doubly relevant as global instability has given rise to nationalist violence and challenges to western democracies.

Now that social distancing, if not full-on quarantine, is quotidian reality, many are returning to literature for entertainment, distraction or insights. Not to make light of the circumstances or the plight of those suffering, but since we’re isolating, we might as well make the most of it. Here are seven tales of plague, apocalypse and what happens when our delicate social networks collapse.

“Time Enough at Last,” Lynn A. Venable

Originally published in 1953, this brilliant story became an instant classic when it was adapted into the classic episode of The Twilight Zone. I remember first watching this episode as a kid, and for the first 28 minutes thinking it was a wonderful fantasy. The sole survivor of a nuclear bomb, who wants nothing more than to be left alone to his reading, finds his wish has come true!

With nobody around to bother him, and unrestricted access to the public library, he finally has the peace, solitude and, most of all, time to read all the books he’s ever wanted. To me, it was like heaven, until the final twist when our hapless hero breaks his glasses. It is still my favorite episode of the show.

I later read the source material in the collection, The Twilight Zone: The Original Stories, and the original story, though not as well-known, is as good as the adaptation. There are many other great stories in this anthology as well, including many by the great Richard Matheson.

But if you’re vibing on isolation right now, you can’t go wrong with Venable’s mid-century classic.

“Rain,” Joe Hill

I confess I’m biased, having lived in Boulder, Colorado, for the better part of 22 years, but I think this apocalyptic novella is one of Hill’s best efforts. And it’s not just because he describes a summer day in Boulder “as glorious as the first day in Eden” (though that is totally accurate).

But then, without warning, sharp needles begin raining from the sky, piercing an unexpecting populace. “A lot of healthy, vigorous children died in Boulder that day–parents all over town booted their kids outside to whoop it up on one of the last, most brilliant days of summer.”

And it only gets darker from there.

It’s a story befitting the title of its collection, Strange Weather, as this (un)natural disaster turns into a blood-soaked survival march down the Boulder-Denver turnpike.

The Troop, Nick Cutter

I finally got around to reading this highly recommended novel last year, and I was not disappointed. It was creepy, isolating and had a visceral effect on me. For starters, camping horror always gets my blood pumping. Throw in some bioengineering and evil science experiments, and you have my undivided attention.

I brought this with me on a flight to Norway, and I figured it would last me all the way to Lillehammer. I devoured it (no pun intended) before reaching my layover in Reykjavik.

I was also pleasantly surprised when I looked at the author’s photo. I wasn’t familiar with Nick Cutter, but I definitely recognized the author as Craig Davidson. In 2007, I reviewed his debut novel, The Fighter, for the Rocky Mountain News.

My review wasn’t glowing, admittedly, but the novel showed a lot of promise–and it’s stuck with me for more than a decade. He did a lot of things right in that book, but I felt it was a bit uneven overall. The Troop, however, was on point from start to finish, with consistent tone and pacing.

If you think social distancing is scary, try The Troop.

The Cabin at the End of the World, Paul Tremblay

A big part of the creep factor in Paul Tremblay’s home-invasion novel is that we never know if the alleged apocalypse is real. A group of deranged, but seemingly well-meaning (mostly) eschatologists show up at the cabin of a vacationing couple, Andrew and Eric, and their daughter Wen. The intruders have a message: In order to save the world from the end times, one of the trio has to die.

Is the apocalypse really happening? It’s hard to say. Every time they turn on the television, something bad is happening on cable news. But isn’t that true at any time? If you want to live in perpetual fear, just watch cable news.

This convinces the intruders that they are right, and further proves to Andrew that these people are crazy.

I think there are some powerful analogs to our current situation. It’s hard for most of us to gauge first-hand what’s going on, since all signifiers of normality are gone. Sure, there is the television, but that again leads to the ratings-driven cesspool of cable news.

Who can you trust? And which information do you take to heart?

And what are you willing to sacrifice?

“The Masque of the Red Death,” Edgar Allan Poe

Covid-19 has reminded all of us that nobody is invulnerable. Actors, athletes and world leaders have all contracted the disease. Young, old, rich, poor. Nobody is immune.

That is the message of Poe’s horrific tale of a plague that induces hematidrosis–a “profuse bleeding at the pores” from which the Red Death gets its name. Symptoms come on suddenly, the pain is intense and the only mercy is that the victim is dead within a half-hour.

Knowing that death could come so sudden makes this story first-rate psychological horror, but it also becomes class warfare when the elite Prince Prospero invites his rich friends to wait out the plague in the sanctuary of his castle, leaving the poor to die in the streets.

But nobody is safe from this brutal disease, and in the end “darkness and decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”

The Stand, Stephen King

Of course my all-time favorite horror novel would be on this list. I tried to include lesser-known books to mix it up, but the classics are classics for a reason. No other apocalyptic vision has disturbed me more than King’s magnum opus. As a superflu decimates the world, the facade of civility slips and human nature bares its fangs.

Those in touch with the better angels of their nature congregate in Boulder, Colorado, arming themselves to make one final stand to save humanity from itself.

The Plague, Albert Camus

Finally, we’ll let big Al have the last word. As part of the French Resistance, living in Nazi-occupied Paris, Camus experienced an existential threat most of us will never know. His allegorical plague revealed the best and worst of humanity, and it served as a reminder for how to live, whether in good health or during a pandemic:

“We should go forward, groping our way through the darkness, stumbling perhaps at times, and try to do what good lay in our power.”

Stay healthy and well, my friends.

Review: The Cabin at the End of the World

The Cabin at the End of the World

Paul Tremblay

I have enjoyed other novels by Tremblay (A Head Full of Ghosts and The Little Sleep especially), but The Cabin at the End of the World (which won the Bram Stoker award for CabinattheEndoftheWorldbest novel earlier this year) is his most artful and thought-provoking book yet. Part home-invasion, part-apocalyptic tale, Cabin is an innovative take on both genres, and I confess that the opening chapter caught me flat-footed.

The premise is simple enough: A couple, Andrew and Eric, take their young daughter, Wen, on vacation to a remote cabin in New England. A stranger approaches Wen and introduces himself as Leonard. He is physically imposing yet disarmingly friendly and immediately hits it off with Wen. It’s a slow-burn as the two of them interact, because clearly there is menace behind Leonard’s courtesy.

Part of what makes Cabin so powerful, though, is that while there is menace, there is no malice behind Leonard’s actions. He, along with three other end-times enthusiasts, believe they have been chosen to save the world from destruction. But they lack the glee of your typical doomsayers, and instead are apologetic and polite — yet firm in their conviction: One of the three occupants of the cabin — either Andrew, Eric or Wen — has to sacrifice their life to save humanity.

That’s it. Seven characters, one claustrophobic location (with the exception of occasional flashbacks and a few glimpses of the television) and brilliant characterization.

What makes this tale so unnerving is how mundane and poorly improvised everything is. Look, I’m a fan of the home invasion genre, but the criticism that it is lazy is often deserved. Typically, the perpetrators are criminal savants who devise flawless traps and morality puzzles while somehow maintaining a pathological drive to get to the people inside the house.

Tremblay’s intruders are all too human. They stumble, they bicker, they second-guess themselves, and in turn this makes them all too real. Most home invasions aren’t carried out by evil geniuses. They tend to be sloppy affairs performed by amateurs who are scared and desperate and don’t often have a plan once they get in the door.

And when we learn the tactic they use to apply pressure on Andrew and Eric it becomes even more apparent how delusional they are.

Philosophically, this is Tremblay’s most ambitious effort, and the interplay between the narrative and social commentary is well-managed. The message comes through organically, and the uncertainty of whether what is happening in the outside world is real or not is disorienting and adds to the horror.

In fact, the inability of any character, or the reader, to fully comprehend what is true (has the apocalypse really begun?) allows every character to exculpate their behavior. For Leonard and his fellow eschatologists, who periodically turn on cable news during the occupation, the catastrophic reportage of broadcast media confirms their prophetic visions. For a pragmatist like Andrew, media sensationalism is the cause of their delusions, not confirmation. And for the gullible and concussed Eric, it could all be coincidence, or it could be something else.

At the end of the day, The Cabin at the End of the World is a delightful horror novel first and social studies second, but the unsettling truth of the book is that through technology we’ve all become the occupants of a personal version of Tremblay’s cabin, so to speak. We cut ourselves off from others, consume media that confirms our worldviews and infer the motivations of others to fit our own narrative. Even Andrew, the most grounded of all the characters, falls prey to a conspiratorial line of thinking that influences his perspective of the intruders.

This brings us to the role of sacrifice and the group’s requirement that any deaths be voluntary. It’s a curious move on Tremblay’s part, and at times makes Leonard’s behavior self-contradictory. But the truth is humans are messy, and we often contradict ourselves, especially when working from incomplete information and in heated moments where we reduce our opponent’s intentions to the basest of motivations.

In the end, we only hurt ourselves or the ones close to us. At one point, Andrew and Eric share a silent, uneasy moment that says as much about our current affairs as it does about the two of them:

“We’re afraid for each other and we’re afraid of ourselves. How can we go on? At this shared thought, we turn away from the television screen and away from each other.”

A brilliant line in a brilliant novel, and a fitting epitaph for the human race should the world truly end tomorrow.

Pleasuring the Collective Unconscious: A review of Chuck Palahniuk’s Beautiful You

I’ll start with a confession: This review has come along sluggishly. Time I’ve set aside for writing has instead been frittered away on mindless online gaming. It’s an affliction we’ll call Beautiful Youwritus interruptus, and it’s likely to become an epidemic worse than any zombie apocalypse.

(Speaking of, my current addiction is The Last Stand: Dead Zone, and before I completed this sentence I had to stop to check on the construction status of a barricade.)

This isn’t anything new, really. In the 1950s, scientists discovered that if a rat could stimulate its brain’s pleasure center by pressing a bar, it would do so furiously until it passed out from exhaustion and, in many cases, died for lack of food and water. Mind you, the rats had access to food and water, but they couldn’t keep their paws off that pleasure bar.

This should sound familiar to any gamer who has missed a meal in order to level up.

It’s sick and wrong. I know this, but I need someone to hold up a mirror to face this absurdity directly.

This is why I love Chuck Palahniuk, whose new book, Beautiful You, is his best in a few years.

Fittingly, it concerns arousal addiction, and serves an electric shock to our collective conscience (or perhaps unconscious would be the better term).

Palahniuk took on male malaise with Fight Club, and mocked cultural over-consumption with Choke. Snuff (ostensibly a novel about pornography) lampooned self-destructive excess and exploitation in a manner that could very well have served as a hyper-sexualized predictor of the impending financial crisis of 2008.

In Beautiful You, he wanted to write what he calls gonzo erotica, and in the process has penned an anthem for an overstimulated, multi-tasking, computer-coma society.

Penny Harrigan is a nice Nebraskan girl working in New York City when she catches the eye of the world’s richest man, C. Linus Maxwell. Next thing you know, Penny is the talk of the tabloids and the envy of her coworkers.

Behind closed doors, however, is where Penny is truly transformed. Maxwell introduces her to a world of unimagined, if clinical pleasure. Penny has her reasons to question Maxwell’s motives (especially after a bizarre bathroom tryst with his bitter ex-lover), but is too enraptured with her newfound fame and sexuality.

Oozing with plot twists only Palahniuk’s sardonic tone could make palatable, Beautiful You aspires to remarkable levels of absurdity, but is it any more absurd than the daily inundation of product and marketing? Many reviewers have criticized the gratuitous satire in this novel, but is the idea of world domination via dildo really that farfetched in a culture that has financially sustained multiple cable shopping channels for three decades?

Beautiful You put me in mind of Rancid’s “Born Frustrated,” which asked, “Is this human freedom, hedonistic excess? Junky consumerism, mass production, toxic sickness?”

It’s why Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was set inside a shopping mall—can you truly be sure there aren’t a few zombies among you inside the IKEA? Ever been to a restaurant where a group of supposed acquaintances are each focused on their own smartphone or tablet?

We are a culture of instant gratification. We are a culture of distraction.

We are the lab rats hammering away at the pleasure bar for a taste of sweet, sweet oblivion.

And much like Maxwell, Palahniuk is there wearing a lab coat, taking copious notes and holding up a funhouse mirror to our cage, so that we might catch a distorted glimpse of what we’ve become.

M.K. Wren, A Gift Upon the Shore

It’s interesting reading M.K. Wren’s classic novel nearly a quarter century since its release in 1990. For one thing, a nuclearGift apocalypse sounds downright quaint and makes me eerily nostalgic for my childhood fears of nuclear annihilation.

Aside from that, A Gift Upon the Shore is timeless—and even prescient. Following a wave of destruction, two women begin building a library in coastal Oregon, dedicated to preserving the great works of literature, history, and, by extension, civilization. Unfortunately, their only neighbors are a group of fundamentalist survivors who promote the destruction of all books other than the Bible.

In 2013, libraries and bookstores are struggling, Texas school boards are editing history and I downloaded the novel, in a matter of seconds, from a Web site onto my e-reader (unthinkable in 1990).

OK, Wren isn’t exactly Nostradamus. Folks were probably declaring the death of books within hours of Guttenberg’s invention, and fundamentalists have far less sway than they did during the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Even Salman Rushdie has been able to come out of hiding.

But like Wren’s protagonists, digital publishing has guaranteed that our literary history will live on, from the freedom of publishing in the medium to noble endeavors like Project Guttenberg.

A Gift Upon the Shore remains a wondrously beautiful novel, whatever the era, and one worthy of a revisit or a first look.