I’ve been waiting for this to happen since I was twelve years old.
It began with a book. How this book made its way to me I can’t recall. No adult would have suggested that I, a child, read such a thing; neither would it have come to me from a peer, since most of my peers had no interest in books of any kind. The one thing I know for sure is that it came from the town library—the memory is steeped in the sensory package of the place—and I’d like to think I didn’t so much find it on the shelves as accept its fated leap into my hands.
The book was Earth Abides. For those of us who toil in the apocalypse industrial complex, the novel is a touchstone. Published in 1949 by George R. Stewart, an English professor at the University of California, Berkeley, it tells the story of a young graduate student named Ish who holes up in a cabin in the woods to work on his dissertation, is bitten by a rattlesnake, falls ill, recovers, and makes his way back to civilization only to discover that humanity has been largely wiped out by a plague. (Rattlesnake venom apparently confers immunity, a clever touch.) He returns to his home in San Francisco, where he eventually finds other survivors, and, together, they form a community. They plant gardens, hunt game, pair off, have kids. The horrors of the pandemic itself are skipped over; many pages are devoted to the mundane practicalities of life and observations of nature’s slow reclaiming of the landscape. There are no zombie hordes, no Road Warriors, no intertribal scuffles over resources, à la The Walking Dead; I don’t think the book contains a single firearm shot in anger. It’s a quiet, melancholy novel, a requiem for the modern world, and despite a few shortcomings (the gender politics are straight out of I Love Lucy), the story still holds up.
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I was a bookish, socially unsuccessful boy, and I spent a lot of time alone. No doubt some of the book’s appeal lay in its depiction of a world in which the popularity contests I was always losing had been rendered obsolete. After all, in a world of few people, everyone mattered, and the ability to weather loneliness seemed like a solid post-pandemic skill.
The book felt like a news report—not an evocation of an imaginary reality but an account of something that had already happened.
But here’s the thing: at a level so deep it was practically molecular, the book made sense to me. Its prose was so precise, its details so convincing and meticulous, that the whole thing felt like a news report—not an evocation of an imaginary reality but an account of something that had already happened.
I began to notice other things, other shadows that lay over my life—over everyone’s life. The dark specter of the nuclear arms race. The proliferation of biological and chemical weapons. Environmental destruction. Human civilization’s thin veneer of goods and services and social restraint. I discovered no shortage of literature to satisfy my obsession; people who say the recent wave of apocalyptic literature is a new phenomenon didn’t have my Cold War childhood, when such books filled the shelves. Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank. Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler’s Fail-Safe. A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller Jr.’s tale of a medieval-style post-Armageddon future. Nevil Shute’s grim masterpiece On the Beach—a book that actually moved the meter of public sentiment about the arms race and is, as far as I know, the only nuclear war story in which exactly zero people survive. (The novel is set in Melbourne, Australia, and a few years ago, visiting the city on a book tour, I asked my guide if she could direct me to some of the places in the book. I imagined that the novel and its excellent film adaptation would warrant something on the order of an On the Beach interpretive trail. But she confessed she’d never heard of the book. “We’re Australian,” she pointed out. “We’re happy people. Who’d want to think about a thing like that?” Well, me, would be the answer.)
A subset of my reading focused on pandemics: Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, of course, and Stephen King’s The Stand, but also many lesser-known, often pulpy books, probably written in barely more time than it took to read them. My favorite was William C. Heine’s Death Wind—the book’s American publisher evidently thought the original title, The Last Canadian, would be a drag on sales—in which people succumb so quickly to an airborne pathogen that they’re dead before they hit the pavement.
All of this would have been perfectly fine, just another morbid childhood fascination, if not for the fact that none of it went away. The opposite was true. My mind wrapped around the apocalypse like a python, and the older I got, the more these imaginary flights into catastrophe hardened into a calculated assessment of the future I would live in (or not). By the time I entered college, I’d become a clubhouse expert on nuclear annihilation. I knew the name of every launch system and the yield of every warhead, and I had at my disposal enough military acronyms to fill the crossword puzzle in the Sunday Times. I stored, in my keepsake box, a copy of the Office of Technology Assessment’s 1979 report to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations—chillingly titled “The Effects of Nuclear War”—and could recount in blistering detail what a one-megaton Soviet warhead would do to downtown Detroit. Put a couple of beers in Justin, and before long he’d be telling everybody in the bar how much dirt they’d have to shovel in front of their basement windows and how many months they’d have to stay down there.
Did this endear me to people? Hardly. Could the worst have happened? The fact that it didn’t still amazes me. Nor did the end of the Cold War permanently allay my concerns; they just shifted focus. In my twenties I worked as a freelance writer for the books division of the Reader’s Digest Association. Among my assignments was a chapter in a coffee table–style history book called Our Glorious Century; my subject was the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918. This was in the early nineties, before a couple of best-selling books reintroduced the pandemic into public memory. Even I, a five-star catastrophist, knew very little about it. There was a flu; it was bad; it happened long ago. That was the extent of it.
As everyone now knows, the reality of a pandemic is far less dramatic than anything in a novel. It’s slower, just for starters, a kind of relentless grinding of the spirit.
What I read in the course of my research blew the top of my head off. The virus was an almost perfect biological weapon, nature’s crowning creation for bringing the modern world to its knees. Fifty to eighty million killed! Otherwise-healthy adults who coughed over breakfast and dropped dead by dinner! The first wave, which began in January of 1918, was bad, but it was the second, beginning in the autumn, that steamrollered the country. The virus infected a quarter of the American population; 675,000 succumbed. Nearly 200,000 died in October alone.
I’m no epidemiologist; the last biology course I’d taken was in middle school. But I could do basic math. In a slow-motion era without modern air travel, when goods and people chugged between continents on ships, the Spanish flu had still managed to circle the globe in a matter of months. Proportionally, it had killed the equivalent of nearly two million modern-day Americans (interestingly enough, the top end of forecasts for COVID-19 deaths without the application of social distancing). And since then we’d built a far more porous world, perfectly suited to such a catastrophe happening again, only faster—a world where, today, a man could cough on the street in central China and, sixty days later, inadvertently kill a regional sales manager of women’s athleisurewear in Waco.
Inevitably, I turned these dark thoughts into a novel. It didn’t happen right away. For many years, I wrote the sorts of stories described as “domestic,” meaning there were lots of scenes of people talking in kitchens. They’re books I’m proud of, but as I tell my students at Rice University, sooner or later you have to write about what’s really eating you, and what was eating me was the precariousness of absolutely everything. The kicker was the evacuation of Houston for Hurricane Rita in 2005, when two million people shoved their cars onto the freeways and got nowhere. Stuck on U.S. 290 at four in the morning—mini-marts ransacked, everybody out of gas, whole families bedding down by the side of the road—I couldn’t deny how shaky everything seemed, how fraught, how thick with doom. The scene outside my windshield looked like a dress rehearsal for the end of days. A few months later, I sat down to write the first book of my apocalyptic trilogy, The Passage, and the words just fell out. The whole thing felt like a confession in a psychiatrist’s office. The first four hundred pages were the easiest thing I’ve ever written.
The novel, of course, was quite fanciful, as novels are wont to be. An ancient virus, reengineered by the military, turns people into immortal monsters who gobble up the North American continent. Such a thing could never happen, yet I hear all the time from readers who tell me how “real” the story seems—the same way Earth Abides felt real to me in 1974. I’m flattered but also a little disturbed. Apparently, I’m not the only person for whom human civilization seems like a temporary arrangement. Maybe it’s something encoded in the most primal regions of our brains: the knowledge that we are, when all is said and done, nothing special, that we’re just another species roaming the earth until we stop.
Now, a century after the Spanish flu ripped across the globe, we’re watching history repeat itself. As everyone now knows, the reality of a pandemic is far less dramatic than anything in a novel. It’s slower, just for starters, a kind of relentless grinding of the spirit. It lacks all poetry and is full of long passages in which nothing changes, and unless you’re a first responder, hospital worker, or critically ill patient, the optics are confined mostly to the four walls of your house and your shrinking bank account. There’s loss and death and financial destruction but also a lot of boredom and too many chores. Many of the challenges are administrative; there’s a ton of paperwork. The dominant emotion is a kind of free-floating worry, like motes of dust in your head that never settle, and with it, the nagging sense that planet Earth doesn’t need us all that much.
These aesthetic shortcomings are scant comfort. Right now, my wife is one floor below me, quarantined in the bedroom. Two days ago, her head began to pound; that night, the chills arrived. Maybe it’s seasonal allergies or the common cold or a visit from the anxiety fairy, but I doubt it. She’s frightened and fidgety, and she’s worried that I’m next in line, which I probably am. What I mean is: it’s nice to be right about things, but not this time, and if this were a novel, I wouldn’t want to read it.
This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Confessions of a Catastrophist.” Subscribe today.