The world is a little scary right now. (As a New Yorker who lives in Queens, I feel this fear acutely at this particular point in time.) If you are a reader of apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, or a lover of horror, you might be familiar with that inexplicable desire to explore that discomfort and fear through films or literature–I certainly do. Maybe it’s because you want to feel like the world we’re living in is a little less scary than the one you’re reading about. Or, maybe it’s because you want to sort out your own feelings about the current state of things. Perhaps its a form of schadenfreude.
Regardless of your motivation, if you want to read more about apocalyptic scenarios–this list is for you.
THE STATION by Emily St. John Mandel
An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.
A National Book Award Finalist
A PEN/Faulkner Award Finalist
Kirsten Raymonde will never forget the night Arthur Leander, the famous Hollywood actor, had a heart attack on stage during a production of King Lear. That was the night when a devastating flu pandemic arrived in the city, and within weeks, civilization as we know it came to an end.
Twenty years later, Kirsten moves between the settlements of the altered world with a small troupe of actors and musicians. They call themselves The Traveling Symphony, and they have dedicated themselves to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive. But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who will threaten the tiny band’s existence. And as the story takes off, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, the strange twist of fate that connects them all will be revealed.
“Survival is inefficient.” Emily St. John Mandel’s novel depicts the end of the world, succumb to a flu pandemic that strikes quickly and kills efficiently. Alternating between before and after, Station Eleven hits pretty close to home right now.
Read the review here.
THE PASSAGE by Justin Cronin
“It happened fast. Thirty-two minutes for one world to die, another to be born.”
An epic and gripping tale of catastrophe and survival, The Passage is the story of Amy—abandoned by her mother at the age of six, pursued and then imprisoned by the shadowy figures behind a government experiment of apocalyptic proportions. But Special Agent Brad Wolgast, the lawman sent to track her down, is disarmed by the curiously quiet girl and risks everything to save her. As the experiment goes nightmarishly wrong, Wolgast secures her escape—but he can’t stop society’s collapse. And as Amy walks alone, across miles and decades, into a future dark with violence and despair, she is filled with the mysterious and terrifying knowledge that only she has the power to save the ruined world.
Justin Cronin’s take on the apocalypse is by way of an infection–but one markedly different from the St. John Mandel’s flu. By that I mean: it’s a vampire virus. A very different take on vampires, but still vampiric, nonetheless. Featuring a narrative that is split between before and after the end of life as we know it, The Passage is devastating and hopeful apocalyptic fiction at its best. (Unfortunately the rest of the series doesn’t quite hold up–but don’t let that deter you from Book 1.)
Read the review here.
THE BOOK OF M by Peng Shepherd
WHAT WOULD YOU GIVE UP TO REMEMBER?
Set in a dangerous near future world, The Book of M tells the captivating story of a group of ordinary people caught in an extraordinary catastrophe who risk everything to save the ones they love. It is a sweeping debut that illuminates the power that memories have not only on the heart, but on the world itself.
One afternoon at an outdoor market in India, a man’s shadow disappears—an occurrence science cannot explain. He is only the first. The phenomenon spreads like a plague, and while those afflicted gain a strange new power, it comes at a horrible price: the loss of all their memories.
Ory and his wife Max have escaped the Forgetting so far by hiding in an abandoned hotel deep in the woods. Their new life feels almost normal, until one day Max’s shadow disappears too.
Knowing that the more she forgets, the more dangerous she will become to Ory, Max runs away. But Ory refuses to give up the time they have left together. Desperate to find Max before her memory disappears completely, he follows her trail across a perilous, unrecognizable world, braving the threat of roaming bandits, the call to a new war being waged on the ruins of the capital, and the rise of a sinister cult that worships the shadowless.
As they journey, each searches for answers: for Ory, about love, about survival, about hope; and for Max, about a new force growing in the south that may hold the cure.
Like The Passage and Station Eleven, this haunting, thought-provoking, and beautiful novel explores fundamental questions of memory, connection, and what it means to be human in a world turned upside down.
Peng Shepherd’s debut novel is heartbreaking and profound, illustrating the end of the world due to a mysterious pandemic that causes its victims to forget. At first, it’s small things, like the color of a small household item–but soon the forgetting consumes its victims, who forget where they came from, or how to read, or eventually who they are. What’s more, these infected also start to reimagine the world–their forgetting results in them shaping the world in their own new strange ways. The result is beautiful, and very, very sad.
THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH by Carrie Ryan
In Mary’s world there are simple truths.
The Sisterhood always knows best.
The Guardians will protect and serve.
The Unconsecrated will never relent.
And you must always mind the fence that surrounds the village; the fence that protects the village from the Forest of Hands and Teeth.
But, slowly, Mary’s truths are failing her. She’s learning things she never wanted to know about the Sisterhood and its secrets, and the Guardians and their power. And, when the fence is breached and her world is thrown into chaos, about the Unconsecrated and their relentlessness.
Now, she must choose between her village and her future, between the one she loves and the one who loves her. And she must face the truth about the Forest of Hands and Teeth. Could there be life outside a world surrounded in so much death?
There are quite a few zombie apocalypse novels that could have been included on this list–This is Not A Test by the exceptional Courtney Summers, The Walking Dead series by Robert Kirkman, Max Brooks’s World War Z, or Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies, for example–but I decided to only include only two. As far as the end of the world by the undead goes, The Forest of Hands and Teeth is one of my favorites. Imagine a world decades after the apocalypse–the only survivors live in the woods in a religious enclave, protected by the safety of fences that surround their perimeter. Mary dreams of the ocean, and tales of the world before, passed down by her long-dead mother–when calamity strikes her village, she finally has the chance to leave, though it will cost her everything.
Read the review here.
THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS by M.R. Carey
In the ruins of civilization, a young girl’s kindness and capacity for love will either save humanity — or wipe it out in this USA Today bestselling thriller Joss Whedon calls “heartfelt, remorseless, and painfully human.”
Melanie is a very special girl. Dr Caldwell calls her “our little genius.”
Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant keeps his gun pointed at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don’t like her. She jokes that she won’t bite, but they don’t laugh.
The Girl With All the Gifts is a genre-defying, emotionally charged thriller that will shatter your expectations of the classic zombie novel.
The Girl With All the Gifts started as a short story–the novel’s exceptional first chapter. A heartbreaking, horrifying story about medical research and the children who might hold the key to saving humanity, M.R. Carey’s take on the zombie apocalypse plays heavily on the relationship that forms between a teacher and the titular girl with all the gifts, named Melanie.
Read the review here.
AGNES AT THE END OF THE WORLD by Kelly MacWilliams
The Handmaid’s Tale meets Wilder Girls in this genre-defying novel about a girl who escapes a terrifying cult only to discover that the world Outside has succumbed to a viral apocalypse.
Agnes loves her home of Red Creek — its quiet, sunny mornings, its dusty roads, and its God. There, she cares tirelessly for her younger siblings and follows the town’s strict laws. What she doesn’t know is that Red Creek is a cult, controlled by a madman who calls himself a prophet.
Then Agnes meets Danny, an Outsider boy, and begins to question what is and isn’t a sin. Her younger brother, Ezekiel, will die without the insulin she barters for once a month, even though medicine is considered outlawed. Is she a sinner for saving him? Is her sister, Beth, a sinner for dreaming of the world beyond Red Creek?
As the Prophet grows more dangerous, Agnes realizes she must escape with Ezekiel and leave everyone else, including Beth, behind. But it isn’t safe Outside, either: A viral pandemic is burning through the population at a terrifying rate. As Agnes ventures forth, a mysterious connection grows between her and the Virus. But in a world where faith, miracles, and cruelty have long been indistinguishable, will Agnes be able to choose between saving her family and saving the world?
This novel from Kelly McWilliams isn’t out until May, but I urge you to preorder the book because it is ever so relevant today. Agnes and her family are members of a secretive cult, who believe in the supreme, divine power of its leader. But Agnes starts to question her world when her brother falls ill–and then, the rapture hits. Agnes is a bold, refreshing take on religion and faith, patriarchy and the abuse of power, all set against an apocalyptic background. I loved this book, and I think you will too.
[Full disclosure: I worked with the author on this book and its marketing campaign.]
SALVATION DAY by Kali Wallace
A lethal virus is awoken on an abandoned spaceship in this incredibly fast-paced, claustrophobic thriller.
They thought the ship would be their salvation.
Zahra knew every detail of the plan. House of Wisdom, a massive exploration vessel, had been abandoned by the government of Earth a decade earlier, when a deadly virus broke out and killed everyone on board in a matter of hours. But now it could belong to her people if they were bold enough to take it. All they needed to do was kidnap Jaswinder Bhattacharya—the sole survivor of the tragedy, and the last person whose genetic signature would allow entry to the spaceship.
But what Zahra and her crew could not know was what waited for them on the ship—a terrifying secret buried by the government. A threat to all of humanity that lay sleeping alongside the orbiting dead.
And then they woke it up.
In the category of near-apocalyptic SFF thriller, Salvation Day is one of the best new entries that I’ve read in a long time. (I thought about including Michael Crichton and Daniel H. Lewis’s The Andromeda Evolution on this list for this particular close-call subgenre of the apocalyptic canon, but Kali Wallace’s novel is just better. Examining themes of humanity and systemic inequality, Salvation Day is science fiction at its best.
SWEET TOOTH by Jeff Lemire
Kids like Gus have a price on their heads.
Seven years ago, the Affliction raged like a forest fire, killing billions. The only children born since are part of a new breed of human-animal hybrids. Gus is one of these children, a boy with a sweet soul, a sweeter tooth-and the features of a deer.
When vicious hunters descend on his isolated forest home, a mysterious and violent man called Jepperd rescues Gus. The hulking drifter promises to lead Gus to The Preserve, a fabled safe haven for hybrid children.
As the two cross this dangerous new American frontier, will Jepperd corrupt the boy he’s nicknamed Sweet Tooth, or will Gus’s heart change Jepperd?
Written and illustrated by spectacular talent Jeff Lemire, SWEET TOOTH is a haunting tale of survival in post-apocalyptic America of friendships formed in tragedy, and the good and bad in humankind. Collects SWEET TOOTH #1-12, as well as never-before-seen sketches and an introduction by celebrated actor Michael Sheen (Masters of Sex, Frost/Nixon).
The cat’s out of the bag with writer/artist Jeff Lemire, but my favorite of his works remains this limited series. Sweet Tooth is the story of a young boy who is born after the world has ended–a virus killed billions, sparing few humans in its wake. One of the virus’s parting gifts to humanity is its effect on the next generation–any new children born have human-animal hybrid features, like tails and snouts, or horns and deer-like legs. More importantly: only these hybrid children are truly immune to the virus.
Read the review here.
EXTINCTION POINT by Paul Antony Jones
First comes the red rain: a strange, scarlet downpour from a cloudless sky that spreads across cities, nations, and the entire globe. In a matter of panicked hours, every living thing on earth succumbs to swift, bloody death. Yet Emily Baxter, a young newspaper reporter, is mysteriously spared—and now she’s all alone.
But watching the happy life she built for herself in New York City slip away in the wake of a monstrous, inexplicable plague is just the beginning of Emily’s waking nightmare. The world isn’t ending; it’s only changing. And the race that once ruled the earth has now become raw material for use by a new form of life never before seen…on this planet.
With only wits, weapons, and a bicycle, Emily must undertake a grueling journey across a country that’s turning increasingly alien. For though she fears she’s been left to inherit the earth, the truth is far more terrifying than a lifetime of solitude.
Apocalypse via alien invasion is an old staple in the end-of-the world canon–and there are plenty of fantastic books and films that tackle this particular theme. Paul Antony Jones’s Extinction Point appeals to me on a personal level as a New Yorker; as heroine Emily discovers an empty city, devoid of any other survivors of the red rain, you feel her terror and desperation. This isn’t the most polished book on the list, but the series delivers a timely kick and feels especially relevant to this NYCer.
Read the review here.
THE END OF OCTOBER by Lawrence Wright
In this riveting medical thriller–from the Pulitzer Prize winner and best-selling author–Dr. Henry Parsons, an unlikely but appealing hero, races to find the origins and cure of a mysterious new killer virus as it brings the world to its knees.
At an internment camp in Indonesia, forty-seven people are pronounced dead with acute hemorrhagic fever. When Henry Parsons–microbiologist, epidemiologist–travels there on behalf of the World Health Organization to investigate, what he finds will soon have staggering repercussions across the globe: an infected man is on his way to join the millions of worshippers in the annual Hajj to Mecca. Now, Henry joins forces with a Saudi prince and doctor in an attempt to quarantine the entire host of pilgrims in the holy city . . . A Russian émigré, a woman who has risen to deputy director of U.S. Homeland Security, scrambles to mount a response to what may be an act of biowarfare . . . Already-fraying global relations begin to snap, one by one, in the face of a pandemic . . . Henry’s wife, Jill, and their children face diminishing odds of survival in Atlanta . . . And the disease slashes across the United States, dismantling institutions–scientific, religious, governmental–and decimating the population. As packed with suspense as it is with the fascinating history of viral diseases, Lawrence Wright has given us a full-tilt, electrifying, one-of-a-kind thriller.
An eerily timed forthcoming title, The End of October is Lawrence Wright’s exercise in examining how a modern day pandemic could bring the world to its knees. Read more about the author’s essay on the current pandemic and the intersection with his work here.
LIFE AS WE KNEW IT by Susan Beth Pfeffer
I guess I always felt even if the world came to an end, McDonald’s still would be open.
High school sophomore Miranda’s disbelief turns to fear in a split second when an asteroid knocks the moon closer to Earth, like “one marble hits another.” The result is catastrophic. How can her family prepare for the future when worldwide tsunamis are wiping out the coasts, earthquakes are rocking the continents, and volcanic ash is blocking out the sun? As August turns dark and wintery in northeastern Pennsylvania, Miranda, her two brothers, and their mother retreat to the unexpected safe haven of their sunroom, where they subsist on stockpiled food and limited water in the warmth of a wood-burning stove.
Told in a year’s worth of journal entries, this heart-pounding story chronicles Miranda’s struggle to hold on to the most important resource of all—hope—in an increasingly desperate and unfamiliar world. An extraordinary series debut!
Susan Beth Pfeffer has written several companion novels to Life As We Knew It, including The Dead and the Gone, This World We Live In, and The Shade of the Moon.
Last but certainly not least is another personal favorite. Susan Beth Pfeffer takes a simple premise in this first novel: what would happen if the moon’s orbit was skewed closer to the Earth? This epistolary novel is told through the first person diary entries of a teenage girl who documents the end of life as she knows it in the fallout of a lunar asteroid strike–volcanic eruptions, unpredictable extreme weather patterns, plague, famine, and the collapse of society. Through it all, though, there is hope.
Read the review here.
And that’s it from me–any other end-of-the-world readers out there?