There’s just something so uncanny about books that ask the question: what happens when the world as we know it falls apart?
It's hard to pinpoint exactly why books about the apocalypse are so popular. Perhaps it's the reminder that “things could always be worse.” Perhaps there is even some unexpressed relief in the idea—if the world as we know it were to collapse, some of us would manage to go on. These books, frightening as the idea of the “end of the world” may be, also may offer something more unexpected, something akin to hope.
Whatever the draw, the horrors of the apocalypse almost always involve irreversible change. Though dystopian and apocalyptic themes often orbit sci-fi and speculative spaces, no matter the nature of the apocalypse it almost always is inherently a horror story.
Whether it be The Last of Us or Richard Matheson’s classic I Am Legend, apocalyptic fiction blends genres to craft tales of societal transition. Therein lies the beauty of end-of-the-world tales: Hidden in every horror story about the apocalypse is a tale of the resilience, determination, passion, and drive of the survivors. They are not only stories of survival, but stories of humanity.
Here are some excellent examples of books that exhibit the horrors of the apocalypse.
It wouldn’t be a list without King’s unforgettable tome about a novel form of flu called Captain Tripps and how it puts a stranglehold on society, quickly evolving into the desolation of society itself. The Stand has become one of King’s most memorable epics, a tome of a tale that matches the scope of its narrative. The Stand follows the virus and how it renders humanity into cabals, little factions that put a strain on human morale and spirituality. The end result is a book that feels so much like opening a door that leads to the end of the world.
Tender Is the Flesh
Agustina Bazterrica’s incredibly harrowing Tender is the Flesh is as much a transgressive, cautionary tale of ecological disaster as it is an utterly unique example of apocalyptic horror. Here is a world where animal meat has become deadly and toxic to humans. Dubbed “the Transition,” something like a severe case of Mad Cow disease spreads across factory farms. Instead of society seeking a more sustainable solution, such as going vegan, they turn to factory farming… humans. People are bred from birth to be food for those more privileged, and that alone is harrowing enough to guarantee readers are in for an apocalyptic nightmare of a novel, something you’ll never ever forget.
Moon of the Crusted Snow
Waubgeshig Rice’s Moon of the Crusted Snow captures the tension and horror of unknowing, the expected apocalypse cast in shadow, with its characters, Evan and Nicole Whitesky and their two kids left in the dark as signs of the outside world from their home on the Anishinaabe reserve in northern Canada of imminent demise creep in like flickers of impending doom. It starts when they lose power, and then an outsider seeking his own escape acts as a sort of swansong before more terrors arrive. Moon of the Crusted Snow is a masterpiece of disquiet and tension, and more so an example of how humanity can be so quickly undone when demise is at its door.
In the vein of climate disaster and ecological collapse, Smith’s Doggerland opts to tell a far more claustrophobic and enigmatic story about two men, the Boy and the Old Man. Neither are really what their namesake suggests, in that the Boy is older than a boy, and the Old Man isn’t exactly old, yet in the context of their life and their roles, they are just that: Boy and Old Man. They are tasked with keeping the turbines and various dying machinery of the rig both are stationed on from its inevitable death. Through their routines and solitary days, neither are given much in the way of what’s happening around the world. Smith opts towards implication of something sinister, a worldly collapse followed by totalitarian rule over the ruined remains of society. Doggerland is one of those books that feels like a journal or forgotten document that spells out the lives of people who are paid to be forgotten.
Spontaneous combustion, how fun. Joe Hill’s pandemic novel The Fireman has long since become a popular slice of apocalyptic horror. For those unfamiliar with the novel, The Fireman takes place in a world that is suffering from an unknown malady or virus that causes the infected to combust. The world is up in literal and figurative flames, and Hill targets a variety of characters in this tome-like masterpiece and how they battle the impending collapse of everything that had once been familiar. At the core is the eponymously named Fireman, a man that commands a group hellbent on saving the world against this fiery plague. A well-rendered anti-hero of sorts, the Fireman could be the only person that has found a way to control the fire within. Hill’s epic novel burns with human terror and hopeful triumph, which is what apocalyptic horror does best.
Jones’s debut is a blistering and surprisingly tender tale of horror at the end of the world. Mike is a film producer and Beth is house sitting the place next door when she notices Mike and they end up drinking wine, getting drunk, and having a one night stand. They wake up to find themselves stranded on the beach, completely lost to society… or is it that society no longer exists? And then there’s the continually rising tide that encroaches upon them, an indication of a destruction that might be beyond their control. In terms of horror and the apocalypse, Jones offers a unique rendition, one that captures the inner heart and worry of damaged people facing a cataclysmic event. In Black Tide readers get to swim in the rising feelings of those left behind.
Last Ones Left Alive
Author Jennie Melamed called this book a merging of “the spare poetry of The Road with the dizzying pace of 28 Days Later” and the association is spot on. Orpen is raised on a small island, completely untethered from society, the only person to interact with being her mother. Her life has been defined by survival, preparing and training for the untold dangers that remain more fiction than fact. Eventually, she yearns for the mainland, lured by the promise of other survivors. That’s where the danger awaits, and soon it’ll have her on a battle against flesh-eating terrors while she pushes a wheelbarrow with a felled Maeve, her guardian, through the post-apocalyptic Ireland in search of a means of fighting back.