In these trying times, the onslaught of breaking coronavirus news is inescapable. So why not lean into the nightmare and face your fears? In fact, plenty of people are seeking relief from our current reality by diving into disease books and virus outbreak movies, using the heightened terror of fiction to soothe their panicked minds in the midst of a real-life pandemic.
So the question is: What are the best fictional pandemic books?
The appeal of doomsday sci-fi reads like Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven or speculative fiction like The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood is undeniable. As is the hypnotic power of occult thrillers like The Strain by Guillermo del Toro or suspense and thriller novels like Chuck Wendig's Wanderers and Rory Power's Wilder Girls. But if you’re in the mood for the darkest, most disturbing of the bunch, here are 13 pandemic horror books to get you through the coronavirus outbreak.
I Am Legend
A lethal pandemic has swept across the globe and infected almost every person on Earth. Those fortunate enough to survive this plague find themselves transformed into monstrous vampiric creatures. Robert Neville walks alone as a survivor, somehow unaffected by this fast-spreading sickness.
Neville’s solitude in this frightening new world has lasted so long that months have faded into years, and hope has crumbled away into depression and alcoholism. But he still hunts the creatures that stalk him through the night, gathering data and researching the root of their terrible illness. Though the more he learns about these creatures, the more begins to wonder—who’s the true monster?
When the United States falls victim to a Feline Flu pandemic, society collapses into chaos. A vaccine is rushed out to the public, but it only makes the situation worse. In reaction to the vaccine, the recipients seem to devolve into beasts driven by primal urges. These poor souls become “foamers,” violent monsters that terrorize survivors.
After being diagnosed with the terminal Huntington’s disease, Kade had no expectations of living a long and full life. He expected even less that he’d become some sort of leader of survivors in the midst of a catastrophe. But after spending his days entertaining himself by training in survival skills, Kade finds himself ready—and the Feline Flu pandemic puts him front and center in the ultimate fight for survival.
In the Drift
A century ago, Three Mile Island suffered a catastrophic nuclear reactor meltdown, releasing a radioactive toxin that poisoned the ground and air. The area surrounding the meltdown zone has come to be known as the Drift, and it is here that the disease and deformity of the island thrives. From two-headed monsters to vampiric mutations, this land of undesirables has devolved into a dangerous place without one scrap of hope. Here, the laws of old society mean nothing, and even the smallest perceived offense can lead to a fate worse than death.
While New York City was once “The City That Never Sleeps,” it seems to have fallen into a permanent and desolate slumber. After a horrifying epidemic sweeps through the city, its citizens transform into cannibalistic monsters with an insatiable hunger for human flesh.
Entering the city might mean suicide, but Dekalb is out of options. Desperate to obtain vital medical supplies from Midtown’s UN building for his daughter, he embarks on a mission surrounded by teenage girls turned well-trained soldiers. Armed with ammo, the team will sacrifice everything to bring back what they need.
But little do they know, a medical student named Gary rises from the dead, unlike any of the other zombies shambling through the city. Gary can think, and feel, and scheme. Gary is still hungry, and Gary can control the zombie hordes to seek out fresh meat for him. It seems Dekalb’s mission is going to be even more dangerous than he imagined.
When the Pandoravirus horribilis breaks out, society is shaken. The illness targets the brain, consuming those infected with an unstoppable rage. The sick lose all sense of pain and emotion and lash out mercilessly against anyone in their sights. Without a cure, hope seems to be dwindling.
Emma Miller used to study diseases. Now, she's infected and is the subject of study as U.S. government officials and Emma's twin sister, Isabel, monitor her condition. The world seems to be divided—should the infected be treated like dangerous monsters or sick people who deserve our compassion? Yet as Isabel devotes herself to saving her sister, Emma seems to be leading an uprising of the infected…
While They Thirst may not feature the typical flu-like strains featured in pandemic horror, the outbreak in this book by bestselling horror author Robert McCammon is certainly deadly. Looming over the city of Los Angeles is Kronsteen castle. The gloomy abode was thought to be abandoned after the murder of its owner. Yet lurking inside is one Prince Conrad Vulkan. Vulkan is the Hungarian master of the vampires, and he has his sights set on changing all of mankind into bloodthirsty creatures of the night.
Vulkan spreads his vampirism through Los Angeles's struggling masses. Soon, his minions of darkness number high enough to be an army. But hope for humanity lies in the group of survivors/freshly-minted vampire hunters determined to end the Prince of Evil’s awful reign—even if victory comes at the cost of their lives.
If you’re a fan of McCammon’s particular brand of heart-pounding apocalyptic horror, be sure to check out his nuclear epic Swan Song.
After a ruthless virus consumes the globe, Nico Storm and his father, Willem, seem to be some of the only remaining survivors. As they travel through the wasteland of South Africa in a truck full of essentials, it’s clear that they are destined to rebuild a semblance of society. Nico, though merely a boy, is a remarkable marksman with a sensible head—fated to be the protector of his father. Willem may not be physically intimidating, but he is kind and has a plan to bring a new community to life.
The father-son duo establish the village of Amanzi, and soon more survivors move in. Yet as the population of their community grows, problems arise from outside of Amanzi and from within. South Africa's Deon Meyer is one of the thriller genre's most compelling authors. His dystopian thriller Fever is perfect for fans of Cormac McCarthy's The Road.
Legendary author Octavia Butler expertly weaves together elements of apocalyptic horror in this doomsday sci-fi narrative. On what was set to be a perfectly average day, Dr. Blake Maslin is taken by surprise as a group of bandits overtake his car on a drive to Flagstaff with his two daughters. With one of his girls held at gunpoint, the criminals barter for only one thing: medical care. With no choice but to agree to their terms, Maslin follows the outlaws to a desert that will change his fate forever.
In a makeshift colony in the desert, people infected with a horrifying alien virus have surrendered themselves to a self-imposed quarantine. Suffering from weakness, sallow skin, and children with unspeakable birth defects, the sick have done what they can to keep their illness from getting out and triggering a pandemic. But isolation has made them restless, and Maslin’s care may be the only thing capable of keeping this sickness contained.
Stephen King set the pandemic horror bar quite high with this 1978 epic. An error in a Defense Department laboratory computer releases a weaponized strain of influenza, wiping out 99.4% of the world’s population. What remains of society struggles to hang on, and survivors are quickly divided into two factions. On the side of the good, 108-year-old Mother Abigail rises as a kind but frail leader. On the side of evil, Randall Flagg wields terrifying powers to bring his nightmares to fruition.
The first book in a thrilling trilogy, The Passage follows Amy, a girl who’s imprisoned by the government after being abandoned by her mother at age six. While in captivity, Amy is experimented upon by the government. When Special Agent Brad Wolgast finds Amy, he risks everything to help her escape, even as the government’s experiments unleash a highly contagious virus that turns the infected into superhuman beasts on the hunt for blood.
Society collapses under the weight of the catastrophe, and Amy survives in isolation. But she knows that she's the only one capable of saving what’s left of the world.
A highly contagious plague with no cure and no known origin sweeps across the United States. Doctors refer to it as Draco Incendia Trychophyton, while the average citizen might just call it Dragonscale. But the deadly spore, by any name, starts with stunning markings of black and gold across the host’s skin and ends in spontaneous combustion.
Kind and dedicated nurse Harper Grayson has found the foreboding flecks of gold across her skin. She’s discussed with her husband Jakob that, should either of them become infected, they would be sure to take matters into their own hands. But there’s just one problem—Harper is pregnant. As she insists on waiting to see if she can survive long enough to deliver the child, Jakob unravels from the belief that Harper has infected him too, and soon abandons her.
As the world collapses around Harper, roving gangs storm through the streets to eliminate those they suspect of carrying Dragonscale. And yet, a strange hope burns in Harper, as a man called the Fireman patrols the streets. He wears yellow flame-resistant safety gear and has been infected by the spore as well, but has gained the ability to control the flames within himself. He alone stands as a protector of those hunted by the Cremation Squads, and he stands as a perpetrator of vengeance.
The first book in Mira Grant’s Newsflesh series, Feed begins in 2014. Science has overcome threats as little as the common cold and as large as cancer. However, in place of these illnesses, a terrible new virus sweeps across the world, turning people into flesh-hungry zombies.
Two decades after the outbreak, Georgia and Shaun Mason are internet journalists on the trail of their biggest story yet. A dark conspiracy lies behind the truth of the catastrophic virus, and they’re willing to risk everything to break the news—including their lives.
Kicking off a trilogy of the same name, Infected centers on a strange disease spreading across America that turns its victims into brutal and paranoid murderers. Brave CIA operative Dew Phillips travels across the country in search of a live carrier to capture. Brilliant CDC epidemiologist Margaret Montoya scrounges for clues from decaying corpses—and soon discovers that this sickness originates from a bioengineered parasite.
Meanwhile, former football star Perry Dawsey imagines he’ll spend the rest of his life confined to a boring desk job. But then he discovers the welts across his body, telltale signs of infection. His brain starts to change, making him behave erratically and think bizarrely, and even hear voices… But instead of murder, the parasites urge him to do something far bigger.
Featured image: Scott Rodgerson/Unsplash
This post is sponsored by Open Road Media. Thank you for supporting our partners, who make it possible for The Lineup to continue publishing the terrifying stories you love.