Fantasy fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft once said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” It is telling that the pandemic has unleashed this kind of fear in spades.
This year has proved that reality is indeed stranger than fiction. The recent pandemic has lasted through a second fall in publishing, so it seems logical that many writers have worked the plot point into their books. There is now a thriving genre in post-apocalyptic fiction that draws on the seemingly unending precariousness of a global pandemic. The fear of the unknown, and how quickly it can turn into an existential crisis, is a major draw here. Fearing ghosts under the bed and clowns at midnight seems trivial in the face of a rapidly mutating virus that can put actual lives in jeopardy.
It was pure coincidence that I read The Silence by Don DeLillo earlier this year, without realising it was an apocalyptic novel. This disaster-slash-apocalyptic novella takes place right as a technology blackout occurs on a Super Bowl Sunday in the United States. The characters find themselves at a loss in the absence of technology that has become a mediator for social communication.
A gaping hole is exposed in our already frayed social fabric, as the blackout reveals the anxieties of a tech-reliant society. The eerie silence of a world devoid of our constantly beeping, flashing gadgets is terrifying, especially in the immediate aftermath of an inexplicable event, with no knowing how it will pan out. This is not too unlike the current pandemic, which one day seemed like an exotic virus like Ebola that had no access to us, and the next month seemed to have engulfed the entire world.
This nebulous feeling of impending doom is also the subject of Rumaan Alam’s novel Leave the World Behind. Reading it during a pandemic felt a little too close to home since the premise seems like the Hollywood film Get Out — if it were to take place during a disaster. In Alam’s novel, an upper-middle class white couple and their children leave their hectic city life behind to vacation in a remote rental house on Long Island. Suddenly, the homeowners — who happen to be a black couple — show up.
It turns out that a national emergency has struck the country, disrupting mobile phone networks, so the two families are compelled to hunker down in the holiday home until they can make sense of the nature of the emergency at hand. The entire book revolves around the terrifying absence of knowledge and how that plays into escalating tension, despite no tangible horror taking place. Reading this might give you 2021 flashbacks, but they would be worth it.
The book seems strangely prescient even though it was written before the pandemic. Alam, in an interview with The Guardian, muses how “the book dramatises being trapped at home and not having enough information — and it happened to be published into a reality in which many readers felt that they were trapped in their homes and didn’t have enough information. So it’s a strange resonance.”
The End of October from Pulitzer Prize-winning Lawrence Wright is a white-knuckle medical thriller about tracing the origins and cure of a devastating new virus that originated in Asia, and is now going global. Drawing parallels of the world in 2021, the novel captures the anxiety and hysteria caused by a novel virus, punctuated by the epidemiological history of viral diseases. But while exhaustively researched on the medical front, it’s a shame that this novel is plagued by obsolete Asian stereotypes that encumber its veracity.
Stephen King had said that “we make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.” That is certainly true for Ling Ma’s Severance, which came out in 2018 but is strangely prophetic. The premise revolves around a plague of biblical proportions called the Shen Fever, which first appears in the Chinese city of Shenzhen and has now overtaken New York. A social and economic crisis subsequently follows.
The nature of the plague here is darkly comical yet relevant. The plague turns people into mindless drones and the story is narrated via Candace Chen, a millennial corporate slave who spends much of her life sequestered in a Manhattan office tower. The story is an anti-capitalist satire, which expertly manoeuvres millennial malaise, toxic corporate culture and the immigrant experience.
“A glimpse into the world proves that horror is nothing other than reality,” goes a famous quote attributed to filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. The Premonition: A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis taps into that genre of horror. The scares are not because of any supernatural entities, but the reality around us.
In The Premonition, Lewis features a group of maverick doctors with extensive public health experience, who find themselves against the wall of ignorance that was the official response of former American president Donald Trump’s administration to the Covid-19 outbreak. The horror is the institutional dysfunction and its repercussions, and the book is a timely guide on how not to handle a global pandemic.
If survival stories are your cup of tea, then Mike Chen’s A Beginning at the End will be an engaging read. Published right in the middle of the pandemic, it focuses on four characters that come together in the wake of a devastating pandemic to rebuild their lives. The story provides all the thrills of an apocalyptic thriller, but rather than being bleak, offers a glimmer of hope for humanity.
Karen Thomas Walker’s The Dreamers is a harrowing portrait of dystopian collapse. An isolated town in California is gripped by a mysterious illness which leads the inhabitants into a deep slumber, from which they can’t be woken up. Pretty soon, the entire town is in quarantine and doctors discover that those affected by the illness are displaying unusual levels of brain activity and having strange dreams. This richly imaginative novel explores the terrifying possibilities of the extinction of humankind.
The brilliant Gary Shteyngart is back with the shrewdly topical Our Country Friends, which takes place in March 2020 while a global disaster is unravelling. A group of friends and friends-of-friends gathers in a country house to wait out the pandemic. In the style of Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers, Shteyngart’s book follows the dysfunctional motley crew and their evolving dynamics while living in close quarters. It’s a wickedly intelligent and hilarious novel, making it a must-read for our times.
When reality terrifies us, we can find solace in horror fiction. Fact-informed literature regarding the pandemic can lead us to engage in meaningful reflection of our current reality and put it into perspective.
The writer is a Karachi-based book critic writing for several international publications
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 31st, 2021