Natural Pandemics, Literature, and COVID-19. Once upon a time, there was a sick bat, who pooped on a fruit before being eaten by a hungry cobra. The cobra (or a pangolin that ate the fruit) ended up in a Wuhan fish and wild meat market where restaurant diners became sick. Tin birds carried people all over the globe. That bat’s coronavirus infected millions. Populations locked down, borders closed and economies were in meltdown. Now understanding how scary this is, I wonder that such apocalyptic tales have been popular in literature for centuries.
Do lovers of horror books and movies seek a ‘fix’ of adrenaline as emotional ‘keep fit,' or just like the excuse to clutch their partners in darkened cinemas? Or do doomsday tales feed curiosity about the dangers of unbridled science? Or simply our need for fantasy escapes?
US psychologist Christopher Schmidt and others suggest we do harbour innate curiosity about people adapting to extreme circumstances like societal or environmental destruction, besides loving distraction from reality. If we feel this is a time to escape into a story demonstrating there are worse planetary fates possible than corona, there are plenty. Two millennia ago, the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh (currently featuring in my third novel) depicts a flood disaster where the Gods spare but a few. The same tale segues through Judaic, Quranic, Hindu and Urdu texts. Bocaccio’s Decameron (1353, tales by Florentine Black Death survivors) generated Chaucer’s Tales. By the nineteenth century, Mary Shelley’s, Last Man Standing (1826) had plague coursing across Europe towards her protagonists. John Wyndham’s Day of The Triffids (1851), and H.G. Wells’ War of The Worlds (1895) and Time Machine (1898) posed Armageddon storylines. Theme and plots evolved.
Following Noah’s flood came stories about other climate disasters and cosmic catastrophes like comets and solar flares. Natural pandemics provided fertile literary inspiration, as did totalitarian dystopias of mind and soul control, not to mention brain-eating zombies! With WW2 came nuclear-bomb-themed novels and speculative science fiction on genetic mutations in people and plants.
Plotlines favoured the survival of the few, lives disastrously blighted by loss of modern comforts and technology, bleak ravaged landscapes, disrupted societal cohesion and violent dystopias. After Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) many novels featured the latter. Female authors like Le Guin (Always Coming Home, 1985) and Margaret Atwood incorporated social injustices, especially for women, and misuse of authoritarian power. The 30s had Poe (Conversion of Eiros and Charmion), the 40s Camus (The Plague) and George R. Stewart’s, The Earth Abides (a disease-decimated population reverts to hunter-gathering), the 50s a variety of genres from John Christopher’s, Death of Grass (cereal mutations causing starvation) to John Christopher’s thrice-filmed, I am Legend (vampire mutants).
The 1990s spawned Stephen King’s, The Stand (US Defence computer error causes a weaponized influenza pandemic) and Michael Crichton’s, The Andromeda Strain (virus-laded satellite crashes onto Arizona). More recently, Margaret Atwood’s Man Booker listed Oryx and Crake (2003) is a complex and challenging tale of a post-disaster world populated by ‘Children of Crake’ survivors incapable of embracing art, technology, sexual urge or violence. Equally, thought-provoking is her Year of the Flood (2009) where genetically-spliced life forms emerge after a sweeping epidemic notable for its cough- not one for now. Nor is David Moody’s, Autumn (virus kills 99% of Earth’s population in 24 hours!). If you’d prefer a nuclear holocaust work for escapism, try classic On The Beach (2002, Neville Shute), Alas, Babylon (2005, Pat Frank) or Pulitzer prize-winner Cormac McCarthy’s survival tale, The Road (2006).
I’m for The Decamaron; plague-infected rats are in short supply in Scotland.
Be sure to post your comments on our chat room
Glasgow born Anne Pettigrew was a Greenock GP for 31 years and a light-hearted medical columnist in The Herald and medical press. A Glasgow graduate of 1974, she also has an Anthropology Masters from Oxford.