Horror can be pure fantastical escapism, but it can also serve a more important purpose. By creating a parallel experience, horror fiction can neutralise the very real horrors that lurk at the back of our minds. In this way, our favourite horror properties take on a kind of talismanic quality, protecting us from the thing that we really fear. No mere murder, for example, is going to frighten us when Jason Vorhees is at our side.
So while some may find themselves wanting to escape into fiction as far removed as possible from the present situation we find ourselves in, others take comfort in worlds with fictional quarantines, diseases and lockdowns. With this in mind, here is the first instalment of our bumper list of Pandemic Horror.
The end of the world has rarely been painted so beautifully as in Emily St. John Mandel’s astonishing novel. The Georgia Flu is ravaging the states. An actor collapses on stage in the middle of King Lear. A paramedic receives a frantic phone call and barricades himself in his apartment immediately, fearing the worst. A self-published comic book is handed to a small child in a small gesture that will have a profound impact on the course of her life. Mandel weaves these disparate strands together into a tapestry of breathtaking depth and colour.
Despite the magnitude of events, the book doesn’t beat you over the head with bombastic prose and bewildering set pieces. There is a cult leader out to get our protagonists and there is violence and horror to be found here. However, the real drama is about memory, nostalgia, storytelling and the way in which lives can be linked with invisible bonds so strong that they survive the end of the world itself.
The troupe of actors who we spend most of the novel with, delivering Shakespeare performances in the wild badlands of post-flu America, have a motto that they pinched from Star Trek: “Survival is insufficient”. This is an enigmatic novel, but can perhaps be best understood through the lens of this phrase. Where other end-of-the-world thrillers foreground the fight for survival, Mandel’s book focuses on the things that give survival meaning.
Scott K. Andrews’ novel, the first in the Afterblight Chronicles series, could hardly be a starker contrast with Mandel’s slow-paced and introspective work. Abaddon Books, the prose arm of 2000AD, is dedicated to bringing their audiences visceral thrills in the SF, horror and fantasy novels that they produce. Don’t let their mission statement fool you though – just because they focus on action doesn’t mean that their books aren’t intelligent, with strong characterisation and ingenious settings.
Owing more than a little to Lord of The Flies, School’s Out centres on a boarding school in the aftermath of a global pandemic that has claimed the lives of everyone whose blood type is anything other than O-negative. 15-year-old Lee returns to his school, finding other survivors there, but quickly learns that the school bully is exerting a rigid control over the group with an armed squad of goons (guns pilfered from the cadet program). There’s the hint of a societal critique in the mix somewhere, as the posh private school devolves into militaristic fascism all too easily.
Reading somewhere between The Walking Dead and Tom Brown’s School Days, School’s Out’s survivors are beset by marauding cultists, but the real dangers are within. When crucifixion becomes a means of discipline, Lee has to try and take control of the school to prevent further barbarism. The violence is stark and brutal but not unrealistic. The antagonists are unpleasant enough to make satisfying villains but their motivations aren’t completely alien to the reader. Once again, an Abaddon property reels its readers in with shock value, only for them to discover depths within that they weren’t expecting.
Well it had to be, didn’t it? Stephen King’s weighty brick of a novel remains the last word in apocalyptic fiction for its hordes of fans. Returning to the book now, readers may be struck with how well King’s original story stands up.
A bio-engineered disease is unleashed on the world, killing almost all of its inhabitants. Those who survive are plagued with dreams, some from the saintly Mother Abigail and some from the sinister Randall Flagg. Forming groups, they head in separate directions, some drawn to the moral righteousness of Mother Abigail, while others head to Las Vegas (of course) and the destructive malice of Flagg.
The Stand is an intensely, even uncomfortably, spiritual book. King describes it as ‘dark Christianity’, and despite moments of shocking realism, the book really represents a battle between the forces of good and evil. This isn’t to say that the moral choices of the characters lack depth – in fact, it’s their ordinariness that creates drama, making them so unsuitable to the spiritual conflict that King has thrust them into. Nonetheless, this is far closer to King’s take on Lord of The Rings than Contagion, with its huge cast, epic scope and emphasis on journeying into the various hearts of various different kinds of darkness.
The characters are well-rounded, if lacking in diversity, and there’s a bit of the chauvinism that characterised King’s writing in this period. For King fans, The Stand is a keystone in the shared universe of King novels (The Kingiverse?), introducing or developing many of the most important figures of King’s world.
King made the decision to return to the heavily edited tale later in his career, add in the few hundred pages removed by his editor and update the setting to the 1990s. This latter move resulted in some jarring anachronisms (we don’t recall many people looking up ambulances in the phone book in the ’90s). Opinion is divided when it comes to which edition is superior. In our view, brevity is the soul of wit when it comes to King.
Between Two Fires
On beginning this list, we knew we were going to have to include some Black Death-based horror. We almost gave it to the excellent Karen Maitland and her barnstorming historical chillers like The Owl Killers and Company of Thieves. In the end, though, it was Christopher Buehlman’s Between Two Fires that claimed it, largely as a result of its horrific sensibilities.
The story of a disgraced knight a monk and a girl with some unusual gifts, Between Two Fires starkly evokes the barren landscape of 1300s Europe. The descriptions of the ravaged towns and their desperate inhabitants are striking and chilling in equal measure. When the knight encounters his first real challenge, it quickly becomes clear that Buehlman isn’t serving up a standard historical drama here – this is the end of the world, revelations-style.
Hell has unleashed her demons, and the Black Death is merely the precursor to the main event. The descriptions of the demons and angels, both of which appear sparingly and to great effect, are fascinating. These creatures are really otherworldly, and their unfathomable proportions verge on the Lovecraftian at times.
The protagonists’ journey takes them all the way to an audience with the Pope in Avignon. However, with God having abandoned his throne, his servants may not be as trustworthy as they hope (it’s the 1300s, so they weren’t lovely people in the first place). Along the way, this trio of simple archetypes strengthen the bond between them, confront their inner demons, and ultimately become compelling characters whose fates we care deeply about.
With echoes of Gwendolyne Kiste’s The Rust Maidens and more than a shade of Charles Burns’ Black Hole, Rory Power’s breakout novel was a YA revelation in 2019. Set in an isolated all girl’s school in Maine, our story takes place in the midst of a mysterious global pandemic. With most of the teachers dead and supply packages from the nearby naval base growing increasingly light, the girls must contend with the disease itself. ‘The Tox’ breaks out among them periodically, according to some obscure pattern, and those it leaves alive inherit strange deformities including fish scales and bones that protrude through the skin.
The intended allegory of puberty and the attendant body horror imagery are clear, but the book is so much more than that alone. The horror is chilling, and the monstrous creatures that the Tox creates are thrilling and unsettling, but there’s a realism to the characterisation that elevates this story above many of its contemporaries.
Like some of the best YA projects, Wilder Girls is adept at evoking the rawness of adolescent emotions. The fierce loyalties, seething jealousies and deep-seated insecurities are all instantly recognisable. The complex bonds between the characters are palpable and fascinating to watch as they either face up or succumb to the challenges of survival.
Hailed by some as a ‘queer dystopia’, Wilder Girls represents some of the best trends in YA fiction – for example, focusing on the complexities and peculiarities of non-heteronormative relationships and portraying them accurately. The novel also makes a habit of forefronting female and marginalised characters who are fiercely independent and refuse to be contained.