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Plagues in Fiction: A Lesson in Hope

Elizabeth Graney, Librarian, Literature & Fiction Department,
Books about plagues in fiction
A few examples of how plagues have played out in fiction

In a world of 24-hour news cycles and constant social media updates, it can seem impossible to escape our current stressful reality. So voluntarily choosing to read even more about world-ending plagues and their effects on the human psyche may feel a bit morbid or sadistic. It can be hard to see the benefit of immersing oneself in fictional worlds that parallel our own unprecedented levels of uncertainty, stress, and fear. However, there is an argument to be made that such tales offer us a glimpse of hope. Now, that may strike you as absurd. How can dystopian fiction cheer us up? For one, dystopian fiction generally shows us much worse scenarios than we find ourselves in, even now. We aren’t that far gone. Confronting the scariest and darkest possibilities provides us with a chance to mentally practice for the worst and may let us feel more prepared for the future. Sure, we aren’t fighting off zombie hordes or holing up in abandoned malls, struggling to create a new social order. But we now have an idea of how to do those things should the opportunity confront us. Additionally, in fiction, there is, almost, always a way out. There is always a happier ending. All is not lost. If our fictional ancestors found a way out of these impossible situations, we can see a path out of the one currently weighing us down. Perhaps these stories can remind us of humankind’s resilient nature and give us hope for what lies ahead.

Here are just a few examples of how plagues have played out in fiction—some highly realistic and some fantastical in nature. May you find hope in their tales.

Book cover for Blindness
José Saramago

After a mysterious disease causes blindness in those infected, panic and uncertainty follows its spread. As the government attempts to contain the contagion, several of the infected escape their confinement to avoid the lawless, horrific conditions of their quarantine. But life outside quarantine may be even more brutal. Saramago’s famous novel looks at how quickly social order decays in the face of uncertainty and fear.

Book cover for The Dreamers
The Dreamers
Karen Thompson Walker

When a college freshman falls asleep and doesn’t wake up, doctors are curious but not overly concerned. But then another falls unconscious and another and another. Soon the town is in quarantine, supplies are running low and panic is beginning to spread. It is a quiet picture of a world shattering catastrophe and a look at how life goes on while everything falls apart around you.

Book cover for I Am Legend
I Am Legend
Richard Matheson

Robert Neville is the last man on earth. Immune to the disease that turned everyone he knew and loved into a monster, Robert is left fighting the undead creatures that rose from their bodies. He spends his days searching for supplies and researching what happened to the rest of the world. Just as he believes he is making headway in his understanding of the infected, he finds the impossible; another survivor.

Book cover for Journal of the Plague Year
Journal of the Plague Year
Daniel Defoe

Journal of the Plague Year is one man’s account of his experience in London during the bubonic plague of 1665. As he wanders the streets, H.F. hears the screams of the dying, encounters the carts of the dead being driven to their mass graves and confronts his own death at every turn. But even as he witnesses these terrible and terrifying ordeals, he sees others putting their lives at risk to help and the deep well of human kindness that can be found in the darkest of times. Defoe’s fictionalized account, written 57 years later, was meticulously researched and so authentic it has been studied as a historical record.

Book cover for The Masque of the Red Death
The Masque of the Red Death
Edgar Allan Poe

While in hiding from a deadly plague, Prince Prospero hosts a masquerade ball to pass the time. But when a mysterious guest appears, dressed as a victim of the plague, things take a dark turn.

Book cover for The Plague
The Plague
Albert Camus

Believed to be based on the cholera epidemic that decimated the small French town of Oran, Camus’ The Plague chronicles the emotional and physical toll of a deadly plague on the town’s inhabitants. After it becomes clear a lethal disease is infecting the populace, the town is placed under strict quarantine. As the months of isolation wear on, the inhabitants are faced with unrelenting confinement and the persistent presence of death.The Plague speaks directly to our experiences today as we look for comfort in a world turned on its head.

Book cover for Severance
Ling Ma

In a story with eerie parallels to our current situation, the world succumbs to a disease known as Shen Fever. Through the eyes of a disaffected office worker named Candace Chen, we watch the slow decay of life as we know it and the quiet acceptance of a new normal. As Manhattan closes all stores, as the wealthy flee to less populated areas, and as N95 masks become mandatory work attire, Candace continues reporting to her job while her colleagues disappear around her. When she encounters a group of survivors traveling to a place they call the Facility to start society anew, Candance must decide whether to stay alone in a world she thinks she understands or take a risk and find out what the world has actually become. A look at how the world can end so slowly, we won’t notice until it is too far gone.

Book cover for The Stand
The Stand
Stephen King

When a weaponized form of influenza kills the majority of the world’s population, those left alive band together for survival. Rival groups form around the charismatic figures of Mother Abagail, a 102-year-old telepath, and Randall Flagg, an evil psychic. As each group works to establish their vastly different view of societal order, conflict arises.

Book cover for The White Plague
The White Plague
Frank Herbert

After his wife and children are murdered by an IRA terrorist car bomb, biologist John Roe O’Neill is driven mad with grief. In this unstable state, he designs a plague transmissible by men and fatal to women. After he unleashes it upon the world, chaos ensues and scientists rush to find a cure and save humanity from extinction.

Book cover for World War Z
World War Z
Max Brooks

When a mysterious plague turned the infected into zombies, the world found itself under siege. After 10 long years of fighting we emerged victorious, but humanity paid a dear price. Written as a series of interviews with those who were on the front lines, Max Brooks’ World War Z looks into the worldwide fight against the hordes, how it all began, and how we managed to survive.