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The Best Post-Apocalyptic Novels to Read in Quarantine

by Michael Scivoli

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with post-apocalyptic fiction. From the pandemic-inspired plot of Stephen King’s “The Stand” to the wonderfully brutal nature of Robert Kirkman’s “The Walking Dead” comic book series, my adolescent self simply couldn’t get enough.

Today I find myself–in a rather a cliche fashion–picking up so many of these old reads. Could it be because social distancing has forced us all to reflect and return to the things (and people) we love most? Maybe.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak here in the U.S., society as we know it has seemingly been turned upside down. Our favorite small businesses have closed down or reinvented themselves. Once busy streets are devoid of traffic. The stores where we buy our everyday items are absent of essentials like water.

Every bit of the last two weeks has felt eerily similar to a post-apocalyptic prologue. Now, you may be burying your nose in books that completely escape our current reality. You may be watching Tom Segura’s new Netflix special to take the edge off. That’s OK, too. For me, I’ve taken this time to reread some of the best post-apocalyptic novels. Not because pieces of them echo today’s obvious circumstances, but because at the heart of these stories, are the details that really matter in life (plus they’re just really, really good).

If you’re looking for a new book, remember that local bookstores like Little City Books and WORD Bookstore here in Hudson County are still doing delivery (and in many cases at a great deal). The Hoboken Library, for instance, is still offering its online services 24/7. It’s comfortable as hell to download something onto your Kindle or press “Buy Now” on Amazon.com, but the truth is Amazon will survive this lockdown. Our neighborhood businesses may not.

The Road

By Cormac McCarthy

This story follows a father and son as they trudge through the remnants of what may be the Eastern United States. The world in which “The Road” is written is very much devoid of life–a setting filled with ash and clouds. The plot itself, centered around the main character’s relationship, is hard-hitting, deep and like much of its dialogue, to the point. It’s a tale of survival and unconditional love, one where a bond between father and son exceeds all manners of the setting’s horrific circumstances.

“The Road” also tops this list because of Cormac McCarthy’s writing–more specifically how he always seems to be following his own rules when it comes to language. McCarthy throws proper grammar and even punctuation to the wind. And, somehow, it’s perfect. If you don’t tear up at the end of this post-apocalyptic hit, you have no soul.

While the film it’s based on is a great adaptation of the novel, it does diverge a bit. So don’t skip the source material on this one.

Purchase a copy of “The Road” from WORD Bookstore in Jersey City here.

I Am Legend

By Richard Matheson

I know what you’re thinking. Will Smith. Zombies.

Wrong.

Before the Hollywood hit came this 1954 post-apocalyptic, psychological thriller written by American novelist Richard Matheson. Though the book and the film share a title, just about every inch of the story in “I Am Legend” (besides the main character’s name) is completely different.

The novel takes place in post-apocalyptic 1975 where everyone, except for the last man on Earth, Robert Neville, is a vampire. Neville fights these vampires with–you guessed it–garlic, wooden stakes and a crucifix. The story is suspenseful. The vampires are intelligent and creepy. You never truly know what’s coming, that includes the story’s mind-blowing conclusion.

“I Am Legend” is a great read, but it also makes this list because of how essential it was to the growth of zombie/vampire fiction and post-apocalyptic stories in general. It’s inspired the great writers of our time, including the next author on this list.

Purchase a copy of “I Am Legend” from WORD Bookstore in Jersey City here for $8.99.

The Stand

By Stephen King

This fantasy/horror story begins with a pandemic outbreak. More specifically, a weaponized influenza that nearly decimates the entire U.S. population in a rather grotesque way. While it’s set in The States, you can assume as a reader that it’s also affected the entire world based on how quickly it spreads.

“The Stand”–originally written in 1978 and restored in an uncut version in the ‘90s–is told through the eyes of many different characters from all over the country and different walks of life. This not only gives the reader multiple perspectives but reminds us of just how adept Stephen King is at telling a story.

The novel itself can be menacing. It’s roughly 1,300 pages and can be a slow burn at times. But “The Stand” is truly three books in one if split into three parts: society’s breakdown, the aftermath and finally, the stand back up. It’s a lot of prose to get through, but the journey from cover to cover makes it that much more worthwhile once you’ve reached its conclusion.

Purchase a copy of “The Stand” from WORD Bookstore in Jersey City here for $9.99.

On Such a Full Sea

By Chang-Rae Lee

“On Such a Full Sea” might be more dystopian than post-apocalyptic depending on where (and if) you draw the line. Nevertheless, this modern novel by Korean-American novelist and Stanford professor, Chang-Rae Lee, offers a more nuanced take on the genre. “On Such a Full Sea” takes place in dystopian Eastern U.S. following Fan, a teenage diver who works inside the safety of a Chinese labor city known as B-Mor (an obvious nod to Baltimore).

Like Fan, who abandons her settlement and journeys into the unknown in search of her disappeared boyfriend, Lee takes a big risk by exploring new ways to tell the story of, as Andrew Sean Greer at the New York Times puts it, “[the] lonely human heart.” The novel in part is not dissimilar to the story of what it means to be an immigrant. On that same note, it’s told from a first-perspective plural voice, often giving the reader the sense that the world in which the story exists is not plausible–which is what makes it so great.

“I was really focused upon and interested in the sensibility and consciousness of that community, starting in the factory in China with research, but when I brought it into the novel it was still very much the core,” Lee told Digest writer Sebastian Krawiec in an exclusive 2015 interview at WORD Bookstore in Jersey City.

Purchase a copy of “On Such a Full Sea” from WORD Bookstore in Jersey City here for $16.

Station Eleven

By Emily St. John Mandel

Like “The Stand”, Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven” takes place in the not-too-distant future after a killer (Georgian) flu has wiped out 99 percent of the world’s inhabitants. The story follows Kirsten Raymonde, a former child actor who is a part of a group called, the Travelling Symphony. This group of musicians and actors visits different towns along their journey, playing music for local residents.

The plot often pans back in time, when Kirsten was just eight years old and the flu pandemic was crippling the world. These flashbacks also shift character perspective and give the reader thematic connections across the two timelines. The motifs woven throughout “Station Eleven” are ones that remind us that survival simply isn’t enough because no matter how dire the circumstances, real living is more than simply surviving. Making it one of the best post-apocalyptic works of ficiton in recent memory.

Purchase a copy of “Station Eleven” from WORD Bookstore in Jersey City here for $16.95.

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