Plague stories
April 4, 2020 7:38 PM   Subscribe

I'm listening to the audiobook of A Journal of the Plague Year and I find it oddly comforting as a reminder that we as humans survive these catastrophes. Can you point me to other epidemic literature?

I'm open to fiction and creative non-fiction, essays, poetry, or plays, about any disease outbreaks modern or ancient. I'm a pretty omnivorous reader.
posted by latkes to Media & Arts (41 answers total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Albert Camus' The Plague is the classic. I read it when I was 14, some 52 years ago.
posted by yclipse at 7:40 PM on April 4, 2020 [6 favorites]

My Dad is writing his own journals of the Plague Year (from the perspective of a family doctor in a hotspot). If anyone is interested, feel free to memail me and I'll be happy to forward them. There are several so far.
posted by arnicae at 7:46 PM on April 4, 2020 [11 favorites]

I've been slowly poking my way through The Decameron for the same reasons. It's a 14th century Italian collection of novellas about a group of ten friends who escape Florence during the Black Death. They retire to a villa in the countryside and each tell a story to entertain the others every night, resulting in a hundred stories.
posted by rabbitbookworm at 7:58 PM on April 4, 2020 [4 favorites]

Year of Wonders is very good
posted by Mchelly at 8:40 PM on April 4, 2020 [10 favorites]

Fiction: Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, by Geraldine Brooks
posted by Iris Gambol at 8:41 PM on April 4, 2020 [4 favorites]

The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe (1842). Join Prince Prospero and his noblemen friends as they retire to his abbey, hoping to isolate themselves from the plague raging outside its walls.
posted by Rash at 8:46 PM on April 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

The 1918 influenza pandemic: The Great Influenza Pandemic by John Barry and Flu: The Story Of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It by Gina Kolata. I've read the first and found the story good but the writing style a little annoying. The other is on my to-read list (thank goodness for e-books now that the libraries are closed!)
posted by Quietgal at 8:48 PM on April 4, 2020

The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen is a novel about the 1918 pandemic.

Station Eleven is fabulous and set in a near-future where the population has been mostly wiped out by a plague.
posted by Violet Hour at 8:48 PM on April 4, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: So Much Cooking by Naomi Kritzer is a cooking blog during a flu pandemic.
posted by The Incredible Gnome at 8:57 PM on April 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

Earth Abides is a classic post-apocalyptic science fiction novel from 1949 by George R. Stewart. A solo hiker comes back from the mountains to discover almost everybody died while he was away.

And speaking of the Red Death, I just learned that this novel is based on an earlier work by Jack London, also available at Project Gutenberg: The Scarlet Plague, from 1912.
posted by Rash at 8:58 PM on April 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

I love “Doomsday Book” by Connie Willis.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 9:00 PM on April 4, 2020 [13 favorites]


Waubgeshig Rice's Moon of the Crusted Snow:

With winter looming, a small northern Anishinaabe community goes dark. Cut off, people become passive and confused. Panic builds as the food supply dwindles. While the band council and a pocket of community members struggle to maintain order, an unexpected visitor arrives, escaping the crumbling society to the south. Soon after, others follow.

The community leadership loses its grip on power as the visitors manipulate the tired and hungry to take control of the reserve. Tensions rise and, as the months pass, so does the death toll due to sickness and despair. Frustrated by the building chaos, a group of young friends and their families turn to the land and Anishinaabe tradition in hopes of helping their community thrive again. Guided through the chaos by an unlikely leader named Evan Whitesky, they endeavor to restore order while grappling with a grave decision.

Blending action and allegory, Moon of the Crusted Snow upends our expectations. Out of catastrophe comes resilience. And as one society collapses, another is reborn.


Steven Berlin Johnson's The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 9:04 PM on April 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

One section of Life After Life involves the Spanish flu in England.
posted by praemunire at 9:36 PM on April 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Pale Horse, Pale Rider about the 1918 pandemic. Short, dream-vivid.
posted by clew at 9:57 PM on April 4, 2020

Sort of close: The Years of Rice and Salt. Speculative fiction, about a world where the Black Plague kills everyone in Europe. The world moves on.

Weird Colonialist Fantasy: The Peshawar Lancers. A spy adventure set in a world where in 1878, at the height of imperialism, a meteor impact causes nuclear-winter-like devastation so vast that the northern empires evacuate to their Southern Hemisphere territories in order to survive: The Parliament moves to Delhi, Algiers is the new Paris, the Czar is in Samarkand, etc.
posted by bartleby at 10:01 PM on April 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

Wickett’s Remedy by Myla Goldberg is a novel about the 1918 flu epidemic. I remember reading it but can’t remember what I thought of it!

I used the edit window to add, Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson is a YA novel about an outbreak, with a plot twist.
posted by centrifugal at 10:18 PM on April 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

Nope, that’s not the one with the plot twist, sorry! Just a book about a teenager surviving a yellow fever outbreak.
posted by centrifugal at 10:30 PM on April 4, 2020

Get Well Soon, by Jennifer Wright. More jokes than you'd expect from a book about deadly plagues.

Surveys a dozen or so of them through history; her focus is on the human reactions and response rather than the science of the plague itself and we're all seeing how important that is now.
posted by mark k at 11:04 PM on April 4, 2020

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel and Severance by Ling Ma.

NYT: 7 Essential Books About Pandemics (non-fiction)

NYT: Your Quarantine Reader (fiction)
posted by caek at 11:42 PM on April 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

A few selections about the AIDS epidemic off the top of my head:

Heaven’s Coast, Mark Doty (Memoir)

Body Counts, Sean Strub (Memoir)

The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer (Play)
posted by Gymnopedist at 12:11 AM on April 5, 2020

Not a book, but This Podcast Will Kill You is a podcast by two disease ecologists that covers different diseases and many different epidemics. They often feature narrative from survivors at the beginning of the episode. For some recent/current) ongoing diseases, like AIDS, they interview survivors or people living with the disease.
posted by carrioncomfort at 12:46 AM on April 5, 2020

Jennifer Chiaverini's The Quilter's Legacy is partly about the 1918 influenza.
posted by paduasoy at 1:24 AM on April 5, 2020

A Parcel of Patterns is kid's fiction about the village of Eyam that self-quarantined. Walsh is an excellent author.

Not recommending Doomsday Book by Connie Willis about someone time traveling to the plague year as a researcher as it could be triggering - pretty much everyone dies slowly and it is just plain heartbreaking and likely to be depressing and not good for this time. But it is good, if it doesn't tip you into insomnia from from grief.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:13 AM on April 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Air We Breathe by Andrea Barrett was not about an epidemic, but about tuberculosis in an Adirondacks clinic in 1916. The isolation of the setting and the class divides of people recuperating may resonate.
posted by Otter_Handler at 4:16 AM on April 5, 2020

The Murmur of Bees by Sofia Segovia isn’t exactly about the 1918 flu epidemic but it definitely features it. (I’m only about 1/3 of the way through the book right now so I can’t say how big a factor it is later on.)
posted by obfuscation at 5:25 AM on April 5, 2020

The Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler, opens with society in the early 2020s (sigh) struggling with self-quarantine. The threat here isn't from infectious disease but from addiction, but aspects resonate.

I can't find my copy of Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, but one story is a plague journal.
posted by basalganglia at 5:40 AM on April 5, 2020

The Plague by Albert Camus
Kristin Lavrandatter by Sigrid Undset
posted by mermayd at 7:31 AM on April 5, 2020

Basalganglia, thank you for mentioning that! Carmen Maria Machado’s pandemic story has been haunting me since I read it, and I reread it at the beginning of this crisis. It’s beautiful and horrifying. You can read it here, but buy the book if you can because she’s a gorgeous writer.
posted by centrifugal at 7:53 AM on April 5, 2020 [2 favorites]

From the category of Things That Were Made Into Vincent Price Movies, there's Edgar Allan Poe's "Masque of the Red Death" and Richard Matheson's I Am Legend.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:19 AM on April 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Raven's Gift by Don Rearden - novel about fictional disease epidemic in rural Alaska, written by someone who grew up in rural Alaska (Bethel, AK). Recent interview with author.

Echoing rec for Severance by Ling Ma - features millenials, office workers, airborne disease, and memory and regret. May hit eerily close to home right now (e.g. protagonist ends up being one of few essential workers left at her office in NYC). Sample review quote: "might just be the first and only coming-of-age, immigrant experience, anti-capitalist zombie novel you'll ever need."
posted by cdefgfeadgagfe at 10:22 AM on April 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

Derek Jarman's Modern Nature isn't specifically "about" AIDS but it's a memoir of his life as he waits for, and then begins, his descent into serious illness after being diagnosed positive, with the backdrop of frequent visits to London as many of his friends and colleagues sicken and die.
posted by praemunire at 10:59 AM on April 5, 2020

centrifugal: Nope, that’s not the one with the plot twist, sorry! Just a book about a teenager surviving a yellow fever outbreak.

"The one with the plot twist" might be the super-fun Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix.
posted by capricorn at 11:02 AM on April 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

Company of Liars was just recommended in another book-related Ask question: In this extraordinary novel, Karen Maitland delivers a dazzling reinterpretation of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, an ingenious alchemy of history, mystery, and powerful human drama. The year is 1348. The Black Plague grips the country...
posted by Iris Gambol at 12:18 PM on April 5, 2020

A Song for a New Day, by Sarah Pinsker--takes place after a pandemic results in permanent social distancing

A Beginning at the End, by Mike Chen--takes place a few years after the peak of pandemic that leaves the earth with 30% of its present-day population

fwiw I re-read Doomsday Book on purpose a couple of weeks ago and felt it was a good decision. There are two different pandemics in the story, one of which is in the "present day" of the book (almost 30 years ago) with some striking parallel's to today's. (That said, she may have overestimated how assiduously Britain would respond compared to the US. Not that I'm not here for dunking on certain kinds of advice-ignoring pigheaded Americans, because I am.)

All three books end hopefully, at least for the present-day characters.
posted by wintersweet at 12:20 PM on April 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

Oh my god, Captives of Time By Malcolm Bosse. This book messed me up in junior high. It’s about the Black Plague, clocks, and a lot of other stuff.
posted by Violet Hour at 1:19 PM on April 5, 2020

The Girl Who Owned a City is a YA novel (and graphic novel) that goes into a lot of logistical detail about how a town of pre-teens dealt with food supplies, rival gangs and built themselves a brand-new protected civilization with the leadership of a 10-year-old girl. I've always found it fascinating. It's a relatively quick read, but goes into depth about how a post-pandemic society could function.
posted by bendy at 5:33 PM on April 5, 2020

Best answer: Margaret Atwood's maddadam trilogy
posted by brujita at 5:42 PM on April 5, 2020

I disagree about Doomsday Book because I just sent out a recommendation on my mailing list - it's a very sad book but it's also about community and art and memory and life after plague, the survival of hope and joy among tragedy. The audiobook was wonderful.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 5:01 PM on April 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

What Happened to the Corbetts is an interesting alternative history novel. It was published in April of 1939 during the lead up to World War II and is about an upper middle class family struggling to manage while the bombs rain down at the beginning of the war, and cholera and typhoid epidemics sweep through the country carried by refugees from the bombed areas. It got some predictions right, but not very many. It focuses very closely on the family and how they try to keep their children alive, particularly the baby who needs milk to survive and this close focus makes it immersive and often very believable.
posted by Jane the Brown at 1:31 PM on April 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

If you liked Corbetts, you might like The Mandibles: a Family, 2029-2047. Not plague, but economic collapse. Agenda driven, but a story about a bougie family when dollars become worthless.
posted by bartleby at 2:08 PM on April 13, 2020

Response by poster: I'm marking best answers as I read them... thanks for the recs!
posted by latkes at 8:43 PM on April 30, 2020

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