A mysterious plague has devastated the planet and wiped out most of humanity. The few survivors must band together to preserve their knowledge and what is left of the humanity that existed before the plague. THe survivors are reduced to a more primitive way of life, where luxury has vanished, and simple existence is the paramount concern.
No, it is not The Walking Dead, it is The Scarlet Plague, by Jack London. The story is set in San Francisco, 60 years after the plague struck, and there are no zombies.
The story opens with an elderly man and a young boy out on a hunting expedition. The old man is one of the last survivors of the pre-plague Earth. They pick their way along a railway bed that nature has long since reclaimed, overgrown They chance upon a grizzly bear, as startled to see them as they are to see him. The two quickly and easily escape the bear’s presence and continue on their way.
Without teachers, the language of humans has become less nuanced, and this becomes clear when the pair meet up with another young boy, named Hairlip, who chides the old man for his funny words. The old man and the two boys talk for a while, with the two boys being very inquisitive of how things used to be. They were eager to hear the stories, and the old man was eager to oblige.
Before the plague, the old man was a professor, and he can’t help but teach the two boys something about disease in general, and the scarlet plague in particular.
It was 2013, and the first outbreak happened in New York. Death came quickly, once the highly contagious disease was contracted, and a hallmark of the disease was the turning red of the face and body of the person afflicted. After the news broke in New York, it was discovered that London, England had been seeing cases of the plague for two weeks but had been suppressing the news of it so as not to alarm the population.
There was no cure, and there was no recovery. Death often came within an hour of exhibiting the first symptoms, typically a rash. The plague moved faster than the scientists could react, and spread quickly. At this point, Hairlip’s impatience got the best of him and accused the old man of spinning yarns. He could not believe that something you cannot see (the bacteria that cause plague) could have such an effect. “Anything you can’t see, ain’t”, he protested. After a brief argument between the boys, the old man continued.
He described the descent of the plague on San Francisco. It began with a few cases, but it was enough to cause panic. People fled for the safety and isolation of their homes. When that proved practically ineffective with the speed with which the disease spread, despair fueled chaos and anarchy. As people fled the city and the plague for rural spaces, they took the plague with them. The old man’s younger self listened carefully for news from cities around the globe, in the hope that a cure might be found, but instead the cities fell silent as the disease decimated the population, leaving scarce few survivors.
The old man recounted horrifying tales of the death and mayhem that surrounded him, as in the moment of facing imminent death, people turned to their more savage natures. He described taking shelter with a group of about 400 in the university’s chemistry building while the city burned to ruin around them. It was confirmed for them that he incubation period for the disease was a few days, meaning that when the first symptoms manifested themselves the infected person had been contagious for days. That was how the plague seemed to spread so quickly and kill so fast.
The story has a slow build, but takes off once the old man starts recounting his apocalyptic experience. Choking smoke, the plague itself and crowds of marauders forced the group to leave the chemistry building and they fled the city, avoiding bands of these prowlers much like the group avoided the zombies in the first few seasons of The Walking Dead. The group’s numbers dwindled as some succumbed to the disease and others decided to take their chances on their own. Eventually, the old man was the only one left of the group.
The old man found shelter and rested for a few days, partly because he needed the rest and partly because he wanted to make sure he didn’t have the plague himself. During those two days the chaos subsided as people were overcome by the plague, and when he emerged, he found dead bodies laying everywhere, but food was plentiful.
Without human caretakers, domesticated animals became more feral. The old man wandered the countryside, finding no other humans, and eventually ended up in an abandoned hotel that had good stocks of canned food and crop fields all around for fresher foods. The old man stayed there for three years, and he encountered no other human beings. After those three years, however, the old man was going stir crazy and he set off in search of other survivors.
What happens when he finds some? What does he discover about himself and humans as a species?
The Scarlet Plague was originally published in London Magazine in 1912, and this work is available for countries where copyright is Life+70 and in the USA. You can download the book for FREE at Feedbooks, or you can also download and listen to the story for free, read aloud at Librivox by James Christopher. (playing time about an hour and twenty minutes).