A strange plague is spreading around the world in Kenneth Calhoun’s Black Moon, released earlier this month to rave reviews: insomnia. And while initially never sleeping sounds like kind of a good deal (think of all that extra reading time!), it brings with it a host of problems, like, oh, creeping insanity, fits of rage, physical collapse, and certain death. And things aren’t so great for the lucky few that are immune, either: they must fight to stay alive as society collapses around them.
Calhoun’s book expertly builds tension as it plays out this fantastical, yet all-too-real scenario without blinking. There is little hope to be found in the intersecting stories of a few characters who search for loved ones, and for meaning in a dying world, amid possibly futile efforts to find a cure. Scariest of all is not the unsettling nature of the disease, but the plausibility of the breakdown that occurs in its wake.
Since we’re never sleeping again anyway, here are 10 other fictional maladies that will keep you up at night:
Toxic language (The Flame Alphabet, by Ben Marcus)
Listening to your kids yapping away about Pokemon and One Direction in the backseat might be annoying, but it isn’t going to kill you—unless you’re an adult living inside this bleak dystopian novel, where the speech, writing, and even hand gestures of children cause the bodies of adults to become crippled and slowly waste away. Only kids are immune, resulting in feral packs of them running wild. But not even a total societal breakdown in going to stop them from constantly texting their friends, amirite? #oldfart
Captain Trips (The Stand, by Stephen King)
Captain Trips gets major props for both its super cool name, and its almost unparalleled ability to kill you within a matter of days. Both The Stand and Wizard and Glass provide a glimpse of what it would be like to live in a world where 99.4% of the population is killed off over the course of a few months. Surprisingly, it would not be super fun.
The Andromeda Strain (The Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton)
As alien viruses go, the Andromeda Strain really sets a high bar. Shortly after it touches down on Earth via a crashed military satellite, it infects and kills the first humans it encounters, then rapidly mutates to infect everything else—from humans (wiping out an entire town), to the plastic and metal barriers constructed to contain it. And you thought dinosaurs that could open doors were bad.
The Red Death (The Masque of the Red Death, by Edgar Allan Poe)
Say what you will about the Red Death (for instance, that it makes you bleed uncontrollably from all of your pores and liquefies your body within an hour of infection); at least it’s an equal opportunity destroyer. Not even the ultra-rich, partying away in their quarantined ivory towers, can escape it. Ha ha! Ha…ha?
Xenovirus Takis-A (Wild Cards, edited by George R.R. Martin)
So on the one hand, this alien virus sounds pretty great, because it comes with a 1% chance that you’ll be turned into a superhero (the book labels these lucky few “Aces”), and a not entirely undesirable 9% chance that you’ll become some sort of superpowered, often-villainous mutant (aka, a “Joker”). Oh, um, but there’s a 90% chance that you will die horribly.
White Blindness (Blindness, by José Saramago)
This one pretty much does what it says on the tin, quickly rendering the vast majority of the population sightless, able to see only a milky haze. But hey, at least it’s a bright, soothing blindness instead of plain old boring darkness.
Kellis-Amberlee Virus (Feed, by Mira Grant)
Zombie plagues are a dime a dozen corpses (especially these days), but what makes the Kellis-Amberlee Virus oh-so-terrifyingly special is the rather precise way the infection takes hold. Basically, anything under 40 pounds is immune, but over that and, well, just consider whether you’d want to face down, say, a zombie cow, or a zombie kangaroo, or a zombie extremely-overfed housecat. The popularity of purse dogs would soar.
Mass infertility (Children of Men, by P.D. James)
Imagine throwing a big party in a house set to be demolished. Anything goes, right, because it’s not like you or anyone else is going to be accountable for the cleanup? Now imagine a global party, and no one is worried about cleanup because there will never be another baby born. That is probably not a party you’d want to attend. Activities to include: mass riots, raping and pillaging, and existential angst.
Snow Crash (Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson)
Here’s another instance where words really can hurt you. At first, everyone thinks Snow Crash is just another computer virus, but it turns out it can infect human brains, too, rendering them unable to process language, and leaving the infected mute, docile, and vacant (if it doesn’t kill them outright). And the worst part is, no more reading! All it takes to get infected is to see or hear a certain lethal phrase.
Spattergroit (the Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling)
This malady is described but never seen over the course of the series, and though it sounds plenty unpleasant (it involves oozing pustules all over your body, which is almost never a good thing), the real treat is how you cure it. It involves standing nude in a barrel of eel eyes during a full moon. Maybe a little oozing isn’t so bad.
Which fictional maladies would you most like to avoid?