Justin Cronin knows from the end of the world: he’s just wrapped up a massive trilogy that spends around 3,000 pages wallowing in it. In The Passage, The Twelve, and the just-released The City of Mirrors, he’s chronicled humanity’s slow collapse—and slow, stuttering rise—in the wake of a viral apocalypse that unleashed hordes of vampire-like superbrings upon the world, and quickly wiped out almost all other life (everything over a certain weight limit risked infection). Though Cronin’s vision is dark—who wants to be eaten, or turn into a vampire, for that matter?—it’s hardly the grimmest depiction of The End that you’ll encounter in literature.
To celebrate the long-awaited release of The City of Mirrors, we asked him to share his top ten “end-of-civilization” novels. Read them with the lights on. And maybe the TV too.
- Earth Abides, by George Stewart. A stately, elegiac novel about a group of survivors following a global pandemic.
- The Stand, by Stephen King. Because, The Stand.
- King Lear, by William Shakespeare. Not apocalyptic, you say? Tell that to the characters. Five brutal acts in which every meaningful human bond and institution is ground into dust.
- On the Beach, by Nevil Shute. A novel so unrelentingly grim that it actually moved the meter of public sentiment on the arms race.
- Children of Men, by P.D. James. Somewhat different from the (excellent) movie—no spectacular action set pieces here—but a probing, deeply British story of a slow-motion apocalypse in which humanity loses the ability to reproduce.
- The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. Of all the stories ever written about the end of civilization, this is the one that looks it most squarely in the face.
- Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank. A boyhood favorite, if that’s the right word. Residents of a small Florida town cope in the aftermath of a US-Soviet nuclear exchange. We win, but not really.
- Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. A super-virus decimates humanity; decades later, a travelling troop of actors and musicians negotiate the chaos and blow on the dying embers of culture.
- Zone One, by Colson Whitehead. This list needs a zombie novel, and Whitehead’s is one of a kind, told with a sinister dark wit and linguistic dazzle.
- I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson. Oft imitated, never duplicated.
BONUS PICK: The Big Eye, by Max Ehrlich. On the brink of a nuclear confrontation between the US and the Soviets, humanity shapes up when a mysterious planet enters the solar system, headed straight for earth. Hokey, dated (it was published in 1949), and long out of print, Ehrlich’s novel nevertheless fascinates as a parable of the era.