You know what I love? Viral apocalypse books, like the first half of The Stand.
You know what I hate? Viral apocalypse books that make no biological sense, like…well, it’s not nice to name names. (Also, the rest of The Stand.)
I mean, The Stand was great because you could sum up the virus in one line: it’s the flu, only it adapts to your antibodies, so every time you start mending, it knocks you on your arse. It’s straightforward. Relatable. The flu comes for everyone, head full of fever, lungs full of snot, and maybe you’re not dying, but you feel like you are. You can see how it’d kill you if it kept coming back, how it’d drown you and burn you and grind you to dust.
I won’t comment on the rest of The Stand. Stephen King knows what he did. But that first half was primo, and I had the flu when I read it, which made it double-good. I stayed up all night sneezing into hankies and tossing them on the floor—even aiming for the trash can would’ve drawn me from the page, and I had to see what happened next.
Actually, even loony scenarios can be good, provided they embrace the madness. There’s this one series, Z Nation, where the writers were like science? What science? —so zombies were dead, but not all the way dead, and you could get pregnant by one if you were into that. If you weren’t, you could carry its head in a basket, and that head would talk to you, and huge wheels of Gouda would roll down the street, squashing everything in their path. You could get zombie George R. R. Martin to sign a zombie autograph, and I’ve not laughed so hard since that Blackadder episode where the Duke of Wellington went on a murder spree in Buckingham Palace, with a cannon.
So, barmy scenarios are fine. What sucks are the ones that get stuck in the middle, where they’re trying for dark and brooding but the science is hilarious, like “this is a virus that attacks the mitochondrial DNA, causing rapid, uncontrolled tissue growth. You get teeth in your eyeballs and toes in your guts, and the only cure’s a rare genetic mutation, but only one girl has it, and then—“
—and then your eyes glaze over, because none of that works that way, and what the actual fuck?
It’s not that you can’t have a bizarre epidemic. It’s that you can’t have a bizarre epidemic that you outline with jargon you’ve picked up off House. You don’t have to explain it, just make it visceral, like James Herbert in The Rats:
The fever strikes within five or six hours. Jaundice sets in immediately. The victim rapidly loses all his senses – sight goes first. The body goes into a coma, occasionally being racked by violent spasms. Then, the most horrible thing happens. The skin – by now completely yellow – becomes taut. It becomes thinner as it stretches over the bone structure. It turns to a fine tissue. Finally, it begins to tear. Gaping holes appear all over the body. The poor victim dies a terribly painful death, which even our strongest drugs seem only to ease a little.James Herbert, The Rats
I first read that crouched on the floor of Dillon’s Books, after school in the horror section. They let you read for free as long as you bought something once in a while, and you bet I bought The Rats. I can’t remember if the mechanism of the illness was explained, or whether it was bacterial or viral, but I never forgot what it did. I have some vague memory of it being jumped-up leptospirosis, but that might’ve been my own conjecture. It’s been thirty years since I read The Rats—thirty years, but all I had to do to find the passage I wanted was get a PDF of the book and search for “then, the most horrible thing happens.” Because it was the most horrible thing, and that’s not something you forget in a hurry, or maybe ever.
It’s not so hard to do an epidemic. Just, you’ve got to be able to describe it in one sentence, and that sentence should be gruesome.
It’s norovirus, but your entire stomach lining sloughs off, and you digest yourself from the inside out, and maybe your teeth fall out, ’cause why not?
It’s dementia, but it only takes a few hours: you go to work fine and burn the place down at lunch.
It’s the flesh eating disease, but it goes for your cervical vertebrae and the surrounding soft tissue. They pick up your corpse and your head hits the floor.
I think I’ve mentioned that one before. I like it, though. It’s extra-sloppygross. Just picture it—you’ve got a headache, bit of nausea. You think it’s the flu. Six hours later, you’re locked in your skull, decapitated on the inside. An hour after that, you’re doing your best Marie Antoinette impression, and your family’s like ew, Uncle Joe!
Sorry. Too much?
It’s rabies, but it takes twenty years. You get sick and violent, both at once, and your family’s torn between caring for you and chucking you out the door. You have moments of lucidity, where their pain becomes yours…you worthless bag of shit.
(Yeah. That was more than one sentence.)
You develop allergies upon allergies, one after another, till you can’t touch anything, eat anything, breathe anything, and—
—oh. I think that might be real. I think I once read about it, or knew someone, heard of someone…. Still, it sounds dreadful. I hope I don’t get it. I hope I haven’t already. But I wasn’t allergic to milk, and now it makes me sick. Everything gives me heartburn. Is this the end?
That’s the other thing I hate about v-pocalypse books: they make me paranoid as fuck.
Fuck, fuck, fuck.