Dover – 2016 – taken from Gordon Grant’s interior art.
James Howard Smith is probably the last person who remembers the world before the Scarlet Plague killed off most of humanity and caused civilization to come crashing down. His grandsons and friends are a motley assortment of savages, mocking their “Granser” for his fancy speech and use of metaphors, but they are eager to hear stories of the world that was and the deadly Scarlet Plague. And so, on a beach outside San Francisco—once populated with thousands of bathers, now a desolate stretch of sand, crabs, and feral dogs—Granser Smith tells the story of the Scarlet Plague, telling of the world before and how it met its end with the spread of an incurable disease.
The more post-apocalyptic lit I read, the more I realize few things have changed since the genre’s inception. Reading The Scarlet Plague reinforces that opinion: it reads as the poster child for all the apocalypses which have come since, covering many of the themes and scenes that are now standard fare. Abandoned roads and railways, overgrown with vegetation and menaced by fearsome animals? Check. A party of terrified men, women, and children, fortifying themselves and their meager supplies and fending off armed robbers? Check. The enlightened professor, now sitting around a campfire wearing rags and animals skins? Check.
These are images we’ve seen countless times in fiction, but this is one of the stories where they originated, where they were fresh and new. Yet London’s choice of a contagion as the cause of the apocalypse gives the story a timeless feel, in our age of SARS, swine flu, and anti-vaxxers… It’s a bit eerie to think this was a startling fresh apocalypse in 1912, while the same fear of infectious plague is still destroying fictional civilization a hundred years later, in books like 2014’s Station Eleven.
London possessed a fine hand for naturalistic writing which served his caveman fantasy Before Adam well; his second SF novel, The Iron Heel, posited a Socialist revolt against a fascist dystopia, though I found it far too didactic and lacking any of London’s natural grace. The Scarlet Plague mixes elements from both. London’s future society of 2012 also has its ruling oligarchy attacked by its working class, though both classes ending up as equals in the post-civilization world. Instead of presenting a hero of the working class, the main character is one of the elites—a college professor—though he’s less suited for leadership than the brutish Chauffeur, who takes the wife of one of the oligarchs. London reinforces the class divide with the characters’ speech: the elites are unrealistically haughty and detached; the lower-class, and future-barbarians, speak in slurs and broken English.
Humanity’s descent from civilization to barbarism allows London to pull out his naturalist prose—human nature red in fang and tooth, a devolution of the human animal. London’s implications of human savagery and the fleeting nature of civilization—similar to Robert E. Howard’s belief that barbarism was humanity’s natural state—are recurring themes in the genre, unpleasantly believable having seen the lawlessness after catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina. It’s also a bit shocking when London posits that within a few generations, humanity will have reverted back to pure savagery, though I think this may be more commentary on classism, as Granser mentions at one time that the fictional ruling elite was “breeding” the working-classes for strength and stamina over intelligence.
The Scarlet Plague is a fascinating historical anecdote, and overall not a bad read even though what was fresh in 1912 became today’s overused genre tropes. Despite its weaknesses—most of the characters existing as stock archetypes to populate the catastrophe, making it feel something like a simple moral fable—London’s gritty naturalistic writing paints a beautiful grotesque picture of civilization’s last days. It’s a quick read, maybe a few hours, and it offers vivid images of how London in 1912 thought the society 2012 could look like—and how it could collapse. For those with an interest in early SF—particularly early apocalypses—it’s well worth reading.
See also Mike White’s review, Apocalypse 1912.
Title: The Scarlet Plague
Author: Jack London
First Published Date: London Magazine, June 1912
What I Read: ebook
Price I Paid: $0 (e-ARC via NetGalley)
MSRP: $9.95 ppb / $4 ebook (public domain)
ISBN/ASIN: 1449526284 / B019JOR078