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Pandemics in the Pages of ‘The Stand,’ ‘Severance’ and More


You’re probably reading and hearing a lot about coronavirus — the symptoms, its spread around the world, the calls for “social distancing.”

If the constant news and updates are making you anxious, consider one of these novels or stories. You wouldn’t be alone: Publishers are reporting booming sales for books whose fictional plots revolve around pandemics, including Albert Camus’s “The Plague” and Ling Ma’s “Severance.” And while many of these books conjure an all-out apocalypse, you might find comfort in dipping into a fictional worst-case scenario — and, with some of them, seeing how the characters make it out alive.

[ Looking for more information about other real-life epidemics? Here’s an essential reading list. ]

When an unknown microorganism reaches Piedmont, Ariz., all but a few of the town’s residents die. What follows is a race by scientists to understand what it is and how to keep it from harming others. Our reviewer called this book, published in 1969, “a reading windfall — compelling, memorable, superbly executed.”

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In his 2019 debut novel, Koepp, who wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of “Jurassic Park,” describes the race to contain a zombielike fungus that hijacks the brains of its hosts. There’s plenty of grossness here, though this is a classic thriller; our reviewer said Koepp “has a wicked sense of humor and his characters are so keenly, intelligently and even movingly drawn that they might have stepped out of a literary novel.”

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Katie Flynn’s debut novel, “The Companions,” grew out of her “unhealthy fascination with outbreaks.” “The Companions,” published earlier this month, takes place in a future California where citizens have been quarantined in the wake of a deadly virus. The borders have been shut down and survivors live under surveillance, sequestered in high-rise towers. In a surreal twist, the dead persist as sentient machines called “companions,” devices that dying people upload their consciousnesses into. The narrative, which unfolds from the perspective of eight characters, wrestles with the question of what separates humans from intelligent machines.

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In his forthcoming novel, “The End of October” — which will be published on April 28 — The New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright describes the chaos that a global pandemic might unleash: hundreds of millions of deaths, hospitals and health care systems stretched to the breaking point, the collapse of governments and civil society. The novel’s protagonist, a microbiologist and epidemiologist named Henry Parsons, is on the front lines of trying to slow the virus’s spread and engineer a vaccine as the pandemic cripples countries around the world.

In an interview with Publishers Weekly, Wright said he was alarmed by the overlap between his fictional pandemic and the coronavirus outbreak. “When I read the accounts of the spread of this new disease, I feel like I’m reading chapters from my own book,” he said. “I just hope it turns out better in real life than it does in the novel.”

In this 1842 short story, the “happy and dauntless and sagacious” Prince Prospero and a thousand of his nobles retreat to a walled abbey to escape the Red Death, a plague that kills its victims within an hour. When Prospero holds a masquerade ball in seven different colored rooms of the abbey, he and his court find a figure donning blood-splattered robes and Red Death symptoms making his way through each of the rooms.

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In this 2010 novel, the human race is nearly obliterated when a failed government experiment produces a mass of hungry vampires, or “virals,” into the world. Years later, fewer than 100 humans remain, and the light source that keeps the virals at bay is on its last legs. Hoping to find power for their batteries, several survivors venture into a world they barely know anymore to figure out how to survive. This book, according to our reviewer, is “astutely plotted and imaginative enough to satisfy the most bloodthirsty reader.”

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In this 1947 classic, a disease spreads through an Algerian town under quarantine. Interpretations of “The Plague” over the years have ranged from a critique of the Nazi occupation during World War II to a leading example of existentialist literature. It is one of several books about pandemics whose global sales have spiked as the coronavirus has spread.

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In King’s 1,200-page novel, a computer error at a lab doing biological warfare research leads to the release of an influenza strain that kills over 99 percent of the world’s population. Survivors — both good and evil ones — converge and attempt to set up governments, but they soon realize that “the reality of a democracy no longer exists: ‘The President is dead, the Pentagon is for rent, nobody is debating anything in the House or the Senate except maybe for the termites and the cockroaches.’” What follows, our reviewer writes, is “a nation exposed over and over to itself, as in an enormous mirror, part trite situation comedy, part science fiction, part cop show.”

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A pandemic has wiped out most of the global population, and it brings about a near-total societal collapse. Twenty years later, the world is practically unrecognizable, with borders and countries dissolved. Kirsten, the central character, is part of a troupe that travels among the remaining towns scattered across North America, performing mostly Shakespeare, to keep spirits afloat. Our reviewer said this 2014 novel “offers comfort and hope to those who believe, or want to believe, that doomsday can be survived.”

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Shen Fever has broken out in New York: Families evacuate, scores of people fall ill and life all but stops. But Candace, the heroine of this 2018 debut novel, remains, part of a small group of healthy workers; when she’s not working, she posts her photographs of the eerily empty city under an online pseudonym. Alongside the horror, the book interweaves a critique of capitalism while evoking “a first-generation immigrant’s nostalgia for New York,” our reviewer writes.

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A plague has turned most of humankind into zombies, or “skels,” short for skeletons. The ones who survived are trying to regain control of their cities, aided by sweepers like Mark Spitz (not his real name) who search for straggler skels and put them out of their undead misery. Written by Colson Whitehead before he won the Pulitzer and National Book Award for “The Underground Railroad,” this 2011 book is literary, gory and, according to our reviewer, “for all its ludic violence, strangely tender.”

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