Why in the world do I keep reading books about the end of the world?
The basement of unspeakable horrors in The Road. The vicious vampires in I Am Legend. Crossing through the dark Lincoln Tunnel in The Stand. The sadness and resignation of the people in the last section of The Bone Clocks.
These images all haunted me long after I turned the final pages in the books they came from. And they all have something in common — they’re scenarios about the end of the world.
I feel drawn to post-apocalyptic novels, even as I’m horrified by them. The idea of everything we hold dear being suddenly gone or destroyed is sad and also intriguing. It provokes such interesting questions: What if we had to start over from scratch? Would I want to be one of the early ones to die or a survivor left to face a dire reality? What would I do to survive? How much would life as we know it really change?
My latest installment of post-apocalyptic literature is The Dog Stars by Peter Heller. I’ve been wandering around the past few days feeling sad and slightly sick in the stomach. My mind is very much in Heller’s world, where most everyone has died of a flu, and those left are fighting for their lives and for the scraps of humanity willing them to keep going.
Plus, there’s an old dog. And you know what happens in books with old dogs.
I get the weird feels whenever I read these types of books, often needing to put them down and take a break because the immersion is too much. I’ll never forget the day I was coming back to the office after my lunch break in DC, where I’d been reading The Last Policeman series. I was so immersed in my sadness about this story about the end of the world that I walked right past my boss and a co-worker, completely not seeing them, much more concerned about the impending asteroid hitting Earth in the book in my hands.
But beyond the immersion, I also enjoy the world-building (or, I guess, world-destroying) that goes into these books. The Dog Stars is beautifully written, with wonderful descriptions of nature and animals and a world of quiet and solitude. And, I’ll admit, it is endlessly fascinating, and a bit relieving, to imagine a world in which everything goes back to the simple.
But post-apocalyptic books don’t just allow you time to imagine stargazing in the middle of a field with no light pollution around you. They don’t romanticize the idea of no email to check or traffic to navigate.
Because at the heart of all end-of-the-world books is the gut-wrenching reality that humans are vicious and power-hungry.
These books tend to terrifyingly describe the horror of the human instinct to survive. To conquer. To protect yourself. To want more and more. To rape and pillage. When the world ends, we don’t just co-exist peacefully. We fight and die and hunt.
These books point out the fragile, invisible ways of being — laws and ethics and rules and boundaries — that we’ve constructed to keep ourselves from killing each other, and how easily those boundaries dissolve when our animal instincts kick in. It’s horrifying because it’s so very real. It’s haunting because it could possibly come true.
Also, did I mention the dog always dies in these books?
So why the hell do I read them, you ask?
Because for all the brutality, there’s always beauty. Much like our current world — which, despite our fragile laws and morals, is still so corrupt and evil — a post-apocalyptic world also always has a curl of light. A blossom of something pure and good. For all the hunters and rapists and lunatic, power-hungry savages, there are the ones who try to make families again. Who protect each other. Who dare to love despite the despair.
These books remind us that life is precious. And that we should promote the good, protect it with all we have for as long as we can. They make us want to hug our kids, recycle, give a pass to a cranky stranger, vote, enjoy our food just a little bit more. They remind us to live like our lives depend on it.
Because our lives — and our world — do.