My Top Ten Apocalyptic Novels

I’ve been Mr. Frowny lately in my blog posts and people are worried I’m depressed. I’m NOT! So I thought I should blog on a more lighthearted matter: THE APOCALYPSE! In light of the release of This Dark Earth (have you bought your copy yet?) I set down here in indelible bloggery, my top ten novels of the apocalypse.

10. The Rising – Brian Keene

In 2004 or 2005, I can’t remember exactly, I watched the Zack Snyder remake of Dawn of the Dead. I found myself terrified by it and fascinated that at 35 years old, I could still fear something as silly as zombies. I went online and bought a copy of the DVD from Amazon and maybe a month later Amazon (being the oh-so-helpful multi-national corporation it is) suggested I buy The Rising by Brian Keene. I did and it was awesome. Demon (or Siquissim) possessed zombies; smart and nasty as all-get-out. While incredibly bleak, it moved with the speed and inexorable drive of a thriller and, like all great books, had a villain you could get behind. His name is Ob.

Also, for a while, Leisure Books would only put out horror novels with grasping hands on the cover. The Rising is the finest example of these.

9. Alas, Babylon – Pat Frank

I’ve said this before, but as a child, I was terrified that nuclear war was going to occur at any moment, the sirens would begin to wail, and I’d have time to maybe kiss my mother goodbye before the world turned white and I became a pillar of boy-shaped ash. Thanks, Dad, for the terror. Alas, Babylon is the most gentle of all post-apocalyptic novels, honestly, and its sensibilities are purely from the 1950s.

8. Earth Abides – George R. Stewart

Earth Abides is a weird one but it was a book that I thought about off and on for days, maybe even weeks later. It’s one of those novels that sort of seeps into your bones. It’s the story of Isherwood or “Ish” (in a nice allusion to Melville’s Moby Dick) who is one of the few survivors of a cataclysmic airborne plague. It follows Ish and the society’s efforts to hang on to their levels of comfort over the course of many years. In many ways the novel has no overt antagonist other than decay. The world becomes softer, eroded by lack of maintenance  as cities fall into ruin. Earth Abides is atmospheric and thought provoking and ends on a strangely hopeful, transcendant note.

7. Swan Song – Robert McCammon

I love Rick McCammon and consider myself blessed to have had dinner with him and received some of his advice and knowledge about publishing and the vagaries of authors if not about writing itself. Swan Song is one of the most hopeful of all of these books. While putting the characters through a hellacious and heart-rending nuclear war and its aftermath, the battle between good and evil gets on its hind legs and rears its ugly head. It has a few cliched and obvious moments, but like great meals, it satisfies on multiple levels.

6. I Am Legend -Richard Matheson

Forget all the movie versions of I Am Legend (well, except Charlton Heston’s Omega Man). It’s pretty simple and beautiful in its simplicity. Last man on earth (also title of bad movie version) is hounded, tortured, hunted by vampires which have over-run the earth. But its really just his neighbors now in new and improved sparkly and fanged form. While Neville struggles to find a biological reason and cure for the vampirism, his blood-thirsty neighbors come to scratch at his door and hold good ole nighttime parties on his lawn.

5. The White Plague – Frank Herbert

In The White Plague, a genetic engineer’s wife and child are killed in a IRA bombing while he’s visiting a local Irish university. Verging on insane, the vengeful scientist retreats to his lair, creates a virus that kills only women, and travels to Ireland to release it and watch his revenge take shape. It has a beautiful justice to it – he will take away from the world what the world took away from him. From there, everything goes to hell.

Along with Dune and Soul Catcher, The White Plague is my favorite Herbert book.

4. Lucifer’s Hammer – Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Hot Fudge Sundae. That’s what hits the earth and destroys mankind in Lucifer’s Hammer. Or at least, that’s what they call it because it’s a frozen cometal mass with hard chunks. The comet calves and half the earth is pulverized and the other half is drenched in puddle splashes. The whole blue dot becomes covered in clouds. People eat people. There is – as there always will be – war.

The title is the worst part of this book, indicating some sort of religious context. The book has none that I can recall.

Interesting to note, Niven and Pournelle followed this book up with an apocalyptic alien invasion novel called Footfall that involved supersmart elephant aliens. Yes, you read that right. Super smart elephant aliens. BWWWHHHHAAAAAAA. I’m an alien elephant! I spray water on you!

I keed about Footfall, it’s a good book. Plus, if you haven’t read The Mote in God’s Eye and The Gripping Hand, well, you haven’t read two of the finest books in SF.

3. The Road – Cormac McCarthy

Yes, Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead and  José Saramago’s Blindness are both bleak and beautiful, but for my money, McCarthy’s The Road trumps them both in bleakness and beauty and beautiful prose. Thank god he got out of his Suttree phase.

The story of a father and son, The Road is beautiful, desperate, heart-wrenching, elegant. It’s worth your time if only to see McCarthy’s use of nouns as verbs and to check out his style.

2. The Stand – Stephen King

If you haven’t read King’s The Stand, what are you sitting around reading this for? Go, get a copy of one of the definitive post apocalyptic novels. Yeah, like Swan Song, it’s heavy handed in places. The situation is not bad enough that, except for a handful of survivors, the world dies through a particularly nasty version of the flu, called Captain Trips. No, Mr. King is gonna make shit worse by putting the devil, in the form of Randall Flagg, on earth to caper and mince about. A classic story of good versus evil, done in only the way King can do. Good ole King.

1. Raising Stony Mayhall – Daryl Gregory

I’ve talked about this book elsewhere. My two copies, I’ve given away to people, I loved this book so much (along with Gregory’s first novel, Pandemonium). And because I’m all about the conservation of energy, I’ll just repost what I said about Raising Stony Mayhall here:

The last book I read that converted me to an advocate for the author and all his works was Raising Stony Mayhall by Daryl Gregory. Despite being a “zombie” novel, this book is by turns touching, hilarious, thoughtful, exciting, philosophical, silly. All of it borders on genius. Set in an alternate reality where the occurrences in Night Of The Living Dead were real and that film was actually a documentary, we trace the growth of a foundling baby who, it turns out, is a zombie, but unlike any undead came before. His story takes us through his childhood and adolescence with a sensitive yet deft hand, toward adulthood and rebellion and finally a kind of martyrdom. Truly an amazing and wonderful book. It takes all the conventions of the zombie genre and turns them on their head, breaks them down and shuffles them about, allowing us to see the subject matter and tropes of the genre in a whole new way.

Like he did with demonic possession before in Pandemonium, Daryl Gregory has crafted in Raising Stony Mayhall a novel that transcends genre and approaches universal themes and questions about the human condition with a mastery of storyform that leaves this author breathless and a little – okay, a lot – jealous.



  • Gotta add in Robert Merle’s Malevil, Graham Masterton’s Plague and Justin Cronin’s The Passage.

    I have to say, I totally agree with I Am Legend and Lucifer’s Hammer (God, I loved that book!). The Stand goes without saying, but I was a little disappointed with both The Road and Swan Song.

  • I’ve got Cronin’s THE PASSAGE but haven’t gotten around to reading it. MALEVIL sounds good. Can’t believe I’ve never heard of it.

  • I’ve been running a series on my blog which features lists of my favorite Post Apocalyptic novels by type of apocalypse, ex. nuclear war, Killer Plants, Strange Apocalypse Zombies, etc. I’m working on a Cosy Catastrophe List next, but it’s actually transforming itself into something a bit different. Love this list. The main problem I have with it is that sadly I have already read them all.

    Love that you added Raising Stony Mayhall. Brilliant book.

    Malevil is pretty good. It’s like a French version of Alas, Babylon. One of my favorite, although it takes place a few generations after the Apocalypse is Neal Barrett Jr.s Through Darkest America, and its sequel.

  • Swan Song is at the top for me. Agree with The Road, The Stand, and I Am Legend, et al. I’d add The Passage and The Postman by David Brin. Along with Julianna Baggot’s Pure–she’s amazing.

  • I’ve been searching the web for texts to set on an apocalyptic fiction course, and I can’t understand the absence of Russell Hoban’s RIddley Walker. A stunning post-nuclear apocalypse, written in an idiom derived from 20th century ‘Estuary English’ (think Jamie Oliver’s accent after a few centuries of mutation). Read it!

Submit a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *