Apocalyptic fiction is hot too, and has been for a number of years now, mostly in the form of zombie novels. The latter have been hit or miss for me, mostly miss to be honest. If you read one zombie novel, you’ve read them all it seems. That’s an overgeneralization, of course. I can think of a couple of zombie novels that have been quite good. Right off the top of my head is Rot and Ruin by Jonathan Maberry. Actually marketed as a young adult novel, I found the characterizations and the settings to be outstanding. This is one of those novels that actually captures the perspective of a teenager in a horrendous setting. A number of people disliked The Cell by Stephen King, but I really enjoyed it. There is something satisfying about cell phones turning people into zombies, as if they hadn’t already. I’m a university professor and it is not uncommon to see hordes of twenty year olds walking on campus while texting. At times the campus can be eerily quiet with the exception of a faint pattering of thumbs on tiny keypads or screens. Finally, the Swedish zombie novel, Handling the Undead by John Ajvide Lindqvist, is a favorite simply because it is such a unique take on the zombie genre.
When it comes to non-zombie apocalyptic novels, I can name a number of stellar examples. First (and second if you consider them separately) are the first two books in the Passage trilogy by Justin Cronin. The Passage and The Twelve are powerful novels that excel because they are literary pieces containing startling and well developed characters and imaginative settings. Each character is an individual with emotion, thoughts, and history. Patterns of behavior and motivations are consistent and logical (which is huge in my humble opinion in making a novel work). The virals (vampires) are brutal, and survival of characters is not guaranteed. Another creative spin on the part of Cronin is his ability to describe this complex world in a non-linear fashion. I cannot wait for the third in the series.
When you consider top stories of the apocalypse, you have to include The Stand by Stephen King. The weaving of that tale is nicely constructed, although I would recommend reading the first edition/version. King later came out with an extended version which contained portions of the narrative that an editor had deleted when it was first published. I can tell you, the editor was right – there was a reason these sections were initially deleted. They added nothing to the story and were downright embarrassing to read at times.
Finally, a truly horrifying end of the world novel that isn’t a “horror” novel – at least on the surface – is Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank. Published in 1958, this novel tells the tale of a nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union. I read this as a kid, and the passages that describe the nuclear attack and the immediate panic afterwards are some of the most terrifying words I have ever read. There are scenes that are still seared in my memory. Check out this classic if you haven’t had the opportunity.