10 of the Strangest Apocalypses in Literature


Nuclear war, zombies, alien attack, impact event. These are what we think about when we think about literary apocalypses (or any fictional apocalypses, for that matter). But don’t get too comfortable, folks: there are many more — and many stranger — ways that our planet could be destroyed. Case in point: Karen Thompson Walker’s debut novel The Age of Miracles hits shelves tomorrow, and while the book itself will probably do more to advance society than destroy it, the story is one of the most inventive and unusual ideas for the end of the world that we’ve ever read. Inspired, we’ve collected a few more of the strangest catalysts for apocalypses in literature — click through to check them out, and do let us know if we’ve missed your favorite in the comments.

The Age of Miracles , Karen Thompson Walker

Walker’s spectacular debut begins thusly: “We didn’t notice right away. We couldn’t feel it. We did not sense, at first, the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath skin… On the sixth of October, the experts went public. This, of course, is the day we all remember. There’d been a change, they said, a slowing, and that’s what we called it from then on: the slowing.” Of course, as the earth’s rotation grows slower still, heading towards an uncertain apocalypse, 11-year-old Julia still has to deal with all the equally world-ending mundanities of adolescence.

The Flame Alphabet , Ben Marcus

In Marcus’ most recent novel, language has become toxic. At first, the sound of children’s voices beings to make adults sick, but as the strange plague develops, any communication at all, even their own, even facial expressions, makes adults suffer unbearable pain and begin to waste away. As you might expect, all interaction effectively stops, except for a rabid amount of casual sex, everyone looking away from each other. Towards the end of the novel, the protagonist despairs, “Without language my inner life, if such a phrase indicates anything anymore, was merely anecdotal, heresay. It was not even that. It was the noisings one might detect if a microphone were held against a stone in the woods.” Bleak, indeed.

The Greatwinter Series, Sean McMullen

In these novels, a group of scientists recreate an ancient and extinct species of whale Jurassic Park-style, from its recently discovered DNA, a project that seriously, seriously backfires. As it turns out, the whale species had telepathic powers, which they use to punish the humans who have so hurt their brethren. They feel and copy feelings of longing from one of the scientists, and then translate these into a telepathic, emotional “call” that causes almost all the humans in the world to walk into the ocean and drown themselves. Lots of other stuff is happening too, but: whales, you guys. Telepathic whales.

Dust , Charles R. Pellegrino

“They’re dead, I tell you! All the fungus gnats are dead!” And that’s a bad thing. In this bizarre novel, all of the insect species on Earth begin to go extinct, and their absence wreaks havoc on the planet’s ecosystem, the disaster moving steadily up the food chain until enormous mites are devouring every living thing in their path. You might just think twice before pulling out the flyswatter next time.

The Wind from Nowhere , J.G. Ballard

Ballard’s first novel is a seriously weird one — at first, there’s just a stiff breeze, but every day it gets stronger. The breezes become winds become gales become hurricanes become unearthly forces that threaten to blow every living thing off the planet.

The Snow , Adam Roberts

You think the winds are bad? Try a never-ending snowfall that smothers the earth, covering even the highest buildings and accumulating more and more until the snow is miles thick around the planet. The only way to survive is to constantly stay on the snow’s surface — everyone who fails to do so is buried alive.

Dies the Fire , S.M. Stirling

Another baffling catalyst is “The Change” — a mysterious and seemingly spontaneous worldwide shift that alters the physical laws of the world so that electricity, gunpowder, and other forms of technology suddenly stop functioning, and modern civilization follows right on their heels.

Blindness , José Saramago

This novel is about exactly what it sounds like — blindness sweeps an unnamed city, causing a complete breakdown of society. It’s sort of amazing to consider how something as relatively common as blindness (more common than aliens or flesh-eating bacteria, anyway) can destroy so much if applied to a community on a grand scale.

Sleepless , Charlie Huston

Similarly, Huston’s Sleepless imagines a world racked by a plague of insomnia that slowly unravels society. We think that would probably be even worse than widespread blindness.

Vanishing Point , Michaela Roessner

This novel’s apocalyptic event is bizarre for it’s simple lack of explanation (and stands in for the many post-apocalyptic novels who skirt this very issue). One day, 90% of the world’s population disappears. No apparent reason. 29 years later, scientists are still searching for answers to explain the Vanishing, their findings a whole new physics that are just as bizarre as the mysterious catastrophe.