This week marks the release of The Dog Stars , the debut novel by adventure writer Peter Heller, a stunning, hope-riddled end-of-the-world story about a man and his dog nine years after almost everyone else on earth has been eradicated. We think this novel is bound to become a classic, and it got us thinking about a few of the greatest apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic novels of all time. Click through to check out the books that — to our minds — make up the best of the best in end of the world lit. And as ever, if we’ve left off your own personal favorite, add to our list in the comments!
The Stand , Stephen King
Considered by some to be Stephen King’s best novel, topic be damned, this 1978 tour de force still rings totally current — and terrifying — today. After all, a superflu that kills 99.4% of the world’s population? Didn’t we just hear that Captain Trips Swine Flu is back? Unlike zombies (probably), this kind of thing could totally happen, and soon, which has us shaking slightly in our sanitary gloves. Plus: good versus evil! The power of fate! The wavering compass of humanity! Can’t beat it.
On the Beach , Nevil Shute
After World War III has devastated the planet with atomic detonations, a few survivors in Australia await the end they know is rolling towards them in the toxic clouds. But when an American submarine captain hears a signal from what was once Seattle, he sets off in hopes of finding survivors. Beautifully rendered, terrifying and a dyed-in-the-wool page-turner, we recommend this classic to everyone.
These two glorious novels tell the story of the same dystopic future, albeit from wildly different perspectives — in Oryx and Crake, Snowman, possibly the last man on earth, shepherding the Children of Crake in the new bio-wasteland marked with strange new animals: liobams, Mo’Hairs, rakunks. In The Year of the Flood, Atwood plumbs the underbelly of the pre-disaster world, imagining the story of Ren and Toby, members of the God’s Gardeners. Both books are complex and beautiful, their apocalyptic world chillingly close, their characters real as can be.
The Age of Miracles , Karen Thompson Walker
This is a new entry into the apocalyptic canon, but we think it still deserves its place on our top ten. As the world’s rotation slowly grinds to a halt, 11-year-old Julia has to deal with birds dropping out of the sky, subversive “real-timers,” and oh yes, buying her first bra.
The Drowned World , J.G. Ballard
Ballard’s incredible masterpiece contains something no other work of end-of-the-world fiction we’ve ever read does: a protagonist who’s psyched about this turn of events, fascinated by the chaos of the new world order. Plus, not only are we dealing with an eco-disaster that affects the earth, but an eco-disaster that affects the psychological makeup of the surviving humans as well. Oh, Ballard.
World War Z , Max Brooks
We’re not overfond of zombie books, but we couldn’t make an end-of-the-world list without at least one zombie apocalypse. Though I Am Legend almost made the cut, we favor former SNL writer Max Brooks’ World War Z for its satisfyingly fresh format: first-person accounts taken down (and footnoted) by a researcher for the UN Postwar Commission.
The Last Man , Mary Shelley
You think end-of-the-world novels are big now, but just like pretty much everything else awesome, Mary Shelley is way ahead of you. What’s that? You’d never heard of a novel she wrote besides Frankenstein? Well, here’s some very good news for you: Shelley’s 1826 novel about Lionel, who finds himself the last man alive in the year 2100. Lady was far, far ahead of her time, as usual.
A Canticle For Leibowitz , Walter M. Miller Jr.
Unlike many books published in the late 1950s, Miller’s enduring classic A Canticle For Leibowitz has never gone out of print. And unlike many books on this list, it has less to do with the apocalypse itself, but rather begins hundreds of years after most of mankind has been eradicated by nuclear war. The people who remain call themselves the “Simpletons,” and forced a dark age by destroying all knowledge — books, technology, and any with scientific knowledge. But history has a way of sneaking up on you.
The Road , Cormac McCarthy
The modern post-apocalypse classic. In our minds, few novels are as chilling as this one, whose post-disaster world is the incarnation writ large of one of the scariest things on earth — unknown nothingness.
Blindness , José Saramago
This is not exactly a full-scale apocalypse book, but it hits hard enough to qualify as one in our minds, if not quite on the page. As the title suggests, José Saramago’s tour de force imagines the breakdown of society when blindness sweeps an unnamed city, causing a complete breakdown of society. So what if you’re the one man among a world of confusion, disorientation, and fear, who can see?