The best post-apocalyptic novels that stay with you

The Books I Picked & Why

The Stand

By Stephen King

Book cover of The Stand

Why this book?

This novel was published in the UK the year I turned fifteen, although I didn’t read it until I was around seventeen. Already a recent convert to Stephen King after discovering him with Carrie, and falling in love with his storytelling in Salem’s Lot, it was with a shiver of anticipation that I opened my copy of The Stand and began to read. That opening scene, where a car comes crashing into a gas station—a car filled with a dying family suffering from some as-yet unidentified sickness—hooked me in and from there the book never let me go.

I still have my paperback copy from all those years back. Dog-eared and yellowing, I’ll never get rid of it. It feels like a part of me.

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Riddley Walker

By Russell Hoban

Book cover of Riddley Walker

Why this book?

This novel is set a couple of millennia after the apocalyptic event in what is currently the English county of Kent. It is narrated by the title character in a form of pidgin English that’s difficult to come to grips with. It took me a few goes to get into this book, but am I glad I did.

Riddley’s narration employs phrases like ‘suching waytion’ (situation) and ‘catwl twis’ (catalyst). Neither prose nor dialogue are easy to understand at first, but the perseverant reader grows accustomed to the strangeness of the language. They find themselves so absorbed in the richness and quirkiness and heart-rending awfulness of Hoban’s future world, their earlier struggles are quickly forgotten. This tale haunted me long after I’d finished it. It still does.

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The Road

By Cormac McCarthy

Book cover of The Road

Why this book?

One of those rare novels that I struggled to put down. I read it in a few days, which is breakneck speed for me since I was then working full-time and writing in my limited spare time. The siren-call of the tale was too strong for me to resist finding out what happened next.   

For anyone who hasn’t read the book or seen the film adaptation starring Viggo Mortensen, the story takes place in a future version of the US several years after an apocalyptic event. It chronicles the harrowing journey of a father and son as they work their way across the States, desperately trying to avoid murderers, marauders, and cannibals. It is probably the most unremittingly bleak tale I’ve ever read. And utterly compelling.

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Oryx and Crake

By Margaret Atwood

Book cover of Oryx and Crake

Why this book?

Despite the author’s reluctance to label her work as science fiction, her novel deals with genetic manipulation and is set in the aftermath of a bioengineered plague. It is a future where apparently no genetically unmodified humans, or animals, remain except for the protagonist. During the starving protagonist’s perilous journey to an abandoned scientific compound in search of food, the reader learns through a series of flashbacks how the world was brought to its current state. 

It is, at heart, a grim tale, holding out little hope for the future of humanity. Yet, as you’d expect if you’ve read any of the author’s other work, it is beautifully written and kept me wanting more. What better compliment can you pay to a novel?

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I Am Legend

By Richard Matheson

Book cover of I Am Legend

Why this book?

One of the film versions of this novel—there are at least three at last count—is one of the main reasons I’m so attracted to this genre and so I had to include it. It’s a slow-burning tale of a seemingly sole survivor of a virus that has turned other humans into vampire-like, nocturnal creatures, who each night attempt to storm the survivor’s home. In turn, he spends many daylight hours hunting down and killing the infected.

The story unwinds to a surprising conclusion that, unlike the endings of the films, I found to be satisfying and deliciously dark. 

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