Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Scarlet Plague, by Jack London

An old man tells his grandsons about the world before the Red Death depopulated it.

The Scarlet Plague

London Magazine, 1912, approximately 20,000 words.. Available for free on Project Gutenberg.

An old man, James Howard Smith, walks along deserted railway tracks, long since unused and overgrown; beside him a young, feral boy helps him along. It has been 60 years since the great Red Death wiped out mankind, and the handful of survivors from all walks of life have established their own civilization and their own hierarchy in a savage world. Art, science, and all learning has been lost, and the young descendants of the healthy know nothing of the world that was—nothing but myths and make-believe. The old man is the only one who can convey the wonders of that bygone age, and the horrors of the plague that brought about its end. What future lies in store for the remnants of mankind can only be surmised—their ignorance, barbarity, and ruthlessness the only hopes they have?

This post-apocalyptic novel, written in 1912, is set in 2073, 60 years after the Scarlet Plague wiped out most of the human race.

"The Scarlet Death broke out in San Francisco. The first death came on a Monday morning. By Thursday they were dying like flies in Oakland and San Francisco. They died everywhere-in their beds, at their work, walking along the street. It was on Tuesday that I saw my first death-Miss Collbran, one of my students, sitting right there before my eyes, in my lecture-room. I noticed her face while I was talking. It had suddenly turned scarlet. I ceased speaking and could only look at her, for the first fear of the plague was already on all of us and we knew that it had come. The young women screamed and ran out of the room. So did the young men run out, all but two. Miss Collbran's convulsions were very mild and lasted less than a minute. One of the young men fetched her a glass of water. She drank only a little of it, and cried out:

"'My feet! All sensation has left them.'

"After a minute she said, 'I have no feet. I am unaware that I have any feet. And my knees are cold. I can scarcely feel that I have knees.'

I was expecting a nifty adventure in the tradition of H.G. Wells or Edgar Rice Burroughs after reading The Call of the Wild, but The Scarlet Plague, written in 1912, seems to be from a later stage in Jack London's career when, according to Wikipedia, he was often just churning out stories to pay for upgrades on his ranch. It rather shows — the dialog is hardly believable, and the California of 2013, in which the plague strikes, is pretty much like the California of 1912 except with more airships.

James Howard Smith, once a Professor of English at UC Berkeley, is the only man left who remembers the old, civilized world. His grandsons, feral and illiterate, listen to his stories with mocking amusement.

'The fleeting systems lapse like foam,'" he mumbled what was evidently a quotation. "That's it-foam, and fleeting. All man's toil upon the planet was just so much foam. He domesticated the serviceable animals, destroyed the hostile ones, and cleared the land of its wild vegetation. And then he passed, and the flood of primordial life rolled back again, sweeping his handiwork away-the weeds and the forest inundated his fields, the beasts of prey swept over his flocks, and now there are wolves on the Cliff House beach." He was appalled by the thought. "Where four million people disported themselves, the wild wolves roam to-day, and the savage progeny of our loins, with prehistoric weapons, defend themselves against the fanged despoilers. Think of it! And all because of the Scarlet Death-

This wasn't a bad story, it just wasn't particularly exciting or original, and I doubt it was very original even in 1912. There isn't much tension, because it's all just past-tense narration by the erstwhile Professor Smith.

It's an interesting early entry in the post-apocalyptic sub-genre, and while I could compare it to any number of later global plague novels, if I had to guess which modern author was most heavily influenced by it, I'd say Cormac McCarthy, with his surprisingly similar (and equally tedious) novel The Road, which like The Scarlet Plague shows little concern about the science of the disease that ended civilization or the details of the world, but is centered on one survivor trying to keep the fire alive. The fact that both novels end on the California coast is an interesting coincidence.

That said, you might want to read this for historical reasons if you are into post-apocalyptic novels, but I don't think it was one of London's best.

Verdict: The Scarlet Plague is a rather dull post-apocalyptic novella, interesting as a historical relic that influenced later writers, but there is not much in the way of story or originality. 5/10.

Also by Jack London: My review of The Call of the Wild.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, jack london, reviews, science fiction

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