Thursday, October 31, 2013

Book Review: The Scarlet Plague by Jack London

Jack London may be known as an adventure writer (and an adventurer himself), but in 1912, he wrote a work of speculative fiction—more precisely, post-apocalyptic fiction.

The Scarlet Plague (first published in The London Magazine) was not the first American post-apocalyptic work. John Ames Mitchell’s The Last American (1889), Herbert Ward’s Republic Without a President (1891), and a few other works came first, not to mention the many early British post-apocalyptic novels, beginning with Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826). 

The Scarlet Plague by Jack London, first edition.

It may be the first American story, though (and I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong), to deal seriously and philosophically with society’s decline, and to have a protagonist with a desire to rebuild civilization. That’s important, as the theme of rebuilding features in some of the great post-apocalyptic works to come later, most notably George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides. Stewart’s book, like London’s, is set in San Francisco after a virus has decimated the population, and both have main characters who are the last to remember the world as it once was. While Stewart was obviously influenced by London’s story, Stephen King used Stewart’s novel as a template for The Stand. Almost every serious post-apocalyptic work since owes an indirect debt to Jack London.

The Scarlet Plague begins in the year 2073, sixty years after the outbreak of a virus known as the Red Death. Most of the story is told as a series of remembrances by an old man, James Howard Smith, who, as his life grows short, wishes to pass on his knowledge to his grandson and the other children his age, who know nothing except the primitive life they currently lead.

He fears that it’s probably too late, as the boys seem like savages to him, and the description of their appearance seems part Lost Boys of Neverland and part Lord of the Flies. Dressed in goatskins, they wear necklaces of teeth, and Smith’s grandson disgusts him by wearing a severed pig’s tail over one ear. Language, too, has degenerated, to something “more guttural and explosive and economical of qualifying phrases.” In fact, the boys have difficulty understanding the old man:

“What I want to know,” Edwin continued, “is why you call crab ‘toothsome delicacy?’ Crab is crab, ain’t it? No one I ever heard calls it such funny things.”

The kids barely believe his stories, living in a San Francisco that has wild horses on the beaches and more bears than people, with the whole city having a population of only 40. Smith had been a university professor, but the concept is impossible for children to grasp, as it has no relevance whatsoever to the world they live in.

"Was that all you did?--just talk, talk, talk?" Hoo-Hoo demanded. "Who hunted your meat for you? and milked the goats? and caught the fish?"

"A sensible question, Hoo-Hoo, a sensible question. As I have told you, in those days food-getting was easy. We were very wise. A few men got the food for many men. The other men did other things. As you say, I talked. I talked all the time, and for this food was given me-much food, fine food, beautiful food, food that I have not tasted in sixty years and shall never taste again. I sometimes think the most wonderful achievement of our tremendous civilization was food--its inconceivable abundance, its infinite variety, its marvellous delicacy. O my grandsons, life was life in those days, when we had such wonderful things to eat."

This was beyond the boys, and they let it slip by, words and thoughts, as a mere senile wandering in the narrative.

Smith’s description of the virus and its immediate aftermath is horrific and sometimes gruesome. He describes dead bodies that seem to fly to pieces, melting away with disease, and airplanes falling out of the sky in flames. He describes people fleeing with infants in their arms, riots, looting and general chaos that “was like the last days of the end of the world.” One passage is an obvious pre-cursor to both Earth Abides and The Stand:

“There were numerous stalled motor-cars, showing that the gasoline and the engine supplies had given out. I remember one such car. A man and a woman lay back dead in the seats, and on the pavement near it were two more women and a child.”

Perhaps the bleakest aspect of The Scarlet Plague isn’t just what has already happened, but the idea that, even if mankind aspires to more and rebuilds itself to its former glory, that it is doomed to fall again in an endless repeating cycle of rebirth and destruction—a destruction of man’s own making. It’s a cycle that, as individuals, we are powerless to shape. Just as George R. Stewart would do later, Jack London uses a speculative scenario in a world far removed from our own to teach us a lot of things about ourselves and our own lives.

Get The Scarlet Plague free for your Kindle at Amazon.
Read or download free at Project Gutenberg.

Written for Friday’s Forgotten Books, organized by author Patti Abbott. It’s always a fine collection of reviews. Give them a look.


  1. Thanks for this one. Being a Jack London fan, I downloaded it from the Project Gutenberg to add to my digital library.

  2. I grew up reading CALL OF THE WILD and WHITE FANG. I'm taking your advice and downloading THE SCARLET PLAGUE for free on AMAZON. Thanks for the fine review!

  3. I've never read a single Jack London book. This sounds like the one for me. I'll have to check this out.

    Tossing It Out

  4. Hm. It seems to me that Hawthorne might've played around with this sort of thing as well, but if there's a work behind the nagging at the edge of memory, it's not presenting itself. I have to wonder how much London was sparked by Wells, as well...and nearly every serious sf writer, of course, is writing about what we face now as well as what the protagonists, et al., are facing then...been meaning to read THE IRON HEEL forever, as well.

  5. "It may be the first American story, though (and I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong), to deal seriously and philosophically with society’s decline, and to have a protagonist with a desire to rebuild civilization."

    The Machine Stops, Forster 1909