Friday, 16 July 2010

Five of the Best Apocalypses - Elen Caldecott

I often get asked what job would I do if I wasn’t a writer. I usually answer, “well, I’ve already done most of them.” And it’s true, I’ve had a whole Job Centre’s worth: I’ve been an archaeologist; a nurse; a theatre usher; a museum security guard – once I was even a cataloguer in a bone library (if you want details, ask in the comments. But be careful what you wish for – there was acid and small mammals involved).

If it seems like a random collection, well, that’s because it is.

And yet, I have come to realise that there is a common theme. In fact, in this case hindsight is a little galling, as I found that the pattern of my employment had way too much to do with my teen reading material and nothing whatsoever to do with ambition.

It was the horror novels, you see.
More particularly, the post-apocalypse novels.

I read books about what happens after the worst has happened – the nuclear winter; the siege; the building it all again from nothing.
All the history I studied (and hence the jobs in archaeology and museums) was about the fall of civilisation. At university, I specialised in the 5th century Roman Empire (you know, the bit with Visigoths and Vandals and Rome aflame every other week). And I only became a nurse because I wanted a useful skill come the end of the world (I wish I was joking). And all the film and theatre jobs were about imagining other, sometimes painful, worlds.

So, what exactly was I reading? (and should it banned from libraries??!)
Here, in no particular order, are my favourite post-apocalypse novels:

Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham: Full of moral choices and man-eating plants. I loved it when I was 14 and while it has dated, it is still spine-chilling.

The Stand by Stephen King: NOT a children’s book, I know. But King’s work is a halfway house between YA and adult reading. I read all his work when I was about 14. And this great doorstopper of a book revels in the gruesomeness of a post-plague world.

Brother in the Land by Robert Swindells: Set after a nuclear attack, this book has an image of a radiation mutated butterfly that long haunted me. As did most of the rest of it.

Carbon Diaries 2017 by Saci Lloyd: This is mid-apocalypse, rather than post-, but there’s no sense that things will get better before they get worse, if you see what I mean. The brilliant thing about this book is that the main character is still just a teenager; even when she’s fighting for survival, cute boys are still interesting.

Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams: Again, another adult book that I devoured as a young teen. This time the apocalypse comes in the shape of Vogons building a hyperspace bypass. Well, I never said all apocalypses were miserable.

You will notice that one of these is very recent. I have to admit, my post-apocalypse fascination didn’t stop in my teens. In fact, just this weekend, I taught my 15 year old sister-in-law how to put a car in gear so she’ll be able to drive come the zombie apocalypse. Well, you’ve got to be prepared, haven’t you?

Elen's latest novel was published this week: How Ali Ferguson Saved Houdini is not about the end of the world. You can find out more at


Linda said...

Loved "Ali" very much indeed - and not a zombie in sight!

Joan Lennon said...

My favourite Wyndham is The Chrysalids - I re-read that every decade or so, and it stands up well! Oooo ... I can feel another re-read coming on as we speak.

frances thomas said...

I think much of post-apocalyptic writing aims to work like a kind of sympathetic magic - if I write it, then maybe it won't happen like this

Savita Kalhan said...

I loved John Wyndham when I was growing up. Most of his books were in the kid's library - apart from The Kraken Wakes, and I had to beg the librarian of the adult library to let me join for that book and for Lord of the Rings!

Andrew Strong said...

The first apocalyptic book I ever read was 'Chicken Licken'...I can remember the sense of cold war fear at the time, and in my little six year old head, the acorn falling really was the sky coming down.

Elen C said...

Thanks, Linda!

Joan, I haven't read that one, but I have a feeling that there was a TV adaptation that had me hiding behind a sofa (though I was be confusing it with Chocky).

Frances, that's an interesting idea. I think there's something reassuring about imagining the worst; makes reality more bearable?

Savita, another of his I haven't read! Summer reading pile grows...

Andrew - as my sister-in-law would say - lol!

Stroppy Author said...

Saramago's Blindness is interesting, too - apocalypse that happens and then unhappens, the ultimate second chance. Very well realised. But not a children's book, of course.

What a great idea, and a great post, Elen - thank you :-)