What’s of particular interest to readers in this year of the COVID-19 pandemic, is that London managed to predict the spread of a virulent disease three years before the so-called Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. Interestingly, this flu was first identified in the United States and only became associated with Spain due to wartime censorship among the allied nations. Over the course of two years, it killed between 17 million and 50 million people worldwide. It could be seen as the first major outbreak in which extensive international travel was a factor in the spread of the disease. One hopes it will continue to be the worst example of its type.
London’s story is also somewhat akin to Stephen King’s The Stand, in that the disease has a sudden onset and wipes out most of humanity. In The Scarlet Plague, the reader meets four individuals in the year 2073 (as far as they know). The very elderly James Howard Smith, known to his three grandchildren as Granser, explains that the plague came 60 years earlier in the San Francisco area where they still live in the wild. It killed within hours of infection. Victims turned red in the face and lost the feeling in their extremities. Very few were immune, though it seemed the descendants of survivors inherited this immunity.
Smith was a professor of English Literature and decries the decline in language skills just two generations past the peak of civilization as he knew it. His frustration is clear as he tries to explain the origins of the present world to Edwin, Hoo-Hoo and Hare-Lip. They, in turn, are constantly baffled as he uses words and concepts for which they, as hunter-gatherer-herders, have no context.
Granser explains how the disease arrived, how the world order fell apart and how he survived in spite of the deaths of every one of the 400+ people from the campus who tried to get away from what they thought was the epicentre of the outbreak.
Many months later, Granser found a tribe of fellow survivors — already sunk back to the rule of the strongest and most violent— and was forced to make his peace with the end of the world as he had known it.
And yet he is not fully adjusted. In a secret cave he has, over the years, hidden a library of what he once hoped would be useful books for the rebuilding of civilization. As the story progresses, the reader realizes this cache will be useless in the future, as the boys Granser is trying to teach can make no sense of the strange markings on paper. It’s not a happy story, but it seems appropriate for this year.
There are at least 20 different editions of this novelette, which London wrote in 1910. It was published in London Magazine in 1912 and in book form in 1915. It follows a format similar to that of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) and Edgar Allen Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” (1842). It seems probable that the latter story might have inspired London, as the Shelley book, having been panned by critics at the time, was less likely to have been at the library that London frequented as a boy.