I have long been chasing the thrill I first experienced in first grade over the story of Cain and Abel in the Book of Genesis. Cain and Abel were, of course, two sons of Adam and Eve. Cain becomes jealous of Abel (the Lord’s favorite) and then murders him. As punishment he is banished to wander the earth, and Cain begs God to protect him from all the people he’ll encounter in his travels who will kill him. But Adam and Eve and family are the only people on Earth, right? So who are the people who will kill him? Who are those people?? This was creepiness and mystery and awe. These first-grade feelings have to do with an empty earth and a weird one, one in which not everything makes sense to its wanderers.
Other books have come close to provoking this reaction. Often these books are post-apocalyptic; often they feel Biblical. I realized I am fascinated by the way people put societies together—it’s my favorite thing about The Walking Dead, which I see as a series of political experiments. I am fascinated by a world that exists before or outside of civilization; I went through a real intrigued-by-Neanderthals stage because of this. Space movies, too, can inspire it.
Here are five books that have a strange “empty earth” quality and harken back to that young excited awe, the one I got again when I watched Lost, Snowpiercer, I Am Legend, and The Leftovers—a feeling I don’t exactly have a name for, except that it’s both awful and awesome.
Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien
O’Brien’s book was the first novel I read that conjured this feeling—and also gave me nuclear-related anxiety that is ongoing. I read it in eighth grade as part of a unit that also included The Diary of Anne Frank—a very dark curriculum, in retrospect. Z for Zachariah is written from the perspective of the sixteen-year-old sole survivor of a nuclear attack… and then a stranger shows up.
Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
It wasn’t for many years that this odd feeling would hit me again. Riddley Walker—read in a grad school class—was, for me, a life-changing novel: weird, creepy, dark, difficult, and, in the end, both humorous and (a teeny bit) hopeful. The novel takes place many centuries after a nuclear attack, and its language is as torn apart as its communities are. Dark myths about cannibalism, infanticide, and rape are circulated; there are mutated Punch and Judy shows, and there are inklings of the voice of God. I’m going to cheat and tell you that this novel is the same realm, feelings-wise, as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: There, also, lie cannibals, and weird scriptural feelings, and horror, and love, and despair.
“Game” by Donald Barthelme
In some ways “Game” doesn’t fit on this list, but this short story scratches the essential itch for me: It has dark humor, total isolation, terror, and nuclear armament. Two men live underground manning a console, where, if necessary, they must both turn a key to make the “bird fly.” The whole story can be read as Cold War metaphor—game theory applied to nuclear-armed countries—in which each is supposed to shoot the other if the other begins to act strangely. Of course, both are acting strangely. Though it was published in 1965, I first read this story because of a list much like the one I’m making here: one about what to read while waiting for the next season of Lost.
The Sundial by Shirley Jackson
The Sundial is one of Jackson’s lesser known works, behind novels like We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House, and, of course, her story “The Lottery.” It is hilarious, absurd, and cruel: a sundial in the middle of a large property reads “WHAT IS THIS WORLD?” Indeed. One horrible rich person starts receiving visions and the other horrible rich people become her believers, even as they snipe at each other. The Sundial offers humor, cultish behavior, and brutal commentary: “Only rabid animals and humans turn on each other,” one character thinks. It delivers the empty earth awe feeling filtered through a particularly WASPy stiff upper lip.
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
Finally, I will leave us with a novel that has it all: marauders, survivors trying to figure out how to procure water and food (acorns are involved), and the hope of space travel. In some ways it is the opposite of The Sundial, in which a group of purely detestable characters try to wait out the end of the world. With its empathic, visionary leader, and its Gospel-derived title, Parable of the Sower adds to this mytho-speculative genre by providing a dose of spiritual hope. People are terrible, but also capable of innovating and adapting, and this capacity to change may lead us both into and out of calamity.
Liz Harmer is a Canadian writer living in California. Her essays, stories, and reviews have been published widely, and her speculative debut novel The Amateurs is recently out with Knopf/Vintage Canada. You can find her on Twitter @lizharmer.