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.