Editor’s note: Because it’s in the public domain, it’s easy to find an inexpensive electronic copy of this book.
By the time Jack London released his post-apocalyptic novel The Scarlet Plague in 1912, the author was 36 years old — just four years shy of his premature passing in 1916 — and yet had already managed to cram in more incident and adventure into those three dozen years than most folks do in their lifetime. Since his birth in San Francisco in 1876, he had worked on a sealing schooner, done a stint as an oyster pirate, participated in the Klondike Gold Rush (in 1897), played the part of a war correspondent in the Russo-Japanese War (1904), operated a ranch, been married twice, and had released over 100 short stories and a dozen novels, including, of course, The Call of the Wild (1903), The Sea Wolf (1904), White Fang (1906) and Martin Eden (1909). But many fans may not realize that London also created in the fantasy and sci-fi genres as well, in books such as Before Adam (1907), The Iron Heel (1908), The Star Rover (1915), and the book in question.
This reader had not read any London since high school (a very long time ago), and had never read any of his works dealing with the fantastic, and am thus happy to report that The Scarlet Plague was a charming pleasure to take in. The short novel, London’s 13th out of an eventual 23, originally appeared in the May – June 1912 issues of London Magazine (the world’s oldest literary periodical, dating back to 1732!), made its first book appearance as a Macmillan hardcover in 1915, and was reprinted in the 2/49 issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries magazine. As for me, I happened to read its latest incarnation, from Dover Publications, which reproduces the Macmillan hardcover complete with its over two dozen illustrations by one Gordon Grant. The book is part of Dover’s current Doomsday Classics series of post-apocalyptic fiction; I had previously enjoyed Fritz Leiber’s The Night of the Long Knives and Margaret St. Clair’s Sign of the Labrys from this same collection of books.
In The Scarlet Plague, the year is 2073, and most of mankind has been killed off by the pandemic of the title, which had struck in 2013 … 60 years earlier. On the desolate Cliff House beach near San Francisco, a long-bearded, 87-year-old man wearing a goatskin sits with his three grandchildren and tells them the story — probably for the umpteenth time — of what the world had been like in the olden days, and his own experiences during them. We learn that the old man’s name was once James Howard Smith — although his three semibarbaric grandsons, Edwin, Hoo-Hoo and Hare-Lip, only refer to him as “Granser” — and that he had been a professor of English lit at UC-Berkeley, in the days before the plague had struck. London’s short novel is primarily taken up by Smith’s narrative, which is interrupted on occasion by one of the boys having to shoo away the wild wolves threatening their goat herd, or when the kids laugh in derision at Granser’s “big words” and his tears of mournful nostalgia. Thus, we hear of the disease’s onset, its symptoms and rapid course; how not a single nation in the world seemed to have been spared; learn of the riots that had ensued, and of Smith’s emigration to the countryside with a small band of his fellow academics; witness Smith’s three years of solitary living in Yosemite, and see what happened when he later returned to the completely overgrown Bay Area. It is a marvelously exciting and colorful story, told by the world’s oldest living survivor to an audience of mocking simpletons.
By necessity, The Scarlet Plague is a simply written affair, being, in essence, the attempts of a once-learned man to make his illiterate, borderline savage descendants comprehend what had gone before. Thus, his painstaking efforts to teach them numbers greater than 10, and to make them understand the concept of germs, which the kids just cannot wrap their minds around, germs being invisible to the naked eye. Time and again, one of the boys will tell Granser to “talk sensible” and cut the “gabble,” especially when the old man uses such impossible words as “scarlet” and “education” … and when he speaks in language such as this, in describing the Cliff House beach:
…Where four million people disported themselves, the wild wolves roam today, and the savage progeny of our loins, with prehistoric weapons, defend themselves against the fanged despoilers. Think of it! And all because of the Scarlet Death…
And although Smith does keep his narrative simple (for the reader’s ears, at least), the kids can’t help but snicker in contempt, especially when Granser starts quoting various writers that he recalls. (A little research on the reader’s part will reveal that those quotes come from Rudyard Kipling and the poets George Sterling and William Bliss Carman.) What with the book’s cleanly written style and brief length, it is one that most readers will probably gobble down in a sitting or two, pulled in both by the action of its first half and the blighted desolation of its second.
As a predictor, London’s track record here is perhaps 50/50. He was correct in foreseeing how devastating an incurable pandemic could be (he sadly did not live to witness the worldwide flu pandemic of 1918 – ’20, which killed 75 million), and his guesstimate of 8 billion as the worldwide population in 2010 was not terribly off the correct mark of 6.9 billion. Unfortunately, his stated figure of 17 million as New York City’s population in 2013, the year of the plague, is more than double the actual figure, while his emphasis on the dirigible as the only means of air transport in 2013 comes off as more than a little quaint in today’s Jet Age. Interestingly, when Smith finally discovers some other survivors after his sojourn in Yosemite, it is in Glen Ellen, CA … the same locale where London was building his Wolf House mansion, only to have it calamitously burn to the ground before he could move in, in 1913.
And, oh … if I may confess to another minor problem that I had with London’s book here, it is that I was left with a feeling of wanting more; a feeling that London could have easily doubled the length of his novel by amplifying on Smith’s adventures both during the actual plague and in the decades afterward. Still, there is a certain virtue in compactness and conciseness, and The Scarlet Plague certainly is a model of economical storytelling. (To be fair, I don’t think that Edwin, Hoo-Hoo and Hare-Lip could possibly have sat still for another chapter’s worth!) And there is surely no harm in leaving one’s audience wanting more, right? As a matter of fact, I enjoyed this one so much that I hope to soon read London’s first novel in the field of the fantastic, the pre-history outing Before Adam. Stay tuned…