Apocalyptic fiction helps us deal with the anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic



Dystopic science fiction provides a reference points for our anxieties during a time of global change.
(Shutterstock)

Katherine Shwetz, University of Toronto

Masked people standing six feet apart. Empty shelves in the supermarket. No children in sight outside the school during recess.

The social upheaval caused by COVID-19 evokes many popular dystopian or post-apocalyptic books and movies. Unsurprisingly, the COVID-19 crisis has sent many people rushing to fiction about contagious diseases. Books and movies about pandemics have spiked in popularity over the past few weeks: stuck at home self-isolating, many people are picking up novels such as Stephen King’s The Stand or streaming movies such as Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion.

The 2011 movie Contagion looks at the spread of a deadly virus.

Yet no one seems to fully agree on why reading books or watching movies about apocalyptic pandemics feels appealing during a real crisis with an actual contagious disease. Some readers claim that contagion fiction provides comfort, but others argue the opposite. Still more aren’t totally sure why they these narratives feel so compelling. Regardless, stories about pandemics call to them all the same.

So what, exactly, does pandemic fiction offer readers? My doctoral research on contagious disease in literature, a project that has required me to draw from both literary studies and health humanities, has taught me that a contagious disease is always both a medical and a narrative event.

Art reflects life

Pandemics scare us partly because they transform other, less concrete, fears about globalization, cultural change, and community identity into tangible threats. Representations of contagious diseases allow authors and readers the opportunity to explore the non-medical dimensions of the fears associated with contagious disease.

Pandemic fiction does not offer readers a prophetic look into the future, regardless of what some may think. Instead, narratives about contagious disease hold up a mirror to our deepest, most inchoate fears about our present moment and explore different possible responses to those fears.

Station Eleven

‘Station 11’ is set in Toronto, Ont., and looks at what happens to human relationships as a pandemic threatens civilization.
Harper Collins

One novel that has grown in popularity over the past few weeks is been Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Mandel’s novel follows a troupe of Shakespearean actors touring a post-apocalyptic landscape in a North America decimated by contagious disease.

Mandel’s novel serves as a test case for understanding the cultural response to COVID-19. The current pandemic sharpens fears about the relative instability of our communities (along with posing an immediate threat to our health, of course).

Coverage of Station Eleven claims that the text is uniquely relevant to the COVID-19 situation. This response treats Mandel’s novel as through it predicts what will happen as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Some news outlets even call the novel a “model for how we could respond” to an apocalyptic pandemic.

This is not the case. Station Eleven draws from apocalyptic literature, a narrative form that tells us more about the present than the future. Mandel herself has called Station Eleven more “a love letter to the world we find ourselves in” than a handbook for a post-apocalyptic future Indeed, Mandel herself publicly suggested that her novel is not ideal reading material for the present moment.

In fact, Station Eleven spends almost no time focused on the actual epidemic. The vast majority of the novel takes place before and after the outbreak. The medical details of the disease are less important than the rhetorical impact of the destructive virus.

Those fears in Station Eleven coalesce in scenes where communities must shift how they understand their relationship to one another. Characters stranded in an airport hangar, for example, must work together to build a new society that accommodates their shared traumatic experience. The pandemic in Mandel’s novel dramatically emphasizes to the characters not how to respond to a virus but, instead, how powerfully interconnected they truly are — the same thing COVID-19 is doing to us right now. Part of what pandemic fiction illuminates is how fears of invasion and the perceived threat of outsiders can diminish our humanity.

Fear of outsiders

A virus crosses the boundary of your body, invading your very cells and changing your body on an incredibly intimate level.

It is unsurprising, then, that scholars see a strong relationship between contagious diseases and community identity. As anthropologist Priscilla Wald puts it, contagious disease “articulates community.” Pandemics emphasize how our individual bodies are connected to our collective body.

Left unchecked, the rhetorical implications of these narratives can lead to discriminatory behaviour or racism.

In Station Eleven, the villain — a cult leader prophet — continually denies his fundamental connection to those around him. He claims that he and his followers survived the epidemic because of their divine goodness and not because of luck. As a result, he engages in violent, abusive behaviours intended to quash the fear associated with interdependence — a common response to this fear.

The prophet in Station Eleven does not survive the novel; the surviving characters are the ones who accept that they cannot extricate themselves from connection to other people.

Contagious diseases — both in fiction and in real life — remind us that the social and cultural boundaries we use to structure society are fragile and porous, not stable and impermeable.

Although these works of literature cannot prophecize an imminent post-apocalyptic future, they can speak to our present.

So if reading a book about a pandemic appeals to you, go for it — but don’t use it as an instructional manual for an outbreak. Instead, that work of fiction can help you better understand and manage how the virus amplifies complex, diverse and multi-faceted fears about change in our communities and our world.The Conversation

Katherine Shwetz, PhD Candidate and Course Instructor, University of Toronto

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How medieval writers struggled to make sense of the Black Death



The Black Death inspired medieval writers to document their era of plague. Their anxieties and fears are starkly reminiscent of our own even if their solutions differ.
(Shutterstock)

Kriston R. Rennie, The University of Queensland

A plague of serious proportions is ravaging the world. But not for the first time.

From 1347-51, the Black Death killed anywhere from one-tenth to one-half (or more) of Europe’s population.

One English chronicler, Thomas Walsingham, noted how this “great mortality” transformed the known world: “Towns once packed with people were emptied of their inhabitants, and the plague spread so thickly that the living were hardly able to bury the dead.” As death tolls rose at exponential rates, rents dwindled, and swaths of land fell to waste “for want of the tenants who used to cultivate it….

Pierart dou Tielt’s miniature, Burying Plague Victims of Tournai.
(Wikimedia Commons)

As a medieval historian, I’ve been teaching the subject of plague for many years. If nothing else, the feelings of panic between the Black Death and the COVID-19 pandemic are reminiscent.

Like today’s crisis, medieval writers struggled to make sense of the disease; theories on its origins and transmission abounded, some more convincing than others. Whatever the result, “… so much misery ensued,” wrote another English author, it was feared that the world would “hardly be able to regain its previous condition.

A disease without borders

Medieval writers produced a variety of answers for the plague’s origins. Gabriele de Mussis’ Historia de Morbo attributed the cause to “the mire of manifold wickedness,” the “numberless vices,” and the “limitless capacity for evil” exhibited by an entire human race no longer fearing the judgement of God.

Describing its eastern origins, he further noted how the Genoese and Venetians had imported the disease to western Europe from Caffa (modern-day Ukraine); “carrying the darts of death,” disembarking sailors at these Italian port-cities unwittingly spread the “poison” to their relations, kinsmen and neighbours.

Master of Bruges of 1482’s rendering of Giovanni Boccaccio and Florentines who have fled from the plague.
(Royal Library of the Netherlands)

Containing the disease seemed nearly impossible. As Giovanni Boccaccio wrote about Florence, the outcome was all the more severe as those suffering from the disease “mixed with people who were still unaffected …” Like a “fire racing through dry or oily substances,” healthy persons became ill.

Possessing the power to “kill large numbers by air alone,” through breath or conversation, it was thought, the plague “could not be avoided.”

Looking for a cure

Scholars worked tirelessly to find a cure. The Paris Medical Faculty devoted its energies to discovering the causes of these amazing events, which even “the most gifted intellects” were struggling to comprehend. They turned to experts on astrology and medicine about the causes of the epidemic.

Étienne Colaud’s ‘A meeting of doctors at the university of Paris.’ From the ‘Chants royaux’ manuscript.
(Bibliothèque Nationale de France).

On the pope’s orders, anatomical examinations were carried out in many Italian cities “to discover the origins of the disease.” When the corpses were opened up, all victims were found to have “infected lungs.”

Not content with lingering uncertainty, Parisian masters turned towards ancient wisdom and compiled a book of existing philosophical and medical knowledge. Yet they also acknowledged the limitations in finding a “sure explanation and perfect understanding,” quoting Pliny to the effect that “some accidental causes of storms are still uncertain, or cannot be explained.”

Self-isolation and travel bans

Prevention was critical. Quarantine and self-isolation were necessary measures.

In 1348, to prevent the illness from spreading through the Tuscan region of Pistoia, strict fines were enforced against the movement of peoples. Guards were placed at the city’s gates to prevent travellers entering or leaving.

These civic ordinances stipulated against importing linen or woollen cloths that might carry the disease. Demonstrating similar sanitation concerns, bodies of the dead were to remain in place until properly enclosed in a wooden box “to avoid the foul stench which comes from dead bodies”; moreover, graves were dug “two and a half arms-lengths deep.”

Butchers and retailers nevertheless remained open. And yet a number of regulations were imposed so that “the living are not made ill by rotten and corrupt food,” with further bans to minimize the “stink and corruption” considered harmful to Pistoia’s citizens.

Community response and resolve

Authorities responded in different ways to the outbreak. Recognizing the plague’s arrival by ship, the people of Messina “expelled the Genoese from the city and harbour with all speed.” In central Europe, foreigners and merchants were banished from the inns and “compelled to leave the area immediately.”

These were severe measures, but seemingly necessary given the varied social reaction to plague. As Boccaccio famously recounted in his Decameron, the whole spectrum of human behaviour ensued: from extreme religious devotion, sober living, self-isolation and a restricted diet to warding off evil through heavy drinking, singing and merrymaking.

The flagellants at Doornik in 1349. The people are pictured performing flagellations as an act of penance.
(Wikimedia Commons)

The fear of contagion eroded social customs. The number of dead grew so high in many regions that proper burials and religious services became impossible to perform: new religious customs emerged pertaining to preparing for and presiding over death.

Families were changed. An account from Padua mentions how “wife fled the embrace of a dear husband, the father that of a son and the brother that of a brother.”

Ultimately, there is a human element to plague too often lost in the historical record. Its influence should not be underestimated or forgotten. The modern response to pandemic evokes a similar community response. Different in scope and scale, and indeed in medical practice, administrative and public health actions remain critical.

But in 2020, we are not, as Boccaccio lamented, seeing the law and social order break down. Essential duties and responsibilities are still being carried out. Against our own 21st-century plague, wisdom and ingenuity are prevailing; citizens hang on “the advice of physicians and all the power of medicine,” which unlike the 14th century, is anything but “profitless and unavailing.”The Conversation

Kriston R. Rennie, Visiting Fellow at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto, and Associate Professor in Medieval History, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

From Christie to Chandler and beyond – five detective novels to investigate during lockdown



Hard-boiled detective: Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye (1973).
Allstar/Cinetext/MGM

James Peacock, Keele University

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that humans are connected, and that an individual’s actions can have profound consequences for the local community, the nation, and beyond. A good detective story, whether it takes place within an English country house or travels across international borders, reminds readers of this fundamental truth.

Detectives might be charming, eccentric amateurs like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, for example – or tough, world-weary professionals such as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or Ian Rankin’s John Rebus.

But in both country-house and hard-boiled traditions their function is similar. They link disparate individuals and communities as they reconstruct events, and raise the possibility that, whoever pulled the trigger or administered the poison, we all share some responsibility for allowing such things to happen.

The selection below, I hope, reflects the genre’s diversity. What connects these books, for all their stylistic variety, is a preoccupation with links between people and communities and a desire to explore the implications of every action, deliberate or accidental.

Metta Fuller Victor: The Dead Letter (1866)

The first full-length detective novel in American literature, The Dead Letter, published under the pen-name Seeley Register, is a curious hybrid. Featuring a country house that might be haunted, a clairvoyant child who – conveniently – is the detective’s daughter, and scenes of deathly pale women wandering moonlit gardens, mourning lost lovers, it shows how 19th-century detectives emerged from Gothic literature.

First American detective novel.
Amazon

It is also a sentimental love story and a meditation on the corrupting power of money.

Like the Edgar Allan Poe stories which influenced it, and the Sherlock Holmes tales that followed, its narrator is not the detective, but the detective’s friend who – like the reader – is inclined to romanticise the sleuth’s heightened abilities.

The Dead Letter can be florid and outlandish, but it combines its eclectic elements to highly entertaining effect.

Raymond Chandler: The Long Goodbye (1953)

Philip Marlowe, the hero of seven novels and numerous short stories by Raymond Chandler, is tall, handsome, witty and admirably cynical about the effects of wealth. I’d love to recommend all the Marlowe stories and, given that its author intended it to be the last, The Long Goodbye might seem an idiosyncratic choice.

Pulp fiction (cover art by Harvey Kidder).
admiral.ironbombs via Flickr, CC BY-SA

Stranger still, its pleasures are less to do with the detective thriller’s traditional virtues – intricate plotting, dynamic action – and more with the air of nostalgic melancholia Chandler conjures. There are murders, of course, and there is the vivid evocation of Los Angeles in its grubby splendour. There is also Marlowe’s trademark gift for metaphor: at the beginning, watching two people arguing outside a club, he remarks:

The girl gave him a look which ought to have stuck at least four inches out of his back.

But the novel’s heart is the unlikely friendship between Marlowe and Terry Lennox, a rich, dipsomaniac veteran locked in a loveless marriage, emotionally scarred by his combat experiences. As its title suggests, this epic and heartbreaking novel is about goodbyes: to innocence, to friendship, to the conventions of the detective story, and to an America untainted by consumerism.

Agatha Christie: Cat Among the Pigeons (1959)

Christie remains the pre-eminent writer of the “whodunit”. Her sheer prolificacy masks the fact that she is a consistently innovative plotter, unafraid to experiment with point-of-view in sometimes radical ways. She also produces stories that are dark, disturbing, and morally ambiguous – characteristics highlighted in recent adaptations such as the BBC’s version of The Pale Horse.

Mallory Towers with added murder.
AgathaChristie.com

Though not among her most celebrated novels, Cat Among the Pigeons delightfully combines international espionage and country house mystery, with the “country house” being a prestigious girls’ prep school in England where members of staff start dying in suspicious circumstances.

Ingenious and laced with cruelty, it might be read as a story about Great Britain’s declining empire, or the fragile isolation of the upper classes, or it might simply be read as Mallory Towers with added murder.

Paul Auster: The New York Trilogy (1987)

This comprises three distinctive tales: City of Glass, Ghosts and The Locked Room, that conspire to connect in surprising ways. Often regarded as a model of “antidetection”, Auster’s trilogy frequently confounds expectations, promising stock elements of the hard-boiled story – the enigmatic loner gumshoe, the femme fatale, the dirty city – before jettisoning the cliches and exploring new territory.

Elaborate puzzles.
Amazon

Auster’s New York is a labyrinth ruled by chance, where one’s doppelganger can appear for no reason, where a man can devote his life to collecting and renaming bits of rubbish, and where “Paul Auster” can appear as a character. These are elaborate puzzles yet highly readable thrillers.

They are perfect stories for lockdown because they are about the consolations of reading and the paradoxical truth that the deeper into solitude we go, the more we understand our vital connection to others.

Walter Mosley: Devil in a Blue Dress (1990)

This is the first thriller starring Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, an African-American factory worker in the Watts area of Los Angeles, who falls into detection when a stranger enters his local bar and offers him a missing persons job. Mosley’s work exemplifies the ways in which detective stories, tightly bound to specific places and times, function not only as entertainment but also as historical documents.

Realistic and wry account of race relations.
Amazon

Devil in a Blue Dress, through energetic vernacular dialogue, realistic situations and wry observations on race relations, brilliantly evokes the lives of African-American families who moved from the southern states to California during the Second Great Migration.

More than the talented amateurs of the country house mystery, who possess a timeless quality and whose successful investigations tend to reinstate cosy normality – and Marlowe, a 20th-century knight errant with a nostalgic impulse – Easy Rawlins demonstrates that detectives are shaped by historical circumstances. He also happens to have one of the most captivatingly unstable sidekicks in all detective writing.

Detectives are people who move, tracing links between people, places and times. They are also expert readers: of clues, people, situations. During lockdown, these stories can transport us elsewhere and remind us that reading is an empathetic act, a way of reaching out and trying to connect with others.The Conversation

James Peacock, Senior Lecturer in English and American Literatures, Keele University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Five novels from the Victorian era to give comfort in troubled times


Tennessee Witney via Shutterstock

Pam Lock, University of Bristol

The evolution of the novel and short story in the 19th century brought us one of the greatest human sources of comfort, besides food and a nice hot bath. When someone tells me they are planning to “curl up with a good book”, I am filled with a sense of peace on their behalf – of quiet enjoyment, perhaps accompanied by a little soft music and the crackle of a fire.

Regular solitary time is becoming the norm for many. Many of us are already tired of the enjoyable inanity of Netflix and Amazon Prime and are ready for something to lose ourselves in completely.

In the 19th century, the novel boomed as literacy and leisure time increased. Novels were frequently published in weekly parts, one to three chapters at a time. They had to be long enough to fill the required number of issues, and interesting enough to ensure readers kept buying the magazine or periodical (or run the risk of being cancelled mid-series). It is this combination that makes them a great resource for times like today.

Human beings are designed to love stories. Our brains seek narratives to help us make sense of the world. We communicate using stories to exchange knowledge and gain understanding. As Robert Louis Stevenson wrote: “fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child” – through fiction we learn by imaginative experience.

Stories help us gain insight into things we cannot or should not experience. They also keep us safe – we tell each other cautionary tales all the time. So let’s do as our NHS doctors and nurses ask and learn from their stories of the virus – while also tucking ourselves away with some great old novels:

Anthony Hope: The Prisoner of Zenda (1894)

An exciting and funny adventure story about a man who goes on holiday and ends up as temporary king of Ruritania.

Rollicking Victorian adventure story.
Magnum

London-born adventurer Rudolf Rassendyll is persuaded to pretend to be the king after the real king is kidnapped by his evil half-brother on the eve of his coronation. A distant relation of the royal family, Rudolf is the king’s spitting image.

Beautifully written and filled with energy, the story romps across the beautiful scenery of Ruritania to the mysterious castle of Zenda. Rudolf is one of the most vibrant and positive characters I have come across and will fill you with hope. But what will he do when he falls in love with the king’s beautiful fianceé?

Read it for free on Project Gutenberg.

Florence Marryat: Her Father’s Name (1876)

Cross-dressing, swashbuckling adventuress Leona Lacoste journeys from Rio de Janeiro to London to clear her father’s name.

Cross-dressing derring-do.
Amazon

Unknown to her until his death, he has been in hiding in their Brazilian home, having escaped some scandal or crime in England. To get to the bottom of the mystery, Leona must stop at nothing.

Disguised as a man to make the journey possible in the 1870s, she proves herself onboard a ship in a dramatic duel and seduces the daughter of a rich industrialist. But what will she uncover about her unknown family history?

Read it for free on Internet Archive, or buy from Victorian Secrets.

Wilkie Collins: The Woman in White (1859)

The celebrated mystery which launched a new type of story known as the sensation or enigma novel.

One of the first classic thrillers.
Amazon

Walter Hartright is startled by the sudden appearance of a mysterious woman dressed in white walking on the road to London late at night. She asks him for directions and he decides to see her safely to a cab.

On the way, he discovers that she is from the very town to which he is about the journey to start work as an art teacher. Little does he know how this mysterious woman and the family in Limeridge will change his life forever.

Read it free on Project Gutenberg.

Bram Stoker: Dracula (1897)

This may seem an unlikely choice but don’t let the TV and film adaptations fool you. This is a seriously good book. The adventurers who track and foil Count Dracula, led by Mina Harker and Abraham Van Helsing, are the epitome of organised and resourceful Victorian society.

Sink your teeth into this classic read.
Wikipedia

This book is all about creating order from chaos: a reassuring ideal at the moment. Mina Harker’s way of life is doubly threatened by Dracula as he endangers both her fiancé, Jonathan Harker, whom he imprisons in his castle; and her best friend, Lucy Westenra, who is tormented by sleepwalking and mysterious illnesses.

Mina acts as the lynchpin for the five men who join together to defeat the count. The story that we are treated to is her collection of their accounts, creating a magnificent and lucid whole from diaries, cuttings, reports and letters. How will these rational beings thwart the supernatural power of the count?

Read it free on Project Gutenberg.

Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre (1847)

Jane Eyre fights for what she believes to be right. She stands up to those more powerful than herself, whether it be for her own rights or the good of others.

Romantic melodrama at its best.
Amazon

Orphaned and rejected by her guardian aunt, Jane trains to become a teacher at a charity school and then becomes governess to Adele, the ward of the wealthy and seemingly misanthropic Mr Rochester.

Slowly and unwillingly she falls in love with her master but he has a certain secret in his attic. What will this determined woman do to save herself from the temptations of his love?

Read it free on Project Gutenberg:.

You’ll have noticed that I have stuck to books with happy endings, or at least tidy ones. There is no Thomas Hardy (you must take broadcaster Andy Hamilton’s advice and read Hardy’s novels backwards to get a happy ending), and no George Eliot, whose wonderfully complex characters are very real and intriguing but not often comforting.

Some are old, familiar favourites, others lesser known but equally enjoyable. The list is by no means complete. It is intended to be the beginning of a journey back to familiar friends and an exploration of new ones. They are shared with love and care in the hope they will make you feel a little better for their company.The Conversation

Pam Lock, Lecturer, English Literature (Specialist in Victorian Literature and Alcohol), University of Bristol

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.