James O'Neil/Getty Images
James O'Neil/Getty Images
You know it's been a long year when people ask for summer reads and you find yourself recommending Cherie Dimaline's The Marrow Thieves — in which Indigenous North Americans band together to escape government hunters in the wake of societal collapse — as a comforting story. (Hey, at least everybody's banding together.)
It can be great to leave the cacophony of the world behind for the length of a book. But sometimes the best company for concern is stories of concern. There's no shortage of stories about the end of everything, and I chose these books partly to span different genres of disaster. (Some I chose for their tiny threads of hope, because, well.)
So if you're sweating out the summer (literally or otherwise) and in the mood for something world-ending, but not quite, here are six books that might be just grim enough to comfort you.
Only Lovers Left Alive
This vintage future (originally published in 1964) starts with a pointed pandemic — adults, suddenly overwhelmed with despair over the future, commit suicide en masse, leaving the next generation to look after themselves. Later editions leaned into the swift notoriety that the book picked up (the 1965 cover tagline: Smashing, Looting, Killing, Loving — the Teenagers Take Over the World!), and there's definitely a pulp quality to Dave Wallis' prose. But the sense of generational betrayal is compelling even when it's a little glib, and there's a sly inevitability to those rebellious teens slowly yearning for a little stability from which to start the world over.
Frankenstein in Baghdad
There's nothing like Frankenstein as a framework for taking the world to task. In this novel (winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction), Ahmed Saadawi reimagines the familiar story in war-torn Iraq, with a chilling take on the Creature that suggests a modern monster's most pressing problem is just how many people there are to blame for his existence. He struggles for meaning amid a cast of characters all shaken by the world they're living in, whether they're exploiting the desperate or clinging to faith. And though this revenge story is as haunting as you might imagine, there's no lack of humanity here.
Apocalypse Then: American and Japanese Atomic Cinema, 1951-1967
At first glance, this book conjures the days when you had to look up movie details in books (remember that?), and reading about these movies seems similarly nostalgic. But the subject — atomic cinema in America and Japan — feels unfortunately, eternally immediate. Mike Bogue's an accessible Everyman cinephile (bemoaning ant physiology and offering his brother's childhood opinions alongside more academic analysis), but his fondness for these movies never eclipses the brutal reasons for each country's vastly different impressions of nuclear threat. It makes for an interesting retrospective of a fear that saturated pop culture in a way that's never really left us.
The Magic Toyshop
One of Angela Carter's most claustrophobic stories — sometimes the end of the world happens in just one house. When Melanie's parents die, she and her brother are sent to sinister Uncle Philip, who abuses his wife and stepsons — one of whom is conveniently mysterious and sullen. Drenched in this Gothic atmosphere (if you've been wondering how "Leda and the Swan" works as a family puppet show, your search is over), Melanie must channel her impotent anger to survive a strange new world where her uncle's cruelty threatens to be the rule, rather than its exception.
A Small Charred Face
In these three interconnected stories, Kazuki Sakuraba subtly reinvents vampires — known as Bamboo. Among other things, they stay the same emotional age they were when they were turned, making longevity a Pyrrhic victory; godspeed if you're turned as a teenager. (Don't worry; Sakuraba makes good use of both the pathos and the comedy of that premise.) But the best of the three offers us a self-aware take on undead family dynamics, exploring that eerie vampire stasis as a metaphor for the memory of a loved one, and how the fire of feeling in the face of death is what makes life so sublime.
The Island Will Sink
Max Galleon's future is monitored by Pow-Pow the environmental enforcement panda mascot, and his past by an AI archive that stands in for his memories, most of which are missing. His present is a booming career directing immersive disaster movies — and the news that Pitcairn Island is sinking into the sea might be his last chance at an opus that could finally impress his completely-over-him family. Briohny Doyle's disaster story about how we use (and misuse) disaster stories makes great use of gallows humor, but its setting and surreal memory play is creepy enough to suit a dark summer night.
Genevieve Valentine's latest novel is Icon.