Thursday, February 16, 2017

Jack London: The Scarlet Plague

Jack London:   The Scarlet Plague

Edgar Allan Poe published a short work titled "The Masque of the Red Death" (aka "The Mask of the Red Death) in 1842 about a virulent plague that caused instant bleeding from the pores and immediate death.  In 1912, some 70 years later, Jack London published a novella, The Scarlet Death in which he depicted a plague that caused a bright reddening of the skin and almost instantaneous death.  Did London borrow the idea from Poe?  I don't know as I've never read anything that suggests such a possibility.  Aside from the symptoms and the high mortality rate, the two tales are very different in time and place.  Poe's tale takes place in Renaissance Italy (or so I guess) while London's is set in the San Francisco Bay area in 2013. 

Poe's story focused on a small group of people who fled the city for an isolated "castellated abbey," hoping to escape the plague.  It had a high wall and an iron door.  They sealed the door in an attempt to keep the plague or plague bearers out.  However, as those who have read the tale know, they were unsuccessful  What happened after the plague appeared and apparently killed all in the abbey is not told.

London's tale, however, is a flashback, a reminiscence of one of the few survivors, called Granser by the boys,  told to the next generation, a small group of young males who are the descendants of those few who were immune to the plague.  While the story was written in 1912, London set it in 2013, in the San Francisco Bay area. 

The frame tells us what life is like several decades after the plague.  Granser's  audience consists of teen-aged boys, whose language consists mostly of a very basic vocabulary and they see no reason why there should be more than one word for something.  They deride the old man for referring to something as "scarlet" when "red" is a perfectly good word.  While we never really get a close look at the way the people live then, London does provide sufficient information to suggest that humanity has reverted back to the hunting and gathering stage, a period of savagery, as Granser complains.  But, this is all part of the cycle, for the old man tells the boys:

 "You are true savages.  Already has begun the custom of wearing human teeth.  In another generation you will be perforating your nose and ears and wearing ornaments of bone and shell.  I know.  The human race is doomed to sink back farther and farther into the primitive night ere again it begins its bloody climb upward to civilization.  When we increase and feel the lack of room,  we will proceed to kill one another." 

Most of the tale, though, consists of the horrors experienced during the outbreak of the plague and the breakdown of society, the rioting, looting, and killing that occurred as the terrified population thought only of their own survival at any cost.  What's intriguing is that Granser, a literature professor at the University of California,  and numerous colleagues in the university community attempted to barricade themselves in the Chemistry Building, bringing in supplies and weapons and prepared to do whatever they had to do to keep the plague and plague bearers out, just as the Prince and his friends had done in Poe's tale. And, they were just an unsuccessful.  At the end, the few survivors fled the building.

London doesn't go into any great detail about what had happened during the sixty years that had passed since the outbreak.  He is most concerned with the breakdown of society at the time of the plague and some depiction of life today.

Interwoven though is London's socialist philosophy as the old man tells of society in 2013 as consisting of Masters and Slaves (capitalist owners and workers).  He, in speaking of the events of 2013, tells us  "(t)hat was the year that Morgan the Fifth was appointed President of the United States by the Board of Magnates."

London also makes the point, over a century ago, that he was aware of what we today are only too aware of--the relationship of a large population and the appearance of new diseases and the role of rapid global  transportation in the spread of these diseases.  Improved methods of food production led to an increase in population.  "The easier it was to get food, the more men there were; the more men there were, the more thickly were they packed together on the earth; and the more thickly were they packed, the more new kinds of germs became diseases."

We are certainly well aware of the problem today, especially when we consider the onset of AIDS, Ebola, and most recently the Zika virus.  So far we've been lucky as rapid transmission of information has allowed us to stay ahead of the threat, even though several countries were placed under quarantine during the last Ebola outbreak.

London's tale is a disquieting one, even though it is considered science fiction.  It is not an highly improbable invasion by aliens that poses the threat but invaders from Earth itself.  We see examples of it perhaps every decade or so.

At one time I had considered calling this post "The Three Plagues."  I had planned to write about three plague stories--the two mentioned above and George R. Stewart's great novel, The Earth Abides.   However, the length of this commentary on the first two is long enough, so I will post on Stewart's work separately.

 I would recommend, if you have the time, to read all three stories:  first Poe, then London, and then Stewart's novel, for together they provide an thorough exploration of the theme--the plague and its aftermath.  .  


  1. Well, Fred, I am familiar with Poe's tale but not familiar with either London's or Stewart's. So, I cannot contribute much to your fine posting. Nevertheless, allowing myself to be redirected from my other reading goals, I will revisit Poe and try to obtain copies of London and Stewart. Thus, any sensible comment(s) will have to wait. However, in the meantime, I wonder about the ways writers of speculative fiction have imagined both natural and man-caused apocalyptic scenarios. I still recall Stephen King's _The Stand_, one of the best biological nightmare tales. One of the man-made nightmares that I read a few years ago -- -- still has me frightened; we are only a moment away from the horrors the author depicts. I'm sorry if this digression is so far off your topic, but your posting has me thinking about both biological and technological plagues. Now, I think I will visit Poe.

    1. R.T.,

      The digression is not really a digression, for that is the theme of the three works I've mentioned--the deadly plague.

      I wonder if the memory of the real Black Plague is the stimulus for the many catastrophic plague tales that have appeared in fiction.

      I'm not a great fan of King, but his The Stand is one of his that I did read and enjoy. But, I have yet to read the expanded version which came out several years later. King's best work though is his "Dark Tower" series, featuring Roland the Gunslinger.

    2. R.T.,

      It's seven volumes, so it's quite a commitment.

  2. i've read the Poe and the Stewart; they were both great... i've long been a fan of JL, but haven't read this one: it sounds like a must... this genre is pretty ancient: the work that occurred to me immediately was "The Decameron" by Boccaccio, written in 14 c., i think... a small group of italians gather in a secluded monastery to escape the plague and tell each other stories... he was a buddy of Petrarch... there are probably others i don't know about: the book ocean is wide and deep... dynamite post, tx a lot ...

    1. Mudpuddle, re: ancient plagues. We cannot overlook _Oedipus the King_. The plague plagues Thebes; Oedipus vanquishes the plague by solving the Sphinx's riddle; Oedipus reintroduces the plague by having become the patricidal, incestuous Theban nightmare! Ancients, of course, had good reason to be terrified of plagues: they were so damned common! I post this even as I have been battling an infestation of fleas in the backyard, all the while hoping no flea is a carrier of the black death!

    2. Mudpuddle,

      Thanks for reminding me. I had forgotten the frame for Boccaccio's "Decameron."

      Quite a stretch, ranging from Boccaccio to Poe to London to Stewart to King, and who knows how many others, both in between and afterwards.

    3. R.T.,

      And, we can't forget the plagues in the Bible.

    4. Weren't frogs involved in one? It's hard to understand being intimidated by frogs. But I might be mistaken about frogs.

    5. aristophanes' play, maybe...?

    6. R.T.,

      It's possible. It's been decades since I last read the OT. I'm not sure how that would constitute a threat, though.

    7. Mudpuddle,

      I vaguely remember hearing that Aristophanes wrote a play titled Frogs or something like that. However, I've never read it, so I can't comment on how that would relate to the plagues in the two works I commented on.

    8. i think i was wrong about that, anyway; i haven't read it either, but it's probably about politics...

    9. Mudpuddle,

      Could be. Aristophanes wrote mostly comedies or satires, I think.

  3. I haver read Poe's story but not London's. The Scarlet Death sounds fascinating for a lot of reasons. I wonder if the commonalities between the symptoms of the diseases are the result of similarities between folktales heard by both writers.

    I tend to like 'plague" books as well as films if they are intelligently done. Though I found few of the realistic ones to be disturbing.

    1. Brian Joseph,

      That could be, but I don't remember any folktales. I tend more toward historical sources such as the various plagues that arose over the centuries.

    2. cite Defoe's "Journal of the Plague Years"; i read it once and it was quite chilling as i remember...

    3. Mudpuddle,

      An interesting thought. I wonder how many writers were influenced by Defoe works: Moll Flanders, Robinson Crusoe, as well as the Plague Journal.