THE SCARLET PLAGUE (1912) – Written by THE Jack London. Years ago Balladeer’s Blog reviewed London’s mad scientist horror tale A Thousand Deaths, now I’ll examine The Scarlet Plague, London’s post-apocalypse plague story set in the year 2073.
Jack London opens up this novella with a grim look at what life is like in the aftermath of the Scarlet Plague which swept the planet in the year 2013. Many recent reviews of this book focus purely on the disease angle because of the world’s ongoing Covid experience, but I think they overlook a lot of London’s political and class commentary.
I’ll take a look at the way in which London presented the pre-plague America of 2013 as a dystopia even before the first victim of the Scarlet Plague passed away. The elderly survivor recounting the tale to his grandchildren in 2073 doesn’t describe it that way because he was in a privileged class as an “educator”.
James Howard Smith is that elderly survivor in a world returned largely to hunting and gathering. He is cared for by his three grandsons, Edwin and two others whose absurd names probably contribute to keeping The Scarlet Plague so underappreciated – Hoo-Hoo and Harelip. (?) They get by as well as they can in northern California, raising dogs to help them herd the goats that they raise for meat and milk, and relying on the ocean for much of the rest of their food supply. Primitive weapons like bows and arrows are all they have on hand to use against wild bears and other menaces.
The three grandsons find their “Granser”, as they call their grandfather, to be a source of occasional wisdom, but mostly a subject for entertainment and ridicule. His stories of the past are often dismissed by them as the babbling of an old man and they take little interest in events which took place before they were born. Sounds familiar.
Their Granser, James Smith, may be old, but he is not as foolish or as far-gone mentally as the three almost-savage youngsters consider him to be. They express themselves in brutish, unsophisticated ways and find his flowery language when he speaks of the past to be signs of mental deficiency. After their evening meal the boys find the skeletons of three plague victims buried in the sand along the beach. Granser, stirred by the discovery, regales the half-listening trio with stories of long ago.
In this fictional depiction of 2013, America was already reduced to the plutocracy that socialists like James London feared. James/ Granser states that the year before, Morgan the Fifth had been appointed President of the United States by the Board of Magnates. Think of the way Joe Biden was installed in office by the Big Tech Magnates of Silicon Valley and like-minded powers. Though “deniers” pretend otherwise, the blueprint was even boasted about in Time magazine a few months back. Big Tech has even begun interfering in overseas elections, too.
London’s reference to MORGAN the Fifth is telling as well. It’s an ugly hint at the J.P. Morgan clan and the sort of oligarchic “family” rule that we are already seeing in the U.S. today. There are plenty of Democrat and Republican Congressional figures whose families have occupied their seats in an almost dynastic way for decades. And not just in Congress but in other offices. Look how long Jerry Brown was the governor of California, like his father was before him. Bushes, Cheneys, Clintons, and other families continue to plague our political landscape.
It’s important to remember that Jack London called himself a socialist back when socialism was largely about fighting the entrenched Big Money interests on behalf of the suffering poor and the working class, not the pseudo-religion it is today, when socialism is all about dictating every aspect of our lives. London’s depiction of the U.S. of 2013 needs to be looked at in that light.
James Smith, whether intended by Jack London or not, is himself a rather unattractive, snobbish character. He reminisces about the privileges and luxuries he had as an “educator” at a university. He even refers to himself as part of the Ruling Class who “owned everything” and the working class as “slaves” whose labor benefited the Ruling Class far more than themselves.
The three grandsons express disapproval of such ill treatment but Granser shows an attitude of dismissal toward the underclasses, much like the priestly “educators” of today do. Jack London was more prophetic than he knew with this book!
At length Granser moves on to the beginnings of the Scarlet Plague in 2013. His scientifically ignorant grandsons are very skeptical about the notion of germs, bacteria and viruses, tiny things that can’t even be seen, and wonder if the concept is just an old man’s fancy.
The grandfather recounts how, in 1984, there was a Pantoblast Plague which killed millions in Brazil, and a 1947 plague which only struck babies ten months old and less. The Scarlet Plague was far worse and more far-reaching than either of those. That plague struck in the summer months of 2013, when Granser was 27.
The old man describes the wireless ways of communicating which were common in the world by 2013, and news shows spread the word of a Scarlet Plague which had hit New York City, then had reached Chicago within a few more days. A scandal had broken out in London when it was learned that the Scarlet Plague had been killing victims there for two weeks already but the powers that be had censored the story.
This plague killed swiftly. Most died within an hour of displaying the signs, but others died within minutes or as long as a few hours. Rapid heart beat and a fever marked the onset, followed by the reddening of the face and the red rash which gave the plague its name. Convulsions and paralysis often hit the victims, too.
After death the corpse of a Scarlet Plague victim decomposed incredibly rapidly, even breaking apart and thus spreading the billions of microorganisms from the dead body into the surrounding air, infecting countless other people. Nearly all the scientists trying to study the plague in search of a cure were slain within days.
In London a doctor named Trask at last isolated the microorganism which caused the disease but he and his colleagues died before they were able to find any cure or vaccination. Finally, one Monday morning, the Scarlet Plague hit San Francisco. By Thursday people were dropping dead everywhere, even in the streets, like flies.
Panic spread as people feared each other as well as the plague and fled the city in a panic or holed up in their homes and threatened to shoot anyone who tried to enter. In eastern cities a third of the police force were already dead, with political figures dropping by the dozens.
Bodies went unburied, mobs rioted and looted, turning on each other with fear and suspicion at the slightest hint of the plague. Murders and drunkenness were everywhere. Many people tried fleeing in their cars, only to die at the wheel, causing accidents and blocking roadways. The rich – as in people above even Granser in station – fled in their lighter than air vessels. (For some reason London felt dirigibles and zeppelins were the aircraft of the future, despite airplanes having been around for nearly a decade by 1912.)
Fires were everywhere. At “wireless broadcast stations” around the country assorted staff members reported on the fires, riots and other mayhem up until they themselves dropped dead. By now literally hundreds of airships containing the uber-wealthy were flying off to Hawaii, but word came from there that the Scarlet Plague was already sweeping the islands. Every other nation in the world was also suffering from the plague.
Granser and a few hundred of his colleagues had taken shelter in a chemistry building at the university where he taught. With their guns they fought off the mobs trying to enter the place to loot their supplies. After a few days so many of them were dropping from the plague that a small bundle of survivors set out on foot to try to reach the forests or mountains.
One striking set piece from the novella involves Granser’s account of a belligerent grocery store owner who made an incredible stand against the looters and the plague-stricken. From his store’s upper windows and rooftop he shot down so many attackers that bodies were piled high on all sides. Finally the angry mob set fire to the building to kill the grocer with smoke and flame.
As Granser and his fellow snobbish academics try to escape San Francisco they spot the extraordinary solidarity shown by some of the working class and the poor, whose rough lives have made them better prepared for this disaster. The academics try – with various degrees of success – to emulate the successful approach of those people, who made their way out of the city very quickly.
Granser and company spot other working class and poor people and his snobbery comes out again, as he reflects on how “in the midst of our civilization, down in our slums and labor-ghettoes, we had bred a race of barbarians, of savages; and now, in the time of our calamity, they turned upon us like the wild beasts they were and destroyed us. And they destroyed themselves as well.”
And on and on it goes, in full nightmarish detail as the exodus from the cities continued all around the globe. An airship or two are even spotted crashing down from the sky, their pilots presumably stricken by the Scarlet Plague. In the end only a tiny handful of humanity remains, scattered in tiny pockets.
Granser’s next adventure plays like a post-apocalypse version of Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August. He comes across a beautiful, formerly famous and wealthy woman who is now lorded over by her former chauffeur the way she used to lord it over him, when she had the veneer of civilization protecting her. He is a brutish man who relishes the way he is far more prepared for this rough existence than she is. She serves him in every way and he goes on to have several children with her, one of whom Granser/ James Smith marries when she reaches her teen years.
The tale outlines more and more details about the other human “tribes” left in California, and about how the animals all turned feral except for a few breeds of dogs who retained their ages-long friendship with humanity. Apparently all the great minds of the world had died in the plague, leaving mankind struggling to crawl back toward civilization with its attendant luxuries. Nothing had been heard from outside the country in decades.
Jack London has his character Granser draw the narrative to a close with his reflections on the three eternal types or “classes” of humans – priests/ teachers, soldiers/ laborers and royalty/ the wealthy. Up until now he had been saving what books he could to preserve something of the world’s history for future generations. Now, however, with the news that one of the tribes may have rediscovered the way to make gunpowder, he foresees nothing but savage conflicts to come and he wonders if it’s worth it.
The story ends on this downbeat note, as the old man and his grandsons get their goats and dogs together and return to their shelter before nightfall.
Obviously this is a powerful book which I can’t believe is as neglected as it is. It’s a quick read, too, at just 76 pages including the introduction. +++
FOR TEN MORE EXAMPLES OF ANCIENT SCIENCE FICTION CLICK HERE: https://glitternight.com/2014/03/03/ten-neglected-examples-of-ancient-science-fiction/
FOR WASHINGTON IRVING’S 1809 depiction of an invasion from the moon click here: https://glitternight.com/2014/05/05/ancient-science-fiction-the-men-of-the-moon-1809-by-washington-irving/
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