There’s been a bit of a revival in the end-of-the-world genre lately. Hollywood is cashing in on the success of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” by making a big-budget production of a father and son’s struggle to survive in a futuristic wasteland. The new bestseller “One Second After” by William Forstchen describes how we’ll get along after a electromagnetic pulse caused by a nuclear detonation in the atmosphere fritzes out all our gadgets upon which we’ve grown so dependent. You can bet that the movie rights have already been snapped up on that one. 2007’s blockbuster “I am Legend” starring Will Smith, was actually an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s short story by the same name back in the mid-50’s. S.M. Stirling’s series that started with “Dies the Fire” is now into its second trilogy, as it follows the survivors of what happens in our world when a seemingly very minor law of physics mysteriously changes, and changes all our lives forever.
This is a long preamble to a story about two of my favorite novels. I read these novels back when I was in high school, and they left such an indelible impression on me that a few years ago, I devoted many hours to tracking down and obtaining copies of these two books.
The first book is entitled “The Last Canadian” by William C. Heine. I’ve looked up Mr. Heine’s bio online, and it’s pitifully brief. It seems that he was the editor of the London Free Press, and that “The Last Canadian” was only one of two novels that he ever published. Hollywood also put its heavy hands on this one, turning out something named “The Patriot” starring Steven Seagal, which was (very, very loosely) based on the novel. After viewing this movie, I have determined that any resemblance between the two is purely coincidental. If you ever see this movie listed anywhere – run, don’t walk, away.
“The Last Canadian” was written in 1974, and is about a plague that sweeps across North America with frightening speed and deadly efficiency. Our hero is a man named Gene Arnprior, and he is smart enough to figure out what’s happening, and that New York isn’t the best place to ride out a plague. So he takes his family up to northern Quebec to a fishing lodge he knows about deep in the woods, far from civilization. He and his wife, along with their two young sons, learn to survive in the woods – all the while listening to the death throes of the continent on their shortwave radio. Their tough but idyllic existence ends one day, when a plague carrier unwittingly crosses upwind from their camp, and the deadly virus wipes out his family. Gene is spared from death as he sickens and recovers from the illness, but lives as a plague carrier himself. He then leaves the northern woods to see how the rest of the continent has fared. Not well, it seems. The plague has wiped out 95 percent of the population, and society is fragmented into either scavengers or people who have returned to the land. Gene eventually finds out the root of the plague and he vows revenge for his family and his country, as he slowly descends into a spiral of madness. The rest of the world’s superpowers must try to track one man across a continent, as not to allow him to land on their shores and unleash the plague upon them. It is a novel of one man’s loneliness and despair, and comes to a heart-wrenching and tragic conclusion.
My second novel is entitled “Malevil”, written by Robert Merle and published in 1972. It was originally written in French, and was also made into a movie in the early 80’s in France.
The story’s events take place in rural France in the late twentieth century. The protagonist is Emanuel Comte, a former teacher, who is now the owner of an old castle and estate called Malevil. Comte is highly motivated, well-respected person with a talent for diplomacy and leadership.
By chance, Emanuel and several of his friends find themselves in the wine cellar of the castle during the unexpected outbreak of a nuclear war. The survivors emerge to find their surroundings reduced to ashes and rubble. Together under the leadership of Emanuel they start to rebuild. They later discover that other people and animals have survived in nearby farmsteads and villages. Nature begins anew and an agrarian society starts to reform. Society now gets very local, with each village being a state unto itself…almost like back in feudal times. From time to time more survivors show up, some offering needed skills and goods…some bringing death and destruction with them. One of main challenges to this new society is a religious leader of a nearby church, who wants to go back to the old ways of a theocratic dictatorship, where the church holds all lands and powers. Merle, being French, places a high value on the separation of church and state.
The novel ends with Emanuel dying, but he has created a new society…not based on power and tyranny, but based on cooperation and sound political values. And, unlike “The Last Canadian”, one puts the book down with a sense of accomplishment and a hope for a new beginning.
As said, I read these books in the early 70’s, and have remembered them since then. A few years ago, I started scouring used bookstores, donation bins and the Internet for these titles. Malevil proved to be the hardest to find, as it went out of print decades ago. I actually tracked a paperback copy to a used bookstore owner in Britain who was willing to ship it to me for a small fortune. But as things unfolded, I ended up stumbling across it in a used bookstore in Steinbach, Manitoba. And it cost me 2 bucks. Now, whenever I run into the literary doldrums and “there’s nothing to read”, I just reach over and grab one of my favorite reads.