The Scarlet Plague might not be the absolute grand-daddy of apocalypse by plague stories (Mary Shelley’s The Last Man was written 75 years earlier) but it’s certainly one of the first, and it’s obviously a base on which more recent authors have built their works. Published in 1912 by Jack London (of Sea Wolf, White Fang, and The Call of the Wild fame), The Scarlet Plague is the first example I know of of the elderly survivor telling the story of the apocalypse to those born after it.
In this case, the survivor is James Howard Smith, Professor of English at Berkeley. He is the last person alive who lived before the plague that killed almost everyone in the world, 60 years earlier. Now, he sits around a campfire with his grandsons, who he calls savages, and describes the events of the last days of the old world.
And the story he tells would be instantly recognizable to anyone who’s read The Stand or similar books. The plague comes on without warning, and kills within an hour. People try to sequester themselves in their homes, but once one person is infected the disease ravages entire families. He specifically mentions governments covering up the reality of how dangerous the plague is, bodies piled in the streets, violence, murder and mayhem.
He flees San Francisco, meets up with a handful of other survivors, and then their descendants begin to form tribal groups known as the Chauffeurs, the Santa Rosans, the Sacrementos, the Palo Altos, and so on. Those descendants quickly revert back to what Smith refers to as the basest savagery. They wear skins, and carry bows and slings. They’re superstitious, have no concept of numbers, and are constantly interrupting and playing tricks on their grandfather as he tells his story.
Overall, I enjoyed it very much. It’s only about 100 pages or so, and it does sort of drag towards the end as he describes who married who in which tribe, but it’s a pillar of the genre, and so anyone who’s a fan should read it at least once.
It’s out of copyright, so is freely available in any format you could want. I did the Librivox audio book version, and the quality of the recording was great.