September of an election year is the cruelest month. In addition to experiencing the standard winter-is-coming heebie-jeebies, most anyone who cares about politics is worried that the end is nigh. Family dinners become battlegrounds; e-mail forwards provoke fistfights in office parking lots.
The turmoil has a way of showing up on our pages and screens too, and sometimes the worlds we escape to are even worse than our own. Obviously there’s a certain amount of morbid titillation at work when we spend our free time reading about pandemics and watching zombies overtake civilization, but dystopian fiction can scratch a deeper itch—not only satisfying our escapist, world-building urges but reminding us of the beautiful things we’re capable of creating. Literary-fiction blockbusters of the past decade have looked at the worst-case scenario in ways that celebrate art while lamenting our baser impulses; see Station Eleven, The Road and California, to name a few.
This fall, a new florescence of titles will take on the dystopian and the apocalyptic with varying dashes of gothic horror and fantasy. Here are five to steel you for the dark days ahead.
Fans of Alan Moore can rejoice at the arrival of Jerusalem (Liverlight, Sep 13), a behemoth from the Watchmen author at least eight years in the making. The novel reinvents Northampton, England in a dizzying range of prose styles, mapping a fantastical history of Moore’s hometown from ancient times to “the heat death of the universe.” This apocalyptic travelogue of central England is more than 1,000 pages long.
A mind-melting literary mystery cum techno-thriller, Michael Helm’s After James (Tin House, Sep 13) shows us a world that is recognizably our own. But the weather is strange and the events are stranger, as characters find themselves tangling with sinister pharmaceutical companies, prophetic internet poets and malevolent artists—all of it laid out in three sections that mirror detective, gothic horror and apocalyptic genre conventions.
The genre-bending badass Michelle Tea returns to fiction with Black Wave (Amethyst Editions, Sep 13). Set in an alternate-universe 1999 Los Angeles awaiting a promised apocalypse, and replete with Matt Dillon cameos, Black Wave, like Helm’s book, investigates what it means to make art in fraught times. The Pacific Ocean is giving off poison mist, the environment is ravaged and a memoirist named Michelle tries to write her way through a breakup before the world ends.
Joining the ranks of recent hotly anticipated crime novels such as The Girls, Kea Wilson’s We Eat Our Own (Scribner, Sep 6) steps back to the 1970s with a blood-curdling horror story about making a movie in the Amazon. Loosely based on the infamous was-it-or-wasn’t-it-a-snuff-film Cannibal Holocaust, this debut novel imagines what people are capable of when society is just out of reach.
Arguably the most anticipated book of the year and already a number-one best seller, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (Doubleday, Aug 2) recounts the odyssey of a young slave named Cora who escapes bondage via what Whitehead has, in a surrealist twist, imagined as a literal railway system moving under a set of states that aren’t quite the states we recognize. (Read our recent interview with Whitehead here.) Whitehead’s last novel, Zone One, is a highbrow zombie tale that delineates the horrors of “post-apocalyptic stress disorder.” Now the author looks backward, showing us that for true dystopia, you can’t beat our own past. At least, we hope that’s the case.