The Quintessential Pandemic Reading List

The following Pandemic Reading list of books are our literary picks addressing race, love, dominant governments, and the effects of a plague.

Sure, you’ve read article after article and watched countless you tube videos about COVID and the Spanish Flu of 1917 – we’re all experts by now. But have you actually read anything of sustenance, with brilliant characters, exceptional prose and in-depth analysis of why we live and die, and how communities navigate through such perils? 

The following list of books are our literary picks, addressing questions of race, love, death and dominant governments, and the effect on national borders after a plague hits. Authors include Mary Shelley, Albert Camus, Daniel Defoe, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Yuri Hererra, Michael Crichton, and more.

The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years,’ by Sonia Shah

“Sonia Shah’s tour-de-force history of malaria will convince you that the real soundtrack to our collective fate … is the syncopated whine-slap, whine-slap of man and mosquito duking it out over the eons,” Abigail Zuger wrote in The Times.

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe (1722)

From 1665 to 1666, bubonic plague returned to Britain and devastated the city of London — killing roughly one quarter of its population in the span of 18 months. “[I]t was generally in such houses that we heard the most dismal shrieks and outcries of the poor people, terrified and even frighted to death by the sight of the condition of their dearest relations, and by the terror of being imprisoned as they were.”

Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter (1939)

Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider is set around the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918 and focuses on a young woman falling in love with a soldier, as both influenza and World War I loom ominously. As novelist Alice McDermott makes clear in her commentary on the novel, it’s a book that hasn’t lost its contemporary resonance.

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The Plague by Albert Camus (1947)

As befits a novel with the archetypal title The Plague, there are multiple ways one can interpret Camus’s 1947 work. Writing in the Guardian in 2015, journalist and war correspondent Ed Vulliamy contends it can be read in two ways: first, as a metaphor for the horrors of fascism; and second, as an allusion to a cholera epidemic in Algeria in 1849.

If you are enjoying these book recommendations, we have more great Literary content on The Ritual Blog here.

The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton (1969)

A group of scientists deal with an epidemic caused by an extraterrestrial microorganism — one that’s constantly evolving and has no precedent in human history.

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1985)

“Plagues are like imponderable dangers that surprise people,” Gabriel García Márquez told the New York Times in 1988. “They seem to have a quality of destiny.” In the same interview, he spoke of his fondness for Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, and how it was one of the inspirations for this decades-spanning tale of star-crossed lovers, where death is never far from the reader’s mind.

Journal of the Plague Years by Norman Spinrad (1988)

The novel uses a widespread outbreak of a constantly mutating virus to critique conservative responses to HIV and AIDS in the 1980s. “For twenty years, sex and death were inexorably intertwined,” writes an fictional editor at the beginning of Spinrad’s book — what follows are an arrangement of voices, each struggling with literal questions of life and death.

If you are enjoying these book recommendations, we have more great Literary content on The Ritual Blog here.

Beauty Salon by Mario Bellatin (1994)

“Over time I have realized that the disease comes in spurts,” writes the narrator of Bellatin’s short novel Beauty Salon. It’s set in a world devastated by a pandemic affecting If you are enjoying these book recommendations, we have more great Literary content on The Ritual Blog here. men, leading to their rapid deaths in the face of governmental inaction. The novel’s narrator runs a beauty salon, which becomes a hospice for those afflicted.

The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian (2006)

Adrian’s fiction blends his own career in medicine alongside the mythological and fantastical. In his second novel, The Children’s Hospital, a plague called the Botch emerges after a series of events, some apocalyptic, some miraculous. Adrian “wants to know why people die, what meaning can be divined from their lives and their ends, and whether anything lies beyond. ”

The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera (2013)

Herrera’s fiction is often set near the border between the United States and Mexico. The Transmigration of Bodies follows a familiar noir scenario — two crime families at war in a single town, during the aftereffects of a deadly plague.

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They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell

To eight-year old Bunny Morison, his mother is an angelic comforter in whose absence nothing is real or alive. To his older brother, Robert, his mother is someone he must protect, especially since the deadly, influenza epidemic of 1918 is ravaging their small Midwestern town. To James Morison, his wife, Elizabeth, is the center of a life that would disintegrate all too suddenly were she to disappear

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World,’ by Steven Johnson

In August 1854, many poor Londoners “suddenly took sick and began dying. Their symptoms included upset stomach, vomiting, gut cramps, diarrhea and racking thirst. Whatever the cause, it was fast — fast to kill (sometimes within 12 hours of onset) and fast in spreading to new victims,” David Quammen wrote in his review of this fascinating and detailed account of the city’s worst cholera epidemic. “Seventy fatalities occurred in a 24-hour period, most within five square blocks, and hundreds more people were in danger.”

The Last Man by Mary Shelley

Set at the end of the twenty-first century, The Last Man is a moving and fantastical account of the apocalypse. Faced with a populace clamoring for more democratic rule, the last king of England relinquishes his throne. Suddenly a mysterious plague sweeps the globe, drawing ever nearer to England. As war, disease, and death ravage humanity, ideals of fairness and love are quickly supplanted by the imperative of survival.

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Gorgeous Horror Movies of the Past

We’ve turned our lens onto the great, gorgeous horror movies of the past. Here are 16 utterly gorgeous horror films, and what made each of them so great.

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Near Dark (1987)

This vampire Western centers around a pack of wild, roaming vampires and the small-town farm boy they’ve recently abducted.

“Despite the fact that the plot sort of implodes in the last 30 minutes, Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 Near Dark is an otherwise worthy watch. With the help of Tangerine Dream’s brooding score and Adam Greenberg’s big-sky cinematography, Bigelow easily convinces the viewer that nasty stuff lurks in the wide-open spaces of the American West. In this case, an RV full of drifter vampires, which includes a method-acting Lance Henriksen and Bill Paxton as cinema’s finest Nosferatu asshat.” – Cyriaque Lamar Editorial Manager of Cracked.com

The Descent (2005)

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The female-led film focuses on a strong pack of spelunkers and adventure junkies, who descend into an unmapped, Appalachian cave only to discover horror. Director Neil Marshall used the space (and sometimes lack thereof) to his advantage, trapping the audience in their own claustrophobic terror. But there’s also no lack of expansive, blood-tinged cave shots that hit you with the type of dread one would face while looking out into hell itself. A beautiful hell.

“The Descent works (and plays) not only with movie imagery, but with the stuff of myth and dreams as well. It evokes hellish visions, from famous paintings (Goya’s Black Paintings, Fuseli’s The Nightmare) to gothic gargoyles and Dore’s engravings for Dante’s Inferno. These almost subliminal references help drive The Descent, and give it a powerful mythic energy. It grasps when and how to draw upon these images to create just the right tone of hallucinatory fear, and set it reverberating in your head. The movie’s not pretentious or derivative, it’s just uncanny about knowing what to borrow and how to use it.” – Roger Ebert

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The Fog (1980)

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If you haven’t seen this movie, please do so, because even the succinct summary of this bonkers horror movie is wonderful and like no other: “Legend says that Antonio Bay was built in 1880 with blood money obtained from shipwrecked lepers but no one believes it. On the eve of the town’s centennial many plan to attend the celebrations, including the murdered lepers.” The lepers CAME BACK!

“It’s funny; John Carpenter has become a “Master of Horror” mainly through films with claustrophobic elements: people trapped in an Arctic base or an old church, Laurie Strode hiding from Michael Myers in increasingly small spaces, etc. – but one of the most striking shots in his career is also possibly one of his most wide open. It’s from his 1980 cult fave The Fog, and it’s nothing more than a horror-free (and daytime!) shot of Adrienne Barbeau walking down the endless path to the lighthouse where she works, with the sparkling Pacific Ocean filling up his customary widescreen frame. There’s something so gorgeous and yet ominous about the image that it remains one of my favorite moments in the film and his career as a whole; it’s almost worth watching the film for no other reason than to appreciate it.” — Brian Collins BadAss Digest writer, and a horror movie (a day) watcher.

The Hunger (1983)

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Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, and Susan Sarandon are all in a vampire movie — but it’s really so much more than that.

“The opening credits to The Hunger, ostensibly a music video for Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” is the finest thing Tony Scott ever did. (Sorry Maverick and Goose, go peddle your Cold War paranoia elsewhere!) The color saturation, jump cuts and loping, demonic bass against that sprinkling guitar scratch – the kind of music that only got played on the far left of your FM dial – was one hell of a way to start a movie. That this opening scene, which is schizophrenically intercut with the “beginning of the actual movie,” got as much VHS rewind play as the film’s later Deneuve-Sarandon lovemaking says quite a bit.” — Jordan Hoffman, Critic for The Guardian & New York Daily News.

Devil’s Backbone (2001)

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Guillermo del Toro sets up a ghost story from the POV of a young boy trapped in a haunted orphanage.

“This is a movie about ghosts, about the things that refuse to get left behind. And director Guillermo del Toro hammers that point home with agiant bomb that sticks in the school’s courtyard — a reminder that death is always present. Plus, it’s spooky as hell.” — Marc BernardinDeputy Editor at Playboy.com

The Strangers (2008)

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Possibly one of the greatest “He’s right behind you!” home invasion horror flicks.

“The visual charm of Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers, which boasts a mostly unappealing color palette and a setting so limited as to be choking, is all in the framing, which is impeccable and makes for a series of scenes so well made that they’d make stills suitable for literal framing, as long as you like portraits of murderers and victims adorning your walls, and who am I to judge?The first appearance of the film’s main masked killer was foretold throughout the film’s marketing, appearing in both both posters and trailers, but that doesn’t dilute its terrifying power when it finally happens in the film. Suddenly, a boring suburban tableau is transformed into a crackling scene of powerful, terrible beauty, crisply framed and filled with horrific possibility.” — Kate Erbland Entertainment Journalist

Let The Right One In (2008)

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The original, not the remake (which is also quite beautiful in its own right) reworks the classic vampire story with children.

“Let the Right One In makes all other horror movies look like a joke. The constant transgression of hollywood to heavy hand everything made these days just produces an onslaught of mediocre movies. What people forget is that a horror movie is made by showing the audience as little as possible, and the entirety of Let The Right One In is just that. The beginning of the film establishes an older man murdering someone and performing a ritual-like procedure on the dead body when a poodle finds him and begins barking loudly. The whole scene is shot on a long lens in one shot and is blocked like a scene on the stage. It plays out in three colors amidst the snow covered woods. The trees are a light flesh color brown and the ground is white. The actors in the scene are wearing flesh colored clothing, and the dog that enters is a white poodle. The murderer wears a red scarf and the victim bleeds red blood. The scene uses one light to illustrate the location and action occurring. What makes the films amazing is it’s minimal storytelling- but what makes the movie beautiful is it matching minimalism in cinematography.” – Nicholas Stango Associate Master of Video at Gawker Media

Black Narcissus (1947)

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” When British filmmaker Michael Powell, who’d trained with Hitchcock, met Hungarian screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, who’d come to London to escape Nazis in Paris, one of cinema’s most enduring collaborations was born. Their 1947 Black Narcissus is a slow-burning, undeniably erotic thriller about nuns in the Himalayas, rendered in Technicolor that contrasts the nuns’ white habits (repression ahoy!) with pops of startling vibrance. The film won Oscars for cinematography and art direction, the merits of which are amply demonstrated in its final scene, a genuinely scary clifftop clash that’s spooky, gorgeously-composed eye candy at its finest.” —Cheryl Eddy, Senior Editor io9

The Cell (2000)

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Tarsem Singh’s trip into the mind of a serial killer took the dreamscape to the next level. There’s yet to be a film to top this film’s visual splendor — and flippant disregard for physics, sound, life, and reality because you’re inside someone’s mind. And to top it all off, it’s stunning. Who knew the inside of a character so foul could be so horrifically wonderful? But it is — The Cell catapults the audience inside the mind of a monster… and you kind of want to stay. Especially when the villain descends his massive stairs with a cape (attached to his skin) that also drapes across the walls of his opulent throne room.

Halloween (1978)

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“John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher is prototypical, though its aesthetics remain unmatched. In a subgenere known for its crassness, Halloween remains a paragon of taste. Elegant in composition and camerawork, Halloween’s look renders lurid, b-movie material into art. It makes watching senseless murders make sense, starting from its blindsiding first scene, in which we watch young Michael Myers’s first murder through the eye holes of his Halloween mask.” —Rich JuzwiakSenior Writer Gawker

Gozu (2003)

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What starts off as a Yakuza hit story turns into something much, much darker.

The aggressor has this ominous, glam kind of androgynous andpowerfully beautiful presence that always kind of stuck with me. Kind of like Gozer in Ghostbusters. – Chris Person Video Production and Video Editor at Gawker Media

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

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“Rosemary’s Baby’s turned-up creep factor is largely due to the way Roman Polanski directed the characters through the apartment, showing how encroaching domesticity can be utterly horrifying. In this scene, Minnie Castavet pays Rosemary Woodhouse a neighborly call, but the way he swept the camera from the peephole-viewinto the home and through the hallway is ominous: she’s complimenting Farrow on her homemaking, but the deeper the duo descends down that hallway (ugh, the HALLWAY), the worse trouble you know she’s in. The butterscotch tones of the shot underscore the beautiful feeling of sunny normalcy, calm before the storm (aka being raped by Satan and conceiving his spawn).” – Julianne Escobedo Shepherd Culture Editor Jezebel

Byzantium (2012)

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Two female vampires are on the run from an immortal boys’ club. Together they take refuge in a barren, off-season beach resort town and feed. Neil Jordan’s blue-grey and red hues really brought out Moira Buffini’s words (Buffini adapted her play for the film). The recurrence of these two gorgeous colors not only looks fantastic; it also really helps play into the life-versus-undead-life conflict the two mains are facing, from Saoirse Ronan’s Red Riding Hood look to her blood-streaked face in an elevator. But my favorite spectacle of color hit early in the film when the two women tiptoed through sleeping blue cabbages, trying to find a new place to hide out. It’s just shockingly gorgeous.

Ringu (1998)

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Before there was the American Ring, there was Ringu, the tale of the VHS tape that was also a murderer. It was great, and it was scary, and it sparked a whole lot of copycat US films.

“I may be alone (lol rimshot), but I think even the footage of the well by itself in Ringu is rather beautiful. As Sadako emerges from it, it’s almost like a slow, traditional dance and the sound design making it even more like a standalone art piece.” – Katie Hasty Executive Managing Editor of Hitfix

The Shining (1980)

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A movie so beautiful, not even Stephen King (the author of the film’s inspiration who famously loathed Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation) could deny its mouth-dropping spectacle of symmetry and color. Quoted in Stanley Kubrick, a Biography (by Vincent LoBrutto) King said:

“There’s a lot to like about it. But it’s a great big beautiful Cadillac with no motor inside. You can sit in it, and you can enjoy the smell of the leather upholstery – the only thing you can’t do is drive it anywhere. So I would do everything different.”

Not necessarily a compliment, but we’ve all seen this film. It’s gorgeous. And not even King could side step that.

Suspiria (1977)

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A film so gorgeous, almost every single contributor above asked us, “Is Suspiria taken? I want it… No… Wait, that’s too obvious.” Because yes, Dario Argento’s horror film Suspiria is an absolute masterpiece of color and contrast.

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