The Scarlet Plague

London, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

  • Date of entry: Oct-17-1996


It is the year 2073. A boy and his grandfather, clad in animal skins, are walking through deep woods. Having fought off a bear, they come to a fire on the beach, where several other boys sit watching their sheep. Their grandfather asks for a crab and they tease him with empty shells until he cries. Finally, they relent and ask him to tell his story about the past and the scarlet plague.

The grandfather had been a literature professor at The University of California-San Francisco. In the summer of 2013, rumors began that a new plague was killing people in New York. Those infected developed a scarlet rash, had a few convulsions, then settled into a sleep-like state in which they became numb and died, their bodies decomposing almost immediately. The entire process took at most an hour, but sometimes as little as ten minutes. Bacteriologists died even as they tried to find a vaccine. People began dying by the millions. The plague finally reached San Francisco and mayhem broke out. The wealthy tried to flee the city and the poor murdered them and looted in revenge for their long oppression.

The professor survived. He lived alone in the Grand Canyon for three years, then set out to see if anyone else was alive, finding a workingman and his woman slave. He met others and began a family which included the boys to whom he is telling his story. There is no means of communicating across the country or to other nations, since the fires set by looters consumed nearly every structure. Society has been set back to a nomad existence. The boys do not believe most of their grandfather’s story. They fight amongst one another and with him in a language that is only partly English. Finally, they rise, leaving the grandfather to straggle along behind into the wilderness.


London is interested partly in the mysteries of the micro-organic world and partly in a critique of modern social structure. Bacteriologists (in 1915) understood many diseases, but there were still many mysterious infections. For London, the destruction that follows his plague is both to be welcomed and despised. Such total destruction forces class barriers to be broken down, but it also ruins civilization. London seems to support an evolutionary vision of society. Oddly, the young characters he creates are violent with one another and each is eager to be the dominant member of the clan. Society, it seems, will not be better the second time around. The only hope lies in one boy who is more tender and considerate than his brothers.


First published: 1915



Place Published

New York