What do Philip Roth’s polio novel Nemesis and Justin Cronin’s vampire novel The Passage, both published in 2010, have in common? Quite a bit, actually. Roth’s novel renders the atmosphere of fear surrounding a polio outbreak in Newark, New Jersey in the summer of 1944. The protagonist is a young playground director futilely trying to protect the children he supervises from contracting polio. Cronin’s novel imagines a world ninety years in the future that has been overrun by killer vampiric “virals” as the result of a scientific experiment gone awry. It focuses on a small colony of people struggling to defend themselves against the virals. Both books deal with the pervasive threat of an invisible, poorly understood contagion that has no known cure. Both focus on adult attempts to shelter children from the contagion. In both, characters wrestle with existential questions and religious doubt—why would God inflict polio on children? Do virals have souls? Both books demonstrate how natural time changes—spring to summer, day to night—can heighten the threat of contagion and force humans to change their routines and behavior. Both show how suspicion and fear can cause communities to turn against one another. As cultural artifacts of the moment, both novels also resonate powerfully with contemporary anxieties surrounding contagion in our everyday lives.
In recent years, Americans have been alerted to the threats posed by multiple toxins and diseases: salmonella in eggs, ecoli in spinach and peanutbutter, cadmium in Shrek glasses sold at McDonald’s and jewelry sold at Wal-Mart, H1N1, West Nile virus. Such warnings came about against the backdrop of broader fears about biological terrorism post-9/11. The current wave of viral panic is of course the most recent chapter in a very long history of epidemics—Ebola in the 1990s, mad cow disease in the 1980s, polio in the 1930s and 1940s, the black death in the 14th century, and so on.
There is a cultural dimension to this biological history—a cultural history of contagion. Nemesis and The Passage are the latest examples of artistic expressions, literary and otherwise, that in some way reflect, reimagine, or comment upon viral panics. Think Daniel DeFoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1722), Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912), Albert Camus’s The Plague (1947) (literary critic Elaine Showalter recently made a brilliant connection between Nemesis and The Plague), and Stephen King’s The Stand (1978/1990). Think nonfiction books like The Hot Zone (1994). Or films like Panic in the Streets (1950), Omega Man (1971), and Outbreak (1995).
As artifacts of the 21st century culture of viral panic, unlikely bedfellows Nemesis and The Passage join a diverse cultural cohort that includes the comic book series Y, about a plague that kills every mammal on earth with a Y chromosome; the 28 Days and 28 Weeks Later films, featuring the “rage” virus; the horror movie Cabin Fever, starring a flesh-eating virus (tagline: “Catch It”); Max Brooks’s book World War Z, an “oral history of the zombie wars”; and the forthcoming young adult novel Virals, about a group of teenagers exposed to canine parvovirus.
These contemporary examples of the culture of viral panic offer audiences ways to process a number of fears and anxieties that circumscribe our everyday lives in the 21st century. Anxieties about the limitations and abuses of science and medicine. Anxieties about our ability to protect children and youth from invisible menaces. Anxieties about community cohesiveness and civility. Anxieties about the government’s ability to respond to disaster. In other words, the culture of viral panic is never just about the threat of contagion. It always speaks to broader concerns about institutions, social relations, childrearing, science, spirituality. Read in this context, Nemesis and The Passage have a great deal in common.