It's been a while since we last looked at a good, old-fashioned apocalypse. Nevil Shute's famous On the Beach (published 1957) is more worthy of that name than most since, as is well-known, and my apologies if you didn't know it, everybody dies at the end. It is a book which is quietly, stiff-upper-lip-ly, affectingly, utterly without hope.
This is the first edition:
The book starts off in the year following a third world war that has gone nuclear. Massive amounts of fallout have wiped out all life in the Northern Hemisphere, and the deadly clouds are now drifting irrevocably southwards, killing everything. Southern Australia is now chock-full of refugees, including the remnants of the British military, and the crew of a single surviving US Navy submarine.
Then a Morse code signal from the continental United States is received, and the American sub is sent to investigate. What happens next I will not spoil, in case you haven't read it yet. Much of the story also concentrates on the relationships between a number of central characters, including the submarine's American captain and his alcoholic Australian girlfriend, and an Australian sailor, his wife and young baby, all of whom are faced with inevitable extinction.
It's an odd thing to say, but to someone brought up on a diet of British and American ends-of-the-world, it's pleasing for an Australian reader to see the planet's last lights going out in Melbourne. Shute was English by birth, but became an Australian after World War II, and set many of his later works in this country. None had more impact than On the Beach, though, with some even attributing the passing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963 to the American public's horrified response to the book.
Until recently, it was available from the erratic House of Stratus.
In October, though, it and a startling 22 other Shute books are being brought back into print by Vintage Classics UK. These editions have attractive, sedate covers: you wouldn't even know that was a mushroom cloud at first glance. I like the way it picks up the colours of that first edition, too, with the green sky and red dress.
For a mainstream publisher to resurrect 23 books by a mostly neglected writer at once is quite a vote of confidence: Vintage don't even keep most of Somerset Maugham, Elizabeth Bowen or William Faulkner in print. I would be surprised if all the projected titles actually appear in October.
On the Beach was successfully filmed, adding to its impact, though Ava Gardner's famously scathing remark that Melbourne was "the perfect place to make a film about the end of the world" seems to have been invented by a journalist. The film produced a the usual tie-in edition...
..as well as pointing the way for publisher Pan's changing-but-unchanging cover designs over the following decades.
It was only when Pan started to churn out muscular, blokey adventure stories in the 1980s that they decided to ditch the girly romantic element of the cover and just focus on the hardware.
As a book that's been through a huge number of editions, it has a huge number of other covers to match...
Shute strayed into science-fiction on a couple of other occasions, depending on your definitions. No Highway predicted the "metal fatigue" which would lead to a number of aircraft crashes, while What Happened to the Corbetts is one of those novels written in the lead-up to World War II that project forward into the war itself (see also Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies).