Thursday 17 April 2008

London's Scarlet Plague

Adventurer, gold-hunter, sailor, writer and incompetent suicide, Jack London is one of those writers (like Kipling) better-known for the non-science-fiction work, but who still produced several classics of the genre.

He wrote an early "superhero" story, 'The Shadow and the Flash'; a time-travel/prehistoric-man novella, Before Adam; a political dystopia, The Scarlet Heel; and a number of other SF short stories. Importantly, for the purposes of this site's obsession with end-of-the-world stories, he also wrote The Scarlet Plague.

Here's the first book edition, from Macmillan in 1916 (it was originally published in the London Magazine).

Here's the edition I have, from 1946.

Here are a few other versions: a dullish version with a London portrait on the front, a pulp magazine reprint from 1949, and a Dodo Press cheapo print-on-demand version.

The Scarlet Plague is set in 2072, some six decades after a disease outbreak which killed almost everybody on the planet. One of the few survivors, now near death, tries to pass on some of his pre-disaster knowledge to his grandchildren. He reminisces about the time of the plague, recalling the rioting, the social collapse, the fleeing from the cities, the murder--all the staples of a good apocalyptic tale. Despite the pulp magazine cover above, there are no women in golden metal bikinis. You can read the whole thing online here, and also see the original illustrations by Gordon Grant, one of which is at the top of this post.

One of the nicest covers for this book I have seen is that on the new Hesperus edition. I have no idea what this image is, but it conjures associations of blood and broken bone without actually being in any way grisly.

Finally, for your benefit, here are a few more of those Gordon Grant illustrations. Click for bigger versions.

UPDATE: Katya from Hesperus Press has kindly informed me (see the comments) that the image for their edition of The Scarlet Plague was a specially commissioned photo from Jill Auville. You kind more of Jill's work here and here, and it's well worth taking a look--beautiful stuff.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for your kind words James! I have to say that this *is* one of my favourite covers, and I did worry that it might not be a little too oblique... So I'm glad you like it!

I see you talk elsewhere about the use/perils of stock photography, and this for me is a prime example of the value of a one-off piece: I try to use as many original images as I can (easier said than done!), and this one's by someone (Jill Auville) whose work we've used before, whom I approached independently having spent years admiring her online gallery of works... I know that no-one else will ever have a cover like this one.

Thanks ever so again - I hope we continue not to disappoint...!

K (Hesperus Press)

JRSM said...

Thanks for visiting, Katya: as you probably saw from the archives, I really like a LOT of Hesperus covers (as well as the lovely books they decorate). Now I'm going to have to explore more of Jill Auville's work.
Good to hear from you!