10. Footprints of Thunder
A bizarre displacement of time creates a crazy patchwork of past and present, as dinosaurs walk the streets of New York City and human survivors find they’re not at the top of the food chain anymore. James F. David’s first novel was derided by some critics for its premise, but really, is this any more far-fetched than a zombie apocalypse or alien invasion?
9. One Second After
The most recent entry on this list, written in 2009, One Second After deals with the aftermath of an electromagnetic pulse attack unleashed by three nuclear explosions in the atmosphere above the United States. With modern cars, utilities and communications rendered useless, the residents of two small western North Carolina communities fight for survival in a world where there is little food, no medicine and heavily armed gangs threaten to steal what little they have left. While we can safely say that some of the other doomsday scenarios on this list will not come to pass (zombies? Entire communities transported into the distant past?), William R. Forstchen’s take on the dangers of an EMP attack seems exceedingly real. In fact, Congress several years ago established an EMP Commission to monitor the dangers and suggest solutions for defending against such an attack.
8. I Am Legend
Richard Matheson’s classic 1954 novel inspired the zombie genre and was the basis for three different films, including The Omega Man (1971, starring Charlton Heston) and I Am Legend, with Will Smith. The book itself is dated, so you’d be better off checking out one of the movies.
7. The Forge of God
Science fiction author Greg Bear’s 1987 book begins with the discovery of an alien being that warns, “I’m sorry, but there is bad news.” An alien civilization unleashes havoc on Earth, though a rival alien force races to gather the best of humanity for evacuation from the planet.
6. Island In the Sea of Time
A weird phenomenon known as “The Event” transports modern-day Nantucket Island and its inhabitants 3,000-plus years into the past. With a memorable cast of characters including a black female Coast Guard captain and a lesser officer who deviously schemes to use his technological knowledge to rule the Bronze Age world, S.M. Stirling’s book evolved into a three-book series. In fact, that trilogy inspired yet another series, the Emberverse Series, beginning with the 2004 book Dies the Fire, detailing how “The Change” affected the Pacific Northwest. Special mention here to Eric Flint’s novel 1632, as a small town in West Virginia is ripped out of today’s world and sent back in time to … yes, 1632. Luckily, the residents are heavily armed as they find themselves dropped into the midst of Germany’s Thirty Years War.
5. The Road
The bleakest, most disturbing book on this list — and that’s saying something on a list of books about death and destruction — The Road earned author Cormac McCarthy a Pulitzer Prize. The story follows a father and son on a journey across America several years after an unspecified event leaves only a few scattered, starving survivors. Many parents with young children have found this book too emotionally disturbing to finish.
4. On The Beach
Many modern audiences are more familiar with On the Beach through the 2000 film version starring Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown, or even the 1960 film version starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. But the original 1957 novel by Nevil Shute introduced a new twist to the concept of nuclear armageddon — innocent victims a world away from the conflict and instigators. Set in Australia, the survivors in this book deal with the approach of radioactive fallout from a nuclear war that has already decimated the Northern Hemisphere. The book has not aged well in terms of outdated references, but the 2000 film adaptation holds relatively true to the theme. Check that out on video, but have plenty of tissue on hand for the finale. Two other 1950s-era doomsday classics deserve mention here: Alas, Babylon and Earth Abides.
3. Lucifer’s Hammer
This 1977 novel by science fiction authors Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wasn’t the first to deal with Earth’s demise from an interstellar impact — that honor belongs to the legendary When Worlds Collide (1933) — but Lucifer’s Hammer remains the standard for such doomsday scenarios. Millions are killed when a comet dubbed “The Hammer” strikes Earth, leaving survivors dealing with earthquakes, tsunamis, cannibalism and other issues. An honorable mention goes to Niven and Pournelle for their other doomsday book, Footfall. In that 1985 sci-fi classic, the end comes through an invasion of aliens that resemble elephants. Really.
2. The Left Behind Series
This 16-book series based on Biblical prophecies in Revelation and other books has sold tens of millions of copies. If you are an evangelical Christian, you may find this the most frightening and believable book on the list. If you’re more lukewarm in your religious beliefs, you either may not find it very scary or credible … or maybe you read the series and are so scared you decide it’s time to get saved. Authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins have built the Left Behind franchise into three movies, a teen book series and video games.
1. The Stand
Master of horror Stephen King’s 1978 magnum opus still reads well today, although at more than 800 pages it might turn off some readers afraid to make that kind of time commitment. The book follows the story of survivors of a superflu epidemic, “Captain Trips,” that wipes out 99.4 percent of humanity. As survivors deal with the aftermath, they’re drawn into a Biblical-like confrontation between forces of good and evil. Special mention here to Robert McCammon’s fine post-apocalyptic thriller, Swan Song, which some have compared to The Stand Lite because of its similar good-versus-evil theme, but it remains a great read.
One More: Several Brian Keene Books
Arguably the best horror writer working today, Keene seems to have a fixation on ending the world. No fewer than five of his books deal with doomsday. His first-ever book, The Rising (2003), is one of the better zombie apocalypse books, and he followed that up with a sequel, City of the Dead. Then he got a little weird with his 2006 tale of The Conqueror Worms, about a global flood that somehow brings an invasion of carnivorous worms the size of tractor-trailer trucks. Keene then revisited the zombie theme in Dead Sea. Not done yet with his apocalyptic mayhem, Keene’s 2008 Darkness on the Edge of Town takes a look at what happens in a small town when the end is at hand. Keene is a relative unknown to many readers outside the horror genre, but these books hold their own with everything else on this list.