The novel “The Darkest of Nights”, also known as “Survival Margin”, republished in a revised edition as “The Big Death”, by Charles Eric Maine was published for the first time in 1962.
For Dr. Pauline Brant of the International Virus Research Organization (IVRO) returning to London after a long period of work spent in Tokyo is complicated. The Hueste virus has a mortality rate of 50% and is spreading throughout Asia with the serious risk that it will reach other continents because it’s very contagious. Pauline also faces her personal situation with her husband Clive, who has already started a relationship with another woman considering their marriage over.
In many countries, the authorities start censoring the reports of the Hueste virus as they prepare underground shelters to isolate selected people. Clive Brant tries to gather information on the international situation, but traveling becomes increasingly difficult. Despite the censorship, people discover that the places in the shelters have been assigned favoring politicians and riots begin.
The catastrophic genre was already a classic in literature when Charles Eric Maine developed the idea of ”The Darkest of Nights”, and the collapse of human civilization following a pandemic was already told as well. In this case, the theme is developed in a very realistic way through the stories of a couple whose marriage has come to an end but their divorce is hampered by the spread of a lethal virus that brings chaos to England. Through Clive’s journalistic work and Pauline’s medical work, the author offers different points of view on the events that slowly overwhelm the world. The roles of media and doctors are seen from the perspective of individuals who are all in all common people.
The tones of the novel become increasingly dark and dramatic as the situation evolves. Many doctors fight to save people, but above all selfishness and negative instincts emerge. Politicians impose censorship to avoid panic as they try to save themselves and their families by isolating themselves from the population, but this ends up triggering riots.
The view of human nature is overall dark in an apocalyptic scenario and is really brutal. That’s disturbing because the idea that civilization is only humanity’s surface layer and that it can quickly vanish is plausible. In the initial part of the novel, it all seems very familiar, including certain human reactions that make the developments less than surprising.
Clive Brant is the character that best reflects human nature, with its strengths and above all with its flaws. Often selfish, he pursues his ambitions in a sometimes cynical way, yet he’s capable of making decisions that go beyond his own advantage. Even in the best case he tends to be a sort of lone wolf, and if he collaborates with other people, in general he does it precisely to his own advantage.
Charles Eric Maine’s style, with the story of the collapse of civilization caused above all by selfishness and opportunism, helps to maintain a cynical realism in “The Darkest of Nights”. Some parts are dated, for example, the black and white television footage, but in many ways the story remains plausible. Reading it today, it’s impossible not to make a comparison with the current situation thinking of certain violent and irrational reactions while facing a virus with low mortality with safety rules that are easy to maintain.
The characteristics of “The Darkest of Nights” made it a classic of apocalyptic science fiction and catastrophic novel in general, beyond the genre. For this reason, despite its age, I think it’s still worth reading.