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Novel by Graham Masterton (Scotland) 1977.

Dr Leonard Petrie is called out one morning to help a young boy who had become ill the previous night. He rushes him to hospital, where he is pronounced dead on arrival. He is an early victim of a new and mutated form of bubonic plague, highly contagious and quick to kill, caused by radiation and carried in the sewage which has been washing up on many American beaches. Dr Petrie escapes from Miami, which has been completely sealed off, and heads for New York. It is as he reaches New York that he realises why he has been surprisingly immune and therefore how he can cure the disease which has wiped out much of the country.

A distinctly depressing thriller where the whole plot seems disturbingly real. It seems real because, like Michael Mannion's Death Cloud, the environmental issues that trigger the plot hit a nerve. It's real because the characterisation is so true to life; most disaster novels like this use a few principal characters like the doctor who struggles through everything and the researcher who saves the day, but everybody else is plague-fodder.

Here Masterton includes a wealth of principal characters, the most realistic of which is Dr. Petrie's young daughter, especially in magic touches such as when she asks her father, "Why do those men let flies walk on their faces?" Petrie replies that they're all dead and therefore don't mind, and his daughter answers, "I won't let flies walk on my face, even when I'm dead." It's real because there's no happy ending, even when Petrie discovers the cure.

And it's real because Masterton doesn't play up the graphic horror like Gary Brandner's The Brain Eaters or Guy Smith's Thirst, but explores the human element of horror instead; the looters and muggers and rapists who take over the cities when the power goes down; the medical union boss who brings all his members out on strike because they won't receive huge bonuses for treating plague victims; and the neo-fascists who use the calamity to try to boost themselves into power. As Dr Petrie says, "... I feel more frightened of the people than I do of the plague."

There's a whole shelf of disaster novels like this, but there's a dearth of books that even approach this quality. One of the very very best. One small thing, though: wondering where writers get their inspiration for novels from, does this owe its existence to the phrase 'shit happens'?!

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