THE DARKEST OF NIGHTS by Charles Eric Maine
British Library p/b £8.99 (UK) 317 pages ISBN: 978-0-7123-5218-5
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
Try to imagine a new virus that originates in China and initially spreads to nearby countries like Japan. It is extremely virulent and is quickly transmitted around the world. Airborne, its initial symptoms are flu-like including fever and breathing difficulties. The fatality rate of those infected is very high. Though sceptical at first, governments begin to realise that this pandemic is out of hand, all travel is stopped and borders are closed. A frantic search for a vaccine begins but the earliest estimate will be six months. In Britain, as the death rate rises parks are closed as are theatres, cinemas, stadia. Communal gatherings are banned and the population is urged to stay at home unless absolutely necessary. Schools close and workers in offices are expected to distance themselves from each other. Admissions to all kinds of premises are restricted. No, this is not a hastily rushed out novel of 2020. The Darkest of Nights was published in 1962.
While the background against which this novel is set may seem very familiar to us in the current crisis, the measures taken are logical to try to stem the spread of the virus. Maine’s view, though, of the governments motives leave much to be desired but it is one that was reiterated in other novels of the time, especially those predicting a nuclear war. In The Darkest of Nights isolation bunkers are dug beneath city parks to house the elite – those scions of industry without whom the economy would never recover. Needless to say, the average man, left to take chances with the virus is not happy and the resulting riots become an organised insurrection led by the ultra-left-wing.
The novel, though is not just about events and ideas but revolves around the entangled lives of three principal characters. Pauline Brant is a virologist who, as the book opens, is working in Tokyo and thus sees some of the early victims. She is about to return to London for a vacation. Her husband, Clive, is a journalist who has just been offered a lucrative new job in New York. With the job comes the boss’s daughter so he is looking for a divorce. Pauline and Clive haven’t seen much of each other during the past three years since both have been dedicated to their respective careers. The other corner of the triangle is Dr ‘Vince’ Vincent, a virologist working in London. He conceives a passion for Pauline and is prepared to divorce his own wife to be with her, even though she thinks of him more as a friend than a lover.
While Maine’s virus is far more deadly than our Covid-19 (50-50 chance of death if you catch it), many of the sensible measures are now familiar. Fortunately, no government has yet roused public wrath by trying to choose who to protect by building sterile bunkers. In many ways, The Darkest of Nights is a novel of its time when many writers felt that elitism would be the response of governments and that some kind of revolution was inevitable. In the 1960s when Maine was writing, Science Fiction was a vehicle for the ‘dire warning’. Yes, we should be looking out for the global pandemic before now (we had warnings with MERS, SARS and Swine Flu) but hopefully, this kind of anarchy can be avoided