The Top Pandemic Thrillers to Turn to Right Now
To paraphrase that familiar insurance ad: I know a thing or two about pandemics, because I’ve seen a thing or two—both as an author who has written multiple thrillers involving global outbreaks, and as a frontline ER physician who has faced HIV, SARS, H1N1, and now faces the coronavirus pandemic on a daily basis.
It’s hard to imagine a more suspenseful backdrop for a thriller than a pandemic. The drama is inherent. First, given the potential human and economic costs, the stakes couldn’t get much higher. Second, as we are discovering now with COVID-19, there is a pervasive and haunting sense of the unknown that always accompanies a new outbreak (or, as we call them in the business, an emerging pathogen). And finally, there is always a ticking clock so loud it can practically be heard off the page. The pandemic creates the ultimate setting for both a quest-for-the-cure and overcoming-the-monster types of a story. And when done well, a suspense novel based on a pandemic can glue you to every page and cost you hours of lost sleep. The best of them will make you reevaluate your own life and priorities.
I have been and continue to be inspired in my own writing by the many talented authors who have mastered the subgenre of pandemic suspense. Here are a few of my favorites.
- The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton (1969)
I wonder if I would even be an author, at least a published one, were it not for the inspiration of my literary hero, Michael Crichton, who’s sadly no longer with us. I’ve always been awed by his ability to take huge scientific topics—from cloning dinosaurs to time travel—and deconstruct them in a non-condescending way, while still thrilling readers with original storylines and relatable characters. His skill of simultaneously educating and entertaining is on full display in his debut novel, the Andromeda Strain, which tells the story of an alien microorganism that inadvertently falls to earth and threatens to launch a pandemic.
- The Stand by Stephen King (1978)
Stephen King could terrify me with a novel about sunflowers. But I don’t stand a chance when he sets his imagination to the topic of pandemics! In his novel The Stand, a weaponized flu virus leaks out of containment and kills most of civilization, engendering a post-apocalyptic society that is anything but peaceful. This novel will leave you thankful that COVID-19 isn’t as deadly as other contagions.
- Outbreak by Robin Cook (1987)
Robin Cook’s reign as king of the medical thriller genre is almost as long as Queen Elizabeth’s rule. And in Outbreak, he envisions a vicious virus with the potential to ignite a pandemic escaping from CDC laboratories under nefarious circumstances. Don’t judge this book by the big-budget movie it inspired; the source novel makes for a much more compelling story.
- Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (2003)
Margaret Atwood, the Canadian literary icon, is a masterful creator of futuristic dystopian worlds like that of The Handmaid’s Tale. The same is true of her novel Oryx and Crake, a cautionary account of how terrible the world could be after technology, genetic engineering, and global warming conspire to release a pandemic that wipes out society.
- Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014)
Station Eleven is another novel that imagines a depopulated world in the wake of a pandemic. While the story is suspenseful, it’s more character-driven, contemplative, and awash in moral quandaries than a typical thriller.
- The Eyes of Darkness by Dean Koontz (1981)
Many are calling Dean Koontz a prophet for “predicting” the current pandemic in 1981. That’s a stretch. There is a virus in this story named Wuhan-400 that wreaks havoc in Northern California, but the coincidences and parallels largely end there. Still, The Eyes of Darkness a ripping good thriller that would make for great poolside reading. Maybe not so much on a plane, though. Planes and pandemics, even fictional ones, don’t mix so well anymore.
- The Hot Zone by Richard Preston (1994)
OK, I’m cheating here. The Hot Zone is nonfiction. But it reads as compulsively as any thriller. Unputdownable. Preston tells the story of the emergence of various new and terrifying infectious threats, such as Ebola and the Marburg virus. And all the cataclysmic near misses the rest of the world has hardly even been aware of.
- Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (2009)
OK, now I’m wildly cheating, as this novel is neither a thriller nor does it have anything to do with pandemics. But it is penned by a remarkably talented physician. And since I have control of the list and Cutting for Stone is probably my all-time favourite work of medical fiction, I have to add it regardless of how poorly it fits. Pandemic or not, everyone should read this beautiful story about a multi-generational medical family in Ethiopia!
Dr. Daniel Kalla is the international bestselling author of historical and medical thrillers, including We All Fall Down, Pandemic, and Resistance. His latest novel, The Last High (May 2020), pulls back the curtain on the dark underbelly of the opioid crisis. His books have been translated into eleven languages. Kalla is the head of Emergency Medicine at St Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, where he is currently helping fight on the front lines of Covid. Visit him at www.DanielKalla.com