14 thought-provoking novels about virus outbreaks and plagues

The top novels about virus outbreaks, epidemics, and plagues

These thrilling books by Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, Albert Camus, Ken Follett, or Lydia Kang show how plagues impact the morality and culture of the society, leading to decay and dictatorship.

In today’s world, the idea of a plague has become incredibly distant. With medical advancements happening at rapid speeds and hygienic practices being commonplace, our generation perceives itself as extraordinarily healthy.

But whereas the medieval times of bad hygiene and lack of proper sewage methods are long gone, virus outbreaks still happen every couple of years. And while the most recent ones, 2003’s SARS and today’s coronavirus, are much smaller in impact, they serve as a grim reminder that we are not superhuman – and will never be.

The biggest names in literature – Camus, Poe, King, Atwood, among many others – have been fascinated by the concept of a plague. But not just the plague itself – and rather by how it influences, disrupts, and transforms the humankind.

The selected books explore pandemic outbreaks in many different terms. Some focus on the fact that plague knows no status – and even the rich and privileged can be influenced by it.

Other novels explore how plague impacts the culture and morality of the society – and how while it may lead to collaboration and humanitarianism, it may also bring decay and dictatorship.

And finally, two others explore plague as not a deadly, but a limiting force that slowly and inevitably brings the complete destruction of humankind.

Sci-fi page-turners, brilliant mysteries, and blood-curdling thrillers – scroll down to find out which books made the list.

The best novels about virus outbreaks and plagues

1. The Stand

The Stand - Stephen King

Stephen King

After a rapidly mutating bio-engineered virus escapes a U.S. army base lab, it is only a matter of weeks before almost all humankind is wiped out. Fully contagious and completely resistant to antibodies and vaccines, “Project Blue” storms in and outside of America, killing 99% of the Earth’s human population – all because of a nanosecond-long computer error.

But whereas most succumb to the virus, there are some who seem to be immune to it. And not just that – all of them seem to be having the exact same, repeated nightmares about a strange figure asking them to come and see her. And while the survivors are trying to assemble, two sides of a conflict begin to emerge.

This brilliantly well-written, 1,400-page-long post-apocalyptic thriller is riveting, disturbing, and highly immersive – and an absolute must-read, not just for Stephen King fans.

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2. Pandemic (The Extinction Files Book 1)

Pandemic - A.G. Riddle - best novels about epidemics

A. G. Riddle

When a mysterious deadly outbreak begins spreading rapidly in Kenya, WHO sends in their best researchers, led by Dr. Peyton Shaw, to investigate the mysterious disease. It does not take long before Peyton discovers that the outbreak is unlike anything she’s seen before – and suspects it to be a part of a global experiment designed to unleash a new era of human existence.

So when the virus begins to spread around the world, Shaw knows she has to act quickly to find a way to contain it. But the clock is ticking, and Shaw has more questions than answers.

Complex and fast-paced, Pandemic is guaranteed to engulf you by the dark vision of the world it portrays. And the best thing about it? It has a part two.

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3. I Am Legend

I Am Legend - Richard Matheson

Richard Matheson

After most of the human population has been eliminated by a deadly pandemic, the very few who have survived have been turned into pale-skinned vampires. Vampires thirsty for the last living man on Earth, Robert Neville.

During the day, Robert struggles to scavenge for food. By night, he hides and prays for the sun to rise.

I Am Legend is a highly suspenseful, quick read about post-apocalyptic lone survival, and a classic among plague fiction.

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4. A Beautiful Poison

A Beautiful Poison - Lydia Kang

Lydia Kang

August 1918, New York. The deadly Spanish influenza is just beginning to poison Manhattan. But young socialite Allene, whose friends and relatives begin to pass away one by one, refuses to believe that the flu is really to blame. Instead, she thinks they were poisoned.

Desperate for answers, along with her friends, Jasper and Birdie, Allene begins to investigate. As her loved ones fall sick one after another, alliances shift, lives become entangled, and the trio becomes increasingly suspicious – of each other.

A Beautiful Poison is a mystery interwoven with turns and twists, set in a world rippled by one of the biggest pandemics of all time.

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5. The Masque of the Red Death

The Masque of the Red Death - Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

When Prince Prospero’s kingdom falls ill to a deadly plague, the ruler decides to lock himself away in a castle among a thousand of his favorite nobles and knights. Entertained by wine, women, music, dancing and fools, Prospero’s abbey holds a never-ending feast, all while the Red Death silently rages outside.

Months pass, and Prospero comes up with a brilliant new idea – to throw a spectacular masquerade ball in a suite of seven rooms, each of a different color. But when the clock strikes midnight, the guests make a horrific discovery.

A classic among horror short stories, The Masque of the Red Death offers a unique take on plague fiction.

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6. The Scarlet Plague

The Scarlet Plague - Jack London - best novels about plagues

Jack London

2013. An uncontrollable epidemic, the Red Death, begins its rampage. But those who are lucky enough to survive are facing an entirely different struggle: a society once polite and well-mannered had turned into packs of animal-like, brute predators. And it seems like there’s no going back.

2063. Sixty years have passed, and Professor Smith struggles to recount the fall of civilization to his three grandchildren, realizing that they have now become uncouth savages who will never know the beauty of civilization.

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7. The Last Man

The Last Man - Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley

In a future ravaged by a deadly plague, Lionel Verney is the last human standing. As he sets off to a lone trip through Europe and Africa, he reflects on his past as a close friend of the son of the last King of England, and the world soon struck by immeasurable tragedy.

In this deeply personal novel, Mary Shelley cleverly incorporates parallels to her own life story, grieving the death of her own husband, children, and closest friends, which she transforms into the complete extinction of the human species.

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8. A Journal of the Plague Year

A Journal Of The Plague Year - Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe

Written as an account of one man’s experiences of the year 1665, A Journal of the Plague Year describes the grim reality in London struck by the bubonic plague. As the narrator traces the devastating progress of the pandemic, we see a landscape transformed with smells and suffering, and its citizens desperately trying to contain the disease despite knowing nothing of what caused it.

And while Defoe was only five years old at the time of the outbreak, the book is most probably based on the journals of his uncle, Henry, making it a part-fictional, part diary-entry-like read. Detailed, factual, and thought-provoking, A Journal of the Plague Year describes the reality of the bubonic plague unlike any other.

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9. The Children of Men

The Children of Men - P. D. James

P. D. James

The human race has completely lost the ability to reproduce. The last generation to be born is now adult and awaiting extinction. And Theo, an Oxford historian and cousin of the Warden of England, is slowly dying too. But when he meets the bright and attractive Julian and her band of unlikely revolutionaries, he finds himself slowly regaining the desire to live.

With P. D. James’s trademark riveting storytelling, The Children of Men intertwines thought-provoking dystopian fiction with top-shelf mystery.

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10. The Andromeda Strain

The Andromeda Strain - Michael Crichton

Michael Crichton

When a military satellite returns to Earth, it’s only a matter of days before everyone in a twelve-mile radius drops dead. Everyone, except for an old man and a baby, who strangely remain unaffected by the deadly wave.

The U.S. government assembles Wildfire, a secret team of scientists and doctors, to investigate. They soon arrive to a blood-curdling conclusion: the cause of the deaths was a mysterious, highly contagious mutant virus from space. As they work together to come up with a vaccine, a gripping race against time begins.

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11. The Atlantis Gene

The Atlantis Gene - A.G. Riddle - best novels about virus outbreaks

A. G. Riddle

Off the coast of Antarctica, a research group discovers a strange ancient structure buried deep within an iceberg. At the same moment, in Jakarta, Indonesia, brilliant geneticist Kate Warner has just come up with a breakthrough treatment for autism. Or so she thinks.

What Kate found is far more deadly – not just for her, but for the entire human race. Her work could unleash the next stage of human evolution. And it holds the key to unlocking the mysterious structure off the coast of Antarctica.

As the first book in A. G. Riddle’s bestselling Origin Mystery series, this is the novel that started it all. Fast-paced and packed with action, it reads just like a well-made thriller movie.

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12. The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood

In a world where fertility rates have collapsed as a result of sexually transmitted diseases, environmental pollution and radiation, the society is completely re-organized to help fight childlessness. Or so it seems.

Those (un-)lucky enough to remain fertile have now become Handmaids. Each is assigned to one home of the ruling elite, and once every month must submit to ritualized rape to bear children for them. They have lost their names, their bodies, and their independence.

The Handmaid’s Tale‘s main focus lies not in plague, but rather in how it can serve as an ideological tool – and transform the society completely.

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13. Sick (A Project Eden Thriller Book 1)

Sick - Brett Battles - best novels about virus outbreaks

Brett Battles

Late at night, Captain Daniel Ash is awakened by the cries of his little daughter Josie who is burning with a high fever. He calls for his wife’s help, but gets no reply, so he returns to his bedroom only to find she has died while asleep. Horrified, he dials 911. Moments later, the front door are being smashed, men wearing biohazard suits storm in, and the nightmare begins.

Sick will hold you captive for hours after you’ve put the book down. And there are six more books in the series!

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14. Whiteout

Whiteout - Ken Follett - best books about virus outbreaks

Ken Follett

Twelve missing samples of a potentially deadly virus. A lab technician with blood coming from his eyes.

Toni Gallo, the security director of a Scottish medical research team, knows she’s in trouble, but she has no idea of the nightmare to come when the virus samples fall into the wrong hands. It’s Christmas Eve, and an unexpected blizzard is whipping out the north. But Toni is willing to do anything to catch the criminals.

Whiteout is a nail-biting race against time of a heroine trying to prevent a worldwide deadly outbreak.

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Keep exploring. Here are other lists and tips:

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