Written fourteen years before this current global pandemic, Thomas Mullen’s debut novel, The Last Town on Earth, is set during the height of the Spanish Influenza in 1918.
As you travel back in time with this book, you have to marvel at how often we hear the phrase “unprecedented times” used to describe our current pandemic. Globally, the Spanish Flu took the lives of 50 million while another 40 million lives were falling victim as The Great War raged in Europe. Those times make our current crisis look like a walk in the park.
Completely detached from the story that fills the rest of the book, the first two pages set the scene in horrific detail.
The sun poked out briefly, evidence of a universe above them, of watchful things—planets and stars and vast galaxies of infinite knowledge—and just as suddenly it retreated behind the clouds.
The doctor passed only two other autos during the fifteen-minute drive, saw but a lone pedestrian even though it was noon on Sunday, a time when people normally would be returning home from church, visiting with friends and family. The flu had been in Timber Falls for three weeks now, by the doctor’s best estimation, and nearly all traffic on the streets had vanished. The sick were condemned to their homes, and the healthy weren’t venturing outside.
“No one’s been down this street yet?” he asked the two nurses he was traveling with, both of whom had husbands fighting in France. He was a thin, older man with spectacles that had been dirtied by the wet coughs of countless patients.
“No,” one of the nurses said, shaking her head. Amid the swelling volume of the sick and dying, they hadn’t yet reached those this far outside of town, a lonely street where the poorest derelicts and most recent immigrants lived.
Neighbors had reported unnerving sounds coming from within one of the houses, but no one had been willing to go inside and check on the family.
The doctor parked beside the house, a two-story structure at the base of a slowly rolling hill. The ground was all mud, the wheels sinking a few inches. It even looked as if the house were sinking into the earth, its roof sloping to the right. The house was the last of five narrow buildings that seemed to lean against each other in their grief.
Before leaving the car, the visitors fastened gauze masks to their faces, covering their noses and mouths, and pulled on thin rubber gloves.
The doctor knocked on the door. There was no reply so he knocked again, harder this time, and identified himself.
“Look,” one of the nurses said. In the window to the left of the door they saw a face peering through the sheer curtain, a child no more than four years old. Her eyes were large and she appeared ghostlike, neither frightened of the masked strangers nor particularly interested in them. The nurse lifted a hand to wave but the child made no reply. The doctor knocked again, motioning to the door, but the child just stood there.
Finally the doctor turned the knob and walked inside. All the windows were shut, and the door clearly had not been opened in days. He noticed the smell immediately.
The little girl at the window turned to watch them. She was wearing an adult’s flannel shirt over her dirty nightgown, and her thick blond hair was uncombed. She was frighteningly thin.
The parlor was a disaster, clothes and toys and books strewn everywhere. A rocking chair was lying on its side, and a lamp had shattered on the floor. As the visitors stepped into the room two other girls emerged from the chaos, one younger and one slightly older than the girl in the window. They, too, were oddly dressed, dirty, wraithlike.
The doctor was about to ask where their parents were when he heard coughing, dry and hoarse. He and one of the nurses followed the sound down a short hallway and into a bedroom.
The other nurse stayed in the parlor with the children. She knelt on the floor and took some slices of rye bread from her bag. The girls raced toward her, hands extended, fingernails ripping into the food. In seconds there was nothing left, and all six eyes were again gazing at her expectantly.
In the bedroom, dark curtains were pulled over the window. The doctor could see the two beds, both occupied. Intermittent coughs came from the figure on the right, whose head rested on a pillow stained a dark red. The earlobes, nostrils, and upper lip were blackened with dried blood; the eyes were shut and the lids were a dark blue, as was the skin around them. The doctor saw a hand lying on top of the sheets, the fingers the color of wet ink. The small table beside the bed was streaked with blood, as was the Bible resting upon it.
The man coughed again and his eyes opened, unfocused, for no more than a second. The nurse knelt beside him to perform the meager duties her training dictated, even though she knew they were worthless now. It was better than looking at the figure in the other bed.
The woman lay on her side, facing her husband, her lips frozen in a rictus of pain. Her thin blond hair spilled across the pillow, some falling over the side of the bed and some caked in the dried blood on her face. It was impossible to tell how long she had been dead, as the Spanish flu’s corpses looked unlike any the doctor had seen. The blueness that darkened her husband had fully consumed her, making it impossible to guess her age or even her race. She resembled the burn victims the doctor had seen after a horrific mill fire years ago.
She was probably about the age of the nurses, the doctor wagered, for the flu seemed to be taking only those who were in the prime of their lives. The children may already have been recovering, but the flu had smothered their parents. This was entirely the opposite pattern of most influenzas.
They heard more coughing, from another room. The doctor and nurse looked at each other, surprised, then followed the sound into a bedroom on the opposite side of the hall. Here the window was curtainless, and as soon as they entered they saw two bodies lying on a large bed, both of them coughing. They were young adults, the sheets bloody near their heads. They sounded exactly like what they were: two people slowly suffocating to death.
There was a sudden movement between the bodies, tiny hands. A raven-haired child no more than three years old had been napping between her dying parents. She appeared tranquil for a moment, but the instant the girl opened her brown eyes, she started to scream. Whether terrified by the strangers in the masks or her nearly motionless parents, the nurse wasn’t sure. The girl kept screaming. It was as though the three silent children in the other room had found a voice in this one girl’s horror.