Monday 10 October 2011

It's the End of the World as We Know It: The Cataclysm (The Hopkins Manuscript) by R. C. Sherriff (Pan Books, 1958)

For nigh on two thousand years, post-apocalyptic fiction has exerted a strange but powerful and profound pull on the popular imagination. From Noah's Ark in the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation in the New to Mary Shelley's The Last Man and, latterly, Lars von Trier's Melancholia, tales of the destruction of mankind, the Earth, or both, have terrified, tantalised and astounded in equal measure. Some of these stories deal with the apocalypse itself, some with the aftermath – and some with both – but all tap into a deep-rooted, near-primal fear of, and fascination with, the End of Everything.

I'm as partial as anyone to spot of post-apocalyptic fiction; perhaps my favourite novel of all time is a classic of the genre, while the name I chose for this very blog could be seen as evidence of my preoccupation with existential doom and gloom (er... possibly). So, over the next few weeks here on Existential Ennui, it's the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine), as we embark on a series of posts on post-apocalyptic prose. There'll be death and destruction – both paranormal and horrifyingly mundane – on an awe-inspiring, industrial scale, as the human race is brought to the brink of extinction over and over again by, variously, disease, drugs, suicide, infertility, vampirism and good old fashioned nuclear annihilation. Some of the books I'll be featuring will be familiar, others rather less so, while others still might surprise at their inclusion; but a good many boast fantastic cover art, and all are intriguing in their own way. And if all this nihilism gets a bit too much, I'll be throwing the odd Donald E. Westlake/Violent World of Parker cross-post into the mix to lighten the mood.

So, let's sally forth and get set to meet our maker, with a triple-whammy opening salvo in the form of, consecutively, celestial collision, Biblical-scale flooding and geopolitical resource conflict!

The Cataclysm by R. C. Sherriff was first published in paperback in the UK by Pan Books in 1958 – at least, under that title. In fact it's a revised version of Sherriff's 1939 novel The Hopkins Manuscript:

which was republished in 2005 under its original title by Persephone Books, with a new preface by Michael Moorcock, and which Fay Weldon called "spectacular, skilled and moving and supremely and alarmingly relevant to our life today". That irresistible Pan cover showing a flooded London – artist unknown, I'm afraid – is a trifle misleading, too, because although the novel begins and ends with its narrator, retired schoolmaster Hopkins, eking out a degraded existence in the devastated capital, much of the story takes place in the (fictional, I believe) backwater village of Beadle.

The "cataclysm" of the title refers to the Moon crashing – or, more accurately, splashing – into the Atlantic, causing mass flooding and leading to the disintegration of society, as recounted in the surprising final stages of the novel. Sherriff didn't pen many books – he's best known as a playwright – but The Hopkins Manuscript/The Cataclysm is an effectively chilling tale – a little hokey in places, sure, but well written and with a bleak and unexpectedly sweeping climax.

While the Persephone edition of The Hopkins Manuscript is readily available, the Pan paperback of The Cataclysm isn't quite so common; I picked up my copy at the Ardingly Antiques Fair over the summer, but AbeBooks currently has just ten copies listed worldwide. And having only (partially) read the Pan edition, I'm unsure as to how heavily Sherriff revised The Hopkins Manuscript for the retitled version... but the next book I'll be blogging about is also a retitled edition, and with that one I do know how it differs not only from the original, but from subsequent editions as well. It's not the most obvious of post-apocalyptic tales – or rather, collection of tales – but it definitely depicts the end of the world, although in this instance as more of a backdrop to its chronicling of the colonisation of a certain red planet...


  1. Exciting! I look forward to this series. I'm a huge fan of the post-apocalyptic genre. Hope you have some John Christopher in there!

  2. Unfortunately I'm gonna disappoint you on that score, sir: much as I love the Tripods novels, I don't own any of them. But hopefully some of the other books I'll be showcasing will make up for it...