The Darkest of Nights – Charles Eric Maine

The Hueste virus is no ordinary infection; so named because it was first isolated by the German virologist Doctor Ludwig Hueste working in China and speculated to be a mutation caused in the influenza virus caused by radioactivity in the atmosphere following nuclear testing, its path as it swept across Asia was tracked by the International Virus Research Organisation who were unable to stop it.

Doctor Pauline Brant was due to travel home from Japan to see her husband but is instead met by his request for a divorce so he can be free to accept a job in America with his new love, so she throws herself into working for the British branch of the IVRO to assist in the Hueste crisis, the first cases already detected in Europe despite attempts to limit travel to control the spread as the world faces the darkest of nights.

Formerly foreign correspondent for the Monitor, journalist Clive Brant’s first assignment as an executive at soon-to-be-launched film and television production company is to try to ascertain the global impact of the epidemic, but all he finds are closed doors and official denials, while rumours continue that the situation is far, far worse than anyone will admit, the dead and dying piling up faster than they can be disposed of.

Hueste existing in two competing strains, the AB is invariably fatal while the BA causes only a minor fever then conveys immunity but the unstable virus produces both isomers in the cells of all who are infected meaning even those who are now themselves immune to the killer form still carry it and can infect others. The net result is that unless a vaccine can be developed, fully half the population of the world will die.

First published in 1962 and now reprinted by the British Library as part of their Science Fiction Classics series, Charles Eric Maine’s The Darkest of Nights is in many ways a companion piece to his earlier apocalyptic “scientific thriller” also recently reprinted, The Tide Went Out; there the cholera epidemic brought about by lack of sanitation was a concern secondary to the loss of the world’s oceans, while here disease is the principal driving force.

Another novel of global crisis management, London is again the focus as evacuation centres are planned and senior figures of government and industry are moved to the supposed safety of underground bunkers from where they will continue to rule a nation crippled by fear, industrial strikes and a workforce crippled by sickness and rationing.

With open insurrection on the streets and sections of the military deserting to join the rebels, the government enclaves are primary targets irrespective that they are also where the medical personnel, Pauline included, are struggling to defeat the disease with the limited tools they have; seeing a chance to remove “the establishment” who have deserted them, they would rather rule the ruins than see them return to power.

Clive having fallen in with the rebels when he and his camera crew were attempting to evacuate riot-torn London, regardless of their professed progressive socialist ideals of his captors it is apparent that carving a new society out of the bloody corpse of the old is not going to be so easy as their utopian dreams would have them believe.

Maine a writer of plot and action rather than character, The Darkest of Nights, also known as Survival Margin, is a swift and devastating read but the narrators are observers rather than engaging characters, and not particularly likeable, particularly Clive; while his fluctuating loyalties are understandable – the alternative prospect to collaborating either imprisonment or summary execution – even in his best moments it is difficult to care for him.

A cynical book which remains relevant so long as inequality exists (“The government that professes humanitarianism will in the next breath attempt to justify atrocities against humanity,” “ethics are of negligible value to a corpse”), the area in which Clive does hold fast is in his journalistic standards, wishing to present facts rather than propaganda and allowing the masses to make their own decisions based on that, an integrity which rather sets him apart from too many of his modern peers.

The Darkest of Nights is available from now from the British Library



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