Moonlight Red: by Dighton Morel

Dighton Morel's rather obscure apocalypse novel Moonlight Red, published in 1960, sits easily at the tail end of a decade of such novels, from John Christopher's The Death of Grass to Nevil Shute's On the Beach; it also sits uneasily ahead of the New Wave of the 1960s. Moonlight Red is peopled with the types so prevalent of apocalypse novels written during a more stable era - so we have the stuffy Colonel, the concerned schoolmaster, the dedicated doctor. Yet Morel breaks down all these 1950s types with an extraordinary cruelty which can only be described as ahead of its time. Not far ahead of its time admittedly - for Morel's characters apocalypse will always be only a few years away, in the mid-60s, perhaps, at the hands of a likely Norman Spinrad.

The novel begins blandly enough - a pandemic of flu affects most of the population; slowly it is brought under control. But an outbreak of secondary flu almost invariably results in patients developing encephalitis, which leads to permanent and incurable madness. The authorities, aware that everyone who contracted flu will also contract encephalitis, give up the ghost almost immediately. The action of the novel focuses very specifically on the English town of Westhaven, with almost no reference to what happens outside; and, by inference, what happens in Westhaven is what happens everywhere - after an initial attempt to quarantine victims of acute mania, the authorities are quickly overwhelmed and the now-mad populace is allowed to kill itself off at will. At this point the survivors, Whites (those who have never had flu), and Blues (those who have had flu but have not yet developed mania), withdraw to a redoubt which is, ironically enough, the asylum camp built to house the very first victims. Here they hold fort for a time. Straggling Whites are taken in; Blues who develop the mania are expelled. And it is this which finally undoes the fledgling community - because among those they take in is a gang, made up according to the best traditions of middle class fears about the problem of youth. We have the gang-leader, his moll, the guitar-playing sidekick, etc.

It is at this point that the novel develops encephalitis of its own. Morel seems determined to act out a confrontation between youth and authority in a sparse community where neither youth nor authority exist in any shape or form where they might pose a threat to one another. The ensuing confrontation is a strange one - casualties are high and, of course, no-one wins. No-one can win. In the absence of both authority and youth to worship, the survivors turn to a quasi-religious figure to lead them, a guru fully qualified for leadership by dint of his previous occupation - wearing a sandwich board which reads 'the end is nigh.' The 60s have finally arrived.

An interesting novel, full of absurdities and fallacies, but very much in the tradition of English disasters; Morel humiliates his characters, sparing no-one - all their worst fears, and fates, come true. It is interesting to compare Moonlight Red with Edmund Cooper's All Fools' Day, in which solar radiation kills off the sane and spares the mentally ill. Cooper's book is much better, but it is 'cosy catastrophe' as defined by Aldiss;  Morel's book is not, for reasons that remain inexplicable.

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