On The Beach, Nevil Shute, William Morrow and Company, 1957, 320 pp
This was one of the scariest books I have ever read. It was the #8 bestseller in 1957. In the story, there has been a nuclear war in the northern hemisphere which wiped out all the people. The characters in the book live in and around Melbourne, Australia. Due to planetary winds the fallout is gradually and relentlessly blowing south, so they all know they are doomed and will die within the next several months. (I don't know if such an outcome is scientifically correct. Comments welcome from more informed readers.)
While the fictional war was over in 37 days, these people have some time to get used to the idea that they will soon be gone. Nevil Shute does an admirable job of imagining what that would be like. He brings it all to horrible life through a few characters: Lieutenant Commander Peter Holmes, his young wife Mary and one year old baby; several of their friends; and a US Navy Commander who is stranded in Melbourne with his submarine and crew, the last operational ship on earth.
In 1957, the prospect of a nuclear World War III loomed as a distinct possibility. I grew up under that potential nuclear cloud. Reading this book now made me realize how numb we have become to the threat of a nuclear end to life as we know it. I also realized that just because it hasn't happened yet in no way signifies that it won't ever happen.
Impending doom is nearly impossible to deal with mentally and emotionally for human beings. We can deal with what to have for lunch, hoping our children turn out OK, maybe we can even figure out an investment plan in these incomprehensible economic times. However, contemplating the end of the world is a bit beyond the imagination of most. One character in the book becomes a race car driver and tries his best to die in a racing accident before the fall out gets him. Instead, he wins. Truly scary.
On The Beach was made into a movie in 1959, starring Gregory Peck as the US Navy Commander and Ava Gardner as one of the Australian characters. Though as is usual, much of the story was left out, the movie had almost as much impact as the book. It is worth seeing, if you never have.
(On The Beach is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)