On the Beach by Nevil Shute (William Morrow, 1957)


On the Beach by British/Australian author, Nevil Shute, is the scariest book ever written. Yes, Stephen King is a masterful horror story writer who has scared the bejeezus out of me more than once, and yes, The Walking Dead in its comic book and television form is terrifying. And yes, I still won't swim at the Jersey shore after reading Peter Benchley's masterful Jaws. But to me, On the Beach stands alone in its nightmarish presentation of the end of the world as we know it, and the book has never been more terrifying than it is today, in 2017.

Although I first read On the Beach fifty years ago, its premise and characters continue to haunt me whenever I think about it. I decided to write a Retro-review on it because it should still be taught in every secondary school world-wide. Those readers who have never heard of Nevil Shute, who not only wrote twelve novels, but served as a British aviation engineer who worked on creating weapons of mass destruction, need to be exposed to the first apocolyptic novel of the modern era. Shute's message is still as potent and frightening as it was when the book was published in 1957.

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The premise of the novel is this: World War III lasted only one month, but the amount of nuclear devastation from the war has wiped out the population of the Northern Hemisphere, leaving only part of South America, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa, inhabited by living creatures. Scientists estimate that within nine months time, nuclear fallout will wipe out the remaining population of the Earth's human and animal population. Thus, the novel explores how the doomed characters cope with living and with dying.

Although the novel does not have a large cast of characters, Shute presents each in a way that we invest, even though we realize we should not. For example, Moira Davidson, a young woman is floundering through what's left of her life in a boozy haze. When she is introduced to the debonair American Naval Commander Dwight Towers, she articulates the thing that bothers her the most about not having a future. She tells him, “It's so unfair. Even if you took me to bed tonight, I'd never have a family because there wouldn't be time.” (p. 37) Moira reiterates her loss several times during the novel.

Dwight Towers, loyal to his family and country, although intellectually he knows they are both dead, speaks of his wife, Sharon, and his two children, as if they were still living, and that he will someday be returning to them. He carefully chooses gifts to bring home to them upon his return to Connecticut, which now exists only in his mind. While Moira hides from fate in alcohol, Towers does so in denial of the truth.

John Osborne, a scientist who travels with Towers aboard the submarine, U.S.S. Scorpion, harbors a fantasy that he will one day be a racing car driver. After the nuclear holocaust, he acquires a Ferrari and petrol for a nominal sum, enabling him to work on making his dream come true. By clinging to his fantasy, Osborne establishes a goal for himself that sustains him through the final nine months of existence.

The most poignant and difficult story with which to deal is that of a young couple, Mary and Peter Holmes, who have an infant named Jennifer. Holmes is also in the Navy and is called upon to travel with Towers on the submarine in search of an odd and nearly unintelligible Morse Code tapping emanating from the area of the Puget Sound. Deserting Mary for two months is hard on Peter, as he realizes that Mary's mental state is fragile, and she is caring for her fussy infant. Interestingly, when Peter thinks of his daughter, in his mind her refers to the child as “it,” not Jennifer or her. This is part of the brilliance of Shute's psychological portrayal of how Earth's final inhabitants cope with their painful destinies.

Shute introduces the novel by including several lines from T.S. Eliot's poem “The Hollow Men”:

In this last of meeting places

We grope together

And avoid speech

Gathered on the beach of the tumid river . . .

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

From the words of Eliot's poem, we glean both the title of the novel, and the essence of its theme.

In their final conversation of the book, Mary asks her husband, Peter, “Couldn't anyone have stopped it?” to which Peter responds, “I don't know . . . Some kinds of silliness you just can't stop. I mean if a couple of hundred million people all decide that their national honour requires them to drop cobalt bombs upon their neighbour, well, there's not much that you or I can do about it. The only possible hope would have been to educate them out of their silliness.” (p.268)

And so, Shute's question resonates with us 60 years after the publication of his book. There is daily madness all around us; in Turkey, in Syria, in France, in Germany, in the United Kingdom, in the United States. Is the unthinkable something we need to ponder? What is our responsibility as citizens of the world to protect not just the environment, but humankind? Yes, 60 years after On the Beach first appeared, its relevance resonates with all of us on the planet. If you have not read this iconic tale of horror, do so. Shute's story is, ultimately, a novel of moral imperative for every inhabitant of our fragile world.