This gem from 1839 is an early example of the "cosmic disaster" science
fiction tale, showing how biblical end-of-the-world prophecy might be
fulfilled through hard scientific fact. It is also highly imaginative: what
better setting for a post-apocalyptic story than the afterlife (which Poe
Nonetheless, the astronomers' announcement of a new comet inspired apprehension. Long had men believed comets portents of ill, heralds of pestilence and war.
Worse, its path, at perihelion, was predicted to bring it into contact with Earth. Laymen steeped in worldly considerations had difficulty grasping this concept, but the truth of a vitally important fact soon becomes apparent to even the most stolid. All men saw that astronomical knowledge lied not, and awaited the comet.
Its approach seemed slow at first. For a week it remained a small, dull glow in the sky. The ordinary affairs of men halted; everyone became absorbed in discussion of the comet. Learned men gave their intellect--their souls--to allaying fear, and to beloved theory. They studied, analyzed, deduced. Truth arose in her purity, strength, and majesty, and the wise fawned and adored.
Scientists proclaimed the comet's nucleus far less dense than our rarest gas. Theologists reminded us that the world must end in fire, and that comets were not fiery. For a brief moment, reason hurled superstition from her throne!
What minor evils might arise were elaborately debated. The learned conjectured slight geological disturbances, alterations in climate, and consequently in vegetation; magnetic and electric influences. Perhaps no perceptible effect would ensue. Meanwhile, the comet gradually approached, growing in apparent diameter and brightness. Mankind paled as it came, despite all reassurances.
When the comet grew larger than any previously recorded visitation, the people felt certainty of evil. Their fears no longer seemed chimerical. The hearts of the stoutest men beat violently within their bosoms. In a few days, however, such feelings merged into sentiments even more unendurable. We could no longer apply to the strange orb any accustomed thoughts. Its historical attributes had disappeared. It oppressed us with a hideous novelty of emotion. More than an astronomical phenomenon, it became an incubus on our hearts, a shadow on our brains. It had taken, inconceivably quickly, the character of a gigantic mantle of rare flame, extending from horizon to horizon.
Another day, and men breathed easier. Clearly already within the comet's influence, we lived. We even felt an unusual elasticity of frame and vivacity of mind. The comet's exceeding tenuity was apparent; heavenly objects were plainly visible through it. Meantime, all vegetation had perceptibly altered, bursting into a luxuriance of foliage, and we gained faith, from this predicted circumstance, in the foresight of the wise.
Yet another day, and the evil was not altogether upon us. The first sense of pain--rigorous constriction of breast and lungs, insufferable dryness of skin--brought widespread lamentation and horror. Our atmosphere was obviously radically altered, and when this alteration was investigated, terror filled the heart of mankind.
The air around us had long been known to consist of 21% oxygen and 79% nitrogen gases. Oxygen--the principle of combustion, and vehicle of heat--supported animal life, and was the most powerful, energetic agent in nature. Nitrogen, however, supported neither animal life nor flame. An unnatural excess of oxygen would result, it was ascertained, in such an elevation of animal spirits as we were experiencing. And what would be the result of total extraction of the nitrogen? Combustion irresistible, universal, immediate--the fulfilment of the fiery prophecies of the Holy Book!
Need I paint, Charmion, mankind's unleashed frenzy? That impalpable, tenuous
comet would be our doom! Another day passed, along with the last shadow of
Hope. We gasped in rapidly changing air, red blood bounding tumultuously
through strict channels. Delirium possessed us; arms outstretched toward the
threatening heavens, we trembled and screamed. The nucleus of the destroyer
was upon us: even here in Aidenn, I shudder while I speak. A wild lurid
light glared, penetrating everything. Then--let us bow down, Charmion,
before God's majesty!--there came a shouting, pervading sound, as if from
HIS mouth; while the very ether about us burst into intense flame, for whose
surpassing brilliance and heat even the angels have no name. Thus ended all.
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