The Comet and the Plague
During the days of 6 to 8 May, the earth passed through what was officially called "comet debris" (although the original comet had never been identified). The first recorded appearance, of bright green flashes, was in California in the evening of Monday 6th which would have been early morning of the 7th in the UK. Green meteors were also being seen over the Pacific. It struck the UK in the evening of the 7th although occasional flashes were seen during the day.
The event consisted of varying green flashes, some of which were so bright as to light up the landscape like lightning. They caused little interference to electronics though, only on short wave transmissions.
All over the world, people gathered to watch the "fireworks display" and enjoy the unique event.
People who observed the flashes went permanently blind within a few hours. The blindness was swift but not immediate, allowing drivers to come to a halt at the roadside before losing their sight. It apparently affected most animals with birds noticeably missing and farm animals often observed in bewilderment.
There is a belief that the flashes were not caused by a comet but by a satellite which was damaged (possibly by real debris) and spread a radiation-based weapon which destroyed the optic nerve.
How to avoid the comet's effects
The characters in the book avoided the effects of the comet by various means:
- Bill Masen (eyes bandaged after injury)
- Jo Playton (took sleeping tablets after waking with a hangover)
- Wilfred Coker (hid in a cellar from the police)
- Unnamed tramp (fell asleep in a barn)
Other groups that would be expected to avoid the blindness would be:
- miners and cavers (assuming they could escape afterwards)
- very young children (although not likely to survive long afterwards if not with another seeing person)
Another possibility is that people who were living in areas with heavily overcast skies. Although the rays of the comet may well have been able to penetrate cloud (like ultra violet from the sun) and a green tint to the clouds may have been attractive, a greater proportion may have not bothered going outside in the first place.
Although not mentioned in the book, one possibility is that brief exposure to the comet may only have produced a temporary blindness so some people, not being impressed by the pyrotechnics, would have gone indoors sooner and thus regained their sight later.
Within about a week of the comet, a mysterious plague hit towns and cities across the world. The symptoms were a high temperature and agonising pains in the bowels which causes people to double over in pain. It was extremely contagious and death tended to follow within a day or so. A distinctive foul smell also arose soon after the plague struck.
With so few doctors around, it was impossible to define the disease exactly. Several survivors considered that it may be typhoid but decided eventually that it was not.
There was some speculation that the disease was not natural but rather man-made, resulting from a satellite weapon.