The Flame Alphabet

The Flame Alphabet
Genre : Fiction
Published : 7 Jun 2012 - Granta Books
In THE FLAME ALPHABET, the most manically gifted writer of our generation delivers a work of heartbreak and horror, a novel about how far we will go, and the sorrows we will endure, in order to protect our families.

A terrible epidemic has struck the country and the sound of children’s speech has become lethal. Radio transmissions from strange sources indicate that people are going into hiding. All Sam and Claire need to do is look around the neighbourhood: in the park, parents wither beneath the powerful screams of their children. At night, suburban side streets become routes of shameful escapes for fathers trying to get outside the radius of affliction.

With Claire nearing collapse, it seems their only means of survival is to flee from their daughter, Esther, who laughs at her parents’ sickness, unaware that in just a few years she, too, will be susceptible to the language toxicity. But Sam and Claire find it isn’t so easy to leave the daughter they still love, even as they waste away from her malevolent speech. On the eve of their departure, Claire mysteriously disappears, and Sam, determined to find a cure for this new toxic language, presses on alone into a world beyond recognition.

THE FLAME ALPHABET invites the question: what is left of civilisation when we lose the ability to communicate with those we love? Both morally engaged and wickedly entertaining, a gripping page-turner as strange as it is moving, this is intellectual horror story ensure Ben Marcus’s position in the first rank of American novelists.


What I found fascinating about this book, after its remarkable premise ... and the cold beauty of its prose, was my own reaction to it. I can put it no better than to say that this book got to me, and I started worrying whether Marcus had in fact achieved something darkly magical: the creation in readers of the very reaction he describes his characters having to language...

Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

Wittgensteinian curtailments of meaning, alongside cackling villains and suspenseful escapes."<br />

James Lasdun, author of IT’S BEGINNING TO HURT

This is, quite simply, one of the most powerful works of fiction it has ever been my privilege to read... It is a novel which has profound things to say about matters metaphysical but does so in a way that creates a physiological response. It is an unforgettable experience: as I closed the book my wife commented that I was as white as a sheet... Marcus crafts a wonderfully layered register for The Flame Alphabet, which merges the conceptual and the visceral, the intangible and the physical at every turn.

The Scotsman

In THE FLAME ALPHABET the story is both elaborate and melodramatic: disaster movie-cum-family tragedy... Marcus is an unworldly writer especially attuned to worldly things: to objects, to the body, and to the sense. In THE FLAME ALPHABET, his descriptions are sensuous to the point of decadence.


A novel concerned with children and language and the terrors wrought when one comes into possession of the other... [up to its conclusion] Marcus's writing has been brilliant, vocal-cord-taut, all incantations and vatics.

Joshua Cohen, London Review of Books

It's wickedly funny, but also a brilliant, eccentric horror story."<br />

Kate Saunders, The Times

This book is most notable for the way it treats a genre-style paranoia trope in a very literary fashion... This is a disaster story with very mature themes, such as the spreading of religion, the danger of the powerful word, and what enforced silence can mean for family values. While communication is still possible, it's worth spreading the word about this intriguing novel.

We Love This Book

A futuristic, intense, clever portrayal of a world where the speech of children is mutating into a virus that kills their parents. If you want a different, challenging read, this is it.

Red Magazine

'All we can do is decree that this is brilliant... THE FLAME ALPHABET is abuzz throughout with the kind of scorching prose that we’d expect from such bona fide American literary hot stuff.

Dazed and Confused

A measure of the book's success is that it enforces not just a suspension of disbelief, but for a while total surrender of the faculty of reason ... The drama of parental obsolescence is sharply articulated, as is the condition of terrorised parental love.


Larded with creepy metaphors, the author's own wayward language destabilises the reader s sense of linguistic propriety.


The Flame Alphabet gets into your head and under your skin and stays there.

'Books of the Year' chosen by Josh Cohen, The Big Issue

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