Whether you’re an avid consumer of literature or more of a five-books-a-year type, it doesn’t take much reading to realize that some themes appear over and over in fiction, from Charles Dickens to Stefanie Meyer. Readers should never trust a stranger in a gloomy tavern (Treasure Island, The Lord of the Rings), realize falling in love with their arch-enemies is always a possibility (Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice), and always assume someone has a secret twin (The Prince and the Pauper, Our Mutual Friend).

But there’s one other prominent theme that’s particularly relevant, given the upcoming total solar eclipse in the U.S. on April 8: Humans have always been scared shitless of unexpected darkness. Famous writers have long understood this. From Homer and Shakespeare to Mark Twain and Stephen King, many an author has relied on the celestial phenomenon to usher in an ominous plot twist.

One of the earliest allusions comes from ancient Greece. Though it’s open to interpretation, Homer’s The Odyssey makes reference to a potential eclipse, predicted by a murderous soothsayer. “A dreadful sign / appears above: the sun is veiled in mist, / and darkness covers all the fertile earth,” reads a modern translation. To no surprise, the next chapters detail a bloody resolution between Odysseus and the many suitors, servants, and even a sheepherder who all took advantage of his absence during the Trojan War.

Pure panic about eclipses is seen in books from BC to AD and well into the Middle Ages.
Pure panic about eclipses is seen in books from BC to AD and well into the Middle Ages. Print Collector/Getty Images

Jump ahead a few centuries, and eclipses harbinger the death of Christ, son of the Christian God. This “famous instance occurs in the Gospels at the death of Christ, as in Matthew 27:45,” says Martha Bayless, Director of the Department of Folklore and Public Culture at the University of Oregon. The text says “and there was darkness over the whole earth” in the middle of the afternoon. “This has long been interpreted as an eclipse,” she explains.

Bayless thinks this may be one of the first written associations between eclipses and misfortune in Western literature. Because European society in the following centuries was so heavily influenced by the word of the Bible, the idea may have become ingrained into society. “When an eclipse occurred in the Middle Ages,” says Bayless, “people similarly wondered whether it portended something great or something terrible. A wonderful sign, or God’s displeasure?”

Fast forward to the Renaissance and one of the most notable works of the 1600s: John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The poem treats eclipses the same way as the bible—as omens of literal evil. He writes of Satan (the “archangel ruined”) returning to lead troops from darkness at a time when the “new sun risen” is “shorn of his beams, or, from behind the moon, / In dim eclipse disastrous twilight sheds / On half the nations, and with fear of change.” This reinforces Milton’s not-so-subtle messaging that light is good and darkness is bad.

The eclipse in <em>King Lear</em> warns of dark times to come.
The eclipse in King Lear warns of dark times to come. DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/Getty Images

It’s all but impossible to write about literature without mentioning Shakespeare, partially as the Bard wrote nearly 40 plays. He was known to use direct language, and in King Lear he speaks to the common man on how one should feel about eclipses. “These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us,” speaks Gloucester, a loyal supporter of the king. “Though the wisdom of nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself scourged by the sequent effects. In cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ‘twixt son and father.” Updated to modern parlance, he’s basically saying that despite understanding why eclipses happen, they still bring catastrophe.

Mark Twain leans on the idea that eclipses are a sign from the divine to great effect in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), when protagonist Hank Martis finds himself transported to the year 528. When his modern way of thinking brings about accusations of witchcraft, he remembers an upcoming eclipse and uses his ability to “control” the astronomical event, wowing the king and convincing the citizens of his divine power.

Naturally, the eclipse is described as striking fear in the masses of King Arthur’s court. “With the falling of the first shadow of that darkness you shall see them go mad with fear,” writes Twain. “You could see the shudder sweep the mass like a wave.”

Mark Twain used a scientific understanding of eclipses to sow fear into the masses.
Mark Twain used a scientific understanding of eclipses to sow fear into the masses. Alpha Historica/Alamy

While the scene is meant to be humorous to then-contemporary readers—not coincidentally, the novel was published roughly around the same time astronomy entered mainstream science in the western world—it shows that the fear of eclipses has long been a given in the literary world.

“Most people never get to witness an eclipse in their whole lives, making these a very rare occurrence and one that would historically have been almost impossible to explain,” says Román Ramos Báez, a fellow in the University of Chicago’s Department of Genetics and Evolutionary Biology. He believes the infrequency and the unknown are two main reasons why people tend to fear eclipses. “When we don’t know whether something poses a threat to us, it is often smarter to err on the side of caution,” since fear can help protect against danger.

Though it’s more of a metaphor, literary great Herman Melville used the idea of darkness overtaking light to effectively stir unease in both the reader and protagonist of Moby Dick, in which the fictional Captain Ahab is hellbent on whale-related revenge. Melville’s metaphors aren’t subtle, at least on the surface: Ahab and his ship are pure, virtuous, and bright. The ocean and Melville’s titular sperm whale are ungodly, untamed, and dark. Early in the novel, Melville describes seas as calm, reflective, and “ infinite blueness” against “vivid sunlight.” But by chapter 96, twilight has given way to “wild ocean darkness,” as the reader learns more about its evils.

The eclipse in Moby Dick is a metaphor reinforced over and over again throughout the book.
The eclipse in Moby Dick is a metaphor reinforced over and over again throughout the book. Culture Club/Getty Images

By the end of the novel, Melville writes of a metaphorical eclipse, comparing Ahab’s madness as a divide between day and night. “So far gone am I in the dark side of earth, that its other side, the theoretic bright one, seems but uncertain twilight to me,” speaks Ahab in chapter 127, as he accepts that his quest is futile. “Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders,” he says of his doomed pursuit.

If Twain realized in the late 1800s that readers would find humor in the ancient misunderstanding of eclipses, you’d think modern-day authors would have realized eclipses no longer strike fear into the average person. After all, we know that there have been eight total eclipses in the US since 1776, and they’re a normal occurrence. But time after time, authors have continued to use the disappearance of the sun, even when predicted, as a tool for chaos.

Isaac Asimov’s short story “Nightfall,” first published in 1941, takes place on the planet Lagash. Lagash has six suns, several of which are visible at any given time. When one scientist predicts the end of perpetual daylight, a phenomenon that happens just once every 2,049 years, chaos ensues; citizens have no concept of darkness stars. Society unravels, religious fanatics blame scientists for angering the gods, and huge numbers of people go mad.

An eclipse ushers in chaos in <em>Nightfall</em>.
An eclipse ushers in chaos in Nightfall. Courtesy of Penguin Random House

There was a “maddening fear that all but paralyzed them,” writes Asimov of the citizens of Lagash during the eclipse. Even Asimov’s rational scientist experiences “a little germ of screeching panic in his mind at the thought of making his way into the mysterious Darkness.” When the eclipse comes, hell breaks loose.

When it comes to current-day writers, it’s hard to find one more prolific than Stephen King, who has published 65 novels and short stories since 1974. And in Gerald’s Game, published in 1992 and adapted for Netflix in 2017, eclipses are both real and apocryphal, but always bad omens. In the novel, a married couple’s weekend tryst goes awry when husband Gerald suddenly dies, leaving protagonist Jessie handcuffed to a bed in a remote lake house. In the novel, Jessie remembers childhood memories of being sexually abused during a family trip to watch a solar eclipse. “What mattered was that the sun had gone out, the very sun itself,” thinks Jessie of the connection between the eclipse and the abuse.

While adult Jessie is trapped, she has visions of a second solar eclipse, and is visited by the “Moonlight Man,” a malevolent figure creeping closer and closer to her each night. As the novel goes on, it becomes impossible for the reader to discern whether the eclipses and the “Moonlight Man” are real, or a continued delusion playing on her childhood fears of light and dark. In true Stephen King fashion, the question is left up for debate at the end.

It’s possible there could be a bevy of new bestsellers using eclipses as plot tools, following the four minutes and 28 seconds on April 8 in which America’s attention is drawn to the cosmos. Despite the scientific demystification of eclipses, as recently as 2019, Recursion sat smack in the middle of The New York Times “Best Sellers” list. It’s a sci-fi novel in which huge swaths of the population start experiencing false memories and panic over what is and isn’t real, caused by—wait for it—an eclipse. Though humankind understands eclipses, there’s still a part of our brains that fears them.

Bayless has a theory as to why. “Being reminded of how small and powerless we are can be humbling, even terrifying,” she says. “We may build huge buildings and plumb the ocean depths and split atoms, but nobody can stop an eclipse.”