One Second After

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One Second After
Author William R. Forstchen
Country United States
Language English
Genre Post-apocalyptic novel
Publisher Forge
Publication date
March 17, 2009
Media type Print (hardcover and trade paperback) and audiobook (audio-CD)
Pages 350 pages
ISBN 0-7653-1758-3
OCLC 243544624
813/.54 22
LC Class PS3556.O7418 O54 2009

One Second After is a 2009 fiction novel by American writer William R. Forstchen. The novel deals with an unexpected electromagnetic pulse attack on the United States as it affects the people living in and around the small American town of Black Mountain, North Carolina.

Released in March 2009, One Second After and was ranked as number 11 on the New York Times Best Seller list in fiction, in May 2009.[1] A trade paperback edition was released in November 2009.[2]


Black Mountain, North Carolina is a small American town, home to a college with about six hundred students. Although it has no large businesses of its own, it is quickly gaining favor as a summer hideaway for people from larger cities. However, Black Mountain is strategically located along an interstate highway and provides the water supply for the nearby city of Asheville.


John Matherson is a professor of history at the local Montreat Christian College. A retired U.S. Army Colonel, he had moved to Black Mountain with his late wife, a native of the town, when she was dying from cancer. The widowed father of two daughters, Elizabeth and Jennifer, and a collegiate professor, Matherson is well-respected within the community.

At 4:50 p.m. (16:50) Eastern Standard Time the second Tuesday of May, on the first day described in the book's narration, the phone lines in the town suddenly go dead, along with all the electrical appliances. Just a second before, everything worked; but now, just one second after, virtually nothing does.

Within hours it becomes clear to the residents of Black Mountain that this is no ordinary blackout, and they come to the realization that the power may remain off for a very long time. Every modern electrical device is disabled, destroyed by what Matherson is beginning to suspect is an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack on the United States by unknown attackers.

The contiguous United States has, in an instant, been thrown back into the 19th century. However, the narration in the book points out that 21st century people are not at all equipped to live under 19th century conditions. Later on, Matherson remarks that the survivors have the technology of the early 16th century.

Matherson's immediate concern is his twelve-year-old daughter, who has Type 1 diabetes. Without a constant supply of insulin, which requires refrigeration, she will die.

The story's focus shifts quickly to how the community, as a whole, reacts. Matherson is a respected outsider, and his military experience, standing as collegiate professor, and level-headedness are appreciated by the town's residents.

There are hundreds of stranded motorists whose cars and trucks have simply rolled to a halt on the nearby Interstate highway. Those people make their way into town, where some of them are clearly unwanted by the locals. There is an immediate growing concern about food; the leaders of the community soon begin wondering how these several thousand people are going to be fed for any appreciable length of time. No refrigerators or freezers are running. No trucks are bringing in fresh supplies every day.

Concerns immediately arise about the nursing home in town where Matherson's elderly cancer-stricken father-in-law resides. The elderly and frail need refrigerated medicines, and many require constant nursing care. The EMP has disabled the nursing home's standby generator, which cannot be started.

There are no AM/FM radio broadcasts, no television, no Internet, and thus, no communication with anyone outside the town is possible. However, two months later, a working antique telephone is set up to connect Black Mountain with the nearby town of Swannanoa, North Carolina.

The family of Matherson's late wife are small-scale car collectors who happen to own a 1959 Edsel, in addition to a Ford Mustang. The two cars are so old that the EMP did not affect them because they have no modern EMP-sensitive electronics, such as transistors. Another local resident owns a vintage airplane that later becomes very useful, as it too is so old that it has no vulnerable electronics.

Without modern sanitation and supplies, diseases surge. Minor wounds become seriously infected, and the community has soon exhausted its supply of antibiotics. The social order in Black Mountain begins to break down. It is too late in the year to plant and harvest crops, which is a moot point as few people in the area know how to farm anyway. Suddenly, skills that haven't been needed in several generations have become critically necessary. The town must organize its young and able-bodied to defend itself against a marauding band of cannibals, who eventually attack the community, resulting in a violent and deadly battle. After a while, the extreme shortages of food require difficult choices regarding rationing; who gets how much food, and which people are to be deliberately underfed to the point of starvation.

Increasingly, Matherson is forced by circumstances to assume a growing leadership role as the situation continues to deteriorate. Matherson, along with a few others, try their best to maintain a balance between the multiple necessities of rationing scarce resources, maintaining law and order in addition to individual freedom, as well as personal responsibility and moral behavior in the midst of deeply deteriorating physical and social conditions.

One year later, the U.S. military arrives to rebuild and aid the town. It is revealed that the EMP that devastated the contiguous United States was generated by three nuclear missiles launched from offshore container ships. One was launched from the Gulf of Mexico and detonated in the upper atmosphere over Utah, Kansas, and Ohio. The container ship was sunk by an explosion immediately after the missile launch; no indication remained of who was directly responsible for the attacks. Another missile was fired from off the Icelandic coast and detonated over East Europe and Russia. This launch hit major cities like St. Peters-burg and Moscow. Another nuclear missile was detonated over Japan and South Korea. The U.S. government is said to have believed that an alliance between Iran and North Korea was responsible for the attacks, and that the United States attacked Iran and North Korea with nuclear weapons in retaliation. It was also mentioned that the U.S. withdrew all of its overseas military forces back to the United States to aid in rebuilding and humanitarian work. It is also revealed that the EMP attack brought down the not efficiency hardened Air Force One, killing the U.S. President.

One year after the EMP attack, the United States is described as having 30 million survivors, down ninety percent from an original pre-attack population of 300 million. The People's Republic of China is occupying the U.S. west coast with a 500,000-strong occupation force, and Mexico has Texas and the American Southwest under military occupation, as a protectorate against China.

The book also describes the increasingly intimate relationship Matherson develops with a single and child-less nurse, Makala Turner, who was stranded by the pulse.

"Die-off" sequences[edit]

The book's premise sets the stage for a series of "die-offs". The first takes place within a week (those in hospitals and assisted living). After about 15 days, salmonella-induced typhoid fever and cholera set in from eating tainted food, drinking tainted water, and generally poor sanitation. Americans have lived in an environment of easy hygiene, sterilization, and antibiotics, making them prime targets for third-world diseases. The lack of bathing and poor diet will lead to rampant feminine hygiene infections; deep cuts, rusty nail punctures, and dog bites go untreated with antibiotics, tetanus shots, or rabies treatment as more die from common infections.

Critical medical supply and food thieves and others are executed in public as enforcement of martial law. In 30 days, cardiac and other drug-dependent patients die off. In 60 or so days, the pacemaker and Type I diabetics patients begin to die off (although John's young daughter manages to survive until Day 131). The 6% of population having severe psychotic disorders that no longer have medication will re-create bedlam. Makeshift wood-burning stoves lead to carbon monoxide deaths and fires that cannot be controlled due to the lack of a fire department.

Then, refugees from the cities show up looking for food and shelter and the fight over scarce resources leads to confrontation, home invasion, and more violence-related die-offs. The community becomes an inviting target for escaped prisoners and organized gangs and more violence-related die-off. Ration cards are issued to conserve the little remaining food; regardless, the community slowly starves, with the elderly the first to die off. Next, parents starve themselves to save their children. Throughout this period suicides are common. After a year, approximately 20% of the initial population has "survived".

The "average" die-off for the country was 90% leaving 30 million surviving out of the original 300 million-strong US population. The food-rich Midwest had the highest survival rate with a 50% die-off. New York City and Florida had a 95% die-off from infighting among their large populations, low levels of cultivated land, high elderly population, dependence upon air conditioning, rampant transmission of disease, and natural disasters such as hurricanes.

Non-fiction afterword[edit]

The book contains a brief non-fiction afterword by U.S. Navy captain William Sanders, regarding EMPs, which includes references to the reports of the United States EMP Commission[3] and the book The Effects of Nuclear Weapons by Samuel Glasstone and Philip J. Dolan, published by the United States Department of Defense.[4] which is a technical description based on early nuclear tests.


One Second After was released on March 17, 2009, and a trade paperback edition was released on November 24, 2009. The book reached the number 11 position on the New York Times Best Seller list in fiction, on May 3, 2009.[5]

Film adaptation[edit]

The option for the film rights to One Second After was initially sold to Warner Bros., but subsequently expired. As of August 2011 a new option was being negotiated with another studio.[6]


A sequel One Year After: A Jon Matherson Novel was released on September 15, 2015. The plot premise is; "One Second After was a dire warning of what might be our future...and our end. Now, One Year After returns to the small town of Black Mountain, and the man who struggled so hard to rebuild it in the wake of devastation-John Matherson. It is a thrilling follow-up and should delight fans in every way."

See also[edit]


  1. ^ New York Times Best Seller list, fiction, May 3, 2009
  2. ^ MacMillan, One Second After – publisher's book webpage
  3. ^ US Government, Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack website
  4. ^ Glasstone, Samuel and Dolan, Philip J., The Effects of Nuclear Weapons. Chapter 11. United States Department of Defense. (First edition 1950, third edition 1977. [1]
  5. ^ New York Times Best Seller list, fiction, May 3, 2009
  6. ^ One Second After, Official Book Web Site

External links[edit]