Award-winning Maine author Ben Marcus wastes no time prepping readers for the surreal assault he’s about to launch.

On the first page of his dazzling doomsday novel “The Flame Alphabet,” we meet the narrator, Sam, who’s packing his car with an array of survival gear. Included are sound abatement fabrics, anti-comprehension pills, a toxicity screen, earplugs, a noise dosimeter and a breathing kit. Survival in this brave new world means countering the deadly effects of language. An epidemic of “speech fever” is wiping out people everywhere.

That Sam is able to pack at all, or get his dying wife, Claire, into the car, is no small feat. He and Claire are abandoning their home and their 14-year-old daughter, Esther, in hopes of finding a remedy. With her every utterance, the snarky and hateful Esther is killing them.

Yet Esther is just the latest specimen. It appears that children in general are carriers of the speech virus, and they’re about to be quarantined.

“We chose not to see our daughter captured as we drove away. We wished to avoid such a sight becoming our last image of Esther,” Sam says. Then, later: “Yes, of course, we would love our daughter no matter what. How ridiculous to think otherwise. It was so easy to agree to what did not test us.”

Testing is, in one sense, what this brainy horror story is about: Testing the boundaries of love, of language, of human endurance. Marcus has devised a fictional construct so chilling and complete that his book is a page-turner from the start.

As ailing adults flee their homes, driving on roads whose signs have been erased to guard against further language exposure, Sam is waved to the side at a checkpoint. So begins his life as a researcher at Forsythe, a lab in upstate New York, which is studying the speech fever. There, separated from Claire, he’s ambushed multiple times by technicians who inject him with odd serums.

Run by a shaman who traffics in deception, the lab is the embodiment of creepiness reminiscent of “The Twilight Zone.” The place has a robotic air, its technicians glazed and mute as they go about their dark mission.

“I knew nothing of my colleagues,” Sam says. “The lack of speech, the absence of language to build us into full people, had turned us into a kind of emotive cattle. … One sensed that the whole enterprise of consciousness had suddenly lost its way. Without a way to say it, there was no reason to even think it.”

Sam’s charge is to deconstruct language and analyze even its smallest parts — the shapes of letters, the surfaces on which they appear, their sounds and pairings. His task is to engineer a script or alphabet “to outwit the toxicity.” Yet he soon realizes that the lab is conducting lethal experiments on its eager volunteers — and he must escape.

This dense and demanding novel, with its blend of plague and panic, myth and mystery, is an apocalyptic nightmare. Its vision is eerie, droll and heartbreaking, both lavishly written and haunting to behold. Language may be killing off the characters that Marcus invented, but his use of language could hardly be more vibrant.

“Finally among the speechless there was the strategy of the tents,” he writes. “These were the mercy tents. Inside, people heard some last song, whatever they chose to dial up, and then down they went to those sounds. A strategy of acoustical expiration. Suicide by language.”

In the end, Marcus supplies fodder for more than a few debates on the role of language. Without it, we lose an essential piece of our humanity.

Still, in the linguistic and parental hell that is Sam’s fate, his love of Esther, and of Claire, remains his greatest comfort.

Joan Silverman is a freelance writer who lives in Kennebunk.