When I ran across this collection of post-apocalyptic short stories the names of a few authors I enjoy reading jumped at me from the cover and I knew I had to try this book out, even though I’m not exactly partial to short stories. But after all, part of the reading experience includes getting out of beaten paths now and then, doesn’t it?
Here are a few of the stories that caught my attention: not all of them, of course, but merely a sample of the best ones in this book.
“Animal Husbandry” by S. McGuire
In this tale of a decimated humanity in the aftermath of a series of devastating plagues I discovered that McGuire channeled her writing “twin”, Mira Grant, in themes and narrating voice. There is the same sparseness of words, the same terseness of tone that I first encountered in her highly successful “Newsflesh” series: the horror is conveyed in an almost detached way that perversely makes it more detailed, more cutting, and it’s one of the characteristics I have come to appreciate in this author. The main character, Mercy Neely, is a veterinarian who’s traveling across the country to join her daughter, in the hope she survived the onslaught of sickness: this hope, though understated, is the fuel that makes her go on despite the loneliness and the terrible sights she has to face day after day. With Mercy travels a veritable menagerie she has rescued along the way: horses to pull her wagon, dogs for company and protection, goats for the milk: with her knowledge as a veterinarian, the protagonist knows which kind of animals can survive and be more useful and which are best put down to spare them useless suffering. What struck me as I was reading was the level-headedness of this woman in front of a worldwide catastrophe and its aftermath: at some point she recalls coming back to consciousness after being bedridden because of the plague, and discovering that her small town had turned into an open-air grave – she says something about “freaking out a bit” but almost immediately turning to practical matters of survival. What I didn’t expect was the turn of events and the revelation about her that occurs at the very end of the story, a chilling denouement that left me staring at the page for a long time, literally dumbstruck. On hindsight, I could have expected it, knowing this particular author, but once again she managed to lull me into a false sense of security before delivering her blow. Well done indeed!
“… For a single yesterday” by George R.R. Martin
George Martin’s fame is of course tied to his Song of Ice and Fire saga and to the medieval fantasy world he created, a world of violence, cruelty and intrigue. Yet there is a different GRRM to be found in his short stories, a writer capable of deep insights in the human soul and of lyrical flights of imagination: this story is one such example. The world has been profoundly changed by the Blast – clearly a nuclear holocaust – that targeted the main cities killing millions, and humanity survives in small pockets of civilization, like the hippy commune where the action takes place: created long before the Blast, it shelters both the original founders and the few strays that managed to get there escaping from the doomed cities and the bands of murdering foragers prowling the land. Musician Keith is one of those people, and he plays his songs every evening, recalling a world that does not exist anymore.
Having lost everything, including the woman he loved and for whom he still yearns after four years, Keith has found solace in a drug scavenged from an abandoned hospital: this drug, created to tap buried memories, has the power to re-create the past in such a vivid manner that he’s convinced he’s truly back in a better time, with his Sandy. Keith knows the supply of the drug is not infinite and someday he will have to give up his “timetripping”, as he calls it, but when we meet him he’s biding his time and dwelling in peaceful denial. Of course the bubble bursts when a newcomer to the commune starts leading the survivors toward a more pro-active attitude, trying to convince them not to think only of the present, of day-to-day survival, but to plan for the future: for this he needs Keith’s drug, to trigger individual memories of useful knowledge in the technical or medical field. This theme strongly reminded me of another short story from Martin, “With Morning Comes Mistfall”: once again the battle between harsh reality and dream, cold science and the realm of imagination is being waged, and once again the magic is killed by reality, taking away with it something precious and irretrievable. As in that other story, there is a poignancy, a sense of something fleeting that’s too easily broken and leaves behind an emptiness nothing can adequately fill, and Martin describes it with emotional intensity without ever turning maudlin, in the kind of perfect balance I encountered before in his writing. This is the kind of story I will not easily forget…
“Jimmy’s Roadside Café” by Ramsey Shehadeh
This is a short but poignant story that tells you almost nothing about how the world ended and rather concentrates on one person, the titular Jimmy, trying to find an oasis of normalcy in the aftermath of the collapse. Jimmy opens a makeshift café along the highway, congested with stalled vehicles, all that’s left of the final stampede to avoid the plague that decimated the human race, and there he waits for customers. He’s not crazy, nor deluded: he’s quite aware of what surrounds him, but he waits for other survivors like him to pass through, offering a moment of respite, some companionship and stale doughnuts. There is a sort of cheerful acceptance in Jimmy, the unspoken awareness there’s nothing to be done to change things but also that one should not give in to despair. He can find beauty even in the desolated landscape of rusting vehicles, as he watches the sunset: “A wash of brilliance exploded up out of the highway, the slant of the sunlight reflecting up from thousands of sloped windshields, and suddenly the road below them was a sparkling, blinding sheen of narrow white light”.
Post-apocalyptic stories tend to concentrate on the ugliness that takes hold of the human spirit after a global disaster: this story, though it offers little or no hope about survival, hints at the possibility that we might still find our better angels even in the midst of chaos. And it’s enough.
“Advertising at the end of the world” by Keffy R.M. Kehrli
What started like another story about the lone survivor in the world – a woman living by herself in a mountain cabin – soon became a weird peek into this future where ads are walking humanoid shapes, built to interact with humans. Marie, the main character, finds a group of them on her front lawn, remnants of the past civilization who have managed to contact one of the last surviving humans: there are many scientific hypotheses about the creatures that will inherit the Earth once mankind has managed to wipe itself out of the equation – some say cockroaches, others say rats, but no one ever thought about ads, and I found this idea even more unsettling than the other ones.
In our present society we are literally hounded by ads – on the radio, on tv, even before movies start in theaters. And let’s not go into the obnoxious telephone ads that come through at all times, especially the most inconvenient ones, defeating your attempts at shielding yourself… When Marie, in the story, tries to make her unwelcome “guests” go away she is just as unsuccessful as we are: “The ads turned to face her. They were designed to understand when they were told to leave. This was meant to limit the annoyance factor. Even in the best of times, the command had rarely worked.” Strange as it might look, I found this even more scary than the extinction event itself, the idea that such a modern – and very real – annoyance might survive even longer that its creators.
Tight Little Stitches in a Dead Man’s Back by Joe Lansdale
Nuclear apocalypse is nothing new to genre fiction, nor are the plight of survivors and the desolate devastation that’s their legacy, but this story managed to put a different spin on this particular topic, adding a few shades of horror that made the total annihilation of the human race almost pale in comparison. We learn about what happened from the journal of Paul, living with his wife Mary in an abandoned lighthouse: the two don’t speak to each other anymore, since Mary holds Paul responsible for the death of their teenage daughter Rae, wiped out by the nuclear holocaust that ended the world as we know it. Paul worked with a team of scientists “teaching, inventing and improving on our nuclear threat” and the two survived, with a handful of others, because Mary was driving him to work on the day when the Big One was dropped, and they made it to safety inside the compound’s shelter. Of course Rae didn’t and that’s what Mary blames him for, building a wall of silence and resentment between them: their only interaction the tattoo she’s drawing on his back – slowly and painfully – of a mushroom cloud on which a weeping Rae’s face is etched with realistic care. Paul accepts the pain from the tattoo because it’s become the only point of connection between him and Mary and the only way to somehow re-create the loving triangle that existed, prior to the bomb, in their family – and because that pain is the only thing that can keep his deep-seated guilt at bay, at least for a little while.
The horror – besides that of the awareness that the human race has been wiped out and the world has undergone terrifying changes – comes from a race of mutated roses that take hold of bodies, transforming them into zombie-like creatures that might very well be the new rulers of this devastated Earth: what’s more poetic and beautiful than a rose? And what’s more terrifying than something beautiful twisted into a creeping mortal danger? This is a disturbingly excellent story, one that will give me nightmares for quite a while….
Overall Rating: 8/10