Reading the On-the-Nose Apocalypse

It may not come as a surprise that I didn’t read a whole lot of post-apocalyptic fiction in 2020.

Or did I? The endless doomscroll of my Twitter and news feeds, of spiking graphs and preposterous statements by politicians at every level, has been ten months (and counting) of life imitating art.

We’ve struck every cliché: the ominous foreshadowing over Wuhan; Chinese journalists, scientists, and medical professionals pleading for help, then suddenly vanishing; lockdowns and morgue trucks and mass graves on Hart Island; leaders lying or obfuscating when they’re not actively blocking relief efforts; civil unrest; denialists and ignorant contrarians of every ideological bent; opportunistic wingnuts derailing trains or concocting outlandish kidnap schemes; and all-around confusion “increased by a spate of new and conflicting regulations, and by the arbitrary way controls were imposed or lifted,” to lift a quote straight from Anna Kavan’s Ice.

And of course the deaths. 2020 was a year in which 3.2 million Americans died, the most in US history. In the past 12 months, one out of every 100 Americans dropped dead — 1 percent of the population — and of those deaths, 10 percent were from covid. Clearly none of us needed a V8 Interceptor to become Mad Max. To live the apocalypse we just had to wake up in the morning.

This year, rather than sticking to a theme, the books I read were randomly pulled off the shelf or my Kindle. I wasn’t actively seeking plague stories. I was just looking for distraction.

mushroom cloud ornament
The Night of the Long Knives by Fritz Leiber

My initial excitement at discovering a little-known 1960 post-apocalyptic novella called The Night of the Long Knives (free for Kindle) by Fritz Leiber, author of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, was blunted by its banal premise.

Set in a post-nuclear irradiated American Midwest, the Deathlands are the haunt of solitary marauders and psychopaths exiled from the vestiges of civilization that still exist beyond its dust-bowl borders. The kill-or-be-killed ethos of these wastelanders prohibits them from forming lengthy bonds, so each aimlessly wanders the desert in a never-ending death stagger, briefly uniting for some common purpose before turning on each other.

Amazon is littered with self-published ebooks with this very same concept: survivalist porn written and consumed by white gun nuts who imagine themselves self-sufficient murder machines but who, in a true endtimes scenario, would keel over as soon as the insulin and Narcan ran out. Suspecting Long Knives was similar, I nearly DNFed early on.

But it’s a testament to Leiber’s plotting and fast pacing that I kept reading what turned out to be a decent story. Protagonist Ray is high-plains drifting when he encounters Alice in a very 2020 meeting —

She looked slim, dark topped, and on guard. Small like me and like me wearing a scarf loosely around the lower half of her face in the style of the old buckaroos.

— but before they go too stabby-stabby on each other, an oldtimer named Pop and a crashed pilot sweeps them into a conflict between the remaining civilized city-states. Pop is himself a reformed murderer who roams the Deathlands as an evangelist for nonviolence. He finds much opportunity for conversion in Ray and Alice, so the book’s action is spliced with long dialogues about killing, justified and otherwise, both martial and personal.

One intuits that the author, like others from the World War II generation (Leiber was a pacifist who worked for Douglas Aircraft on their troop and supply transports), was trying to reconcile his actions with his beliefs to develop a kind of Cold War ethos. This probably resonated with readers of Amazing Stories, where the novella first appeared. While it never blooms larger than those midcentury roots, Long Knives is nevertheless a quick and fun read.

Jack McDevitt’s Eternity Road (1997) epitomizes 1980s and 90s science fiction: a fat mass-market paperback 400 pages long, where nothing happens for the first 100.

We are introduced to an early industrial society rebuilding after a global pandemic centuries ago; we learn of a failed expedition to locate a repository of ancient Roadmaker knowledge in which everyone but a single survivor perished; we meet a cast of characters mumbling about embarking on a second attempt.

It’s right there in the title and on the cover: this book is about a journey. And yet readers must first slog through 25,000 words of watching the protagonists make sandwiches and fill their Thermoses. Much like the relics they search for, Eternity Road is in some sense an artifact from another era when books were sold by the pound.

The story entertains once the characters get off their asses and set out, and as I read, I kept checking Google Maps to follow the group’s progress based on the landmarks noted in the text. The America that collapsed was a more advanced version than our own, and many of the obstacles the party faces involve AIs and automation still purring among the ruined cities and towns. This, combined with the RPG collection of characters — a wizardly scholar, a woodsman tracker, a healer, etc. — strongly reminded me of the 80s game Gamma World minus all of the mutants and monsters, doubling down on the book’s nostalgia factor.

Eternity Road is a throwback on another level, too: it’s optimistic sci-fi. Commonly post-apoc ends with the protagonists adapted to their new world but rarely is the world itself changed. McDevitt instead returns to a rosier view of America and mankind in general, believing in science and rationality and technocracy — in his future, rediscovered technology will be accepted by people and put to beneficial use. While the past few years give me reason to doubt that’s always the case, such idealism is a cozy campfire in the long dark wilderness of 2020.

Ice by Anna Kavan

It’s hard not to read Anna Kavan’s Ice (1967) as a parable of addiction and obsession, although who is the addict and who is the anthropomorphized drug is difficult to suss. One pursues and the other is pursued, begging the question of whether it’s the junkie who chases or is chased. At the very least, the two may be interchangeable.

The slipstream plot, reminiscent of JG Ballard at his most New Wavey, features no proper nouns, no clear actors, and very indistinct geography. An anonymous narrator, recently returned to his homeland, goes to visit a young woman who rejected him for another man; when he arrives at the house he discovers the husband alone and abandoned. By chance the narrator discovers she is the prisoner of a petty foreign dictator known as the warden, whereupon the narrator schemes to liberate her, following the couple from place to place. Yet his goal is nothing more than to imprison her himself.

All of this is set against a backdrop of world war and impending glaciation: harbors freeze, snowstorms blanket roads and ruins, food and warmth becomes increasingly scarce. Whether the war precipitated the climate change — it’s suggested some kind of nuclear attack or accident has affected the poles — or vice versa is never clarified. Further complicating things is the narrator’s seamless launching into dreamlike fantasies of the girl’s death or abuse, with him taking a savior’s role, before returning to the point of divergence and continuing.

While not the most enjoyable book I’ve ever read, Kavan does a laudable job of fixing mental illness down on paper. Throughout, it’s clear the story nothing to do with love. Kavan’s fever-dream chronicle is a tale of possession: the narrator only wants to her so that no other man does; and the woman, who understands this, resents him for it. This in turn confounds him, too lacking in self-awareness to grasp his own blundering. Like a contemporary incel, he never realizes his problems are of his own manufacture or that his goals would be more accessible if only he shed a drop of his narcissism and self-importance.

As with all my post-apocalyptic reads, it’s easy to draw parallels with current events, and with Ice, especially current leadership.

When the Tripods Came

Bonus Track: I included this book last year when I read a bunch of UK post-apoc, but if one novel could summarize 2020, it’s John Christopher’s When the Tripods Came (1988).

Though ostensibly about an alien invasion, the otherworldly bad guys remain largely offstage for most of the book. Tripods is more precisely a novel about social contagion and civilization’s dissolution from within. Employing a divide-and-conquer method, the aliens prefer to let humanity overthrow itself by inflating xenophobia and regional and national prejudices. People who come in contact with the pro-alien Trippies soon become Trippies themselves, and while not necessarily violent, their growing numbers make it increasingly more difficult to avoid or resist them. As borders are sealed and paranoia skyrockets among the noninfected, the protagonists find themselves clinched in ever-tightening bear traps.

With one fell swoop of a story Christopher managed to consolidate both the concepts of viral contamination with ideological estrangement. No issue is so small or simple that it can’t be polarized into extremes, and it’s precisely this splintering that prevents organized resistance to the Tripods or, for that matter, covid-19. If only everyone could meet in the middle — hey, let’s all wear masks but agree that draconian regulations are counterproductive — then the enemy could be easily beaten.

But nope. It would take the humans of Christopher’s Tripods series three more books to defeat their alien overlords. Meanwhile here I am ten months later, getting my brain swabbed just so I can drop my son at college, delivering meals-on-wheels to retirees because the senior center is shuttered indefinitely.

Often the problem isn’t so much the problem. It’s the people.

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That’s it for 2020. If you want more apocalyptic suggestions, I read a bunch of Brit books in 2019, some rando novels in 2018, and end-times fiction about the US in 2017. Until next year, stay safe, be kind to others, and wear a fucking mask.

A Season of Brook Farm

The Hive was the communal heart of Brook Farm. During his stay, Nathaniel Hawthorne lived in the front right room.

On Thursday, my novel A Season of Whispers drops in print and ebook editions.

Season is set in 1844 in a fictional transcendentalist commune called Bonaventure, located in eastern Connecticut. Bonaventure was influenced by two real-life transcendentalist communities, one of which is Brook Farm, located in the outskirts of Boston.

Brook Farm was founded by George Ripley, a Unitarian minister, and his wife Sophia as an experiment in societal reform. Both had been inspired after visiting at least one intentional community founded by German immigrants (in Ohio, IIRC) and after spending the summer of 1840 on a farm in West Roxbury reading about the French socialist Charles Fourier.

The Ripleys sought to establish a communal arrangement that ensured “a more natural union between intellectual and manual labor,” separate and apart from “the pressures of our competitive institutions.” Their sense of socialism was much less rigid or ideological than what we may think of. Brook Farm was organized as a joint-stock company, in which members bought shares (at $500 a pop, equivalent to about $13,900 in today’s money) in exchange for three hots and a cot and a dividend from the profits. Only a very few Brook Farmers actually paid that much, however, and it’s doubtful anyone saw a penny in return. Brook Farm was also nondenominational, notable as most utopian settlements usually required subscribers to uphold a specific religion or creed.

For a few years, Brook Farm became a kind of sun around which the transcendentalists orbited. Both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller, editrix of The Dial (which was The Atlantic or New Yorker of the movement), declined to join but were frequent visitors.

Nathaniel Hawthorne joined in April 1841 after purchasing two shares, the other for his future wife Sophia. Hawthorne soon became disillusioned with farm work, particularly with all the manure, and found the labor left him too tired to write. After vacationing in Salem for a few weeks in September, he finally left the farm permanently in November — without ever receiving a refund of his shares. A decade later, Hawthorne fictionalized his Brook Farm experience in The Blithedale Romance, a comical novel I can’t recommend highly enough.

A Season of Whispers

One of the issues the Brook Farmers struggled with was how exactly society should be reformed. What would a perfect society look like? What did “reform” mean in practical everyday terms?

Although the farm grew crops with middling success, Brook Farm supported itself mainly through the day school run by the Ripleys. By 1844, the enterprise was successful enough for them to shift into a new phase, in which they leaned heavily into Fourierism, costing them several members as a result. Fourier was quite specific how people would live under his system, even down to the architecture; and so the Brook Farmers embraced austere poverty in order to build a Phalanstery on the property, a sort of communal dormitory constructed around a common green space. Construction continued until March 1846, when the nearly completed Phalanstery burned to the ground.

The disaster ruined Brook Farm, and while the Ripleys eventually recovered — George Ripley went on to become a successful journalist and editor of Harper’s Magazine — it took them 13 years to pay off the debts accrued by their utopian experiment.

Today you can visit the Brook Farm Historic Site but you may be disappointed as nothing from the era remains (the oldest building is a print shop built in 1890 or so). Still, you can roam the area, which includes a cemetery, and get a feel for the land.

You can read more about Hawthorne’s stay at Brook Farm here.

Short News, Reclusive Scriveners Edition

Interior (Model Reading) by Edward Hopper, 1925

Don’t Engage. At Litreactor, Cina Pelayo, author and editor of Gothic Blue Book, offered her advice to writers regarding social media.

There are some authors who only tweet about writing. There are some authors who tweet about writing, and just a little bit about themselves. Then, there are some authors who tweet about their work, themselves, and are very active in social and political causes online, engaging opponents, and being vocal overall. What image are you trying to present? Think about it and frame yourself as such.

Pelayo confines herself to Twitter and Instagram, which coincidentally are the only two platforms I use beyond this blog. I find Twitter helpful for learning and sharing news but impossible for any kind of meaningful communication unless I already know the person, so my hat’s off to anyone who can build a following there.

Instagram is, I think, a better platform. I attended a social-media panel at StokerCon 2018 and Paul Tremblay offered some good advice: He suggested people may not want your links to buy stuff but they may be interested in your life as a writer, so consider showcasing that. This is my approach toward Instagram. Alas, 90 percent of my life is cooking meals for the fam, sitting at the keyboard, exercising, or working on household projects, and the internet doesn’t need more food porn, gym selfies, or shelf blogs. So I don’t post often.

Pelayo is a little more cautious than I am. I believe writing, whether it’s journalism, novel writing, or whatever, is inherently a political act and thus writers shouldn’t necessarily shy away from putting their opinions out there, assuming those opinions aren’t superficial or impulsive. Our worldviews are already hardwired into what we do — it’s just a matter of how on the nose we want to be in public.

In the last few years I’ve made an effort to be positive on Twitter, something I’ve been working on IRL as I strive to be more optimistic and grateful. But I also aim to avoid letting fear drive my interactions. As Philip K. Dick wrote, “If you’re afraid you don’t commit yourself to life completely. Fear makes you always, always hold something back.”

Piranesi. Susanna Clarke, author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell — which I consider to be the greatest fantasy novel written in my lifetime, if not ever — has a new book out, her first in 16 years. She discusses it in this terrific New Yorker interview.

Rest in Peace. Charles Saunders, author of the Imaro and Dossouye series of African-based sword-and-sorcery novels, passed away in May but his death was only announced this month. Saunders was a very prolific journalist and author, writing four nonfiction books in addition to his novels, as well as numerous essays, columns, and short stories. He was 73.

We All Live in Lovecraft Country

This Sunday, Jordan Peele’s series Lovecraft Country will debut on HBO, based on the novel by Matt Ruff. Here’s a review of the book I wrote back in 2016.

Lovecraft Country
by Matt Ruff
Harper (384 pages, $26.99 hardback, $7.99 digital, February 2016)

Pam Noles grew up the daughter of a mother who was very active in the NAACP and a father who, because of his color, had to sue their city after being turned down eight times for a firefighting job. Noles also grew up loving all things science fiction — books and B movies — even though nobody on those book covers or in those movies resembled her family.

On Saturday nights Noles watched schlocky movies hosted by an Elvira knockoff called The Ghoul, backed by a cast of weirdos (every big market had something similar — in Philly we had Saturday Night Dead, hosted by Stella “The Maneater From Manayunk”). During breaks in the movie they performed skits.

Usually it would be just me in the basement sprawled on the floor surrounded by snacks, Legos and books to read during the commercials. If he was off shift, sometimes Dad would come down and join me in his leather recliner by the stairs. Every once in a while Mom called down from the kitchen Are you letting her watch those weird things? And we’d lie in unison, No. If she came down to check for herself, Dad would get in trouble.

Dad had his own names for the movies.

What’s this? ‘Escape to a White Planet?’

It’s called ‘When Worlds Collide.’ I’m sure I sounded indignant.

‘Mars Kills the White People.’ I love this one.

Daaaaad. It says it right there. ‘War of the Worlds’. I know I sighed heavily, but was careful to turn back to the tv before rolling my eyes.

Once he asked me which was more real, the movie or the skits between. I didn’t get it, and told him that they were both stories, so they were both fake. He didn’t bring it up again until a skit came on. I can’t remember if it was a ‘Soulman’ skit or one of the caveman gags (the cavemen were multicultural — basic white, Polish, Italian, and black). But I remember Dad saying, how come you never see anybody like that in the stories you like? And I remember answering, maybe they didn’t have black people back then. He said there’s always been black people. I said but black people can’t be wizards and space people and they can’t fight evil, so they can’t be in the story. When he didn’t say anything back I turned around. He was in full recline mode in his chair and he was very still, looking at me. He didn’t say anything else.

Matt Ruff credits Noles as inspiration in the acknowledgments of his latest novel, Lovecraft Country, and it’s easy to see why: her father’s acuity echoes throughout in the voice of the character Montrose Turner.

Much like Noles herself, Montrose’s son Atticus has been raised on a steady diet of sci-fi — Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tom Swift, pulp magazines — and like Noles’s dad, Montrose never stops pointing out the implicit racism of that media: on the covers Nordic he-men rescue blonde damsels from villains of darker complexion, while inside fair-skinned men save the world from ethnics and monsters.

When a young Atticus describes his newfound love of the writer H.P. Lovecraft, Montrose responds with a trip to the library. His voice has “the perverse mix of anger and glee” when he returns home with a certain infamous 1912 poem penned by Lovecraft to show his son. The doggerel ruins Lovecraft for him.

Nowadays Lovecraft’s legacy is mixed nuts. The Library of America has published a thick collection of his work, the unpronounceable name of his most well-known creation is a Twitter hashtag, and there’s a line of beers dedicated to him; and yet after 40 years the World Fantasy Convention remodeled their awards, shaped as a stylized bust of HPL, over complaints of his racism. All of this makes 2016 either the best or worst of times to release a novel set in 1950s America about Atticus and his African-American friends and relations caught in a Lovecraftian conspiracy.

Ruff addresses the chamber pachyderm in chapter one. When Atticus complains to his uncle about Montrose’s constant harassment over his choice of reading materials, his uncle reminds him that “stories are like people, Atticus. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You try to cherish their virtues and overlook their flaws. The flaws are still there, though.”

With that mic dropped, Atticus and company depart for the wilds of Massachusetts in search of Montrose, who has been abducted by cultists for sinister purposes. What follows is a series of connected short stories and novellas, each featuring a different member of Atticus’s circle as its protagonist, as the group struggles to extricate themselves from a war between dueling — and, more notably, Caucasian — sorcerers.

There’s fewer tentacles and asylum incarcerations than Lovecraft fans might expect; with its haunted houses and devil dolls and weird science, it’s more Trilogy of Terror than “Dunwich Horror.” But as each chapter bled into the next, I found it increasingly unputdownable.

The real malevolence Atticus and the rest confront is the same shoggoth Montrose continuously stabs at with a yardstick, a gibbering Great Old One of police harassment and Brown v. Board of Education and this morning’s news. Theirs is the landscape Lovecraft inhabited rather than the one he made up.

When two black boys try to buy a Coke from a machine outside a store called Perch’s that advertises White Customers Only, Montrose pushes them away. “‘This here?’” he says of the machine. “‘This is a slap in the face. Every time you put in a nickel, you’re telling Mr. Perch, ‘Thank you, sir, may I have another?’ A man who respects himself will never do that.’”

But the boys don’t get it — they insult him and run away. Like Noles, they won’t understand until much later.

I Got Some Groceries, Some Peanut Butter

Have you suddenly found yourself at home with time on your hands? Are you looking for books to read about the end of the world while you wait out the end of the world?

Man, have you come to the right place. I love apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and sometimes I even write about what I’ve read.

In 2017, I read books set (mostly) in a post-apocalyptic USA. I strongly recommend JG Ballard’s Hello America and Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow.

Last year I read post-apoc novels set in the UK, including some really great ones like When the Tripods Came, Fugue for a Darkening Island, and of course, The Day of the Triffids. All of those books were written by Brit authors.

And in 2018 I read some gonzo adventures featuring robots and mutants written by C. Robert Cargill, Margaret Atwood, Philip K. Dick, and others.

JG Ballard’s The Drowned World is okay but I liked his collection Memories of the Space Age better, particularly his short story, “The Cage of Sand.”

I’m also a huge fan of Jeffrey Barlough’s Western Lights novels, which are Victorian gaslamp mystery adventures set in a post-apocalyptic alternate Ice Age. In 2013, I interviewed Barlough about the series.

The Unstrung Harp

Mr. Earbrass has been rashly skimming through the early chapters

This week I completed the eighth draft of my fourth and latest book. It’s not the final version by any means, but it’s the version I’m comfortable showing to people while I consider improvements. There’s never a final version to any book, even once it’s sent to the printer; I keep a running list of corrections if a revised edition of Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer should ever be requested.

Often when I reach this milestone, I pull out my copy of Edward Gorey’s Amphigorey, a collection of his first 15 books, and reread the The Unstrung Harp. The story details the process of CF Earbrass, renowned English novelist, as he writes and publishes his latest work. The Unstrung Harp spans the period just before he begins writing and concludes with his escape from the reactions and reviews by suddenly going on holiday.

Never before or since The Unstrung Harp has a better rendering of the authorial journey been set to paper. Having read it first as a teen, it’s become a nostradamic document for me, a compilation of quatrains describing events and experiences that have come to pass.

In one panel Earbrass writes so long and hard that he skips lunch, whereupon he retreats to the kitchen to eat a jelly sandwich. That’s practically my daily routine.

Upon finishing a chapter, Earbrass sits and ponders “where the plot is to go and what will happen to it on arrival.” How else do you write a book?

Earbrass finds a presentation copy of an old novel in a second-hand bin but can’t remember who Angus is. A friend of mine once found a presentation copy of Smedley at a used-book sale and apologized to me, as if he was the one who gave it away.

Earbrass is cornered by an irate reader, who believes a character in the novel is modeled on him. Not only has this happened with my fiction, I also have a Smedley stalker who shows up at places to argue with me.

What’s amazing is that The Unstrung Harp was Gorey’s first book, originally published in 1953, and yet reading it, you’d think it was written by an established author reflecting on his career by way of self-mockery. Nope. Instead Gorey wrote a prophetic parody of the writing life, a blueprint of absurdity. For me, the humor only grows with each re-read.