To the best of my understanding, the notion of apocalypse comes straight out of ancient religions and people have been talking about it for millennia. The common theme is this: in the era of “great uncovering”, (which is a serviceable translation from the Greek), a certain truth will be revealed about the world and in that revelation, usually followed by some violent act, some people will be on the “right” side and some people won’t. In other words, apocalypse is fundamentally a clannish sort of thing, allowing some groups to wave their finger and other groups and say, “Oooh… but you’re going to get it someday!”
The sanctimonious aspect of apocalypse, as it’s been expressed through most human cultures, seems to extend over into much of apocalyptic literature, art, and film. From Mad Max to The Stand to the Left Behind series and even through much of the Zombie genre, a lot of apocalyptic art has just a bit too much… eagerness for the end-of-times for my taste. I constantly think, watching or reading these types of stories, “Yes, but why has everyone forgotten that this is a terrible thing that’s happened and what were they doing to stop it?” To me, energy would be better spent ensuring that these sorts of things don’t happen and civilization doesn’t fall rather than in some ways yearning for those days where society has broken down into some survivalist/paramilitary wet dream.
In those terms, the best apocalyptic literature is going to be elegiac, focused on a remembrance of what was lost, and an attempt to put right what created this horrible, nightmarish situation in the first place. King’s The Stand has some of this, or at least goes to places a lot of the other literature doesn’t. I’m happy to say that A is For Apocalypse, a collection of apocalypse-themed short stories edited by Rhonda Parrish and published by Poise and Pen, is one of the “good ones”, spending very little time in Mad Max guns-and-cars land and much more time on creative and imaginative works of short fiction around a compelling theme.
There’s no framing story that I can discern: each of these stories takes place in their own universe, with their own background and rules. Part of the joy of anthology pieces like this is the variety of settings and styles. As a reader, the pleasure is in jumping from one concept to another every few pages, before the stories have a chance to get tedious or to exhaust their ideas. A few of the stories do seem to run out of steam before the end, and there are a couple of more conventional “end-of-days” scenarios here, but these are the minority. Most of the stories are gripping and original, with as much variety and experimentation in the writing styles as in the thematic explorations.
The stories are given titles related to the alphabet, and in an interesting twist, the titles are only revealed at the end of the stories, which in some cases is an effective decision given the spoiler potential.
The literary styles cover quite a wide range, from writing the entire story in the form of a Kickstarter pitch and comments pulled from a website (in Gary B. Phillips’ “K is for Kickstarter”) to telling the entire story from the perspective of an anthropomorphic book (Jonathan Parrish’s “X is for Xerxes”), the stories here would be notable for their level of prose experimentation as well as conceptual daring.
But the overall mood is melancholy, elegiac, wistful: these stories don’t glory in the “freedom” brought about by the end of civilization. They’re about what would be lost in such an apocalyptic event, whether that is disease, or nuclear war, or a natural phenomenon (all such scenarios are covered here). Suzanne van Rooyen’s story “F is for Finale” explores a survivor haunted by music and madness, yearning for the days when someone would listen to his music and he can stop writing it. Music also features in “R is for Rock ’n Roll”, by K.L. Young, an odd story about possession by old dead rock stars. Either way, the stories are reminding us that music, all forms of music, would be devastated in an apocalypse, and while singing songs around the fire is one thing, do we really want to burn the piano for firewood? This is right on the collection’s most resonant theme. On a more human note, Lilah Wild’s “W is for Water” yearns nostalgically for a seaside fair, like Coney Island or Atlantic City. Or in the extremely creative “Y is for Yolo,” by Alexis A. Hunter, people from the far future struggle to recover memories from old tapes, pointing out that idiosyncratic memory is different from recorded history, and much more vulnerable and fragile.
And then there a few stories that focus entirely on the relatable human experience of apocalypse, such as Damien Angelica Walters’ very moving “U is for Umbrella,” in which a mother waits for the end of the world, presumably in the form of a killer asteroid from the description, with her young daughter, all the while trying to convince the daughter that everything is fine and life will go on. The mother goes through several of the stages of loss, including anger, denial and depression, in the span of this very short story that ends with the haunting image of the woman and her daughter sitting under an umbrella. This is old-fashioned storytelling of the very best kind, and when married to the high science fiction ideas of the collection, it’s a transcendent moment.
The collection isn’t without some science fiction cliches, but I sense that this is a “knowing” cliche collection, such as Sara Cleto’s “H is for Hieroglyph”, which rhapsodizes about some sort of future Goddess icon until the Planet of the Apes-esque reveal at the end. Or the Walking Dead-style horror fiction of Cory Cone’s “T is for Taxidermy”, which didn’t go anywhere I didn’t expect, but did so entertainingly. More “hard” sci fi is to be found in “E is for Earth Station Six”, by Simon Kewin, which very effectively tells the story of one last human, orbiting a devastated earth with only reprogrammed reanimated corpses for company, or in the fascinating “I is for Immortality” by Kenneth Schneyer, where the concept of “we are star stuff”, though scientifically accurate, is taken to its logical extreme. Finally, Steve Bornstein’s “Z is for Zoo” takes us right back into Kurt Vonnegut territory, positing a comfortable but rather horrific post-apocalypse scenario.
While I enjoyed all the science fiction concepts, the most effective stories here resonate as a mournful ode to what our civilization stands to lose: music, literature, art, memory, creativity, love, joy, etc. All the things that would not survive an apocalypse, at least as we conceive of it today. Which, logically, should lead us to think of all the things we can do to make sure that never comes to pass, and apocalypse remains something in our imagination, something we can use to explore what makes us human and also what we should truly value in this world.