A.C. Wise is the author of numerous short stories appearing in print and online in publications such as Clarkesworld, Apex, Lightspeed, and the Best Horror of the Year Vol. 4. In addition to her fiction, she co-edits Unlikely Story, an online magazine publishing three issues of fiction per year with various unlikely themes. Follow her on twitter as @ac_wise.
by A.C. Wise
It just so happens the first two stories I wanted to talk about this month dealt with apocalypses, so I figured why not make it a theme?
Claire Humphrey’s “The End of the World in Five Dates,” which appeared in the March 2014 issue of Apex, offers another variation on the lone hero trope I mentioned in relation to Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City in last month’s post. There are plenty of examples of prickly/unlikable male characters holding everyone at arm’s length, but fewer female characters, so I always appreciate when it’s done and done well. The characters in general are what really make this piece shine. Humphrey does a wonderful job of showing where each one is coming from, and where their desires and personal baggage clash or mesh with everyone else. For an apocalypse story, I particularly appreciate the ending, in that it’s a beginning. Now that the protagonist has survived her personal apocalypse, she can begin living, which makes me wonder about the other seers/prophets who predicted the end of the world and what happened to them when the world stubbornly kept on turning.
Shira Lipkin’s “Becca at the End of the World“ is another Apex story, speaking of themes, appearing in the October 2013 issue. Like “The End of the World in Five Dates,” this is another story of a personal apocalypse. You may start to sense a sub-theme here; the personal moments within a vast crisis have always been the most interesting to me. Watching the major monuments of the world blow up is all well and good, but I want to know how Jane Doe and John Smith experience the apocalypse, what specifically are they losing and what does ‘the end’ mean to them. In “Becca at the End of the World,” it means a mother dealing with a daughter who has succumbed to the zombie plague and faced with the heartbreaking choice of whether to kill her. The ending can be read as a metaphor for the selfless way parents sacrifice themselves for their children, sometimes literally, subsuming their lives in the next generation. It can equally be read as a selfish choice on the part of a mother unable to deal with survivor’s guilt. Either way it’s a lovely, wrenching story, told in a pared down way that packs an emotional punch into less than 2000 words.
Megan Arkenberg’s “Final Exam” originally appeared in Asimov’s and was reprinted in the Best Horror of the Year Vol. 5. I’ve been impressed with every story I’ve read by Megan Arkenberg thus far, so really I could recommend starting anywhere with her work, but in keeping with the apocalyptic theme, I’ll go with “Final Exam”. I like stories that play with structure, particularly ones that allow the reader to piece together a larger narrative or deeper truth through fragments that fit together like puzzle pieces. For example, list stories, which often “tell” the story in the spaces in-between the words on the page. “Final Exam” employs this method to great effect, telling intertwined stories of a personal and global apocalypse as a series of questions posed on a school exam. There are horrible, world-ending type creatures, completely changing life as we know it, but there’s also a quieter kind of apocalypse – the slow unraveling of a relationship – which is equally devastating and even more final by the end.
Christie Yant’s “The Revelation of Morgan Stern” originally appeared in Shimmer #16, has been produced as a podcast at Drabblecast, and will appear in the upcoming anthology Wastelands 2: More Stories of the Apocalypse. The story is told through a series of letters written by a survivor crossing a post-apocalyptic America. Like the list story, this is another structure I enjoy as it allows authors to play with how much the letter-writer is willing to reveal, and what frequently slips through the cracks of the words they do commit to the page. Of all the stories I’ve discussed here, this is the one that best captures the loneliness of the apocalypse and just how much has been lost and changed. Still, the story manages to perfectly balance the global with the personal. For extra bonus points, once you’ve read the story, go read Christie Yant’s author interview on the Shimmer blog to see how the story came to be, which makes it that much richer.