Fangirl Fridays – A Splattering of Post-Apocalyptic Diversions

For the last few months, I’ve had a voracious hunger for harrowing post-apocalyptic dystopias. It’s one way of drowning out the din around me, or at least distracting myself, for a while. It can be maddening, inspiring, cathartic, and strangely soothing.

This was the genre I loved in high school and college, titles like 1984, Brave New World, Alas Babylon, Lucifer’s Hammer, and The Stand. They explored the best and worst of innumerable possible paths through devastation triggered by nuclear war, asteroids, toxic pollution, or aliens — leaving survivors to begin again without government, technology, and infrastructure, or to weather the rise of authoritarian, totalitarian, and fascist regimes. The latter was my least favorite post-apocalyptic theme.

As I discovered new stories, I pounced on them: The Postman (the novella, NOT the movie), The Handmaid’s Tale, The Hunger Games, The Passage, Station Eleven, and a lengthy list of more.

I’ve been wanting to revisit my old favorites, but recently I’ve also needed a few stories that didn’t require great concentration and analysis. In other words, easy stuff that I didn’t have to think too hard about, where characters, action, and messages were not subtle.

After the jump, I’ll tell you about the stories that have kept me entertained.

I read a first edition of The Stand in 1978, but the details had long since faded from memory and I’d always meant to read the unabridged version that Stephen King released in 1990. This was a month-long commitment, populated by legions of fascinating characters complete with back stories, which made it really really really loooooooooong (1,300+ Kindle pages). But I wasn’t in a hurry at the time — fall gardening chores were complete and the holiday season was still a comfortable ways off.

On page one, a weaponized plague escaped a military compound, because technology’s a bitch, and then quickly proceeded to wipe out most of the U.S. population. Soon the survivors began to dream about kindly Mother Abigail. Or Randall Flagg, the terrifying dark man, the walking dude. They headed toward the voices in their dreams, to form opposing teams in the inevitable showdown for control of what was left of the world. I vividly remembered some of the colorful characters and their perilous journeys, but many I’d forgotten, and a few were new (having been abridged out of the original release). An unwelcome, gruesomely unwholesome few that I’d labored for years to erase from my brain are now back, unfortunately — I’m talking to you, Trashcan Man!

My reread blew the dust off nightmare landscapes that were seared into my psyche several decades ago. A solitary two-lane blacktop running into an endlessly empty Nevada horizon, with only the sound of bootheels clicking against the pavement. An elderly black woman rocking on the front porch of a farmhouse surrounded by Iowa cornfields. Ragtag bands of survivors lured by the siren song that resonated most deeply: good or evil, light or dark, peace or anger, life or death.

This book stood the test of time quite well for me: the stories were still engrossing, the characters were still compelling (or repellent), and it remained disturbingly relevant. The first two I expected from Stephen King, and this is one of my favorite King books. The latter was both a pleasant surprise and frightening.

I put The Giver on my TBR list after watching the movie, and an empty category in my Saucy Wenches reading challenge finally nudged it onto my Currently Reading shelf in Goodreads.

This YA classic was deceptively simple, yet horrifying. It was set in a tightly controlled community devoid of color, individuality, and emotions. Citizens were closely monitored. Children were educated by the governing authorities, and on graduation day each was assigned a career path carefully selected according to skills and temperaments.

One child per generation was designated as the Receiver of Memories, the archival repository for the collective memories of all the current and previous residents, going back through the generations. The Receiver saw color. He alone experienced Joy and Pain and Beauty and Hope and Despair. He alone carried the emotional baggage for the entire community so that the rest could live calm, productive lives without the disruptions of guilt, love, and loss. And He alone knew the magnitude of what they were all giving up.

This book lured me into the same sense of dreamlike complacency enjoyed by most of its characters before it savagely peeled back the veneer to reveal the true cost of of serenity in this world. I was getting a bit rushed when I read this book, but like many classics, there were levels of themes to ponder. It can be as simple or complex as you let it. The Giver has received many awards for young adult and teen fiction, including the Newberry Medal in 1994.

The Fireman began with the outbreak of a spore-based Dragonscale plague, which caused human skin to erupt in intricately detailed gold tattoos before spontaneously combusting. The formalities of civilization crumbled, hate radio and Cremation Squads emerged, and survivors cowered behind locked doors. But young, pregnant nurse Harper struggled to help everyone she could and keep herself alive long enough to bring a healthy baby into the world. One night The Fireman brought her a dying boy to save, then disappeared into the smoke. Dressed in yellow firefighter gear and brandishing a halligan, no one knew who he was, but there were many tales of his amazing feats. He had learned to weaponize his Dragonscale and use it to help the oppressed.

This book started as a thrilling page turner, then navigated the dueling ideologies that emerged as survivors tried to organize a community and start over, and eventually meandered off on a road I hadn’t seen coming. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed this book! But I’m still trying to accept the ending.

A wealth of pop culture references and humor balanced the terror and uncertainty. Especially the radio broadcasts from a certain 1980s MTV veejay promising an island refuge and cutting-edge medical facilities. This book was voted the 2016 GoodReads Choice award winner for Best Horror.

I can’t move on without mentioning that Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son. Which you can figure out before you read very far into one of his books. If you love Stephen King’s wicked humor, acute powers of observation, vividly developed diversity of characters (some of whom will haunt you forever), and imaginatively twisted will love Joe Hill’s books! They are NOT the same, you couldn’t mix them up, but you can definitely see that the apple fell fairly close to the tree, rooted deeply, and matured into majestic timber itself.

Other memorable scary apple trees

Feversong is the ninth book in the fabulous, Wench favorite Fever series, which takes place in Dublin during and after the apocalyptic battle between humankind and the surviving members of the ancient Fae race.

To quote myself, the last time I wrote about Fever being one of my favorite series:
Fever is a mesmerizing mixture of ancient Irish Fae mythology, brooding Byronic supernatural hero (with sidekicks!), and kickass heroines. The world building is deeply complicated, the magic is malevolent and pervasive, the sexual chemistry is beyond incendiary, and the protagonists endure and prevail against relentless trickery and evil to choose their destinies and forge their bond. Their mission is larger than themselves and their moment, indeed it is the fate of the entire planet for millennia to come.
That post focused on romances and fantasies, so I didn’t talk up the cataclysmic clash and ongoing struggles to restore some semblance of normal life. Though Fever is classified as urban fantasy, I consider it a jewel in the crown of apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, which I’m thrilled to see expand into new genres.

If you haven’t read this series yet, I don’t want to spoil the amazing trip that awaits you, so I can’t discuss the plots in Feversong. But it picked right up where Feverborn left off, with MacKayla Lane locked in the culmination of her ongoing battle with the malevolence seeking to escape the confines of the Sinsar Dubh, and the fate of the world hanging in the balance. The story didn’t always go where I expected, but it ended with a clear path ahead for Mac and Barrons — their story wasn’t done, but its trajectory was set. In the books ahead, we can finally turn our attention to the many other intriguing characters we have come to love: Dani, Ryodan, Christian, Lor, Kat and her sidhe seers, and a few I don’t want to name because *spoilers*. We already know the next book will focus on Dani’s story, and I can’t wait!! In the meantime, you can read a non-spoilery review of Feversong here, a spoilery review here, and lots of other Fever posts on our blog!

Fever is one of the book series that originally brought the Wenches together online, where we virtually obsessed so hard posted such lengthy discussions that we had to form a separate Facebook group. After several years of trying, I was finally fortunate enough to attended a release party in New Orleans — for Feversong in January — where I met author Karen Marie Moning, a bunch of devoted Moning Maniacs, and quite a few of the Wenches! It was the first time I had met most of the Wenches face to face, and it was an amazing weekend that I’ll never forget!

Wenches Kathi, Kat, and Merit meet Karen Marie Moning —
Evening At Chester’s, January 2017

Under a Graveyard Sky started with a completely unexpected (that’s sarcasm) development: a genetically engineered virus destroyed most of the world’s population in a zombie apocalypse. One ridiculously proactive family, who had a relative working in top secret government offices, devised a secret code to warn them if an “extinction-level” event occurred. Since this was a zombie book, they got an opportunity right away to execute their elaborate and expensive escape plan. They literally dropped everything, met up to grab their packed bags, and ran — pausing only long enough to assist with attempts to circumvent world annihilation, as needed.

Despite my reluctance to read zombie lit, I gave this book a chance because my friend recommended it repeatedly. Plus, as I was wavering, the secret code was “Alas Babylon”, one of my old favorites from high school! This book changed up the virus a bit and made it interesting, but it took me a while to get fully on board with the characters. Seriously, every member of the main family was unbelievably overqualified for their multiple post-apocalyptic duties: former paramilitary and history teacher dad; electronic nerd (as in any kind of ship’s power and navigational systems) mother; 16-year-old self-taught ship navigator daughter; and 13-year-old Amazonian kickass zombie-clearing superstar daughter!! The family took to the high seas and became a sort of pirate crew who rebuilt the world, one survivor at a time.

At the time I read this, there wasn’t enough character differentiation and development to suit me. I could see this as a popular TV series, because there’s lots of action and moving around to new and exciting locales. In the meantime, I didn’t pick the second book up right away, but I do have a lingering curiosity to see what happens next, so I’m planning to start book 2 soon.

I couldn’t help but notice that — after I had to look the word up just a short time ago — this was the second book in as many months to feature a hero(ine) wielding a halligan! Which is a firefighter’s tool that made perfect sense in The Fireman. Is this a thing in zombie apocalypse books? Maybe so, because when I searched for illustrations I found one featured on a site selling zombie apocalypse survival tools.

Also good for smashing zombie skulls (Source)

I watched the Wayward Pines TV series when it aired, then waited for enough brain cells to die off that the Wayward Pines books would seem fresh. I knew that the show took a very different direction than the books (and like Game of Thrones, went beyond the published book content). I just wanted to forget what happened in the show enough to enjoy the books.

Half the fun of this story is figuring out what’s going on, so in case you haven’t read or watched, I’ll remain intentionally vague. It took the entire first book for Secret Service agent Ethan Burke to figure out what was going on after he woke up disoriented from a car accident in the MayberryStepford-like town of Wayward Pines. The second book explored the complexities of life in Wayward Pines, as the community was being torn apart from within, which left it trying to put itself back together in the third book. These are short books, so reading all three together was like one complete novel.

The twists in this story fascinated me. I’d never read a plot like this before, and the issues it raised were intriguing. It was very simply written yet scarily thought provoking, much like early Twilight Zone episodes. And that very last sentence was a stunner!

Many stories in this genre explore the compromises required to balance collective security and personal liberties — or in Star Trek speak, the needs of the many versus the needs of the one. Wayward Pines was yet another creative spin on this theme, which was represented in every book I’ve reviewed in this post, as well as many of my favorites in this genre over the years. It would appear to be a timeless concern, alas.

In the afterward to the series, the author said that watching Twin Peaks in the 1990s inspired a lifelong quest to create a story that made him feel equally creeped out about an insular village in the mountains populated by eccentric people hiding strange secrets. Though the plots are completely dissimilar, I think he succeeded quite well at capturing the Twin Peaks small-town, is-it-charming-or-is-it-sinister vibe!

And speaking of Twin Peaks, Showtime has a remake airing in May. As a huge fan from way back in its heyday, I’m going to have to rewatch the original episodes in anticipation, though I’m a bit nervous about messing with such a classic.

And now, Oryx and Crake is back on my iPad. I started to read it a month ago and immediately realized that this story would require concentration, so I set it aside. But now I’m back from my travels and can focus on stories that make me work harder. This isn’t a straight narrative that follows a chronological timeline, it’s a steady stream of consciousness that jumps around in time and makes me figure out who’s who and what’s going on.

I’m still trying to determine what apocalyptic event occurred and who the main characters are by filling in puzzle pieces as they are dangled before me. And I’m already extremely disturbed by some of the genetic splicing going on. But because this is the first book in Margaret Atwood’s well known Maddaddam trilogy, I expect I’ll have lots more to ponder before I’m done, so I’ll save that for a different post.

I’ve also watched a few TV series with similar themes, and I couldn’t end this post without mentioning a couple. Because they’re completely opposite ends of the spectrum for zombie apocalypse entertainment, yet I love them both.

If there are not enough bloody wounds, agonizing decisions, and gut-wrenching (literally) losses for you in Real Life, The Walking Dead might be the show for you! If you haven’t seen enough beloved characters get mowed down without warning or linger through painful and protracted death throes on Game of Thrones, then you’ll find this a delightful complement. This is one of the grossest shows I’ve ever watched (sometimes through my eyelids), and I often wonder whether there’s any hope for these characters beyond a quick and painless death, yet I keep coming back for more. And hoping that Rick and the rest of the gang will kick Negan’s ass.

Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet (read Wench Zee’s review here) is audacious, outrageous, and ridiculous, with generous servings of humorous one liners, pitch-perfect comedic timing, and — I know this seems the exact opposite — over-the-top bodily fluids and disemboweled organs humor. It’s hard to explain how this one works as entertainment, but it does, as a blend(er full) of wholesome family sitcom shenanigans and horror. Be warned that you might lose your appetite, between the vomit, severed appendages, and dead bodies lurking about. But you might be laughing too hard to think about eating, anyway.

And when I’m done with the zombies, next up for me is season 2 of The Man in the High Castle, right after I rewatch season 1. This is based on a Hugo Award-winning novel I read in college and deals with my least favorite theme, but it seems important to pay attention to this story, which feels more relevant than ever.

Do you enjoy post-apocalyptic stories, Saucy Readers? What are your favorites? I'm always looking for recommendations!


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