LURID: The End Of The World As We Know It
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LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a twice-monthly guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.
Happy New Year! According to various and disparate prophecies, this could be the last time I'm able to wish you that, what with all kinds of apocalyptic situations scheduled for the year ahead. December 21st, 2012, supposedly, is the end of the world as we know it, when the Mayan calendar comes up blank after 5000 years. That’s if we make it to December, as Michael Drosnin, author/interpreter of The Bible Code, believes a comet will bring fiery destruction from the heavens before then, a belief supported (as any end times scenario tends to be) by several of Nostradamus’s ambiguous quatrains. There’s a NASA solar storm warning in effect through 2013. That supervolcano under Yellowstone Park is overdue to spew. The Hopi Indians are expecting the Day of Purification, and the emergence of the Fifth World. Your most important New Year’s resolution for 2012 is to check the contents of your home disaster preparedness kit.
Consider adding some lurid fiction to the canned water and body bags. There are shelves full of Bad Books that work through the gamut of apocalyptic possibilities; plenty to turn to in your hour of need. Although there’s something deeply wrong about creating, reading, and enjoying accounts of the complete annihilation of life as we know it, it looks like readers and writers will continue to enjoy fictional renderings of Armageddon, probably right up until Judgment Day. Schadenfreude, much?
There are myriad pleasures to be found in apocalyptic fiction. Not only do writers get to build new worlds, they get to unbuild this one, mapping out what John Wyndham calls “the necrosis of cities” and the failure of civilization. As various ordinary characters wake up to the most extraordinary day of their lives (so far), they find a terrible freedom in the Event. Catastrophe liberates them from the chains of everyday existence (debt, cubicle job, bad relationship, boredom) and thrusts them up against their primal needs of food, shelter and tribal identity. It can be exhilarating as well as horrifying. And, just as Zeus leavened Pandora’s Box with Hope, there’s often a warped optimism present amidst the visions of destruction, as small, select bands of survivors get to start the human race over, having sloughed off the degenerate masses. These books can function as daydreams for concerned denizens of our over-populated planet, as well as serving as survival manuals for the more practically inclined.
The Book of Revelation
The granddaddy of all apocalyptic books has been around since the first century CE, although apocalyptic writings date back to an older Jewish tradition beginning in the third century BCE. The origins of the last book in the Bible are suitably shrouded in mystery: was the author, “John of Patmos”, John the Apostle? And are the visions described therein directly connected to Jesus Christ? Or did some other guy named John decide to cash in, with his allegorical interpretation of the tussles between Christians and Romans in the first century? Bible scholars have been wrangling over this for millennia.
Whoever wrote it, the rich symbolism of The Book of Revelation has been referenced by writers and visual artists since it first appeared, and allusions crop up in everything from Dante’s Divine Comedy to the most recent season of Dexter. It’s part of both high and popular culture, generating images that grace both gallery walls and album covers. George Bernard Shaw describes it as “a curious record of the visions of a drug addict” while Bill Maher thinks it’s “self-fulfilling prophecy”. D.H. Lawrence praises it “for giving us hints of the magnificent cosmos and putting us into momentary contact”, but is critical of the “Christian envy…[that] will never be satisfied till it has destroyed the world.”
John’s dualistic vision of the final battle between Good and Evil does contain a whole heap of destruction; pretty much everyone and everything. Only a very few will remain unscathed and survive to enjoy peace in the New Jerusalem. Those 144,000 chosen people might have seemed like a goodly number in sparsely populated Biblical times, but it’s a microscopic drop in the ocean for our current humanity count of almost 7 billion, and barely registers on the scale when you consider the 107,602,707,791 souls who have ever existed on this planet (according to the Population Reference Bureau’s figures for mid-2011). If that’s how the odds stack up, the saved are unlikely to include me, you, or anyone we know. Just wrap your head round those numbers - 144,000 isn’t even a mid-sized audience for a successful stadium rock band. 400,000 people showed up for Woodstock in 1969, and 1.5 million saw the Rolling Stones play Copacabana Beach in 2006. To cut the odds even further, there are over 10,000 saints recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, who are first in line for salvation. And the pious dead of less ungodly ages than our own are thronging all the other steps on that stairway to heaven. Your only chance is a ticket tout.
John of Patmos gets down and dirty when it comes to specifying exactly how we great unsaved will suffer. Revelation is a Bad Book in many ways; it’s a revenge fantasy, sci-fi, torture porn, all spiced with lashings of supernatural Horror. Highlights include:
- Four Horsemen (Conquest, War, Famine and Death)
- A great earthquake that blocks out the sun and rearranges every land mass on the planet
- Lots of things falling from the sky (including a star named Wormwood, and some kind of mountain)
- A bottomless abyss, spewing ‘locusts’ (with human faces and lions’ teeth)
- A giant red dragon with seven heads
- The Beast of the Land and the Beast of the Sea
- “Foul and loathsome sores”
- All water turning to blood
- The Destruction of Babylon
It’s head-spinning spectacle. Showbusiness. The pyrotechnics of power. On the one hand it demonstrates that the Christian God would grind the Roman lares et penates into dust when it came to wroth and smiting, representing a show of strength from a persecuted religion. On the other, it betrays the vicious militarism at the core of Christianity (got a problem? Send in two hundred million horsemen breathing fire, smoke and brimstone) that has shaped the politics of this planet ever since. The Book of Revelation is hands down the most read, most influential Bad Book in history.
One of the reasons for its enduring appeal is that John establishes the end of the world will come from above, via some kind of cosmic event, or below, courtesy of a plague, or earthquakes, volcanoes, floods or other natural disasters. The dualism of his vision isn’t just about Good versus Evil, but about how the fragile balance of life on earth can be disrupted. John has been right on the money for two thousand years, as advances in scientific knowledge have corroborated the possibility (even eventuality) of his various scenarios rather than debunking them. Apocalyptic writers who followed the trail he blazed have also been able to bask in the glow of his prescience, especially after August 1945, when the atomic bomb gave Wormwood a tangible form.
"I am become Death"
Although the first apocalyptic novel (Mary Shelley’s The Last Man) was published in 1826, the detonation of “Little Boy” on Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945 shepherded in the modern era of doomsday books. For the first time, The Event as a global catastrophe became a reality, and has been no more than ten hypothetical minutes away (from the push of the wrong button) ever since. Generations of authors have now grown up with the threat of imminent immolation, and that has to have sharpened critical and creative thinking about the end of the world.
Nuclear winter has provided the backdrop for some great apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic novels: Nevil Shute’s On The Beach, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Walter M. Miller Jr’s A Canticle for Liebowitz, and Raymond Briggs’ When The Wind Blows to name just a few. The immediate and long-term effects of a nuclear conflagration turn John of Patmos’s visions into concrete reality, and provide the raw material for some stark storytelling:
“He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”
However, any writer picking nuclear war as their Event has had a lot of the work done for them; all they have to do is draw on the well-documented horrors of radiation poisoning, add in social and agricultural collapse, and set their unlucky survivors on a difficult, but derivative, Road. Serious eschatologists like to see a touch more originality when it comes to mapping out our Big Send Off.
"Life, Jim, but not as we know it"
A personal favorite when it comes to post-apocalyptic novels is John Wyndham’s The Day of The Triffids, published in 1951. Although it speaks to a bygone era of chivalry and gendertyping, its premise is all too plausible, and still chilling sixty years on. Civilization faces a double whammy: a passing meteor storm, trumpeted in the media as ‘the fireworks display of a lifetime’ entertains the population of our planet one evening. The following day, they’re all blind. The opening chapter, describing the protagonist, Bill, waking up in hospital to an altered world, remains a masterpiece of aural horror. He’s one of the lucky ones: thanks to the bandages covering his eyes he missed the meteorites and still has his sight. However, as he bands together with a small group of other sighted survivors, they must face an additional threat, the Triffids.
Generated as part of a mysterious Russian biotech program, Triffids are seven feet high plants that have infested Wyndham’s not-so future world. They swell upwards from a bole into a slender stem that ends in a trumpet-shaped opening (back to John of Patmos). They’re farmed for a high-quality pink oil, far superior to fish or palm, that they produce, but they need to be handled with great care. When roused, they shoot a whip-like stinger that contains enough toxins to kill a man. Did I mention that they walk, thanks to a tripod arrangement at their base? And they communicate with one another via rattling sticks? And they find human flesh pretty tasty? And that they’re all too ready to step up to the plate when humankind goes blind?
"Take away our vision and the superiority is gone. Worse than that, our position becomes inferior to theirs, because they are adapted to a sightless existence and we are not… They can get their nourishment direct from the soil, or from insects and bits of raw meat. They don’t have to go through all the complicated process of growing things, distributing them, and usually cooking them as well. In fact, if it were a choice of survival between a triffid and a blind man, I know which I’d put my money on.”
Other writers have tackled a vegetable-based Armageddon (notably, Thomas Disch with The Genocides), but none so effectively as Wyndham. His survivors learn to battle their own consciences (Bill decides early on that it’s not worth it for the sighted to help the sightless, who must be left to their inevitable doom), each other (there are religious and political tyrants attempting to reorganize society along their own lines), a mysterious plague that decimates the remaining sightless, and, of course, the Triffids lurking in every hedgerow and bush. Although Brian Aldiss criticized The Day of the Triffids as a “cosy catastrophe”, believing that the survivors had too easy a time of it (no one exposed to the 1981 BBC adaptation, as I was, at a tender age, would agree with him) Wyndham’s masterwork remains a quirky classic of the genre.
"Not prophecy, but description"
The best speculative fiction parallels present times, rather than predicting the future, although it may seem prophetic in retrospect. When Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985, it was considered a dystopian vision of a nightmare, never-to-be destiny. A mere quarter century later, it looks more and more like it’s ripped from Fox News headlines. While The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t a truly apocalyptic novel (the triggering Event is a relatively minor terrorist attack, rather than a global disaster), we can only hope that Atwood’s pair of post-apocalyptic novels, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood aren’t similarly prescient.
Between them, the two novels provide a convincing road map for our near future and subsequent obliteration. Atwood’s keen eye for social tropes most likely to extrapolate is at work as she builds a society reliant on transgenic creatures, where sex has been utterly commodified, and where global corporations (run by Petrobaptists) keep their privileged employees on compounds a long way from the slum-loving pleebands. It’s a dirty, doomed, depraved world. Small wonder that biotechnologist, Crake, engineers a new breed of herbivore, polyandrous humans, along with a pandemic to wash away all the other filth from the streets.
"This was not an ordinary pandemic: it wouldn’t be contained after a few hundred thousand deaths, then obliterated with biotools and bleach. This was the Waterless Flood the Gardeners so often had warned about. It had all the signs: it travelled through the air as if on wings, it burned through cities like fire, spreading germ-ridden mobs, terror and butchery. The lights were going out everywhere, the news was sporadic: systems were failing as their keepers died. It looked like total breakdown…
Atwood’s apocalyptic visions are inventive, original and never anything less than intelligent – and they wouldn’t seem all that unfamiliar to John of Patmos, thanks to the religious undertones. In The Year Of The Flood, they’re occasionally playful and comic. Given how resonant The Handmaid’s Tale has become, these two novels are a must-read for anyone who'd like a life expectancy much beyond 2021.
Despite the wealth of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction available for perusal, there will always be those of you who prefer to spend the months leading up to December 21st, 2012 strengthening the perimeter of your compound and corralling extra wives. For the busy survivalist, able to snatch only minimal reading time away from chopping firewood and bulk-buying hazmat suits, Justin Cronin’s The Passage is the one book you need.
The Passage functions as a greatest hits remix of all the apocalyptic writing that has gone before. Cronin borrows heavily from Stephen King’s The Stand, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, Robert McCammon’s Swan Song, and Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, among a host of other filmic and literary influences, never forgetting John of Patmos. It’s not plagiarism, it’s bricolage.
“In her mind's eye she saw it, saw it all at last: the rolling armies and the flames of battle; the graves and pits and dying cries of a hundred million souls; the spreading darkness, like a black wing stretching over the earth; the last, bitter hours of cruelty and sorrow, and the terrible, final flights; death's great dominion over all, and, at the last, empty cities, becalmed by the silence of a hundred years. Already these things were coming to pass.” 
Cronin has pretensions to being a literary writer, but his prose gets turgid after 70 pages – not encouraging in a book that’s 700+ pages long. Nonetheless, there’s a good, if chaotic, end-of-the-world yarn contained in those pages, which account for the final months leading up to the Event that sees the planet over-run by a species of vampire, and the activities of survivors one hundred years on. Tip: build your compound near some wind turbines. Cronin earned big money for his epic ($3.75 million from his publishers, $1.75 million for the film rights), so, Armageddon willing, expect this to be the first part of a trilogy.
By indulging in Bad Books about the horrors of the Apocalypse, are we encouraging mass manifestation? By reading and re-reading, will we bring these horrors to pass? And when those 99 red balloons finally go up, which of our literary prophets do you think will be proved right? When the end of the world finally happens, will John of Patmos be the one with the “I told you so, two thousand years ago, and you didn’t listen” look on his face? Or will the smug be oozing from another source?
 p.61 Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
 George Bernard Shaw quoted in The Literary Guide to the Bible (1997), Robert Alter and Frank Kermode (eds), HarperCollins, London.
 p.79 Apocalypse and the Writings on Revelation (1931) D.H. Lawrence ed. Mara Kalnins. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
 Cormac McCarthy, The Road
 p31 Day of The Triffids by John Wyndham
 p.27 The Year Of The Flood by Margaret Atwood
 The Passage by Justin Cronin
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