After the Apocalypse, stories by Maureen McHugh. A Small Beer Press, 2011. $16
These excellent stories are mostly set during and after various apocalyptic events – a zombie invasion, an epidemic of bird flu, etc. – but even though she is dealing with the apocalypse, these aren’t the same old stories about the end of the world. The one zombie story, for example, opens the book: “The Naturalist” is more a character study than a slasher film. The narrator is a prisoner who’s been exiled to a kind of ghetto that happens to be full of zombies. The humans have aligned themselves in various groups (much like in our more familiar idea of prison) and the narrator navigates his way through these alignments. He’s also curious about the zombies and takes every opportunity to study them. It’s a horror story; the main character is more terrifying than any supernatural monster, but McHugh tones down the zombie elements in favor of exploring the evil in mankind, which makes quite a satisfying story. The final story in the collection, the title story, follows a mother and daughter through a post-apocalyptic America ravaged by a mysterious virus. Again, this is a somewhat familiar scenario (though I’d say these two are the closest to ‘familiar’ McHugh’s stories come) but McHugh doesn’t focus so much on the survival of humanity, the rebuilding of society, or the stuff we usually see in these types of stories; she focuses on the characters, a mother who is fed up with her helpless daughter and is looking for a way out. She could just as well be a waitress in some truck stop as one of the few survivors in the country, and just because society has collapsed doesn’t mean people are going to suddenly morally polarize into caricatures of good and evil, which is one lesson McHugh tries to impart.
Many of these stories could easily become true – they’re quite close to the present day. Economic collapse. The rise of artificial intelligence – not as a sentient overlord, but as something akin to an animal acting on instinct. Some are more farfetched – one concerns people who can fly and are experiencing some weird compulsion to fly to France. (Also, I’d say, the least successful story in the collection.) No matter whether the ‘apocalypse’ changes the world immediately or simply sends it down a certain path, these characters must continue to eat and sleep and follow their desires. The unsettling thing about these stories isn’t the fear that these catastrophes might happen, but the truth revealed about the human weaknesses of many of McHugh’s characters. In the end, her characters are human.