Zombies aren’t my thing, but Maureen McHugh opens her 2011 short-story collection After the Apocalypse (from Small Beer Press) with a zombie story even I could love. “The Naturalist” immediately won a place on my internal “best apocalyptic short fiction ever” list.
After that, I wasn’t hard to convince. Though the stories that follow veer in focus—the apocalypse itself isn’t always evident—the writing remains masterful, yet more proof that you really shouldn’t believe me when I say “I don’t usually like short fiction.”
“Taste was one of the most primitive senses. Primitive as smell. Smelling with the tongue.” -The Naturalist
Stories are set in America and in China, people speak English and Spanish and some people have two moms. The characters, their realities, and their horrors are all strikingly real, no matter how much fantasy has been woven into the thread of their narrative. One of the most memorable was a sculptor who makes life-like infant dolls, usually ordered by greiving or empty-nester parents. The economy is, vaguley, collapsing off in the distance and migrant workers come to her door asking for food or shelter while she struggles to pay for gas to drive to town for groceries. None of the stories here focus on the larger scale catastrophe, but their intensely personal nature makes the disaster all the worse.
That was, in part, this collection’s triumph (the other part being that McHugh has a pied piper style; you’re going to follow it wherever it goes). The apocalypse isn’t loud or even obvious. It is slow and painful and sometimes, completely invisible. If your life is shitty it keeps being shitty, teenagers still have the same problems, people order weird dolls, other people get robbed or sick, and people get by. Maybe, it turns out, the apocalypse is something that is always happening, though sometimes not all of the population can see it.
Table of Contents
“The Naturalist.” Criminals are sent to a zombie preservation instead of to prison, and what our convict narrator uses the zombies to do when he arrives is as fascinating as it is horrifying. Favorite zombie short story of all time.
“Special Economics.” In China a company that makes bio-batteries beloved by the first world indentures its all-female work force.
“Useless Things.” A sculptor who lives out in the desert makes lifelike porcelain infant dolls. Meanwhile, migrant workers show up at her door who, after a break-in, she no longer feels safe helping.
“The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large.” A dirty bomb that went off in the Baltimore area seems to have caused complete amnesia in one man, who becomes a mechanic and starts a new life.
“The Kingdom of the Blind.” A computer program that runs a string of medical systems appears to have become sentient.
“Going to France.” Suddenly part of the American population can fly, and they are all set on going to France.
“Honeymoon.” A woman moves after her fiance gambles away their honeymoon money and starts participating in medical studies to earn extra money.
“The Effect of Centrifugal Forces.” A teenager deals with both the divorce of her parents—living with mom1 whose new girlfriend is a hoarder and dealing with the drug addiction of mom2 who has a sleezy new boyfriend—while watching her mother die from a new disease.
“After the Apocalypse.” A mother and daughter attempt to flee the end time situation at home by heading north.
This book, awesome as it is, has received a lot of critical attention. You can read a mass of other reviews online: i09, Strange Horizons, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and The Washington Post. Read our interview with the publisher, Small Beer Press, right here.