The world is ending on a regular basis these days—in fiction, at least. For this edition of Critic’s Picks, assistant book editor Jason Kehe reviews four new must-reads in the apocalyptic genre—his favorite L.A. release, one pick from the wide-open West, another from our friends back East, and a recommendation for more adventurous readers
IN OUR BACKYARD:
(Harper, 304 pages, $25)
“There. Are. Worms. Eating my brain,” Nick Crandall says to his brother Tom, moments before tumbling off an 80-foot cliff into the stormy Malibu waters below. A former lifeguard, Tom rushes into the surf to attempt a daring rescue, but his chances are dim. So begins this punchy, potent genre mash-up—part thriller, part mystery, a pinch of sci-fi—about a Los Angeles on the verge of a mental breakdown. Random people start going berserk; before long, Tom is feeling brain intrusions too. It doesn’t help that his rich family is kooky already. Who’s behind this mind-control plot—the suspicious filmmaker hiding away in the city’s backwoods and his cultish organization called Parallax? You’ll figure everything out way before the slow-minded characters do. The real fun is seeing Los Angeles in this sinister, pre-apocalyptic light.
BEST OF THE WEST:
After the Apocalypse
Maureen F. McHugh
(Small Beer Press, 264 pages, $16)
Each of these nine short stories explores a different kind of apocalypse. Some feel familiar, until they’re not. “The Naturalist” turns I Am Legend on its head; the title story rewrites The Road from a mother-daughter perspective. Other pieces localize the apocalypse in the diseased minds of the characters. In “The Effect of Centrifugal Forces,” a daughter’s world ends as her dementia-stricken mother’s does. But the best stories in this mesmerizing collection from the L.A. writer are the ones that elude categorization—the struggles of a troubled doll maker in “Useless Things,” the fantasies of an impulsive man in “Going to France.” It’s the ordinary and everyday that we should be afraid of, not the prospect of big explosions and world-ending catastrophes. This is a pro stretching a genre to its limits—subverting, inverting, perverting, disturbing.
EAST OF THE RIVER:
(Mulholland, 448 pages, $26)
You read the first sentence of the book-jacket summary—“Zed is an agent from the future”—and think, This again? But that’s the only standard conceit in this otherwise imaginative, elegant work of literary sci-fi, set in modern-day Washington, D.C. Zed’s been sent back from the so-called Perfect Present in order to ensure that the world ends as it’s supposed to: in a Great Conflagration. (What is it about future societies and Needless Capitalization?) His problems start when small mistakes become big mistakes, and multiple plot lines—involving an ex-spy, the employee of a foreign diplomat, and a grieving lawyer—collide in unexpected, interesting ways. What transpires in the final act is as powerful for its well-paced revelations as it is for the ethical questions it raises.
BEYOND YOUR HORIZONS:
A. M. Tuomala
(Candlemark & Gleam, 320 pages, $5)
Alone in her cottage, the swamp witch Achane reanimates the corpse of her beloved sister. The result is disastrous. The corpse can’t speak; maggots crawl out of her eye sockets. Before Achane can reverse the spell, the king of Erekos steals her away to his castle. He plans to have her create an army of the undead, for use in his enduring war against neighboring Weigenland. As the story progresses, other voices emerge. Most notable is that of Erlen, a scholar and soldier whose love story equals Achane’s for poignancy and splendor. This is a rare kind of fantasy. Writing in rhythmic cadences that evoke oral storytelling traditions, Tuomala squeezes water from a rock: poetry from war.