As of late 2019, there are two indie publishers that most excite me in the Horror genre. The first is Muzzleland Press, which specialises in publishing cutting-edge Weird Horror fiction under the masterful eye of author and editor Jonathan Raab. The second is Demain Publishing, who have focused on releasing short fiction across all of the Horror subgenres, primarily in novella and Chapbook-style formats, the latter titles containing 2-3 stories by a single author under their Short Sharp Shocks! Imprint. I’ve been deeply impressed by everything that I’ve seen published by Demain, especially the incredibly slick and attractive way that their titles are packaged; the cover art and format design by artist Adrian Baldwin is frankly brilliant, and editor Dean M. Drinkel has been highly judicious in choosing who to publish, leading to a rapidly-growing number of high-quality titles that do both their authors and the publisher proud.
I’ve reviewed a number of Short Sharp Shocks! titles on this blog, and hope to continue reviewing them in the future. But Demain are also increasing the number of novellas they’re publishing, and their latest offering caught my eye – and not just because of Mr Chamberlain’s usual great cover art. I haven’t read anything by Dave Jeffery before, though I’ve been aware of his works, but this time I was interested in the description of his novella from Demain, A Quiet Apocalypse. That interest derived primarily from the fact that he had taken on the post-apocalyptic subgenre, which I think is one of the most difficult areas of horror to write in at the moment. I don’t think it’s difficult to write – quite the contrary, as the Kindle listings testify; there are tens of thousands of post-apocalyptic titles that you can download and read right now.
Instead, to me the difficulty comes from being able to derive any originality from the subgenre. I don’t think that there’s been a type of apocalypse that hasn’t been used, over-used and then firmly driven into the ground. Zombies; meteors; zombies; EMPs; zombies; viruses and plagues; zombies; and every other possible cause has been employed by the subgenre’s legion of authors. After a while they all tend to blend into each other, assisted by their near-universal reliance on white, male veterans or survivalists as their protagonists. The subgenre is quite frankly stale, and as such I’ve effectively given up on it; but if Demain have published a post-apocalyptic novella, then I trust that Mr Drinkel found something original and engaging that merited being released.
The originality in A Quiet Apocalypse comes not from the apocalypse itself – caused by a particularly virulent form of bacterial meningitis – but in how the few remaining survivors are affected. As the novella’s title hints, those who are infected and survived lose their hearing and become totally deaf. That alone fascinated me – how often do you see the deaf in a horror or post-apocalyptic title? Or, indeed, any character who has a disability or some form of loss of sense? Rarely, if at all, in my experience, and as such I became intrigued as to where exactly Jeffrey would take this story, and therefore requested a review copy and dived straight in.
Set a number of years after the apocalypse itself, protagonist Chris is one of the few who survived with his hearing intact. That’s incredibly lucky, but also makes him an extremely valuable commodity; hence why he isn’t a free man, but instead a crippled slave belonging to Crowley, one of those who survived but lost his hearing as a result of the bacterial meningitis infection. Crowley uses fear and violence to keep Chris in line – Chris’ crippled leg is the result of an earlier attempt to escape captivity – and ensure that he remains where he is. That’s because Chris is a much sought-after man, as verbal communication is the most valuable commodity imaginable in this world. It is a brutal, unforgiving existence, tied (literally and figuratively) to Crowley, a paranoid and hard-drinking man who clearly resents Chris and his continued ability to hear things. But far worse than Crowley are the Samaritans, a group who reside in the nearby city of Cathedral; not only do they roam the nearby countryside kidnapping any survivors with intact hearing, but they also brutally murder anyone who was deaf prior to the apocalypse, declaring them to be ‘Harbingers’ whose existence led directly to the end of the world. Chris’ day to day existence is repetitive, depressing and nothing more than literal slavery, leashed by a brutal and uncomprehending master. Yet the freedom that Chris craves so desperately, once realised, only leads to a desperate chase across the countryside in the companion of another hearing survivor, whose motivations are opaque and mysterious.
The plot itself is tense and drawn-out, with sudden accelerations and moments of violence that can be both unexpected and incredibly brutal, as the former schoolteacher is faced with a world where he must decide between a cowardice that leads to slavery, or bravery that leads to punishment – or death. Jeffery develops the overarching atmosphere of the novella perfectly; the first half of the story is spent exploring Chris’ character and his environment, and the many psychological and physical burdens he has to deal with in his new life, while the second-half is a fast-paced journey that leads to him abandoning every certainty he had in his old life with Crowley in an attempt to reach theoretical safety. That journey allows Jeffery to further develop the state of the world, using some beautifully stark and poetic language at times to describe how the world is breaking down and reverting back to nature, while simultaneously being combed by bands of vicious survivors.
The world-building in A Quiet Apocalypse is both subtle and partial in nature, with there being little indication of the state of the rest of the UK, and the wider world. Not only does this add an air of mystery to the novella as a whole, allowing the reader to wonder whether anywhere in Britain, or the wider world, has survived unscathed, it also comes as a welcome relief from the usual info-dumping typical to the subgenre. One of the most irritating tropes in post-apocalyptic titles is the manner in which entire pages will be devoted to awkward information-dumps about the status of every major country in the world (usually dire) just to prove the devastating nature of the apocalypse. Everything that happens in A Quiet Apocalypse is hyper-local, everything taking place within a few miles of each other; that makes everything far more shocking and tense, as Chris is forced to cross back on himself a number of times in evasion attempts, and adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere of the novella as a whole.
The cast of the novella is also tiny – there are really only four major characters, not all of whom appear throughout the whole of the plot – which is another nice change from the usual horde of two-dimensional characters that appear in genre titles. As such, those characters that do appear are complex and three-dimensional, and even the antagonist is not entirely unsympathetic in their goals. Chris himself is a quiet, reflective and often bitter protagonist, one who ruminates on his own fractured upbringing just as much as his current plight, and I found much to sympathise with as he finds himself often trapped by those stronger than him – both physically and mentally. Chris’ master Crowley fascinated me in particular – paranoid, angry and constantly on edge, was he always like this? Did the apocalypse and losing his hearing merely accentuate his behaviour, or completely change him? To Jeffery’s credit, there are few concrete answers to any of these questions, leaving the reader often as isolated as Chris himself.
Another fascinating element of the novella, and tied intimately into the general world-building, is the manner in which the deafened survivors have adapted to the loss of one of their major senses. With one sense gone, the others become more prominent and increased in importance: scent traps are used by Crowley and Chris to lure away the hunting dogs employed by the Samaritans, and for those with generators, chest-worn tablets are used for basic, hurried communication. These are all imaginative and well-considered ideas, and add to the really engaging atmosphere of the novella; the same can be said for the far more harrowing nature of the survivors and their bitterness towards the ‘Harbingers’. There’s absolutely nothing rational about their hatred of those who were born without their hearing, as the novella makes clear they had nothing to do with the apocalypse. But, in a tale as old as humanity, they become useful targets for the hatred, anger and fear left over in the aftermath of the infection ravaging the country. The grimness of the murderous treatment that they suffer is only heightened through Jeffrey’s clever use of Chris’ background as a teacher to highlight the repression and ill-treatment of the Deaf in Britain prior to the apocalypse, and how things had only just started to become more inclusive in the past few decades. Tragically, rather than learning from the Deaf in an attempt to learn how to cope in this new world, the remaining survivors instead turned on them, exhibiting the worst of humanity.
Slow-burning, contemplative in tone and often laced with raw emotions, occasionally peppered with sudden and shockingly brutal bursts of violence, A Quiet Apocalypse is the complete antithesis of the shallow, action-orientated title that currently dominates the post-apocalyptic genre. Rather than focus on the drama and chaos of the apocalypse itself, revelling in mindless death and destruction, it instead places its focus squarely on the survivors themselves, and their reactions to the physical and mental changes wrought on them by the meningitis strain. The novella is rarely easy reading, with a great deal of introspection on the part of the protagonist on the deprivations and inequities he has been burdened with, as well as the illogical and yet depressingly realistic reaction of the deafened survivors to the innocent ‘Harbingers’. Yet despite its generally grim tone and often challenging content, I cannot think of another piece of post-apocalyptic fiction that I have enjoyed so much, and which has so fundamentally affected me as a reader. Ultimately, A Quiet Apocalypse reminds me of genre classics like The Children of Men and The Road, and I firmly believe that it deserves to be ranked alongside them.