Cathedral (A Quiet Apocalypse: Book 2)
Of all of the books that I have reviewed here on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer, there are only a scant handful that have stayed with me long after I finished reviewing them and moved onto other titles; or, indeed, stayed with me, lodged in the back of my memories, even when I stopped reading and reviewing entirely late last year. Of that small number, the one that affected me perhaps the most, and which has quietly haunted me since I finished reading it, was Dave Jeffery’s peerless novella A Quiet Apocalypse, published by Demain Publishing in September 2019. If I were ever to put together a list of the best stories that I have ever reviewed on this blog (and there’s an idea now I’ve thought of it) then Jeffery’s novella would be near the summit of that list – and perhaps even at the very top.
Set in the aftermath of a devastating viral meningitis outbreak that killed most of the population, and left a majority of the survivors permanently deaf, A Quiet Apocalypse followed Chris – a slave prized for his ability to hear – in his attempts to survive both the brutality of his slave-master, and the predations of a fanatical cult in the nearby city of Cathedral. The novella had an eerie, slightly surreal undercurrent to it that instantly drew me in, alongside a narrative that was almost contemplative in both tone and nature. While there were short, sharp and often deeply unsettling bursts of action, they were deliberately few and far between, and the focus was very much on Chris and his immediate surroundings. Indeed, the novella’s ultimate success lay in an intensive focus on a strictly limited geographical area – the region just outside of Cathedral – and a small cast of colourful, engaging and well-developed characters, combined with sparse, imaginative writing and an innate knack for post-apocalyptic world-building. In fact, I think the latter is what moved the novella from brilliant to genre classic for me when I reviewed it; in a genre plagued by unwieldy information dumps awkwardly crowbarred into plotlines, often derailing the narrative, A Quiet Apocalypse was a breath of fresh air with the way Jeffery kept his cards close to his chest, revealing little of what had happened to the wider world in the aftermath of this unique apocalypse. It made what occurred as the plot progressed far more intimate and shocking, knowing that the entire world had effectively shrunk to this hyper-focused area of just a few square miles. Thoughtful, engaging and often surprisingly meditative at times, thereby making it the antithesis of the modern post-apocalyptic genre, A Quiet Apocalypse instead harkened back to the true classics of the genre – Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, or McCarthy’s The Road – and more than deserves to stand alongside them as a modern post-apocalyptic genre classic.
While A Quiet Apocalypse was self-contained with a grim but ultimately satisfying ending, it was also obvious that Jeffery had a great deal more story left to tell in this universe, particularly about the group known as the Samaritans who lived in Cathedral and brutally hunted down and enslaved those survivors they did not kill. As such, it was little surprise to me when it was announced that the title of the sequel would be Cathedral, and I found myself curious as to how Jeffery would expand on the cultists who resided in that city, and how the overarching plot of the series would be continued. I was eager to get reading, and when I was finally able to find time to download it via Kindle Unlimited, I got stuck right in. The very first thing that you notice reading Cathedral is the poetic eloquence of Jeffery’s writing, another of those skills that makes him stand head and shoulder above his countless competitors in the genre; that writing grabs you and refuses to let you go, relentlessly bringing you in the atmosphere of the setting. That writing takes us to the very heart of the city of Cathedral, as we see through the eyes of Sarah, an inhabitant of the city and a world-weary woman already well-versed with death and loss even before the apocalypse had levelled the world. Unlike Chris, protagonist of A Quiet Apocalypse, Sarah is not a protagonist that is easy to sympathise with, even with her pre-apocalyptic suffering, and the loss of her hearing. Her snide contempt and volcanic hatred for the naturally deaf – the minority blamed by the Cathedral cult for causing the apocalypse – is difficult to bear with at times, and it’s to Jeffery’s credit that he has managed to make her so engaging despite that personality. Where our sympathy does come from, however, is the way she’s treated even as a member of Cathedral – she is not one of the elite Samaritans who is allowed to venture outside the limits of the city, and instead as a woman has no choice but to participate in the monthly rounds of coupling between the cities inhabitants that simultaneously maintain morale and firmly remind women of their place in the view of the cult. Mentions early on in the novella of the ‘lessons’ imparted by the city elders on women who refused to obey are distinctly haunting, as are the consequences of attempts to repopulate, Jeffery pulling no punches in showing just how fundamentally twisted the cult is. There are few horror titles where I can say that I have genuinely shuddered out of revulsion, but Jeffery has been able to gain that distinction with ease with the world he has created in this novella.
As the story progresses, we are taken on a tour of Cathedral, seeing how the city functions and the processes and daily rituals that have been constructed to allow the population to survive and even thrive to an extent, though always with the pall of the consequences of the apocalypse lingering over everything. Supplies are strictly controlled, mating and breeding operates on a tightly-controlled rota that provides a fig-leaf of democracy for those involved, and punishment is doled out in a highly ritualised and brutal manner that emphasises the authoritarian nature of the Cathedral’s society. The arrival of a new survivor to the city leads to Sarah becoming interested in mating with him, and the capture of a Harbinger – a naturally deaf survivor blamed by Cathedral for the apocalypse – and their subsequent fate both cause disruptions and changes in Sarah’s life; changes that bring into question the very nature of Cathedral’s existence, and her reason for staying inside its walls.
A strong, engaging and deeply intriguing plot is allied to a cast of powerful and fleshed-out characters, continuing the solid work that Jeffery put into A Quiet Apocalypse. As noted above, Sarah is an enthralling protagonist, Jeffery drawing out the flaws in her character while also quietly highlighting strengths that can somewhat endear her to us. Those flaws, and strengths, are reflected in Cathedral and its population as a whole: resilience and determination, as well as bigotry and unquestioning obedience. But Sarah also has secrets, kept away from prying eyes of those in charge of the city and which form a central part of her motivation, and it’s fascinating to see how fear and obedience rival with her attempts to retain her individuality. The other characters who orbit Sarah and intersect with her story are just as powerfully crafted by Jeffery – whether it’s Alice, an older woman trying to live with her own broken remembrances and losses caused by the end of the world, or Paul, the new survivor forcibly integrated into Cathedral, a man desperately trying to fit into Cathedral’s safe yet authoritarian society.
The power of that characterisation even extends to the environment itself: the city of Cathedral is an absolutely fascinating and evocative creation, and becomes almost a character in of itself as the novella progresses, as full of complexities and contradictions as the human characters themselves. Soulless grey buildings feature throughout, as if the repression meted out against its population has leached into the very fabric of the buildings themselves and drained them somehow, while simultaneously life goes on around and within them; Jeffery offers us the evocative dichotomy of farm animals and agricultural machinery stored inside the empty shells of pre-apocalyptic buildings. But above all, there is the silence – the silence of the apocalypse, created by the viral meningitis strain that ended the world, and perpetuated by those within the shell of a city, to the point where it seems the silence has emptied their souls and replaced it with the sinister, fleeting treachery of memory and nostalgia.
However, it isn’t just the plot and characters that make Cathedral such a memorable experience, it’s also the carefully considered and artful world-building that Jeffery puts into every page of the novella, building on the broad brushstrokes he had demonstrated in A Quiet Apocalypse. While many societies in post-apocalyptic fiction are barely described at all, with few details as to how they function, Jeffery has obviously considered the specifics of how Cathedral and its occupants would survive down to the last detail: food production, mating, even how the surviving library system functions are all deftly integrated into the plot as the novella progresses, giving the story a richness and depth that is so often missing in the genre. You can actually see how Cathedral – despite being a terrifying, dystopian nightmare of a society – actually functions on a day to day basis, which in turn makes it all the more harrowing when you see what the city’s leaders have twisted their followers into, and consider how the city dominates the region and ruthlessly suppresses those who do not join it. Perhaps the most impressive element of this worldbuilding is how technology has been adapted to serve those without their hearing: things like the tell-pads that bring up text, or even something subtle like coloured lights instead of chimes for doorbells, all combine to show that Jeffery has carefully considered how this world has evolved and operates, providing small details often absent from post-apocalyptic stories.
Cathedral is a fascinating, complex and multi-layered piece of post-apocalyptic horror fiction, one that constantly surprises and rewards as much as it horrifies and unsettles, and as such is all the better for it. It is a work that constantly challenges – challenges the reader with the realities of life within Cathedral and the price paid by its inhabitants for safety, and also challenges the post-apocalyptic genre as a whole, demonstrating that it is still possible to write high-quality, high-concept fiction that isn’t simply focused on shallow elements like death and destruction. Instead, Cathedral returns to the genres roots by re-examining the notion of loss and memory, and the balance between humanity’s need for rules and communal sacrifice, in comparison to individual freedoms. By deftly and skilfully examining those issues, and where and how they intersect and clash, Jeffery has managed to build upon the success of A Quiet Apocalypse and create in Cathedral yet another classic of the post-apocalyptic genre. Indeed, this is even one of those incredibly rare cases where the sequel to a classic is just as good as the original, something that is incredibly difficult to achieve. For that alone, Jeffery should be celebrated, but he should also be feted for continuing to reinvigorate the genre as a whole. Cathedral is proof that Dave Jeffery is the undisputed modern master of the post-apocalyptic horror genre, and is essential reading for anyone interested in the genre, both as readers and writers. Demain Publishing have made a hugely valuable contribution to the horror genre as a whole in publishing Jeffery’s classics, and I eagerly look forward to seeing what the third book in the trilogy looks like whenever it is published