When the Cicadas Stop Singing
Horrific Tales Publishing
Zachary Ashford is one of the most impressive rising stars in the horror genre today, and I’ve been privileged enough to follow him since almost the very beginning of his career. The breadth and quality of the horror fiction he has produced so far has been nothing short of astounding, both in terms of his short stories and his longer, novella-length titles. Ashford’s two novellas published by Unnerving as part of their excellent Rewind or Die series – Sole Survivor and Sole Survivor II: Drop Bears on the Loose – are fantastic examples of blood-soaked satirical horror that perfectly embody the concept of Rewind or Die, working as pitch-perfect extrapolations of late-night horror films into prose format. But as entertaining and memorable as those works are, Ashford’s short stories are where he really shines, and demonstrates the sheer talent that put him firmly on my radar. He’s had two sets of short stories published by Demain Publishing, one of the best new publishers in the Horror genre, and I count both sets as amongst the best titles in the publisher’s excellent Short Sharp Shocks! series. The Encampment by the Gorge & Blood Memory (Short Sharp Shocks! Book 30) demonstrated Ashford’s deft handling of characterisation and atmosphere, alongside a carefully-considered and nuanced take on the racism and horrific abuses heaped upon the indigenous population that resulted from the history of colonialism in Australia, creating two compelling and deeply memorable short stories. And Autotomy Cocktail (Short Sharp Shocks! #71) was a potent blend of body horror and bizarro horror, with just a dash of dark, bleak humour to make it reminiscent of classic Cronenberg cinematography.
Taken together, these works readily demonstrate Ashford’s prodigious talents as a horror author, and I was extremely curious to see what another longer-term title from him would look like. The back-cover blurb for the upcoming When the Cicadas Stop Singing certainly seemed intriguing. Set in the remote Australian Outback in a vaguely-defined time period, the region has been devastated first by poison gas leaking out of the ground, and then strange lizard-men who picked off most of the survivors. Those remaining, like protagonist Cora, live in hilly and mountainous areas. Mourning for her son, killed by a monster that found their sanctuary, Cora tries to survive day by day, until new arrivals make the already dangerous Outback a thousand times more lethal. The plot sounded like a potent mix of elements drawn from Ashford’s previous works, and I was eager to see what he had in store for me. Ashford immediately throws us into an atmospheric and earthy-feeling world, as protagonist Cora flees through a colourful and vibrantly-described outback locale, chased by a terrifying example of the lizard-like, humanoid creatures that now populate the land. After a whiplash-fast, heart-pounding chase sequence, Cora is able to reach safety and dispatch the creature, though the brief satisfaction from its death does little to assuage the grief she feels from another such creature killing her son. But before she can properly recover, she’s confronted by more monsters – though this time entirely human in nature. A couple – a vulnerable young woman and a brash, arrogant and dangerous-looking man – suddenly appear and thrust themselves into Cora’s small and tightly-managed world, and before long Cora finds herself confronted by monsters on all sides – both lizard and man – and with the latter by far the most dangerous to her and the small world she has managed to craft out of the fall of humanity.
The trope that states that actually, man is the real monster in the apocalypse is an old and venerable one that threatens to become stale with each new generic post-apocalyptic tale published in the genre; and as such, it’s refreshing to find when reading through When the Cicadas Stop Singing that Ashford is able to interrogate it in such a fresh and vibrant manner, in the process discovering new angles that revive the trope and thereby make it interesting and engaging to the reader once again. When the Cicadas Stop Singing feels like a passion project from start to finish, with a certain energy that radiates on every page and makes it both fascinating and enthralling. Much of that energy is derived from the unique atmosphere that Ashford creates through the sustained use of some deeply evocative prose, bringing the post-apocalyptic outback to vivid life, often with just a few well-chosen phrases. The verdant nature and rude glamour of the outback – mostly untouched and unbothered by Man’s fall from grace – is a stunning backdrop to Ashford’s tale, and almost a character itself given the energy and detail that Ashford invests in it.
It’s complimented by a small cast of humans whose stories unfold against this stunning – and deadly – backdrop; and while there are only three main characters in the whole story, this admirably tight focus allows Ashford to present us with an artful and often subtle character study of how radically differently each person reacts to the end of the world, and the subsequent destruction of the common moral and ethical bonds existing in modern society. In many ways, Ashford follows the conventions of a morality play, albeit with his own unique and engaging twists, deploying short, brutal and exhausting action sequences and prolonged periods of tension and terrifying stand-offs to tell a colourful and compulsively engaging tale of what – if anything – matters once aircraft have stopped flying through the air and mobile phones are mere paperweights. In addition, Ashford deftly redefines the concept of a home invasion to encompass an external home – jungle clearings and rivers and mountains, and yet just as dangerous and claustrophobic as an actual building as Cora finds herself remorselessly pursued and then hunted by a monster – a particularly gut-wrenching and nauseating creature that’s an unholy fusion of man and lizard, and which clearly demonstrates the Bizarro Horror influences found in Autotomy Cocktail.
Concluding with a stunning and breath-taking ending that delivers the sort of nuanced take that the post-apocalyptic genre desperately needs, When the Cicadas Stop Singing is nothing less than a masterpiece of survivalist post-apocalyptic horror fiction by Zachary Ashford. Written with the energy, enthusiasm and kind of skillful prose rarely seen in the genre outside of masters like Dave Jeffery, Ashford deftly demonstrates the difficulty of maintaining a moral compass in a world of perpetual moral and ethical extremes, and the eternal debate of whether one should do the right thing or the safe thing is recast in an even more sinister light thanks to the undercurrent of paranoia and barely-restrained violence that Ashford masterfully weaves throughout the novella. When the Cicadas Stop Singing demonstrates that Zachary Ashford possesses that rare combination of writing skill, imagination and energy required to travel to the highest levels of the horror genre, and I firmly believe that it won’t be long before he’s spoken of in the same breath as masters like Dave Jeffery, Lee Franklin and Alan Baxter. I enjoyed every second of this novella, and cannot wait to see what Zachary Ashford comes up with next; I guarantee whatever it is will make the entire horror genre sit up and take notice.