Lucy Corin’s One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses merrily scoffs at genre boundaries. Some of the stories contained herein, like “Smog Monster Versus Godzilla,” are realistic and heart-wrenching, and follow a recognizable arc. Others, especially the stories gathered under an umbrella of “Apocalypses” can be a single sentence, a series of questions, a fable, a margin note.
I’m glad to be with Lucy Corin, here, at the end of all things.
The book is divided into two sections. The first half (ish) of the the book is made up of three short stories, while the second half (again, ish) is a collection of accounts of the end of the world.
The opening three stories are self-contained, but no less apocalyptic for falling outside that eschatological header. “Eyes of Dogs” is a slightly modernized retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Tinderbox”, in which a soldier returns home from war, that twists and questions itself. The soldier, seeking his fortune, is sent on a magical quest by a witch and has to face three dogs, each larger and more terrible than the last. He finally kills the witch to steal her magical tinderbox. Unlike in the original straightforward fairy tale, Corin uses the structure to work through the soldier’s PTSD, as each encounter with the dogs terrifies him and forces him into memories of battle or fragments of his life before wartime.
The dog had eyes as big as snowglobes, sparkling and swimming with watery light, but the witch was right—the soldier had been through a lot, and very little fazed him. He didn’t even need to think about her instructions; it was as if she were there with him, as if he could feel her through the rope. You need to cut those apron strings and find your way in the world! That’s what people had said to him when they passed him chopping wood for his mother’s hovel, that was one thing he’d thought when he enlisted, and that was what was on his mind when he winked at the enormous dog, and the dog lay down and tilted his head to the side and let the snow settle, an Eiffel Tower reflected in one eye, a Golden Pyramid glowing from the depths of t he other, and the soldier opened the chest.
And of course, as often happens when women riff on fairy tales, there is no lovely uncomplicated notion that the sheltered princess falls in love with her shy and humble suitor—the man is forcing the relationship, the girl has little idea what’s going on, and rape is simply rape.
“Godzilla versus the Smog Monster” begins on a scene of domestic comfort: “Patrick is fourteen, this is earth, it’s dark, it’s cold out, he’s American, he’s white, straight, not everyone has cellphones, he’s sitting on the carpet of the TV room on the third floor holding the remote in both hands in his lap” but flashes around in time and space to remind us that nothing—especially not U.S. capitalism—is as stable as it seems.
The second half of the book delivers the promised apocalypses in four sections titled: “A Quarter of a Hundred Apocalypses.” “Up to Half The Apocalypses,” “Through to Three Quarters of a Hundred Apocalypses,” and “These Final Apocalypses.” These apocalypses range from small and personal—breakups, the death of a parent—all the way up to dystopian nightmares and fantastical capital-A Apocalypses.
Throughout, Corin’s slipperiness as a writer allows her to shift styles and genres to meet the needs of each new ending. She’s also able to skewer apocalyptic cliches, as in “Bluff,” which spins off from every post-nuclear fantasia ever dreamed up be ’80s videos:
She chose, for the apocalypse, the Only Jeans That Truly Fit™. She stood on the bluff, on the highest of many mesas, one black boot raised on a boulder, leaning into her knee, squinting far beneath her sunglasses. The city looked like a cluster of crystals rising from the desert. In the background, her motorcycle pawed at the earth and revved its nostrils. From this vantage she watched the apocalypse coming, filling the desert with roiling black soot so fast it seemed always to have been there, gnarled, burled, paisley, churning, eddying, smoking, and soon the soot enveloped the city like a tsunami and surged around the mesas until all but her mesa were submerged, and the black clouds thrashed against the bluff and wallowed at her ankles. She felt her heart swell and then shrink beneath her tiny t-shirt.
There’s one fantastic vignette, “Questions in Significantly Smaller Font” which is a series of questions about the fundamentalist, Left Behind-style End of Days, like: “Is the Devil working overtime? What are tribulation saints? Can the Mark of the Beast be accepted by mistake?” all of which are written in a notable smaller font than the rest of the stories. Apart from the initial gag, the tiny font mimics Biblical type, and also allows Corin to squeeze a lot of questions into one small section. The piece achieves a wonderful cumulative affect, as though a panicking person firing off query after query hoping to get a bullet list of rules in time to save themselves from perdition.
In “Adogalypse” Corin hilariously comments on the cliched dystopic tragedy that reaches an emotional climax when the hero or antihero has to kill The One Being That Truly Loves Him/Her:
After the apocalypse, she missed her dog. One thing she thought about the apocalypse was you’re supposed to have a dog. She’d take a zombie dog, if only so she’d get to kill it cathartically and as a symbol of all she’d lost, including her real dog who died a week before the apocalypse in the backseat of her car while they were driving to the vet.
But wait, did I say hilarious? Because if you keep reading that story you’ll probably cry as the narrator mourns her dog.
This story underlines another interesting thread: many of Corin’s pieces begin just after the apocalypse. Most of them don’t bother to give us the details of what happened, they just dive in and start describing life after. After society has collapsed, after the child has died, after everyone lives in a refugee camp, after the fallout has settled. It’s a fantastic choice because it beats the drum that people keep finding a way to live. It’s also quietly horrifying because even the Apocalypse becomes just one more item on a bullet list.
I think the greatest strength of the book, however, is tucked inside it’s title: there are One Hundred Apocalypses, plus a couple extra. They are all given equal weight and importance. Some of them will hook under your sternum and stop your breath, and some of them will just be words on a page. Your mileage is designed to vary. But, by refracting something that seems so final, Corin creates an extraordinary accumulative effect in which hope and despair hold your mind between them as you read.