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THIS REVIEW WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AT THE NERVOUS BREAKDOWN.
The apocalypse comes in many forms. Oh sure, there is acid rain and there is drought, the crops dry up and the world moves on, but what happens when you’re alone with your wife or husband? Nature takes over, as it always does, and always will. And what becomes of the children? In Matt Bell’s haunting portrayal of twenty-six moments in the afterbirth of a world gone wrong, Cataclysm Baby (Mudluscious Press), we get to see how those days and nights roll on, when the waters are poisoned and furtive slick flesh seeks out a moment of passionate respite in many a dark and restless night.
These stories are short, only a handful of pages each, but they are not slight or thin. They are filled with fantasy and mythology that seems familiar and personal both in depth and scope. But what has happened, exactly? Bell gives us some clues, in “Rohan, Rohit, Roho”:
“There are some who say it’s the earth that’s gone wrong, and some that say the seed, and it is this my wife and I debate after she pushes my wheelchair up to the dining table, after she sets the brakes my fumbling ¿ngers are too weak to work.”
There are glimpses of this world outside the broken shacks, the houses turned to islands surrounded by murky moats and poisonous skies. But it is the eventual births of the deformed and altered children that reveal how much the world has changed in the shadow of destruction, and certainly, our lives of sin and depravity. This, from “Kidd, Kier, Kimball”:
“At dawn, we extinguish the ¿ames so the candles will be there to relight tomorrow, and then again we pray: Oh lord, just once. Just once, deliver us a child not wrecked from the beginning. Grant us a son not lousy with fur, not ruined with scales or feathers. Give us a daughter made for the old world instead of this new one, this waste of weather and wild.”
As you work your way though this collection of fables and future histories there are moments that resonate with the imagery of past tales, the wolf and the serpent, the lamb led to slaughter, ghosts with whispering voices that flit and puff against your ear. These stories invite you to revisit the lyric voice of Cormac McCarthy in The Road and Blood Meridian, as well as a lost girl bent on survival, in Robert McCammon’s Swan Song. There is a pinch of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” tossed in with a smidgen of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” But Bell is his own voice, paying homage certainly, as much to the Brothers Grimm as the Holy Bible—his is a unique siren song in a world of regurgitation and pale imitation.
To all of the parents out there, this collection will be especially painful and daunting, but do not turn away from it, do not fear transference. Instead, light a candle, and let the wind howl outside your window—let the frame rattle and the hard rain patter at the glass. Because you should be grateful that this is not your fate, nor will it ever be your destiny, God willing. To witness the horror, the suffering of one set of parents after another, as they face the impossible decisions set before them, is unsettling. But it is also powerful and fearless in its depiction of morality, parenthood, and the ways we love and lose.
CONTINUED AT THE NERVOUS BREAKDOWN.
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