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March 2003
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Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
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Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
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Lucius Shepard
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by Elizabeth Hand

Parasites Like Us, by Adam Johnson, Viking, $24.95.

You're an Animal, Viskovitz, stories by Alessandro Boffa, translated from the Italian by John Casey, Alfred A. Knopf, $23.

The Two Sams: Ghost Stories, by Glen Hirshberg, introduction by Ramsey Campbell, Carroll & Graf, $23.

I HAVE A sweet tooth for tales of apocalypse. Not The Apocalypse, but quiet, understated stories with a tight focus and emphasis on the fate of characters, rather than their ruined surroundings. Relationship novels about the end of the world.

This is, admittedly, a very small market niche. The title story in T. C. Boyle's After the Plague, Jean Hegland's elegiac, unjustly neglected Into the Forest; perhaps Riddley Walker, though the scope of Russell Hoban's masterpiece probably expands beyond my remit here. I think what is so appealing in tales of this sort is that the traits that are essential to survivors are often the same traits used by the artist—Joyce's "silence, exile, and cunning." Shakespeare's The Tempest is perhaps the exemplar of what I mean; Prospero's exile is not defined by a post-holocaust landscape (though it could be); but there's that same profound sense of melancholy and loss, balanced by the dawning sense of exultation in what might be, that brave new world and all the creatures in it.

Adam Johnson's first novel, Parasites Like Us, falls right into the middle of this small sub-genre, though it takes a while to get there. It makes a bit of a splat as it does—the book is in many ways a mess, but it's a wonderful, inventive, exhilarating mess, the novelistic equivalent of a long drunken whacked-out binge with your closest, smartest, craziest friend. Maybe not the kind of thing you want to experience more than once, but undeniably entertaining and, yes—one concedes in the harsh light of dawn, hangover on the horizon—probably unforgettable. It's a book with the messy thumbprints of genius on it.

We know from the first paragraph of Parasites Like Us that the human race has gotten into big trouble—

This story begins some years after the turn of the millennium, back when gangs were persecuted, back before we all joined one. In those days, birds and pigs were still our friends, and we held some pretty crazy notions: People said the planet was warming. Wearing fur was a no-no. Dogs could do no wrong.…

This opening nails Johnson's tone: premonitory, slightly ominous, a little humor around the edges. The narrator, Hank Hannah, is an anthropology professor of young middle age at the University of Southeastern South Dakota. His specialty is the Clovis culture, whose members crossed the Bering Land Bridge from Siberia to settle North America twelve thousand years ago. The Clovis people left some of the most gorgeous artifacts the human race has ever seen, hand-polished spearpoints made of obsidian, perlite, quartz, weapons that were obviously created, and valued, for beauty as well as function.

But function was definitely part of the equation: the Clovis points, at least as Johnson describes them, were deadly, the weapons of mass destruction of their time. Johnson does a neat job of setting the stage for his apocalypse by describing a much earlier one.

Over the course of three centuries—at the end of the Pleistocene epoch, twelve thousand years ago—three amazing things happened: the Ice Age ended completely …humans entered the hemisphere, and…quickly spread across all forty-eight contiguous states…and, finally, thirty-five species of large North American mammals became extinct. All in three hundred years.

The common view of these mass extinctions is they were caused by the retreat of the glacial ice packs and the convulsive climate change that followed. Hannah's hypothesis, published in a book called The Depletionists, one of those flash-in-the-pan works of anthropology that now and then capture (and almost immediately lose) popular interest, was that North America's great mammals—the giant beavers, dire wolves, mammoths, saber-tooth cats, llamas, camels, lions, mastodons—were hunted to extinction by the Clovis people, in a period roughly equal to the amount of time that North America has been colonized by Europeans. Since the publication of his book, though, Hank's life has gone to hell. Too much drink, a mortifying series of public appearances with other academics, the death of his beloved stepmother, a general surrender of nerve to the encroachments of tenure and middle age: all of these have left Hannah the very model of an anomic academic.

And so, after that minatory opening paragraph, Parasites Like Us sharply veers off for over two hundred pages into the familiar, though still fertile, territory of academic comedy in the imaginary town of Parkton, S.D. A distinctly twenty-first century academic comedy, involving Hannah's protege, the slyly named Eggers, who for his dissertation has decided to live for a year on campus as our paleolithic ancestors did. This means wearing clothes made of discarded animal hides from the nearby Hormel meat processing plant, and trapping and eating a lot of squirrels, as well as some more revolting things, all of which Johnson describes with immense gusto. There's another anthropology student, the beautiful Amazon Gertrude Labelle, known as Trudy; and a wonderful set of supporting characters, including Hank Hannah's randy father; an existentially inclined, ice-fishing lawyer named Farley Crow Weather; Hank's high school nemesis Gerry, now deputy sheriff; and Hank's love interest, Yulia Terrasova Nivitski, a Russian ethnobotanist who is severely allergic to the plants she studies.

The Maguffin that gets all these folks chasing after one another is a breathtakingly rare rose quartz Clovis point that Eggers uncovers in the course of an illegal excavation. The site is in the shadow of Parkton's vast Native American casino, an edifice that, along with the Hormel plant, emits the same subdued sense of impending horror as Dr. T. J. Eckleburg's enormous spectacles in The Great Gatsby. When Hannah returns there with Eggers, he finds an entire Paleolithic burial site. Interred with the human remains are two strange, hollow clay spheres (these are too obviously Instruments of Doom to qualify as Maguffins).

Well, not hollow, really: Hannah can hear something rattling softly inside them. What exactly is in there?

We know for these two hundred pages that whatever It is, we definitely do not want It Out. But Out is where It's going to get.

And so amidst all the campus squabbles, hijinks, arrests—the rare Clovis spearpoint is given a test run by Trudy, who uses it to slay a prize hog at the Parkton agricultural fair—and nascent romance, all that readers are thinking about—well, me, anyway—is when and how the damn mysterious spheres are going to get cracked open, and by whom. It finally happens on page 247.

After all this shambling but very funny buildup, I was pretty certain that, whatever holocaust Johnson had in mind for the residents of Parkton and beyond, he wasn't going to be able to pull it off. Boy, was I wrong.

The last hundred pages of Parasites Like Us are remarkable, one of the best-realized, realistic, and horrifying accounts of disaster I've ever read—and trust me, I've read a few. From the moment Hannah watches the opening of the second sphere on the evening news—Parkton 7 Action Report!—to the novel's final sentences, one is swept up in a terrifying, even shocking, narrative, as frighteningly understated as all the previous shenanigans were over the top. The shift in tone is sudden and violent enough to give you whiplash; but Johnson's narrative grabs you by the hair and yanks you along, and there's not much point in resisting.

The members of Hannah's mismatched tribe of losers, for all their bickering and comical mishaps, are utterly compelling: what happens to them becomes as important to us as the fates of our neighbors in the wake of a terrible storm. Those who survive the apocalypse released upon the world by the Channel 7 news staff go on to display the kind of resigned courage and stupidity that I suspect many of us would demonstrate after the plague. I hope so, anyway. As it stands, we could do worse than the fictional example of human resilience that greets us at the end of Adam Johnson's chilling, prophetic novel: Dr. Hannah poised with his band of newly minted anthropologists behind him, ready to make the reverse trek across the Bering Sea to scope out what brave, bleak new world awaits us on the other side.


Gregor Samsa had it easy. So he wakes up one morning to find himself a gigantic cockroach: big deal. Viskovitz, the protagonist—protagonists, actually—of Allesandro Boffa's You're an Animal, Viskovitz, changes from one life-form to another at breakneck speed. Penguin, dormouse, scorpion, praying mantis, shark, lion—Viskovitz has seen, er, been them all.

Boffa's take on Ovid's Metamorphoses, nimbly translated from the Italian by John Casey (himself the recipient of the National Book Award for his novel, Spartina), is a collection of animal fables. In them, the title character relentlessly pursues his lady-love, Ljuba, while being thwarted or assisted by the hapless Petrovic and Zucotic, acting as sidekicks or nemeses and, like Viscovitz, metamorphosing up and down the zoological scale. The characters shift sexes too, fluid as jellyfish. Some of these stories are only a few paragraphs in length; others go on for pages. All are very funny, and a few are hilarious; others touching and remarkably wise in their assessment of human foibles. Which, needless to say, are more palatable when presented to us in the form of spongiform foibles, or reptilian ones.

"You've Found Peace at Last, Viskovitz" puts the narrator, a police dog retired from the force, back into a noirish, Chinatown confrontation with his past. In "You've Made Progress, Viskovitz," he's a brilliant lab rat, "probably the most intelligent rodent who ever lived." In "Blood Will Tell, Viskovitz," our shark-hero is questioned about his childhood.

"Were you an only child?"

"No, I had two brothers in the same litter. 'Visko,' they scolded me, 'now who will take care of us?' In those days I couldn't stomach them. Then, when my stomach was empty, I took care of them myself."

"Didn't you suffer from loneliness?"

"Well, at a certain point I felt an emptiness. But to fill it up, there were uncles and aunts and cousins and grandparents. Family is in my blood, Junior.…"

And here's the opening to "You Look Like You Could Use a Drink, Viskovitz"—
"Papa, I want to stop drinking."

"Don't say such a silly thing, Visko. You're a sponge."

"What does that mean? That I have to spend my whole life stuck to this rock, filtering and pumping water like a vegetable?"

"You are a vegetable, Visko, or at any rate a zoophyte."

The Moscow-born Boffa, a biologist as well as a writer, knows his way around the vertebrate and invertebrate phyla; he also has a gift for punchlines and one-liners, which can make reading this slim though densely packed volume as deliriously exhausting as watching a gifted standup comic squeeze a one-hour act into fifteen minutes. You're a riot, Viskovitz: I'd love to see what Boffa (and Casey) could do with a full-length novel.


Full disclaimer here: I blurbed The Two Sams, the immensely talented Glen Hirshberg's first collection of stories (and no, we've never met, nor corresponded beyond Thank You and You're Welcome). But the book is strong enough, and I feel strongly enough about it, to mention it again here.

There are five tales in the collection. All save the final, title story are novellas, the length of choice for most great ghost stories. And the stories in The Two Sams are pretty close to great; two of them, "Struwwelpeter" and "Mr. Dark's Carnival," may become classics. "Struwwelpeter," in which a brilliant, daemonic teenage boy wreaks havoc on his small town, takes its subtext from Heinrich Hoffmann's Struwwelpeter, one of the ur-texts for modern horror. Hoffmann's grisly nineteenth-century work didn't set out to be horror (its subtitle is "Merry Stories and Funny Pictures"). But its impact upon impressionable children (I was one of them, and I'd guess Hirshberg was too) has been considerable, as well as its influence with academics specializing in fairy tales—both Jack Zipes's Sticks and Stones and Marina Warner's No Go the Bogeyman deal with Struwwelpeter at some length.

But Hirshberg's version is the first modern take I've come across (I'm not including the play Shock-headed Peter; I'd be very interested in hearing about other versions). It's a scarily intelligent work, bolstered by its author's obvious familiarity with adolescents—Hirshberg is a teacher as well as a writer. "Mr. Dark's Carnival," like "Struwwelpeter" nominated for multiple awards, draws directly on Hirshberg's other career. It details the long, terrifying Halloween night during which the story's narrator, a teacher at a rural Montana high school, visits the story's eponymous carnival. There are obvious echoes of Ray Bradbury, in particular Something Wicked This Way Comes, but Hirshberg's tale is more frightening than Bradbury's lyrical collection. And Hirshberg's milieu here, a starkly beautiful western landscape inhabited by a middle-age male academic, is also reminiscent of Adam Johnson's in Parasites Like Us.

Of the remaining stories, only "Shipwreck Beach" falters slightly, "Dancing Men" is a bleak, disturbing account of the aftermath of the Holocaust; the brief "The Two Sams" a haunting elegy for unborn children. Ramsey Campbell's insightful and generous introduction serves as a nice passing of the torch from one master of the macabre to another.

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