Welcome to the first official column of mine for Amazing Stories. In this series, we will be exploring great works of science fiction, horror, and the fantasique.
The history of Amazing Stories is a legacy that dates back to the term Science Fiction itself, but the blurred lines between these genres are just marketing. My philosophy moving forward is that Amazing Stories and its creators pushed the boundaries of imagination. Growing up in Bloomington Indiana we had a mostly coming book store whose name I’ve stolen for this column – 25th Century Five and Dime. It had comics, genre paperbacks, and role-playing games in a dingy basement. When thinking about where to start I decided that my favorite sub-genre that hits all colors of the genre rainbow is the Weird Apocalypse Novel (hereafter referred to as WA). I have also been known to refer to these as High Concept Apocalypse. Here are my favorites …
(Oh why I am not listing The Road or The Stand? Those two books are super obvious, and no one needs me to point out that The Stand is the bestselling WA, and The Road was an Oprah book club selection. I don’t mean to take away from either book that are rightfully classic. These are my favorites.
Doomsday Morning by Catherine Lucille (CL) Moore – Written by one of the women who pioneered writing weird fiction in the 1930s wrote this strange novel that was first published in 1957. Set 50 years after America ended in a conflict and is now controlled by a supercomputer. This is a strange (out of date) novel whose point of view character is a touring theater actor sent out to do propaganda plays. It does pre-date Station Eleven so if it sounds similar you wouldn’t be wrong.
Darkness on the Edge of Town by Brian Keene – The Horror Grandmaster could easily have made this list with Earthworm Gods but this short and powerful love letter to Stephen King’s Mist has a creepy concept at its heart. A small town surrounded by darkness and the rest of the world is gone. Yikes.
The Last Goddamn Hollywood Movie by John Skipp and Cody Goodfellow – Two titans of extreme horror teamed up to give a large middle finger to Hollywood in this WA satire. Six months after the bombs fell imagine the action movie you could make??? Short and hilarious.
The Penultimate Truth / Dr. Bloodmoney by Philip K. Dick – Both of these early 60s novels are firmly in the WA genre. The set-up of Penultimate Truth about the human race moving underground while robots fight our wars will look familiar to fans of the AppleTV show Silo (based on the Hugh Howley novel).
The End of October by Lawrence Wright – the author of The Looming Tower wrote this book to warn us about a coming pandemic, and COVID just barely beat him.
Feral by James Demonaco, BK Evenson – This overlooked novel was co-written by one of my favorite authors co-writing with James Demonaco who is known for the Purge movies. This was developed by Blumhouse Pictures. I assume the budget got too high. Firmly in the gender-based apocalypse (we will come back to it), this novel is about all men going feral. The concept returns in the main list.
The Fall by Guillermo Del Toro And Chuck Hogan: The second book of The Strain trilogy tells a more traditional WA than the TV Series that tried to keep the focus on NYC. A great take on a global vampire takeover.
Survivor Song by Paul Trembly– A deadly virus outbreak and a pregnant doctor is racing against time when she learns she is infected. Great tight concept.
Should Have Killed the Kid by R. Frederick Hamilton – This was an indie release from Australia 2010-ish – I received a review copy, but never heard of the author or the book again. All it says on the back of the book is “Fuck…” Creatures referred to as the Claw of the Shadows have appeared over Australia and begun to erase humanity and its vast civilization from the earth. Dave the POV character could’ve stopped it all he just needed to sacrifice one kid.
The TOP TWENTY-FIVE
25 – Domain by James Herbert. – I am not a huge fan of the execution of this novel but the idea of radiation-powered super rats in the London underground after a nuclear war might be one of the best WA concepts ever. Still excellent moments of horror, the idea is good enough to get ranked.
24 – The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett – The Queen of the Pulps wrote this post-nuclear novel in 1955. The Long Tomorrow is one hundred years after the war in the Midwest. This is a very different novel from the bulk of Brackett’s Space Opers but it is a hero’s quest just like many of her books. This quest is more Tom Sawyer than Frodo because the midwest of this future has gone back to the primitive, not by choice they are survivors. The journey to find a city that embraces technology makes this a fantastically strange novel.
23 – Sip by Brian Allen Car – One of the weirdest horror novels I have ever read.. It takes place in a post-apocalypse western setting, the world was not ended by nuclear war or climate change. In this future, our world fell apart when junkies developed an addiction to consuming the souls of others through their shadows. Drinking the shadows gives you rest and the dreams of the person or animals you steal from but leaves the creature dry. Dry means you can’t sleep or dream.
On a basic level, you have great weird elements like shadow drinkers and limb scavengers, you have western elements with the train and the wasteland setting. Those are lots of neat elements but at the heart are human characters.
22 – The End of the World Running Club Adrian Walker – overnight the north hemisphere is hit by hundreds of asteroids. Our Point of View Characters survive this event but as Britain falls apart they learn that rescue ships are leaving around Christmas Day in Cornwall and will take the survivors to unaffected South Africa. After waiting a few days they realize no rescue is coming back for them. They have a month to get 550 miles, the problem is the roads are destroyed. Cars, bikes, none of it will work. And even though Edgar has never been into fitness they have one choice. Run. Pretty much a marathon a day, across the wasteland and through the weather. The execution of this concept is almost pitch-perfect.
21 – One Second After by William Fortchen – The most mainstream and least weird book on this list is incredibly well written. The main character is a widower trying to raise two teenage daughters, including one with diabetes. the conflict comes when suddenly Civilization dies. It comes not in a nuclear blast/winter, but a high atmosphere blast that causes an EMP The aftermath leaves the skeleton of society but instantly destroys all electronics. The tension and suspense are very well-coiled in this book.
20 – The Death House by Sarah Pinborough – She wrote one of my favorite modern dystopias in “A Matter of Blood” but The Death House is a beautiful story. Some of the most beautiful stories are told in the darkest of settings and that is the case here. It is the Yin and Yang of darkness and beauty that makes this story special. The end of the world is implied and may or may not be happening but the emotional punch of this novel feels so much greater than many novels on this list.
19 – False Dawn By Chelsea Quinn Yarbro – It is great but that a story can make Cormac McCarthy feel like Disney. This novel is as Spinal Tap put it “Blacker than black.” In my opinion, this is bleaker than bleak and Yarbo earned her Living Legend and horror grandmaster status with this insanely grim ecological apocalypse alone. False Dawn takes place a few decades after society collapsed from a series of pollution-related birth mutations. At the same time, ecological pressures begin to poison folks and everything falls apart. We follow Thea, a survivor who was pretty young when it all went down so all she knows is survival.
One of the great features of this novel is there is no sense ever that people are coming together to rebuild, or even put together a small community. People are fucked, they will stay fucked, and if you are lucky you might get a few weeks hiding in a house eating canned foods or hunting skinny, dying animals who are fewer and fewer in between. Hope is not a thing. Powerful stuff.
18 – One by Condrad Williams – I don’t remember where I got this novel. I never heard anyone else talk about it. The first half of the novel is a painful hike across the ash cover remains of Scotland and England burnt to a crisp. Jane needs to make it back to London in an attempt to find his son, who in his heart he admits is likely dead.
In the second half of the novel, Williams takes the story 5 years into the future. A disease that no one can understand is carried in the layer of ash that has coated the earth. It could be argued that the infected feral cannibal humans running around London known as Skinners in the novel are zombies. Not exactly and that sells the story short. I never felt like I was reading a zombie novel, but something similar and more original. It was my top read the year I read it.
17- The Screwfly Solution by James Tiptree (Alice Sheldon) – OK, it is a novella but “Screwfly Solution” is Alice Sheldon’s ultimate classic. One honorable mention and the next book on this list were playing in the gender-based apocalypse sandbox. To me this is a top ten horror fiction story of all time, This is one of two stories Alice Sheldon used to explore the loss of one of the binary genders. In this case, men are compelled to murder in what becomes global femicide. Although the ending twist is hidden in plain sight, a title that goes over the head of most readers. This story hits lots of end-of-the-world tropes but all very well done. There are some very creepy moments with the young girl trying to pass as a boy. This story is an absolute masterpiece. It also clearly inspired the next book on the list…
16 – Manhunt by Grethen Felker Martin – So after all these gender-based apocalypse stories like Tiptree or even Y: the Last Man a trans experience on this subgenre was needed. This book is not a dark or sour affair, it has some adventure, weirdness, humor, and plenty of sex. It is probably not going to convince any of the haters, but that is by design. This novel is the war cry, it doesn’t need to please a mass market or change minds, although I think it will do that. No Manhunt is an expression of rage, love, frustration, and joy by a one-of-a-kind voice. To combine the Trans experience, genre knowledge, love of gore, talent, and ability into one creator Grethen Felker-Martin has created a WA, but one that represents an underrepresented community.
15 – The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey – Storytelling magic, A book that tugs at the heartstrings as much as it delivers gore, and horror is a thing of beauty. It should be impossible but a fresh take on a tired genre. No one wants to read the 300th generation xerox of Romero or The Walking Dead. This interesting new take on the zombie novel thing is really hard to do. This was made into a good film but the novel is weird because of the point of view it uses.Some of the terror is woven into the narrative prose itself. A deeply weird and heartbreaking novel that became a bestselling sensation for a reason.
14. Nightworld by F. Paul Wilson – This book is the end of two different series. It is the sixth and final book of one series (The Adversary Cycle) and the fifteenth and final book of The Repairman Jack at the same time. The mythology that Wilson wove into his entire career is what he calls the secret history of the world. The forces of light and dark are meeting for the ultimate battle and the sun may never rise on earth again. Also, book ten of Repairman Jack has one of the best twists ever.
13 – Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn- Bannerless takes place a few generations after an economic and environmental collapse along the California coast. I would pitch Bannerless as the Mare of Eastown meets the Road with anarchist politics. I might be stretching the WA definition here as this is a post-civilization utopia at moments, but it is one of the best novels I have read this century. It is weird in concept but Vaughn is a skilled writer it never feels surreal.
Dickheads interview with Carrie Vaughn: https://youtu.be/rTO4kdPjyBM?si=zYdNFYOlxunEdlxf
12. Day Zero/ Sea of Rust C. Robert Cargill – Sea of Rust was a narrative experiment, a novel without a single human being in it. I expected shades of Clifford Simak’s 50s classic City which was about a dog and robot sitting around a fire telling stories about the long-gone human race. I was wrong, Sea of Rust was fully committed to a post-human world in the POV of Brittle a robot just trying to survive. That novel follows a bold concept for a science fiction novel, and despite narrative challenges, it succeeds. Day Zero is a very human prequel about the day when AI and robots rebel against the human race. Both are amazing WA novels.
11.- Blood Music by Greg Bear – Homey Cody Goodfellow will give me hell for not placing this higher on the list. Blood Music is about a lab scientist who is experimenting with getting the cells in living bodies to think for themselves. And when he thinks he is getting fired and cut off from his experiments he injects himself. The side effects are not that different from Brundle’s in The FLY. In a typical novel, this would set up an arc for Vergil, but he is the catalyst and not the point. The cosmic horror of self-aware micro-universes that work to end our universe…well that is about as high a concept as it gets.
10. Parable of the Sower/ Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler – Written in 1995, and when we see how close we are to her nightmare, it seems more important than ever. I have often compared this first book to King’s The Stand in concept, but the execution in my opinion Sower is a better novel. It has the end of the world mixed with a spiritual calling that is tested by the horrors. It has a group of people walking the wastelands, in this case just California. Sower is shorter, more focused, and comes from a person who grew up with a very different point of view. The sequel is excellent as well but Butler didn’t live long enough to finish the trilogy she had planned.
9 – Ice by Anna Kavan – The story of this weird apocalypse is at times almost surreal. A supernatural cold is slowly creeping across the landscape entombing the earth in a sheet of thick ice. We are told this story by a nameless narrator who goes on a hero’s quest across this cold and dying landscape in an attempt to save the “Glass girl” a blue-eyed super goth lilly white-skinned woman who is on the cover of this edition. His motivation is simply to save her from the fate of being enslaved by The Warden. The prose is wonderful. Powerful and clean, the beauty and horror are woven together like the threads in a basket.
8 – Immobility by Brian Evenson – Josef Horki wakes up disorientated in a nearly dead world. His memory is shot, but in better shape than his legs which are dead. He is told that in his former life, he was a fixer, and after 30 years in a deep sleep storage the survivors of the collapse have a mission for him. Travel across the wasteland and get a frozen vial of seeds. His Transportation are mules – that is what the twin humans engineered to be beasts of burden will carry him on the mission. This is a strange and unsettling novel, that is so powerfully written it has a spooky feeling throughout. It is all done with a subtle tone and no wasted words. If pressed to make a comparison I would have to say a cross between Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with a little bit of a THX 1138. More than just a story about the travels across the wasteland Evenson explores what it means to be human, and what effect humanity has had on the world. I think Evenson is the best short story writer currently writing this bizarre novel that will haunt you.
7 – Birdbox/Malorie by Josh Malerman – Thanks to the global sensation of the film based on the book you should know the concept. Cosmically weird monsters who drive anyone who sees them instantly crazy. The film failed to capture the paranoid fears of the first 75 pages of the novel. Is this happening or is this mother nuts? The sequel is a genius unintentionally timed comment on the mask debate of 2020. Malorie is a powerful sequel. I also really dig the Bird Box Barcelona movie. Josh Malerman is a fantastic writer who struck gold with a high-concept end of the world just simple enough to cross into mainstream culture.
My Interview with Josh Malerman about Malorie: https://youtu.be/V_zSQe6QdqU?si=NdUGJeMaT8WTJ0t7
6 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? By Philip K. Dick – Because of the film Blade Runner most think of this novel as a dystopia. The novel however is set after the destructive events of World War Terminus. “No one today remembered why the war had come about or who, if anyone, had won. The dust that contaminated most of the planet’s surface had originated in no country, no one even the wartime enemy had planned on it.” The rights of animals and artificial humans, the power of religion, what it means to be human? Philip K. Dick uses the dying earth as a canvas to explore some of the deepest questions a WA novel has ever considered.
Dickheads episode on DADES: https://youtu.be/yORZa66IIpo?si=GJZZAO3yKNVHrEqC
5 – The Silence by Tim Lebbon –To hell with Quiet Place, seriously. The novel The Silence came first and did this concept better than any movie. vicious flying creatures, blind rabid like bats called Vesps. They are deadly reproducing fast and spreading across Europe quickly toward the British home of our main characters. The Vesps are blind, after having been dormant in the earth for millions of years. Unleashed they are hungry and hunt by sound.
The challenge for the survivors living in a quickly disintegrating society is to stay silent. It is a matter of survival, even the sound of a voice can be enough to bring the Vesps upon you. You can’t drive, too much sound. You can’t scream that will bring them on you. Lebbon uses these rules to build suspense masterfully. Best use of a dog in a horror novel since I Am Legend. I knew it was coming and it still broke me.
4. Through Darkest America by Neal Barrett Jr. – Out of print and nearly lost to time this novel should be a classic. It takes place sometime after a great war, was it a nuclear war? Biological warfare? The author doesn’t explain but we do know it was several generations in the past. Our main narrator is Howie Ryder son of a livestock farmer who provides meat for the government fighting rebels out in the western frontier.
You might think this sounds pretty normal, but the majority of the mammals have died out sometime in the process of the war. A few prized horses are left to be used for transportation, so what do the people eat? They eat stock. What are stock? Well as Howie’s dad explains to him Stock look like humans, but they are not. You see Stock don’t speak and they don’t have souls.
Just as Howie is set to take over his father’s herd, He witnesses a brutal crime. A group of soldiers sexually assault a female “Stock.” Howie’s father kills the rapist and gives Howie a speech about what separates people from stock. That is when he begins to question everything.
3 – The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner – One of the bleakest books ever written from 1972 The Sheep Looks Up predicts everything from reality TV, Fake news, cities that need air filter masks (see China), the use of emergency actions to suspend basic rights, radical environmentalism, The stigma of being anti-capitalism for being ecologically minded, Micro-organism resistance to antibiotics, raging forest fires, Financial bailouts for failing corporations…Take a breath I mean there is more. John Brunner saw the future folks.
Each chapter represents a month across one year in the earth choked slowly by environmental destruction. The progression is quick but the novel which constantly switches Points of view takes some patience. In many ways, it operates like a short story collection.
It would be easy to write off this 50-year-old novel as hyperbole, certainly, we have not seen the world it predicts yet. But let’s be clear warning novels like Alas Babylon do not lose merit because we never had a nuclear war. The work of Rachel Carson and the landmark Silent spring did a lot, and certainly, eco-awareness is better than it was. We should be glad that we didn’t see this world, but the reality is that Brunner’s vision is still possible.
Dickheads episode I hosted about The Sheep Look Up: https://youtu.be/zSbm74LC4hk?si=ePIC_gDqt4LH1KCt
2- Swan Song by Robert McCammon – Many people will complain that Swan Song is a rip-off of Stephen King’s The Stand. That is somewhat valid because it has a similar apocalyptic setting and length. Both stories include a journey across an American wasteland. Both have a huge confrontation at the end between the ultimate good and evil. Ok, OK there is a lot in common, however, for my money Swan Song is a far superior novel.
This novel is grueling, I have never felt so deeply about the horrors that characters have gone through. It is a nightmare reading experience, every hundred pages is like another step down into a dark basement. There is a moment about five hundred pages in when I just turned away from the book and shook my head. I knew I could not survive what these poor characters did. I considered not even listing it as it is on the surface just a post-nuclear novel, but considering what the characters go through I feel it is more than that.
A Canticle for Lebowitz by Walter Miller Jr. – Winning the Hugo award for best novel in 1961 the three interlocking novellas were written in the 50s but hold up amazingly well today. This novel is the story of civilization, not a single person, if it seems like this, would be hard to pull off narrative-wise you would be right but amazingly Miller shows no sign of struggle. The story takes place over centuries and the title character has been dead for most of those years. One of the themes of the book is the power and legacy of this long-dead scientist whose papers and writings are the only detailed artifacts of the knowledge of our culture. This theme is powerfully detailed in the second act which is devoted to the monk’s life and how they bring the survivors of out of the dark ages.
With no main character or POV the story is propelled by very tight and stylish prose that is lyrical at times. The action is in the ideas and scope and it never gets boring. The story is simple but the scope is epic. I was about to talk about the themes but the book is not monolithic in the message you should be left with. There are a dozen issues explored ranging from being very catholic to the dangers of humanity using technology to detach from society. What is amazing is at no point does this feel heavy-handed. It shouldn’t work and Miller who never completed another novel (he was writing a sequel when he died) wrote a classic unrivaled in power and none the less it is too me the best weird apocalypse novel.
Dickheads Episode I hosted about this novel featuring Brian Evenson and Ian Duncanson: https://youtu.be/kJV2wMLqlGw?si=2yXawmITUkb34jJc
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