It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel…slightly excited?

Posted: November 28, 2015 in Book reviews, cult tv, Film reviews, horror, Post-Apocalyptic, Regarding writing
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My childhood took place during the 1970s and 1980s, which gives you a rough idea how old I am. As a child I had no smartphone, no laptop. There was no internet, or at least no internet as we understand it and certainly not one an ordinary person could access, and I can still recall such milestones as us getting our first telephone, our first colour TV and our first VCR.

But it wasn’t all bad, I had something the kids of today can only dream of, because I lived under the shadow of global nuclear war.

Result!

The Cold War had been chilling for decades, and the West and the Soviet Union had enough nuclear weapons pointed at each other to destroy the planet multiple times over. Growing up in such an environment is it any wonder I became a little obsessed with the end of the world?

At the time there was a plethora of apocalyptic fiction; books, comics, TV shows, films…and whilst some of these were harsh, utterly realistic portrayals of the potential for atomic Armageddon (see the BBC’s Threads and America’s The Day After for further detail) many of them were, shall we say, slightly more action packed.

They shared many elements however, the hero would be a rugged type, usually an ex-soldier, and he’d know how to handle himself in a fight; with his bare hands, with a knife or, most usually, with a large arrange of firearms. There’d be bad guys aplenty, and they usually rode motorcycles, as if a huge army of evil Hell’s Angels had just been waiting for the end of the world so they could take over.

There’d be women, and they’d be tough too, but also sexy of course. And, despite huge amounts of radiation in the atmosphere, the hero would suffer no major health problems.

Of course it wasn’t all about nuclear war. On the BBC John Duttine unwrapped the bandages from his eyes to discovered a comet had made most people blind, and man eating planets ruled in an adaptation of Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids. Luckily Duttine’s Bill could still see, despite the blinding yellow jumpsuit worn by co-star Emma Relph. A comet was similarly to blame for wiping out most of humanity (and turning large numbers of the survivors into zombies) in the superbly schlocky Night of the Comet.

Meanwhile Charlton Heston had to fight albino psychos as the result of biological warfare in The Omega Man, a film that had a huge impact on me, and a favourite film of me and my dad while I was growing up (and I still love it today.)

I still recall borrowing the Waste World novels from the library, and over the years I’ve acquired three of them (still missing number 2 which is a shame as I remember that one being quite good). These novels featured Matt Chance (these guys are never called Nigel or Tarquin) who was tagged as ‘the ultimate survivor’ although he had nothing on John Rourke, the titular hero of The Survivalist novels that I religiously collected during my teens and early twenties. He really was the ultimate survivor, hell he even had his own secret bunker hidden inside a mountain! I still own my collection of Survivalist novels, though I only got up to the mid-twenties, I believe they carried on but the later ones never showed up in the UK. It’s probably just as well, by book 10 Rourke and his family had been catapulted centuries into the future and by the later books he was battling the denizens of an underwater city, as well as future Nazis and Commies!

Sure they were a touch on the NRA side of things, but they were somewhat less right wing than a lot of similar books out there, and a touch more character driven, even going so far as to feature a post-apocalyptic love triangle between Rourke, his estranged wife and a Russian spy who probably should have been in a Bond film. In fact book 9 is effectively a Bond film, and as I recall an action packed cracker—plus it featured a Doctor Who joke which was somewhat surreal!

Of course I eventually graduated onto more substantial literary fare, and another book that had a big impact on me was James Herbert’s Domain, the third book in his Rats trilogy (technically I suppose there’s a fourth but it’s a graphic novel) which saw WW3 take place, London get levelled, and a group of survivors playing tag with man-eating rats inside underground bunkers. It’s Herbert at his grim and gory best.

It’s perhaps not surprising that some of my first forays into writing involved similar fare. One of the first things I recall getting down on paper was a story that bore so many similarities to The Omega Man that it was essentially just a rip off! I only wrote a couple of pages of that one, but my next effort was much longer, and probably a tad more original, but it was just a British take on Waste World/The Survivalist, featuring a rugged teenage hero with a penchant for automatic weapons and a pretty girlfriend and, yeah, I know: Can you say Mary Sue?

So of course it was logical that my first novel, City of Caves, would be a post-apocalyptic story, and my latest, Darker Times, also deals with the end of the world.

But what is it that I, and so many others, find so fascinating about the apocalypse? Well as with any genre I think there are myriad reasons. Firstly there’s a certain cantharis to dealing with the end of the world in fiction. In the 70s and 80s nuclear war was a real possibility, and nowadays there’s still the fear of terrorism, pandemics, asteroid collision, climate change etc. etc. Post-apocalyptic fiction allows us to face these terrors, knowing they won’t really happen (we hope) but that if they did the indomitable human spirit would survive. Stories like The Day of the Triffids, John Christopher’s The Death of Grass, ITV miniseries The Last Train and a plethora of others don’t feature rugged action heroes, they feature everyday people in extraordinary circumstances, and just as in horror, seeing people survive, or at least go down valiantly fighting, against extranormal odds makes our own trials seem less onerous.

There’s also a very clear libertarian angle at play, the end of civilisation doesn’t have to mean the end of civilisation, it can be more clearly seen as a wiping of the slate, ready for a new kind of world to emerge. Suddenly it doesn’t matter that you’ve got a dead end job, that your relationship are, to quote The Rembrandts, “DOA”, that you’ve never followed your dreams…in the aftermath of Armageddon anyone can be a hero (or a villain), all you need is a fast car and a big gun (though frankly in the event of the end of days, tempting though it will be to nab a Porsche, I’ll probably go for something that gets more miles to the gallon) and you can ride around like it’s the Wild West and you’re some kind of bastard love child of Mad Max and Wyatt Earp.

And after Doomsday there’ll be no taxes, no debts, no worries (apart from, you know, starvation, thirst, infectious diseases, rapists, cannibals, rapist cannibals and the ever present worry about what happens if your appendix bursts when there’s no longer an A&E—in your face suckers I had mine out decades ago) and whether your idea of a new world is a grungy motorcycle gang, a medieval fortress, or something much more middle class and John Wyndham’esqe that involves rational conversations about how many babies we’ll need to have, your dreams can come true.

Of course these days nobody’s scared of nuclear war anymore, it’s all about the zombie apocalypse, but at least you no longer need to worry about the guy who looks like a Hell’s Angel ‘cos he’s probably one of the good guys!

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Comments
  1. Mim says:

    I think I’d be dogmeat, post-apocalypse. Though I can make clothes, and I’m not bad at growing food. Those two things might make me useful…

    • starkers70 says:

      Yeah I wouldn’t rate my chances of surviving very long, I don’t think I’m mentally touch enough, then again who knows, people often react to adversity in unexpected ways.

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