By the time you read this review, the so-called Mayan Apocalypse has passed, and the human race is still kicking (whether we like it or not). But just because we missed our extermination date doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the latest batch of poems, essays, and stories from River Styx. Editor Richard Newman has dedicated issue 88 to the End of the World: “Something in us, often a small, barely suppressed voice, roots for destruction. Evangelicals have their own reasons—eternal rewards in heaven—but most of us harbor an itch to see the demise of things.” The works presented in this issue deal with The End in different ways, from personal and absurd to global and horrific.
“Song of the Jellyfish” by Lee Upton is a little poem about a jellyfish rebelling against Darwin’s Theory of Evolution: “I don’t care a fig who goes extinct. / I’m not evolving anymore.” This stubborn life-form is content as it is and presents a convincing argument against natural selection:
The shark is a perfect instrument,
a muscle of the fabulous,
gliding teeth, eyes flat as a psychopath’s.
Why should he change? And why should I?
I’m not evolving anymore.
Sometimes it’s a good idea to stop before
the brain stem develops, don’t you think?
I enjoy Upton’s use of repetition in this poem, and the jellyfish speaker offers such wise words. Who needs a brain, anyway? Maybe we should have stopped before we reached the deep end of the gene pool and let some other single-celled organism develop that pesky thing.
The title of Gary Leising’s poem, “Scientists Say Deep Space Gamma Ray Bursts Come from Alien Nuclear Wars” reads like the front page headline of a supermarket tabloid, but the core of the poem is deadly serious. The speaker tracks the history of an extinct alien race and speculates where they came from and how they lived:
Could anyone have lived? Where have they gone?
Maybe they bounced from one world to the next—
a planet, say, of ice, then one of sand—
and every time they’d just get settled in
their enemies would find them, having searched
the universe with some tracking device.
As the poem continues, it becomes clear that their problems mirror our own: “By chance they found fuel bubbling beneath / the world’s thin, shifting crust. They drilled through it. / Another tribe arrived and killed them for it.” Annihilation follows and all that is left of this civilization are fragments of art, tools, and prayers. Perhaps our own species can learn from these aliens (if it’s not too late).
Jeffrey Hammond’s essay, “The Sense of an Ending: Farewell to the Apocalypse,” tells what it was like to grow up during the Cold War of the 1950s. Hammond describes the “duck and cover” drills he and his classmates performed as a child, knowing his desk could not protect him from an atomic blast: “Even we kids sensed the futility of the exercise. I remember wondering why we had to die in so uncomfortable a position.” Hammond weaves history into his personal memories and reveals the psychological impact the atomic bomb had on the American mindset during the fifties: “one push of a button by a deranged Soviet, and the good times fueled by the booming post-war economy would vanish in the twinkling of an eye.” This feeling of impending doom fueled end-time beliefs in religious communities, but Hammond explains that this is not unique to the fifties. From ancient times to today, people have always had a fascination with The End: “We’ve always played with the End, feverishly manipulating its gory details to suit whatever outcome we desire.” The fusion of political and religious history within this reflective essay makes a great read.
George Singleton’s “After School” takes us to a fictional high school that faces closure due to silly circumstances. Our narrator, a disgruntled teacher reaching retirement, tells us how it started with a transfer student from “either Arizona or North Dakota” with violent allergies to all the plants and flowers on campus. The administration orders the custodian to kill all the plants and trees; roses for birthdays and Valentines become verboten; and proms turn into corsage- and boutonniere-less affairs. Problems for the school only get worse with the arrival of a new student with an “hourglass-shaped head” and an intense allergy to peanuts, walnuts, and pecans. The absurdity builds and as more and more students come to school with doctor’s notes excusing them from classes because they have an allergy or strange medical condition until there is only one student left in the entire school. The ending involves a showdown between the narrator and the remaining student’s parents, who arrive in his classroom wearing scuba gear. It is a silly story and a welcome diversion from the doom and gloom present in the rest of this issue.
The second piece of short fiction in this issue is Geoff Schmidt’s “Down the Chimney,” which follows one woman’s journey through a zombie apocalypse. The protagonist, Danielle, loses her dog and her baby to the monsters and joins a group of survivors on a boat near the Gulf Coast. Some readers may be turned off by this concept, considering how our popular culture is saturated with the living dead, but what I like about this story is how Schmidt focuses more on the human drama surrounding the collapse of civilization. There’s also a poetic ring to his language:
You could say it started when Hell filled up. You could say it started when a comet tail enveloped the earth. You could say it started in the laboratory of a well-intentioned geneticist. You could say it started in a Haitian cemetery. You could say it started with a pulse of thought, desire in a dead neuron, need beyond need.
Terror lies in the fear of the unknown, and I believe Schmidt crafted a well-polished horror story with sympathetic characters and a chilling finale.
It won’t be long until the next Doomsday prediction starts circulating the internet and our day-to-day living. As River Styx has shown us, we just can’t get enough of the stuff. So don’t let the ultimate fate of our species stop you from enjoying this issue of River Styx or future issues. Provided we are still around to read it!