Soft is a particularly ironic description for this collection of short fiction by Lucy A. Snyder.
Brutal. Grisly. Unflinching.
These are all words that are easier to associate with the dark nature of her stories. Indeed, a cover blurb by Seanan McGuire states that Snyder’s work “attacks the page with the raw, manic intensity of an early Sam Raimi.”
This comparison immediately resonated with my reaction to the only fiction I’d read by Snyder prior to picking up this collection — “Magdala Amygdala”. I came across this 2013 Stoker Award-winning story — which originally appeared in DARK FAITH: INVOCATIONS edited by Maurice Broaddus — with its reprinting in April’s issue of Nightmare Magazine. Leading off this collection published by Raw Dog Screaming Press, the story evoked a similar response in me to the first time I read it. It represents a brilliant, fresh approach to the conventional creature tale of the zombie or vampire. Savage and filled with bodily fluids and ick, the story combines classically familiar motifs of the horror genre and combines and blends them with a biological/medical realism into something new. While this approach isn’t novel, Snyder’s writing is earnest and vivid, and the directions the story takes is unexpected. The visceral gore of the story bordered on being too much for me, much as some particularly gruesome scenes in The Evil Dead tend towards going over the top and heavy-handed.
What’s interesting about Snyder, however, is that despite the frank depictions of suffering, horror, and flesh and blood, there is also a subtle aspect to her stories beneath it all. Something soft. With the strong lead-off story, “Magdala Amydala,” it is the nuanced approach to creating a seemingly fully human and relatable diseased character and yet making her into a familiar monster of nightmares. The combination of taking something familiar and giving it new focus also comes into play with the Hellraiser similarities of “However…”
This sets the tone for the remainder of the stories in the collection: harsh, yet all having a gradual sense of tables being somehow turned on expectations or a character’s condition. Frequently, this takes the form of a revelation of revenge, where the seemingly powerless find a horror within that ends up empowering them, allowing them to surpass and overcome oppressive horror from without. Children and women abused, abandoned, or betrayed, vampires at the mercy of the Sun, the opening stories all share this common theme of the relatively powerless being exploited or harmed in terrible ways, either in the present or the past, and how events lead to turn that situation around in Apocalyptic might.
The first portion of the collection consists of stories that are best described as horror and dark fantasy. “Spare the Rod” is unique in not being fantastic, but captures the same feel as the surrounding tales in a few brief pages. This story highlights one aspect I particularly liked about the stories in Snyder’s collection. Her writing is economical. Her stories are to-the-point, yet still descriptive enough to richly establish atmospheric detail. The dark fantasy stories run a spectrum of archetypes, from ghost stories to mysteries to monsters to simple human-bred cruelty (at times with a supernatural twist).
The common theme discussed above that all of these stories share has the unfortunate effect of making their plots become somewhat predictable. The pureness of the theme — in all its celebratory vulgarity of the oppressed overcoming their tortured pain — reaches its height with the joyous “I Fuck Your Sunshine”, but then is followed with “Carnal Harvest”, a relatively straight-forward revenge story that is written quite fine, but becomes weakened by the reader’s familiarity with Snyder’s underlying theme. Despite the strengths of leading off with “Magdala Amygdala”, I would have ordered the stories differently, perhaps ending with the award-winning dark story instead.
The final five stories of the collection share the theme of ‘turning something on its head’, or even of the exploited getting revenge (“Diamante and Strass”), but without the degree of horror seen previously. They illustrate Snyder’s range as she extends into other types of fantasy that also could be considered science fiction, such as the Steampunk genre or stories of a post-apocalyptic future.
Of these I found “Antumbra” and “Tiger Girls vs the Zombies” to be most effectively enjoyable. Doubtless this in part comes from my own preference for an apocalyptic SF tale over Steampunk. “Antumbra” is the closest to horror of this latter group of stories, resembling “Magdala Amygdala” in its building close human empathy in the reader for characters that prove startlingly monstrous. “Tiger Girls vs the Zombies” is just a lot of fun, and something that should be done in The Walking Dead comics if it hasn’t already.
The concluding story, “The Leviathan of Trincomalee,” bears resemblance to both Steampunk and to something out of Lovecraft. With one of the most endearing young characters of the collection — finally, a strong young girl who is NOT physically or emotionally abused! — the story ends up leaving you wanting to learn more about her — and the world’s story. I also appreciated the attempt to provide explanation for airships in the universe of the story, an emblematic fascination of Steampunk I’ve never quite understood.
Though not perfect, SOFT APOCALYPSES offers a great, short introduction to Lucy A. Snyder’s writings. For those who really appreciate dark fantasy or have enjoyed her most well-known work, this is something you’ll want to check out. It will give you a hint to the variety of genre tale she can spin with some simple themes.
“However…” (with Gary A. Braunbeck)
“Spare the Rod”
“Miz Ruthie Pays Her Respects”
“The Good Girl”
“The Cold Gallery”
“The Cold Blackness Between”
“I Fuck Your Sunshine”
“Diamante and Strass”
“Tiger Girls vs. the Zombies”
“Repent, Jessie Shimmer!”
“The Leviathan of Trincomalee”