Apocalypses are usually pretty intense affairs.
How can they not be? The world is ended, much life has been lost (or reanimated), civilisation has fallen and those caught up in it, know, they just know, that somehow if they manage to survive life will never be the same again.
So, the one thing you wouldn’t expect from people caught up in world-ending events is to have them casually and almost offhandedly label the cataclysmic events they are going through as the Whateverpocalypse; but that’s precisely what the protagonists in Gene Doucette’s marvellously, gloriously, cleverly, intriguingly weird novel, The Apocalypse Seven do when they wake up, one by one, and discover the world has well and truly ended.
Although it hasn’t, not exactly.
All the buildings around them, whether they are in Cambridge/Boston or out in the countryside of New England, seem to be in place, a little worse for wear and covered in plants but pretty much there, the streets are running north to south, east to west, broken up more than they used to be but still capable of transporting people, and while there are a metric ton more animals than there once were, it’s sort of, kind of, normal?
Yeah, no, not really; try as they might to rationalise the wholly unsettling realities before them – the seven don’t all meet up at once; Touré, Robbie and Carol, all at Harvard meet up at the start with Win, Ananda, Paul and Bethany connecting with them as this strangely but compelling told story progresses – the fact is that something is OFF, really, really off, and while they want to know where all the other people are or the cars have gone or why the shops are often empty of goods, answers are in short supply and questions are multiplying like feral crossbreed wolf packs.
“‘Unless we’re both ghosts.’
‘Yes, that’s still on the table.’
He [Robbie] didn’t think it was really on the table, but decided that was largely because he didn’t think he believed in ghosts. It wasn’t something he spent a lot of time considering, notwithstanding when he was eight years old. back then, ghosts were a major feature of his existence, and so were UFOs, dragons, and Egyptian mummy curses.
‘Well, then,’ Carol said, ‘let’s find some people to haunt, shall we?'” (P. 16)
Styling themselves as The Apocalypse Seven, because really who is left to stop them, they turn their minds at first to simply surviving – food, water, shelter, the usual – making their homes in old Harvard dorms or rich people’s abandoned homes or ramshackle farmhouses and doing their best to work out what the hell has happened to them.
What on earth took all the people away? Aliens, zombies, time shifts, a plague? Harvard freshman Robbie and Cambridge coder Touré joke seriously about that cause may be but truth be told, apart from clues scattered here and there for each of them and strange lights that seem to appear out of nowhere, there’s no real indication how the world actually ended (once they finally accepted it did, in fact, end which becomes unavoidable unless you’re a complete idiot which the seven most certainly are not).
Doucette cleverly does not provide too many answers at first while fastidiously and seamlessly weaving in tidbits of information here and there as preacher/gunslinger Paul, horse-riding onetime marketing executive and brilliantly good archer Win, MIT astrophysics adjunct professor Ananda and disaffected, outlier teen Bethany comes together to join the original downtown threesome, Touré, Robbie and Carol (also a Harvard freshmen and blind) in a bid to find where their world went to.
Unlike some mysteries of the genre which throw clues too quickly or not nearly fast enough, The Apocalypse Seven balances its storytelling perfectly, helped along by vibrant, richly-realised characterisation, naturalistic dialogue that is as probingly serious as it is black humour funny, and some fearsomely good worldbuilding (possible even when it’s been dismantled) that creates a sense of time and place so vivid you will feel like you can reach into the pages and touch it.
While The Apocalypse Seven is undoubtedly predicated on an unnervingly strange premise, it revolves around some of the richest, rawest expressions of humanity you are likely to see anywhere.
All seven protagonists have to defend themselves against wolves, bears and boars, struggle to find food and medicine, buttress the shelter they find against climate change-addled weather which includes tornados and snowstorms quickly followed by heatwaves, and so while massive existential questions of existence hang over their head.
Add to that profound and lingering grief at the loss of parents, friends, possible life experiences and the surety and safety of a moderately-well functioning world around them, and you have seven people who are carrying a heavy emotional burden while trying to keep themselves alive against odds none of them are fully equipped for.
It’s this raw, bleeding, heart-on-sleeve humanity, which often has to be put aside to keep fires burning and survival gear found, that infuses The Apocalypse Seven throughout its wondrously inventive length, never ceasing to intrigue, beguile and compel you to turn page after question (and thankfully, answer; this is no LOST) laden page.
“‘Help, help, help,’ Touré was saying, quietly.’
She [Win] didn’t have time to help, at least not right away. As soon as she reached the last step, she drew another arrow, turned, and waited.
None of the boars had followed them.
‘ They don’t like it down here,’ she said.
‘Neither do we,’ Touré said.” (P. 232)
You come to care about these people and why they are where they are and that means that the off-the-charts weird premise, which is mind-blowingly imaginative no matter how you slice it, feels very real, very grounded and truthfully immersive from its mysteriously disorienting start to its answers-rich and morally unsettling end.
The title the seven give to the apocalypse may seem playfully glib but it underscores how little they know at first, an attempt to put a name on the rigorously unnamable, something which changes as answers begin to fall into place and they realise that if they are to have any sort of life in this crazy new world of theirs, that they must take the fight to those who began it all in the first place.
Quite who they are must remain a spoiler-free secret but the payoff, unlike so many stories of this ilk, is more than worth sticking around for, devilishly clever, morally intriguing, and abundantly full of the kind of humanity a story like this needs to make sense and to have any sort of emotional impact.
The Apocalypse Seven is astoundingly, affectingly good, the sort of novel that boldly dares to go out there, RIGHT OUT THERE, but which also keeps it emotionally close, a blend of the expansive and the intimate with rich humanity at its core, thrilling but nuanced narrative construction and characters who take this abstract idea of the end of the world and make it evocatively real and emotional, and yes even a little exciting, and wholly worth reading if only so you can discover what it’s like at the heart of the Whateverpocalypse which turns out to be far, life transformingly real than anyone ever imagines.