The First Chapter of THE EXILE

 

Exile finalI’m releasing a new book this week . . . a novella, The Exile (Poison Toe Press).

I’m calling it Book 2 in the Dry Earth Series. It’s a self-contained, stand-alone companion to Book 1, The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth, which appears in an anthology of three dystopian novellas, Postcards from the Future: A Triptych on Humanity’s End (Whistlebox Press and Quitt and Quinn Publishers, 2019).

Also included in Postcards are excellent, gripping, and thought-provoking works of dystopian fiction by Andrew Charles Lark and Wendy Sura Thomson.

The Exile describes eight days in the life of one of the characters from Book 1, an elder named Mae. She’s a secondary character in the first book, but I found her story compelling enough to want to continue it.

The Exile follows her banishment from the underground settlement where she lives with her tribe in a bleak post-apocalyptic future. It’s not a pleasant world (post-apocalyptic realities usually aren’t). I like to think of it using the term that Margaret Atwood uses, speculative fiction. Like her Handmaid’s Tale, Books 1 and 2 of my Dry Earth Series take current events and circumstances and speculate on what they might evolve into.

The Exile takes place in the same world as The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth, and contains a few references to events in that first book, but nothing that will spoil your enjoyment of it. If you’re a fan of dystopian fiction, I hope you enjoy The Exile, and if you do then I guarantee you’ll find Postcards from the Future impossible to put down (as many reviewers have noted).

Like Postcards, The Exile is available for purchase in print and Kindle versions from Amazon; you may also order the paperback version where ever books are sold. It’s literally brand new, so if you can’t find it on Amazon then give it another day or so.

 

The Exile, Chapter 1

And she’s awake.

A muffled noise, a whisper of rag-wrapped feet on the dirt floor, some words of murmured instruction: these pull her from sleep. In a sweat, heart pounding. The sounds are not loud, but she has always been a light sleeper; even with only one good ear, she could be awakened by the echoes of distant noises in their underground settlement back when she was a child, imagining monsters.

Now Mae is an old woman and she doesn’t have to imagine the monsters. They are real, and already here. Wandering in the Upground.

And sometimes down below, in her underground settlement, too.

Sitting up, she is surprised that she has even fallen asleep. After the meeting of the Council of Elders, of which she is part, she had lain awake for most of the night, worrying over whether to tell Odile about what had happened.

Odile is the chief elder of the Council, as well as her companion. The other members of the Council did not let Odile know about the meeting, and made Mae swear she would say nothing to Odile until the Council as a body could speak with her.

It was a brutal, unfair request to make of Mae, and what the Council decided was equally unfair. After agonizing about it for most of the night, Mae had decided she needed to let her companion know about it, regardless what she had promised.

Mae looks over at Odile’s mat. Her friend is still asleep, a small bundle with a grey head protruding from her tattered cover. It is cool and airless in their underground settlement, but Odile is old—older than Mae—and gets chilled easily.

Mae watches the rise and fall from her companion’s breathing. The sound that woke her did not come from Odile.

Mae looks around the room where they sleep. In the dim light from the lantern out in the tunnel, all seems quiet.

She lies back, adjusts her aching bones on her sleeping mat, and closes her eyes.

She tries to calm herself. Whatever dream she had been having (now dissipated entirely) and the tense Council meeting of the night before have left her with a deep feeling of unease.

She opens her eyes and stares at the support beams crisscrossing the rock overhead.

Now fully awake, she begins to feel the familiar pressure in her bladder, and decides she must find her way to the sanitation chamber to relieve herself before she can try to get back to sleep.

She makes her way down the tunnel outside her room to the foul-smelling chamber, where she squats over the trench in the dark. She rinses her hands in the water standing in a bowl carved into the rock walls, and goes back out into the tunnel. It is lit, as all the corridors are at night, by the flickering light of a small lantern.

That’s where they take her.

Someone comes up from behind and pins her arms in a bear hug. She struggles, but she is held fast.

Someone else—she can’t say who because they approach her from behind—ties a rag over her mouth and throws a hood over her head. The material of the hood is threadbare, like most of what they own in the settlement, and it lets in some of tunnel dim light but not enough for her to make out who her attackers are.

One of them strikes her over the head with a heavy object, not hard enough to knock her out but with enough force to make her old legs wobble and let go from under her. The arms that pin her release her and she is allowed to fall to the ground, heavily and clumsily.

The fight goes out of her, along with her breath.

Dazed and winded, she feels hands grasping her roughly and half-carrying, half-dragging her down the tunnel away from the sanitation chamber and her own sleep chamber. She is too confused to figure out which direction they take her.

At last, she feels her attackers pushing her up an incline. She panics. It must be the passageway to the Upground.

Why are they taking her there?

She tries to shout, but with the rag across her mouth she can only emit a high screech. She tries to shake herself free but the hands that hold her are too strong.

Can anyone hear her?

Can anyone help her?

Her shins bang and scrape against the rocks on the ground as they pull her up the passageway. She is still barefoot and wearing only the nightshirt she sleeps in.

She can feel the air warming as they drag her up from the underground and rise to what was once the entrance of the nickel mine where they have made their settlement.

Finally, they bring her to the opening. She can feel the full heat of the above-ground world through her thin clothes and the flimsy hood on her head.

She hears her attackers exchanging words with the entrance guards. Their voices are low and urgent, but she can’t make out what they are saying.

She is pulled over the rubble that surrounds the entrance. The jagged old concrete blocks, bricks, bent and burnt wood slats join with the remnants of old weeds and branches from the dead trees to cut and scrape her bare feet and legs as they pull her away from the settlement.

Disoriented, she has no idea how far they drag her. At one point, her attackers pick her up off the ground—she is old and malnourished and does not weigh much—and she feels them begin to trot with her.

They go on like that for what feels like hours.

When they finally stop, they let her fall to the ground and pull the hood from her head. It is still night, but the sun never sets in the far north where they live, so the sky is a dim golden color. The sun of early morning makes her squint so she still can’t tell who has taken her, but she hears them panting from the exertion of carrying her.

She lies on her back. Someone unties the rag from around her face. Her mouth is dry, cottony, bitter with the oily taste of the cloth. She tries to scream, protest, call for help, but her tongue doesn’t work and all that comes out is a hoarse croak.

A face looms close to her own. She sees it is Cyn, one of the security squad. Cyn cradles her head and holds a container of water to her mouth. Thankful, Mae drinks. It loosens her tongue enough for her to rasp, “Cyn, why do you do this?”

“Sorry, elder,” Cyn replies. She lets Mae’s head down and sets the water container on the ground beside her.

“Come,” another woman barks. “Leave her!”

Cyn gets up but Mae grabs at her cloak. “Wait!”

Cyn gently pries Mae’s hands free. The other woman now looms over Mae. Mae recognizes her as Meela, the leader of the security work group. In the light of early morning, Meela’s eyes are black, the color of pitch darkness underground.

Glowering down at Mae, Meela says, “Know this, elder Mae. You suffer banishment from the settlement by order of the Council of Elders.”

“No,” Mae protests, her voice still rough from the rag that was wound around her mouth. “That would never happen. Odile is the chief elder. She would never—”

Meela holds a hand up to cut Mae off. “Nay appeal,” she says, “nay protest. If you return, you will be dragged up.”

Killed.

“How can this be?” Mae asks. She is an elder herself, as well as Odile’s companion—when did the Council take this vote? She was present at the last secret meeting, and this never came up. How would Odile ever agree with it?

Mae tries to sit up, but Meela puts a foot on Mae’s shoulder and kicks her down flat onto the red dust of the ground.

“Come,” Meela orders Cyn.

“Cyn,” Mae cries, “nay go!”

The two women ignore Mae’s pleading. They jog away without looking back.

 

Launching POSTCARDS FROM THE FUTURE

On Saturday, November 2, 2019, I joined with my friends and co-authors Wendy Sura Thomson and Andrew Charles Lark for the official launch of our new book, Postcards from the Future: A Triptych on Humanity’s End (Quitt and Quinn, Publishers and Whistlebox Press).

518CWwA3EfL-1._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_If you’ve been following my posts, you know this book consists of three novellas that each offer a different, imaginative take on how humanity ends. They are dystopian visions, but ones that reviewers have described as “unique,” “beautiful,” and “well imagined,” and the book itself as “impossible to put down.”

Approximately sixty people came to celebrate the launch of the book at the historic Kresge Mansion on Arden Park Boulevard in Detroit. My co-authors and I were delighted to see so many old and new friends, relatives, and members of the metro Detroit author community who came out to support us and enjoy their Saturday afternoon.

And it was an event to enjoy.

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The authors: Andrew Charles Lark, Wendy Sura Thomson, and Donald Levin

The venue was an impressive structure built in the early years of the twentieth century with the kind of meticulous craftsmanship that simply can’t be duplicated anymore.

IMG_3042 2Guests enjoyed an excellent spread of food on a buffet organized by Wendy, Karen Lark, and Suzanne Allen. Adding to the atmosphere were musicians Bradley Stern on sax and Takashi Iio on upright bass; their mellow jazz put everyone in the right mood for good conversation.

Paddy Lynch, the owner of the Kresge Mansion, generously opened his home for us. After allowing the guests to explore the home and sample the buffet, we all repaired to the ballroom downstairs. There, Andrew talked about the genesis and development of the project (he was the spearhead for it all, coming up with the original notion and enlisting Wendy and me). After that, we each talked about our sections of the book, and gave brief readings. Then we answered a few questions, and signed and sold books and chatted with our guests.

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A million thanks go to Karen Lark and Suzanne Allen for their help and support, as well as to Belinda Bonaudo Hellebuyck for creating special “scream” cookies apropos to the occasion (see below for a photo). Thanks, too, to Paddy Lynch for his generosity in allowing us to host our launch party in his home, and his gracious help in making the day a success.

And it was a great success. Besides officially launching our book, another function of the event was raising funds for Detroit Cristo Rey High School—and we raised $300 for the school.

Books, music, food, good friends, a historic setting, generous fundraising—all in all, a perfect day.

If you weren’t able to attend, our book is available to order through Amazon in paperback and Kindle, or for autographed copies you may get in touch with Wendy, Andrew, or me.

Please enjoy these photos of the event, and the splendid Kresge Mansion.

 

 

Imagining the End of the World: An Excerpt from POSTCARDS FROM THE FUTURE

About six months ago, my friend Andrew Lark invited me to take part in a project he was then developing. He was in the middle of writing the novella that would become “Pollen,” a work of dystopian fiction imagining the end of humanity, and his idea was to include two other novellas to round out a volume with that theme.

He also invited our mutual friend, author Wendy Thomson. Wendy and I both jumped at the chance. We had read and respected Andrew’s previous novel, Better Boxed and Forgotten, and we all respected each other’s work. This included Wendy’s two books, a memoir, Summon the Tiger, and a novel, The Third Order, as well as my own Martin Preuss mystery series.

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The result of our collaboration was Postcards from the Future: A Triptych on Humanity’s End, published this month (please see the end of the post for details of our book launch on November 2nd.) Besides Andrew’s “Pollen,” Wendy contributed a novella, “Silo Six,” and I added “The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth.”

People who know my work wondered if this project represented a departure from my mystery series. But I didn’t see it as a departure at all. True, dystopian fiction is a different genre than mysteries. But in a way, my contribution to Postcards is a mirror image of a mystery novel.

Mysteries, after all, generally start in a state of disorder (a crime has been committed or the social order has been upset somehow) and proceed to a state of order (the crime is solved, the social order is restored).

A dystopian or post-apocalyptic work, on the other hand, often starts with society in a state of order and then proceeds to disorder through some apocalyptic event or events. Or, as Newton’s second law of thermodynamics predicts, things move into a state of increasing disorder in the world of the work.

There’s also another way this isn’t a departure for me: I’ve long been a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction. It appeals to my cynical sense that “the crust of civilization on which we tread,” as scholar Timothy Garton Ash has written, “is always wafer thin. One tremor and you’ve fallen through, scratching and gouging for your life like a wild dog.”

My appreciation for post-apocalyptic fiction culminated in a senior seminar I developed at the college where I used to teach. As the capstone experience for English and Language Arts majors, the course, titled Post-Apocalyptic American Fiction, required students to prepare an extensive paper derived from in-depth critical reading and research on the topic, then make a public presentation of that paper.

Students were expected to draw upon the critical and analytical powers they had honed in their literature, criticism, and writing courses throughout their previous semesters.

To prepare the course, I read widely and deeply in post-apocalyptic literature, from the beginning (the biblical book of Revelation) to the most recent (at that time, The Hunger Games), from the classic (A Canticle for Leibowitz) to the popular (The Walking Dead), from goremeisters to the finest “literary” authors.

I read books about zombies, vampires, nuclear war, electromagnetic pulses, and crumbling societies in the past, present, and future. I read what critics had to say about them.

For my final reading list, I settled on four novels that represented what I thought were among the most fascinating, daring, and thoughtful works of contemporary post-apocalyptic literature, while still offering at least a glimmer of hope: Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (I interpreted “American” to include North American because I wanted her in), Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Colson Whitehead’s Zone One.

I loved this quartet of novels. I had previously taught senior seminars that were among my most rewarding teaching experiences, so I was tremendously excited about the course. I couldn’t wait to teach it.

Unfortunately, it was, to put it bluntly, a disaster in almost every way.

Most of the students in this particular group didn’t understand the books; they didn’t know how to read the research about the books; they didn’t know how to approach a long, segmented critical paper; though seniors, they didn’t know how to incorporate outside sources gracefully; they didn’t have a handle on critical theories or how to use them; they couldn’t grasp the not-so-subtle rules of plagiarism . . .

Please note I’m not mocking or blaming the students here, but rather commenting on their lack of preparation for the rigors of the experience—which of course was our failure as faculty in the department.

I taught the course twice, in the fall and winter semesters. It didn’t get any better from one semester to the other. To make matters worse, I got pneumonia at the beginning of the first semester and was never at my best during the entire four months of the fall.

Needless to say, it was not my finest hour as a professor. As it happened, these two senior seminars turned out to be the last undergraduate courses I would ever teach; the following summer I was appointed dean of the faculty, and except for a few graduate courses I spent the rest of my time until retirement as an administrator.

(Which was a dystopian nightmare of a whole different order of magnitude, but that’s a story for another day.)

So when Andrew invited me into his project, I was coming from a deep involvement in, and appreciation for, dystopian literature. Naturally, I said yes at once.

Because of that background, I’m particularly proud of the book the three of us produced.

Both Andrew and Wendy’s pieces are splendid, not simply as works of dystopian fiction, but as serious and thought-provoking works of literature. As one reviewer said, the novellas in Postcards are “fascinating,” “powerful,” “inviting,” and “tense, bleak, and entirely human narrative[s].”

For myself, I had such a good time on this project that I’ve begun writing a spin-off from my contribution, and have been envisioning an entire cycle of works set in the world I imagined (which I’m starting to call the Dry Earth Series).

I’d like to share a small section of my novella with you here, in hopes you’ll be interested enough to have a look at the entire book.

And if you’re in the metropolitan Detroit area, I invite you to the party celebrating the official launch of this project on Saturday, November 2nd, from 1 till 4 pm, at the historic Arden Park Kresge Mansion, 74 Arden Park Boulevard, Detroit. To register, go to www.alarksperch.com and hit the Comment button. It’s free and open to the public, but we suggest a contribution to charity.

I’m happy to present an excerpt from my novella in Postcards from the Future, the first two chapters of “The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth.”

 

1

A figure appears in an empty window frame halfway up the ruined wall. Dark glasses in a face wrapped with rags and shaded beneath a hood stare down at her.

The long barrel of a gun points in her direction.

Caught completely out in the open, she has no time to do anything except dive to the ground. She tries to merge with the rubble, disappear into it, though she knows she can’t; she is completely exposed. She holds her breath, waiting for the kill shot. She had thought there were no bullets left anymore, but she doesn’t want to take any chances.

When the kill shot doesn’t come, she dares to lift her head. The window frame is empty.

She scrambles to her feet and turns to flee.

Before going ten feet, she comes face-to-face with the hooded figure holding his rifle.

“Halt!” the figure rasps. The voice is muffled by the layers of rags wrapped around its head beneath the hood. But there is no mistaking the rough, deep sound.

It is a raggedman’s voice.

She falls to her knees and raises trembling hands.

2

Her day started hours earlier, when the wary young woman—whose name is Ash—picked her way through the debris near the entrance to her underground settlement.

With a staff for balance and protection, she stepped over concrete blocks and ragged piles of broken bricks under the heat of the unrelenting sun. Several times she tripped over planks of charred wood from buildings that had been destroyed in the old wars, concealed under the red dust that coats the land.

Her destination was a few clicks away from their settlement. Wreckage like what surrounded the underground opening was everywhere, all along the meandering path she traveled. They were taught to avoid moving in a straight line to present less of a target, and also to increase the chances of scavenging valuables buried away from the common paths.

The woman stumbled over the detritus of what was left of the city. She wore a tattered drab coat wrapped around her despite the heat, and she protected her head with an ancient battered welder’s helmet that was the unit’s only armor against the brilliantly bright, deadly rays of the sun. This was one among a cache of similar helmets that had been scavenged over the years. Nobody knew what they were at first, but when the tribe discovered the helmets’ uses, they became treasured finds.

She walked carefully, alert to every movement around her. No animals or insects survived anymore, so chances were any movement would be hostile. The only sound was the wind soughing against the metal of her helmet. She swiveled her head constantly. The helmet restricted her view, but its protection against the damaging rays of the sun outweighed any limitations to her vision.

Ash walked over the streets, cracked and overgrown with the skeletal remains of trees and bushes. No one could remember the last time it had rained, not even the elders; plant life had turned brown and desiccated in the absence of water, disappearing like the animals.

Her destination rose ahead of her. It was a larger building than most in the area, originally three stories tall. One entire wall had fallen over in the tremor that rolled through the land the day before.

After a collapse was the worst time to be out scavenging. The dangers from old structures were multiplied after one toppled; the ground grows unsteady around them, so the ones nearby are liable to let go and fall, too. The mortar between blocks is dry, the ruined buildings unstable.

Their original purposes have been lost, but their current usefulness sometimes surprises the survivors who venture from their underground settlement to scavenge. While most such buildings, like the one Ash sought, had long been emptied of any water or food, they sometimes yielded tools or pieces of clothing or other prizes that made exploring them worth the danger. Especially after a collapse, which often uncovered treasures previously hidden to the Vengers who searched.

Ash is a Venger. When Vengers found objects that might be of use, they would bring them back to the settlement. If they found potential food sources, they were to return and inform their work unit’s leader, who would let the Vesters know. They, in turn, would go out and harvest the food. The practice had developed to ensure their survival, and so far it was working, if barely; Ash’s settlement was on the verge of starvation.

Slowly the food sources have been dwindling. As they did, so too did the tribe. The Vengers had to travel further and further from their underground settlement to find food, and sometimes they returned empty-handed and sometimes they did not return at all.

Ash paused when she was about a half-click away from the structure she sought. She scanned the sight through the dark glass of her helmet. Then, stepping carefully while still some distance away, she circled the ruin once, twice, three times, all the while keeping watch for anything moving in the wreckage. It wouldn’t take much to overwhelm her; one raggedman alone could do it if he caught her by surprise.

On her third circuit around the building, a sound reached her, penetrating her helmet. It was high and keening. Though she had not heard a baby cry in years, this brought back the sound of an infant’s mewl. Of course that would be impossible; few children have been born in the recent past. And no child would have survived for long in the outside.

She stopped, knelt low, and listened. The crying ceased, but then she heard what she thought was pounding. She raised the faceplate of her helmet, aware as she did that she was allowing the deadly radiation inside the metal. But she needed to find out what the sound was.

She lifted her head, with the helmet guard ajar so she could see into the shadows that surrounded the building. She listened but heard no more wailing.

Then she heard a scratching and scrambling in the rubble. She stood perfectly still, aware that she was unprotected outside the ruins of the building.

And that this might be a trap.

Then she looked up and saw the figure with the long gun in the empty window frame.

###

Postcards from the Future: A Triptych on Humanity’s End, by Andrew Charles Lark, Donald Levin, and Wendy Sura Thomson, is available in paperback and Kindle from Amazon.com and on order from your local bookstore.

 

 

Coming in November: A new dystopian anthology

I’m pleased to announce that I’m joining two distinguished local authors to celebrate the release of our first collaborative project at a book launch party at the historic Arden Park Kresge Mansion in Detroit on Saturday, November 2, 2019, from 1 till 4 p.m.

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Andrew Charles Lark, Wendy Thomson, and I have been working hard on the anthology of original dystopian novellas. Titled Postcards from the Future: A Triptych on Humanity’s End (Quitt and Quinn Publishers/Whistlebox Press), it’s currently in the final stages of production.

At the launch, we’ll read from our sections in the book and sign copies, which will be available for purchase.

The original idea for the book was Andrew’s, and when he invited Wendy and me into the project, we both said yes immediately.

Andrew is the author of Better Boxed and Forgotten, a supernatural thriller set in Detroit’s Indian Village. Wendy is the author of Summon the Tiger, a memoir, and The Third Order, an international tale of suspense.

My previous works include the six novels in the Martin Preuss mystery series (Crimes of Love, The Baker’s Men, Guilt in Hiding, The Forgotten Child, An Uncertain Accomplice, and Cold Dark Lies); two books of poetry, In Praise of Old Photographs and New Year’s Tangerine; and a mainstream novel, The House of Grins.

The three pieces in Postcards from the Future are thoughtful and engaging short novels that embrace the precepts of the dystopian—a subject much in the news lately owing to the recent publication of Margaret Atwood’s new novel, The Testaments, her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale.

Each of the works in Postcards from the Future offers a dark and imaginative take on the end of humanity:

Andrew’s “Pollen” is a riveting multiple point-of-view account of a strange atmospheric phenomenon that destroys humankind’s ability to reproduce, ushering in the extinction of our species.

Wendy’s “Silo Six” is a suspenseful story of love and survival set far into the future when the sun begins its transformation into a red giant and scorchesthe earth into a virtually uninhabitable cinder.

My “The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth” is a gripping tale set in a desperate, post-apocalyptic future where a heroic woman battles ecological and social collapse in an effort to save her tribe—and humanity—from certain annihilation.

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The Arden Park Kresge Mansion is located at 74 Arden Park Boulevard in Detroit. The launch celebration will be quite an event; in addition to our readings, it will feature live music and refreshments along with an open house at the historic mansion. The event is free and open to the public, though a small donation to support Detroit Cristo Rey High School is suggested.

Space is limited, so if you’re interested in attending the launch, please RSVP through the Contact tab at Andrew’s page, www.alarksperch.com.

If you can’t get there, our book will be available in November through Amazon in print and ebook formats, and on order from bookstores.

For me, writing my section was great fun and a wonderful change of pace from my mystery series. I’ve already started to work on a spin-off from my novella, and I’m looking into an entire cycle of works based on what I’m calling the Dry Earth Series. Watch for more information as this develops!

Imagining the End of the World: A Selection from Postcards from the Future

About six months ago, my friend Andrew Lark invited me to take part in a project he was then developing. He was in the middle of writing the novella that would become “Pollen,” a work of dystopian fiction imagining the end of humanity, and his idea was to include two other novellas to round out a volume with that theme.

He also invited our mutual friend author Wendy Thomson. Wendy and I both jumped at the chance. We had read and respected Andrew’s previous novel, Better Boxed and Forgotten, and we all respected each other’s work. This included Wendy’s two books, a memoir, Summon the Tiger, and a novel, The Third Order, as well as my own Martin Preuss mystery series.

518CWwA3EfL-1._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

The result of our collaboration was Postcards from the Future: A Triptych on Humanity’s End, published this month (please see the end of the post for details of our book launch on November 2nd.) Besides Andrew’s “Pollen,” Wendy contributed a novella, “Silo Six,” and I added “The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth.”

People who know my work wondered if this project represented a departure from my mystery series. But I didn’t see it as a departure at all. True, dystopian fiction is a different genre than mysteries. But in a way, my contribution to Postcards is a mirror image of a mystery novel.

Mysteries, after all, generally start in a state of disorder (a crime has been committed or the social order has been upset somehow) and proceed to a state of order (the crime is solved, the social order is restored).

A dystopian or post-apocalyptic work, on the other hand, often starts with society in a state of order and then proceeds to disorder through some apocalyptic event or events. Or, as Newton’s second law of thermodynamics predicts, things move into a state of increasing disorder in the world of the work.

There’s also another way this isn’t a departure for me: I’ve long been a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction. It appeals to my cynical sense that “the crust of civilization on which we tread,” as scholar Timothy Garton Ash has written, “is always wafer thin. One tremor and you’ve fallen through, scratching and gouging for your life like a wild dog.”

My appreciation for post-apocalyptic fiction culminated in a senior seminar I developed at the college where I used to teach. As the capstone experience for English and Language Arts majors, the course, titled Post-Apocalyptic American Fiction, required students to prepare an extensive paper derived from in-depth critical reading and research on the topic, then make a public presentation of that paper.

Students were expected to draw upon the critical and analytical powers they had honed in their literature, criticism, and writing courses throughout their previous semesters.

To prepare the course, I read widely and deeply in post-apocalyptic literature, from the beginning (the biblical book of Revelation) to the most recent (at that time, The Hunger Games), from the classic (A Canticle for Leibowitz) to the popular (The Walking Dead), from goremeisters to the finest “literary” authors.

I read books about zombies, vampires, nuclear war, electromagnetic pulses, and crumbling societies in the past, present, and future. I read what critics had to say about them.

For my final reading list, I settled on four novels that represented what I thought were among the most fascinating, daring, and thoughtful works of contemporary post-apocalyptic literature, while still offering at least a glimmer of hope: Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (I interpreted “American” to include “North American because I wanted her in), Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Colson Whitehead’s Zone One.

I loved this quartet of novels. I had previously taught senior seminars that were among my most rewarding teaching experiences, so I was tremendously excited about the course. I couldn’t wait to teach it.

Unfortunately, it was, to put it bluntly, a disaster in almost every way.

This particular group of students didn’t understand the books; they didn’t know how to read the research about the books; they didn’t know how to approach a long, segmented critical paper; though seniors, they didn’t know how to incorporate outside sources gracefully; they didn’t have a handle on critical theories or how to use them; they couldn’t grasp the not-so-subtle rules of plagiarism . . .

Please note I’m not mocking or blaming the students here, but rather commenting on their lack of preparation for the rigors of the experience—which of course was our failure as faculty in the department.

I taught the course twice, in the fall and winter semesters. It didn’t get any better from one semester to the other. To make matters worse, I got pneumonia at the beginning of the first semester and was never at my best during the  entire four months of the fall.

Needless to say, it was not my finest hour as a professor. As it happened, these two senior seminars turned out to be the last undergraduate courses I would ever teach; the following summer I was appointed dean of the faculty, and except for a few graduate courses I spent the rest of my time until retirement as an administrator.

(Which was a dystopian nightmare of a whole different order of magnitude, but that’s a story for another day.)

So when Andrew invited me into his project, I was coming from a deep involvement in, and appreciation for, dystopian literature. Naturally, I said yes at once.

Because of that background, I’m particularly proud of the book the three of us produced.

Both Andrew and Wendy’s pieces are splendid, not simply as works of dystopian fiction, but as serious and thought-provoking works of literature. As one reviewer said, the novellas in Postcards are “fascinating,” “powerful,” “inviting,” and “tense, bleak, and entirely human narrative[s].”

For myself, I had such a good time on this project that I’ve begun writing a spin-off from my contribution, and have been envisioning an entire cycle of works set in the world I imagined (which I’m starting to call the Dry Earth Series).

I’d like to share a small section of my novella with you here, in hopes you’ll be interested enough to have a look at the entire book.

And if you’re in the metropolitan Detroit area, I invite you to the party celebrating the official launch of this project on Saturday, November 2nd, from 1 till 4 pm, at the historic Arden Park Kresge Mansion, 74 Arden Park Boulevard, Detroit. To register, go to www.alarksperch.com and hit the Comment button. It’s free and open to the public, but we suggest a contribution to charity.

I’m happy to present an excerpt from my novella in Postcards from the Future, the first two chapters of “The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth.”

 

1

A figure appears in an empty window frame halfway up the ruined wall. Dark glasses in a face wrapped with rags and shaded beneath a hood stare down at her.

The long barrel of a gun points in her direction.

Caught completely out in the open, she has no time to do anything except dive to the ground. She tries to merge with the rubble, disappear into it, though she knows she can’t; she is completely exposed. She holds her breath, waiting for the kill shot. She had thought there were no bullets left anymore, but she doesn’t want to take any chances.

When the kill shot doesn’t come, she dares to lift her head. The window frame is empty.

She scrambles to her feet and turns to flee.

Before going ten feet, she comes face-to-face with the hooded figure holding his rifle.

“Halt!” the figure rasps. The voice is muffled by the layers of rags wrapped around its head beneath the hood. But there is no mistaking the rough, deep sound.

It is a raggedman’s voice.

She falls to her knees and raises trembling hands.

2

Her day started hours earlier, when the wary young woman—whose name is Ash—picked her way through the debris near the entrance to her underground settlement.

With a staff for balance and protection, she stepped over concrete blocks and ragged piles of broken bricks under the heat of the unrelenting sun. Several times she tripped over planks of charred wood from buildings that had been destroyed in the old wars, concealed under the red dust that coats the land.

Her destination was a few clicks away from their settlement. Wreckage like what surrounded the underground opening was everywhere, all along the meandering path she traveled. They were taught to avoid moving in a straight line to present less of a target, and also to increase the chances of scavenging valuables buried away from the common paths.

The woman stumbled over the detritus of what was left of the city. She wore a tattered drab coat wrapped around her despite the heat, and she protected her head with an ancient battered welder’s helmet that was the unit’s only armor against the brilliantly bright, deadly rays of the sun. This was one among a cache of similar helmets that had been scavenged over the years. Nobody knew what they were at first, but when the tribe discovered the helmets’ uses, they became treasured finds.

She walked carefully, alert to every movement around her. No animals or insects survived anymore, so chances were any movement would be hostile. The only sound was the wind soughing against the metal of her helmet. She swiveled her head constantly. The helmet restricted her view, but its protection against the damaging rays of the sun outweighed any limitations to her vision.

Ash walked over the streets, cracked and overgrown with the skeletal remains of trees and bushes. No one could remember the last time it had rained, not even the elders; plant life had turned brown and desiccated in the absence of water, disappearing like the animals.

Her destination rose ahead of her. It was a larger building than most in the area, originally three stories tall. One entire wall had fallen over in the tremor that rolled through the land the day before.

After a collapse was the worst time to be out scavenging. The dangers from old structures were multiplied after one toppled; the ground grows unsteady around them, so the ones nearby are liable to let go and fall, too. The mortar between blocks is dry, the ruined buildings unstable.

Their original purposes have been lost, but their current usefulness sometimes surprises the survivors who venture from their underground settlement to scavenge. While most such buildings, like the one Ash sought, had long been emptied of any water or food, they sometimes yielded tools or pieces of clothing or other prizes that made exploring them worth the danger. Especially after a collapse, which often uncovered treasures previously hidden to the Vengers who searched.

Ash is a Venger. When Vengers found objects that might be of use, they would bring them back to the settlement. If they found potential food sources, they were to return and inform their work unit’s leader, who would let the Vesters know. They, in turn, would go out and harvest the food. The practice had developed to ensure their survival, and so far it was working, if barely; Ash’s settlement was on the verge of starvation.

Slowly the food sources have been dwindling. As they did, so too did the tribe. The Vengers had to travel further and further from their underground settlement to find food, and sometimes they returned empty-handed and sometimes they did not return at all.

Ash paused when she was about a half-click away from the structure she sought. She scanned the sight through the dark glass of her helmet. Then, stepping carefully while still some distance away, she circled the ruin once, twice, three times, all the while keeping watch for anything moving in the wreckage. It wouldn’t take much to overwhelm her; one raggedman alone could do it if he caught her by surprise.

On her third circuit around the building, a sound reached her, penetrating her helmet. It was high and keening. Though she had not heard a baby cry in years, this brought back the sound of an infant’s mewl. Of course that would be impossible; few children have been born in the recent past. And no child would have survived for long in the outside.

She stopped, knelt low, and listened. The crying ceased, but then she heard what she thought was pounding. She raised the faceplate of her helmet, aware as she did that she was allowing the deadly radiation inside the metal. But she needed to find out what the sound was.

She lifted her head, with the helmet guard ajar so she could see into the shadows that surrounded the building. She listened but heard no more wailing.

Then she heard a scratching and scrambling in the rubble. She stood perfectly still, aware that she was unprotected outside the ruins of the building.

And that this might be a trap.

Then she looked up and saw the figure with the long gun in the empty window frame.

###

Postcards from the Future: A Triptych on Humanity’s End, by Andrew Charles Lark, Donald Levin, and Wendy Sura Thomson, is available in paperback and Kindle from Amazon.com and on order from your local bookstore.