As stated on Twitter, I recently picked up Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse an anthology of post-apocalyptic shorts. The series includes many notable authors, some of whom were recommended to me. With this series, I want to look at each story to get a better grasp on the plot, characters, and the apocalypse itself. This promises to be one of the few times The Rad-lands will be breaking away from specifically post-nuclear fiction.
Our first story is “The End of the Whole Mess” by Stephen King. Truthfully, this was the first time I read King. He didn’t disappoint; the prose has a nice flow and is both easy and pleasant to read aloud (so easy, they chose Matthew Broderick to narrate the audiobook).
So what kind of apocalypse is this anyway? Well, we only get hints about the outside world. The story is a cross between stream of consciousness writing and character establishing flashbacks. The apocalyptic setting is really just a framing device to carry the irony. That said, the cause of this apocalypse is Calmative, a water additive dispersed across the entire planet that first made humans docile and later resulted in dementia, cognitive failure, and death. That’s a unique apocalyptic scenario, almost like a reverse Planet of the Apes.
It was certainly a bold editorial choice for the first story in an anthology titled “Wastelands” to recall the backstory of an apocalypse while simultaneously avoiding the portrayal of a traditional wasteland. The reader’s only insight into the present situation is something to the effect of “all the plants are dead.” The reader learns more about the events leading up to the apocalypse than the apocalypse itself. This is a stylistic move by King in which the narrator purposely spends too much time describing the foundational events, leaving little time to describe the actual apocalypse.
“The End of the Whole Mess” has a strong framing device in which the narrator, Howard, injects himself with the water additive, leaving a limited time to tell the story before he loses all cognitive function. From a writer’s perspective, it makes me wonder if King challenged himself to write this story along the time line or if each individual spelling mistake was placed with purpose. King refers to this device several times, giving the narrator opportunity to reflect on the last few pages of writing while describing how the chemical has taken hold of him. Thought this shows the reader the effects of the water additive, it raises two glaring questions.
Since the story is framed as a journal, who is it being written for? Apparently, the plants are all dead and every human infected with the virus eventually loses all mental function. The narrator addresses his story to you (if there are any “you” later on to read this), but it seems the planet is practically dead already. There’s no clear opportunity for a post-apocalyptic society to form as the entire atmosphere has been poisoned by Calmative. So why leave a record?
Second, and to me most confusing, why did Howard inject himself with the chemical? He claims “I never could work without a deadline,” but that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. We’re told this story could take up thousands of pages, yet the plot device of the drug causes a purposefully rushed ending. Surely, if all rain water is contaminated, the narrator must already be infected. Ultimately, the actual apocalyptic aspect of this story doesn’t matter, because this is really a character study of the narrator’s brother, Bobby.
Bobby is a child prodigy who eventually grows up to be a super-scientist in Texas. Personally, I found his archetype and character arc to be reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West: Reanimator.” Through flashbacks, Bobby is shown to be a child prodigy proficient in all realms of scientific discovery. As an adult, Bobby is confident, condescending, and most importantly insistent on the value of his research. Reading the text aloud, I found myself imagining Jeffery Combs reprising his role as Herbert West.
I would have enjoyed seeing Bobby progress on his character arc throughout adulthood. The tension between brothers, with Howard as a reluctant accomplice, again calls back to Herbert West. Although it’s a stylistic choice to meet the demands of the framing device, I thought too much was missing from the ending.
The final part of the story feels like the Wikipedia plot summary from a larger novelette. We never know if Howard had second thoughts about deploying the Calmative or if he truly believed in it. The journey to the volcano and the construction of a delivery device are conveyed in a handful of paragraphs. Perhaps I’m in the minority, but it seems like there should have been a greater emphasis on character development before deploying a super weapon that would permanently alter the minds of every person on Earth. Instead, the framing device demands we rush toward the ending as Howard goes from a few spelling mistakes to complete incoherent gibberish within a page and a half.
That question of character development aside, “The End of the Whole Mess” succeeds because of an interesting concept, a good message, and effective use of an untraditional writing style. While I felt that the story stumbles in a few places, it was obviously chosen as the first anthology in “Wastelands” for a reason. I believe that reason is the fantastic character development we see as a maturing super-scientist is overcome with the grief of a world gone mad. Overall, this is a strong introduction to what promises to be an insightful post-apocalyptic anthology.
Why did Howard inject himself with Calmative? Tell us in the comments!