Things Go Bad For Me When I Read After Things Went Bad

After Things Went Bad: Three Tales of the Near Future by Renee Harrell is the evidence of my learning curve with my new eReading thingy. I’ve had it since Christmas, just kind of poking at it, reading random articles or books people I know have written, and only shelling out for stuff I really wanted and was on sale or something. But then I found free stuff on Amazon! Look! Free stuff! And the library! More free stuff! Overdrive! I hate you!

When I was in the 9th grade, my English teacher in our creative writing unit – jeez, what an idea: creative writing unit – bade us write a story about how we all were to wake up and find ourselves transformed into animals. (Presumably she was making reference to Kafka, and drinking heavily.) We all chose different animals – I believe I wrote about becoming a quail, a choice you are free to psychoanalyze – but every single last one of us ended our tales with waking up in bed the next day, human. And then, after we had all decided our animal adventures were just a dream, we would find a feather or some evidence of our transmogrification. DUN DUN DUN END OF STORY.

When I go to compare these stories to that 9th grade class’s herd-like output, I do not mean it to sound as cruel as it does. These are not badly written, in the sense that the sentences flow and the prose isn’t clunky or embarrassing. But they don’t ever go anywhere, ending in one of those lamely obvious twist/cliches. It’s entirely possible that I’m all spoilt after reading After the Apocalypse earlier this year, which is a collection of short stories unified by their apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic settings just like this. I thought that was just grand.

The titular story is the best of the three stories here, taking place in a blasted America with one of those vicious, lonesome girls as its protagonist. There were some nice observational touches, but then it ends long before the story is over. I think I’m supposed to be shocked by the ending, but let me tell you, the choice made by the girl in the end is a mainstay of post-apocalit, and you better bring me something more than OMG HINTED CANNIBALISM. Just about every wasteland book I’ve read mentions cannibalism, if it isn’t shoving your teeth right in the gore. So, I remain unshocked.

“At Home on Winterbury Circle,” the second story, really isn’t worth mentioning; more a situation than a conflict. An old woman is kept company by her ad-spewing digital assistant while watching through split blinds as roving gangs of teens murder people in the street. I give you three guesses how this ends. The third, “Mister Tinker,” is more interesting, but mostly because information central to the robot’s nature is withheld. A man and his robot go to the circus, which is a fun set-up, I admit. But then the revelation about the robot is delivered in a DUNDUNDUN I found irritating. And like the first tale, the story just ends before that information can be examined any further. Situations, not stories.

So, thank you free/cheap ebooks, but I should probably show some restraint and read reviews or something before I download all the things. The writing here is solid, so maybe the “author” – really a husband/wife team – is just unsuited to writing short fiction. Likely someone who was less obsessed with post-apocalyptic fiction would not read these as cliche as I did, but then I wonder why someone like that would ever pick this up. I’m swinging on the end of the long tail here, and I should probably make a knot and start climbing up.

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