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Friday, September 15, 2006

 

New Wilderness

New Wilderness
Four Horses of the Apocalypse (plus dogs, cats, squirrels, wasps, whales, et al)
New Wilderness
by Brian S. Matthews
AD Press, 2005

On June 10th, sometime in the late nineties, for an undetermined reason (or reasons), the animal kingdom turned on the human race and brought about a world-wide devastation of civilization. The day the animals went crazy was christened “New Wilderness Day” by a field reporter on CNN and the name stuck.

Knowing even before opening the cover of Brian S. Matthew’s new addition to the end-of-civilization genre calls to mind all the previous literary attempts at assessing how civilized human beings will act in a world suddenly stripped of most of the cultural and scientific advances since the last end of civilization at the fall of the Roman Empire. There have been many previous contributions to the genre: Hitchcock’s The Birds, Huxley’s Brave New World, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, H. Ron Hubbard’s mammoth contributions to name a few classics, plus a zillion lesser science fiction and science fantasy works the titles and authors of which escape memory. None of these, however, except perhaps Hitchcock's, comes close to the horror depicted in New Wilderness.

All these have a great deal in common and the cause of the disaster is usually clear: alien invasion, nuclear holocaust, and scariest of all, perhaps because it presently seems to be a real possibility, destruction of the environment caused by human avarice and greed abetted by complicity of the government. In the case of New Wilderness, however, as in Hitchcock’s The Birds, the cause is not clear. We can guess, but Matthews provides few clues to suggest why the animal kingdom has turned against us, which makes it all the scarier.

Matthews’ brief biographical sketch on the book jacket informs us that he is among other things, a stand-up comic. This makes one suspect that from time to time he is gently pulling the reader’s leg: one of his main characters, for instance, a comely youth named Noah, who of all the other characters has escaped major scarring and mutilation by the “teeth,” the slang reference to the marauding animals. Another Old Testament name also shows up in the form of Lot, a bad guy from a Sodom-like enclave, who is responsible for major Sodom-like? devastation of Compton Pit, the home-enclave of the major good guy protagonists. The New Testament escapes Matthews’ subtle macabre wit unless one counts the sadistic, pederast high-priest named Luke who is a primary "Gospeler" of a bogus goddess cult.

The book opens with a confrontation between Loggers and Tree Huggers, suggesting that the animals are angry over the rape of the natural environment, but when the animals attack, they attack both the rapers and the defenders of the forests alike. What follows is a list of creatures straight out of the Benedicite, omnia opera Domini: O whales and all that move in the waters. All birds of the air. O beasts of the wild and all you flocks and herds. Add to that insects, primarily ants, hornets, honey bees and wasps, and suddenly humankind is beset by the vengeance of not only the feral kingdom but the domesticated realm of animals as well. The only creatures missing from the list are reptiles: alligators and snakes do not play an important role in the book, but probably because the battle ground is in the Canadian west in the summertime. One can only shudder at the possibilities if the book had be set in Southern Louisiana where the population must always be wary of cockroaches, snakes and ‘gators in the best of times.

Ten years after New Wilderness Day, we find that human beings have taken refuge in scattered enclaves surviving on guile, limited trade with each other, and salvaged technology from before the “change.” True to form, humanity still has its good guys and its bad guys.

The good guys, although badly scarred physically and emotionally struggle to preserve their humanity. Sex (both deviant and regular) continues as a major activity, but since children are favorite targets of the marauding animals, bearing children is discouraged (except by a bizarre remnant group in Vancouver that uses newborns for human sacrifice.) Homosexuality is still present in the “changed” world, but except in one isolated and vague inference where it might be considered acceptable, it survives only in particularly perverse instances of pederasty and sadism. Human loathing of homosexual pederasty is also evident: the boy-toy object of Luke, the high priest of the goddess cult had rather have his tongue cut out than endure one more day of the priest’s attentions. One suspects, however, that this may have been purely a plot device necessary to save Noah, the particularly attractive and previously unblemished protagonist, from a ghastly maiming rather than representive of a universal loathing on the part of everyone towards gay sex.

Human greed has also survived, manifested by cornering the market of certain commodities principally gasoline, medicines, and technology. Thieves flourish, preying on weakness, trust, and goodwill.

Religion survives, but only in its symbols. Clergy, dogma, theology, and creed have disappeared except in the most primitive, destructive, and deluded versions. Very little faith is evident even in friends, loved ones or even oneself. Love is also scarce. Loved ones are too easily and frequently lost to the perils of life in a savage, unforgiving environment.

In spite of occasional visible seams in an otherwise tightly structured and extremely horrific world, Matthews proves himself to be a master story teller. One never escapes the sense of danger lurking in the darkness even in the safest places, which are very few and far between. The book is too long to be read in one sitting, but only weariness, stinging eyes, raging hunger, and the calls of nature are strong enough to make one put it down. Even if sometimes the characters take on almost comic-book dimensions in the wham, bang, boom, growl and slash of their lives, they are believable as real human beings. They are sympathetic and the reader truly cares about them even when at times their damaged psyches reveal some serious pathology.

I, the reviewer, live in an old house on top of a hill in an ancient village in East Texas that was first settled when the area was a no-man’s land west of the Sabine River. My home is across the street from the site of the first university in Texas and next door to the former home of the chronicler of the first two centuries of Anglo settlement in East Texas. Both the university and the historian’s home have long-since disappeared, burned during the devastation of Reconstruction after the Civil war and never rebuilt. The land is overgrown with weeds, underbrush and giant trees and is overrun with perhaps a hundred squirrels per square foot and no telling how many wasps and hornets’ nests. When reading New Wilderness, I paused from time to time, aware of the oddly opaque gaze of my benign pet Shih Tsu and of the squirrel-infested grounds around the house, and I was not unaware of the possibility that for some strange reason, my world might suddenly be severely beset by a “change” in the animals round me. I would caution anyone who starts reading New Wilderness, to have quick meals readily at hand, be prepared for late nights of compulsive reading, and perhaps have a contingency plan for defense against a surprise attack from an unexpected quarter. I loved the book and you will too if you like survivalist stories and being scared. You can order it by clicking on the amazon.com link below.

Stay tuned right here: New Wilderness is the first of a trilogy. The second City on the Currents is nearing completion and I will review it here as soon as it's available.


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