My doctors never told me that one side effect of having severe chronic illnesses was an obsession with apocalyptic fiction. Given, it may not actually be documented in medical literature. But the seismic shift in the landscape of my life, and consequently my preferences, was as real as moving to Antarctica or going to prison.
As a child, the horror genre produced in me an automatic recoil. It held zero allure. When I was 13, I accidentally watched Nightmare on Elm Street while babysitting, which my brain spun into regular nightmares for the next five years. I didn’t watch another horror flick until I was 19.
I still don’t prefer horror for horror’s sake. Guts splishing, bones cracking, faces melting. Gross. Many scenes from The Passage by Justin Cronin, for example, are simply, viscerally, disgusting. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie war by Max Brooks, another of my favorites, supplies continuous carnage as well. But I’ve conditioned myself to tolerate the gore, the gross-outs, because these stories now resonate. They’re my broken mirror.
Once I overcame the gore, the conceptual cascade continued. A new zoonotic virus? An infected zombie bite? The moon knocked out of orbit? Fine. I’ll happily suspend disbelief in order to get a glimpse of the world that follows. Not to veer too far into melodrama, but something in me recognizes something in them. The stomach-dropping losses. The shock, confusion and desperation. And the repercussions from all the fabricated destruction start to look suspiciously like grief, something for which I now have a nomenclature.
What decisions do we make when our world degenerates around us? When the structure of our lives – the trips to the store, the work meetings, the dinners with friends — falls away? Who are we, really, when our scaffolding collapses?
Nobody told me this either, but chronic illness is as much about loss as it is about health, or lack thereof. Since my mid-twenties, I’ve lived with chronic migraine, immune system abnormalities, and frequent infections. The losses these illnesses have caused, over and over again, during the past two decades, are equally life-altering. In one sequence of events, I was living on the east coast in the early 2000s, working for a business research firm. During a sixteen-month span, I got pneumonia twice, then bronchitis, then shingles, then daily migraines. I lost my boyfriend, went on medical disability, had to leave my job, lost all my friends, could no longer pay rent, almost lost my sanity. My world disintegrated. In my more self-absorbed moments, I’d look around and think, how am I the only one? From then on, I searched for stories that felt like mine, even if they didn’t necessarily look like mine.
Following the characters in some of my favorite books (Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, The Dog Stars by Peter Heller), I desperately ingested every action, every emotion. Did they despair? Lose their moral footing? Dig in? Seek out others? Self-isolate? Tell me how to do this.
For a while I was preoccupied with how I would survive any given apocalypse, which is normal, I suppose, when you’re wholly immersed in a hypothetical. Although I deemed any such event deeply unlikely, I allowed myself to indulge in various thought experiments. How would I survive if the world ended? How would I ensure enough food, water, protection? Finally, and shamefully late in this fantastical conflation of calamity, I realized that without medicine and emergency services, I’d die. Quickly. And with that, my post-apocalyptic fascination transformed into something more obviously metaphorical. But no less sustained.
My consumption of these novels has far outpaced supply, so I’ve had to dig to find more. Not to knock the DIY world of writing, but the glut of self-published apocalyptic novels, especially by ex-military types, often devolves into protracted discussions of weaponry, ammunition, and things that go boom. Endless combinations of letters and numbers. Beretta AR-70/223, LWRC M6A2, MKIII A1. Whatever I’m looking for, that’s not it.
I’ve set Amazon and Goodreads to alert me of any new publications in the genre. And so I wait for notification, for guidance. More data points. More characters. Who can show me how to respond? Did I do it right?
About the Author
Shannon Cassidy writes, photographs and lives with chronic illness. She resides in Oakland, California with her husband, young son, senior dog and gremlin of a puppy. Instagram: @thevisualcali; Twitter: @Shannon1339