Apocalypse (1989) Book Review and Analysis
by Nancy Springer
Sci-Fi Fantasy/Magical Realism
I got this book from an indie bookstore in my area – of course, I picked it up because it’s called “Apocalypse”! Obviously, given my own novel, apocalypses are one of my favourite things. I also love gender swaps and here we have four ladies as the horsemen.
Nancy Springer is still kicking. She’s an American writer and her bio on her website is pretty interesting. I can see how there are parallels to her real life and the story in Apocalypse, but I’ll get into that in my analysis part. She’s written over 50 novels – fantasy, fiction, and sci-fi, and YA/kids books. I haven’t read anything else by her, but I’d be totally interested.
The novel isn’t quite a sci-fi. I’d classify it as a sci-fi fantasy or even magical realism. It’s clearly an allegory for bigotry, traditionalism, and the secrets people are forced to keep. It’s set in 1999, which I think is funny because do you remember Y2K? Everyone was worried that the computers would all shut down? I was in grade 9 in '99, and I remember the real fears older people had about this possibility.
Plot + Review
The plot is rather wild and I can't outline it without going into too much detail.
The novel itself has six major characters, with one being the central protagonist. You have Cally, a mother of two and anorexic wife of a funeral director. You also have Shirley who owns a horse-stable, and her partner, Elsbeth, an artist. There’s Gigi, an older housewife with a loveless marriage, and Barry, a man who is developmentally-challenged. There’s also Joanie, on the periphery, a bullied, troubled, abused, and disfigured young woman whom Barry is in love with and who is the impetus for the apocalyptic turn of events.
Joanie broke my heart, though she essentially is Yennifer from The Witcher. She wishes to “be beautiful for once in her life” and “get back at all the people who made her miserable”. The POV is 3rd person hovering mainly around Cally, and secondly around Shirley. There are also first-person Barry perspectives to help flesh out Joanie’s story.
The characterization is fantastic. Everyone, even some secondary characters, is given a good basis for understanding their motivations and actions. Barry’s disability is treated not very nicely by the other characters, but his chunks of perspective are realistic and integral to explaining what is going on in the novel. To explain him a little bit - he has a Forrest Gump-level intelligence – he can hold down a job, have physical relationships with women, and live on his own. He’s just slightly below the average IQ. His sections are written quite well – you understand the depth of his disability but it’s not confusing like Benjy’s character in The Sound and the Fury. It’s more like The Curious Tale of the Dog in the Nighttime, though Barry isn’t autistic.
The story moves very quickly into a menacing and, quite frankly, depressing tone. As in most “apocalypses” or even haunting stories, strange occurrences begin that are merely off-putting, but which ramp up into sheer insanity. The novel is quite good. It kept me completely enthralled and while I thought all the characters but Shirley and Barry were a little annoying, or at least unsympathetic, they kept me very interested. There are some great (and by great I mean despicable) side-characters and the setting – the isolated and bigoted town – was clearly laid out. It reminded me a lot of The Stand, in that no one in that story is overly likeable and it shares a similar magical aspect.
The prose is fantastic, with some great descriptions: "Devil ran like a black avalanche, black bowel-fire out of a volcano, a black sun exploding, and like the relentless passing of time he showed no signs of slowing down."
Overall, if you’re looking for something dark, angry, and keeps your chest a bit constricted when you read it, this is the novel for you.
I’m giving it 4 out of 5 hungerbabies! Gross.
Analysis - Here be Spoilers!
My analysis usually stems into two or three aspects, but as the women in this novel are all woven together with the themes, I’m going to assess it as a whole, mainly applying the little I know about the author’s life and the time period. Yay - New Historicist perspective!
Now, this is all conjecture on my part. If Nancy somehow sees this and wishes to contradict or correct me, that’s cool. But from her bio, it seems like the issues the women in the novel have with marriage, relationships, depression, and their loves of horses all stem from Nancy’s life.
Perhaps this is why Cally gets back together with her husband at the end – something I found a little, I don’t know, frustrating? Especially given he gets increasingly emotionally and physically abusive. It seems like Mark’s volatile behaviour stems from the demonic possession of the town, which is why Cally forgives him, but it still rankled me to see her absolve him of all his actions. She wasn’t being the nicest partner either, but aside from sleeping with the weird nude man in the woods, she was never abusive to him. I’m not saying the author's marriage was like this at all, but perhaps the desire for reconciliation was what caused this “happy ending”.
Likewise, what was going on at the time has to come into play. There was a growing focus in the late 80s on New Wave Feminism, in that divorce was becoming more common, women were demanding equal pay, childcare assistance, and reproductive rights. This ties to Cally’s character specifically, who laments her education and “intellect” being stifled by her lack of a job – the small town she lives in denies her the opportunity to use her brains as she wishes, as the town still adheres to traditional notions of femininity and women’s role as a homemaker. Cally is terrified of becoming, as she calls it, “like the napkin-tucking, narrow-minded, credulous, superstitious, omnivorous boors around her”, yet she craves to be accepted by them. As well as feeling useless, I’m guessing, Cally’s marriage suffers because her husband doesn’t support her desire to have a career, which manifests itself in Cally in a self-loathing which she then transfers into an eating disorder. Cally, I would argue, starves herself because she is stuck in a place that denies her the mental food she needs to survive. They are inextricably linked.
I think the eating disorder aspect was handled fairly well, in that Cally’s denial there is a problem is common for those who have anorexia. Yet, it wraps up too neatly in the end. We can argue that Joanie’s deal with the Devil was exacerbating Cally’s illness, but it clearly had been going on far before the “hungerbabies” showed up, so a little bit of magic isn’t going to solve her emotional problems. This was written in the late 80s before we knew what we do now about anorexia and bulimia, so I’m giving a bit of a pass. Cally is the Famine Horsewoman.
The other characters share similar historically relevant issues.
LGBTQ+-rights weren’t to be solidified in some countries for decades after this book was published (and in some places still aren’t, unfortunately), but the presence of that community in the world was no longer denied like it was in the 1950s. Even if people were bigoted against LGBTQ+ people in the novel, they admitted that gay relationships existed. Shirley and Elsbeth’s relationship is refreshing in its normalcy in the novel, but it’s a little strange that they take-on traditional gender roles, especially once it’s revealed that Shirley is trans. Shirley is the breadwinner, does all the manual labour, etc., while Elsbeth is there as, which Shirley admits at one point, eye-candy.
Yet, this relationship seems to work for them and doesn’t appear to be based on an unequal power relationship, so it’s likely Elsbeth is just a flighty artist and Shirley enjoys supporting her. Hell, I’m all about people doing what works for them. And the couple clearly love one another; it was very heartening to see Elsbeth retract her hurtful comments about Shirley being trans.
The inclusion of AIDS (Shirley magically contracts AIDS at the end of the novel and becomes the Pestilence womanhorse) stems from fears in the 80s over the AIDs epidemic and the stigma attached to being gay. That was an easy allusion.
Elsbeth, due to her violent nature and loathing of “normal” people, is the War Horsewoman.
Now, onwards to Gigi. This aspect of the story is probably the most interesting to me, but also the most frustrating. It’s not 100% laid out, but ¼ of the way into the novel, Gigi gets a small bit of exposition that suggests she used a nursing education that her parents forced her to get, and the fact that her husband wouldn’t let her work outside the home, to provide secret abortions to women in the town. Cally briefly mentions an anti-choice law and fundamentalist censorship of TV and news stations existing in this fictional 1999. Prophetic? Given the USA today, honestly, not too far off. This isn’t mentioned again until the end of the novel, when it’s revealed that the “hungerbabies”, the cicadas with frighteningly baby-like features from the start, are the "ghosts" of infanticides and abortions. The former is tragic and the latter pissed me off. First of all, if Gigi were performing abortions at home, she wasn’t doing anything extremely invasive, so the fetuses were likely 6-9 weeks gestation; they would not be human-shaped and would not have baby faces. Likewise, giving Gigi the “Death” horsewoman visage simply because of her work helping women have agency over their bodies is offensive to me in the extreme and I hated how she was murdered by her husband for providing healthcare.
If you don't agree with me that abortion is healthcare, well, yay for you. Post some anti-choice comment about on here and I’m going to delete with a scoff. Normally, anything I bring up is fair game to challenge, but this one, no, not interested.
Yet, another way to look at it is that Springer was trying to be hyperbolic – making fun of people who would consider abortion to be murder, but given I have no idea about her ideas on the subject and it wasn’t made very clear in the novel, I’m going to say it’s up to the readers’ interpretation as to why Gigi is the Death horsewoman.
And that’s all I’ve got. It’s an interesting book, that’s for sure!