Book Review: Everything Will Be All Right in the End: Apocalypse Songs, by Paul Michael Anderson
By Thomas Joyce
I cannot recall when I first heard the name Paul Michael Anderson, or where I first read his fiction. I do recall being asked to review his first short story collection, Bones Are Made to Be Broken, and being blown away by his work. Jack Ketchum described it as “A dark carnival of rigorous intelligence and compassion”. That was seven years ago. Seven! Anderson continued to write short fiction and submit it to the usual places, and he released a novella entitled Standalone (Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, 2020), but it feels as though a second collection has been a long time coming. To be honest, those of us who read the first collection probably needed some time to recover emotionally from the “compelling, thought-provoking, dark and beautifully heart-breaking” stories. If you haven’t yet read that stellar debut, you absolutely should. If, however, you pick up Everything Will Be All Right in the End first, you won’t be disappointed.
Recently returned from hiatus, Unnerving Magazine is one of my favourite horror fiction magazines. I enjoy the mix of stories editor Eddie Generous includes in each issue. One such story in the third issue, published in 2017, is Anderson’s “The One Thing I Wished for You” which he selected to open this new collection. As soon as I began reading it this time around, I remembered it. Remembered how it broke my heart when I first read it six years ago. The premise is surprisingly simple; given the opportunity, would you take away the pain of your child, both physical and emotional, if it meant you would have to feel it instead? What makes the story so effective is Anderson’s ability to explore pain and convey the story to the reader in such an empathetic way. Reading his work, experiencing it, is effortless, yet it has weight, depth. It is packed with emotional resonance. As is much of his work.
Take “Every Apocalypse is Personal”, for example. On the surface, it is a story of one man’s struggle for survival in the aftermath of an apocalyptic event, interspersed with flashes of his life beforehand. But we see him struggling to keep a child safe and Anderson gets all of the parental worry and personal trauma across to the reader. We learn that the mother is no longer in the picture but, through the flashbacks, we quickly realise there is more to this woman than first meets the eye, and she has something to do with the apocalyptic event that led to the destruction they’re living in. There’s more to the story than that, and I’m not doing it justice, but the apocalypse plays second fiddle to the struggling man trying to weigh up what is best for the child he thinks of as a son, and the implications the boy’s development could have for the people around him, and whether they’ll survive it. What feels like a simple science fiction B-movie setting is instilled with emotion.
“Until Every Little Piece of Me Is Gone” is another gut-punch of a story, this time focusing on a man haunted by ghosts of his troubled past. We learn through the story that he is retracing a family vacation, using physical mementos (“totems”) to put something to rest, finally. Anderson draws an image of a man devoid of hope, hurting from the most tragic loss. He uses snapshots of the tragic event and the immediate fallout to explain his actions in the present and why he must go through so much pain, laying his tragic past to rest. The pacing is very well done and the grief unravels until he is finally able to let go of the past, and leave the reader devastated.
Slightly lighter fare, “How I Became a Cryptid Straight Out of a 1970s Horror Movie” does still hold a depth thanks to the character of a Native American elder and professor despairing at the haste with which the modern world bulldozes the past. But, just look at that title. That is exactly what Anderson delivers with this tale. Told from the point of view of a young white American who is staying with friends at a lakeside cottage, getting drunk and chatting up local girls, including the elder’s granddaughter, we are treated to a faithful retelling of a B-movie story, with a unique “monster” and focus. The deeper message comes across with all of the emotional nous we have come to expect from Anderson, but he also displays an accomplished ability of subtly conveying the violence that we would expect from such a concept. And he manages to end on a suitably sinister tone.
“The Man at Dealey Plaza” takes an interesting idea – what would happen if the JFK assassination as shown on the Zapruder film wasn’t the true series of events – and uses it to explore a fictional terrorist attack. The story is presented as an audio recording made by a former reporter who was on the scene of the attack as it happened, addressed to a former colleague. The deeper the former reporter digs, the darker and more horrific the reality becomes. The world-building and growing tension is delivered expertly, displaying the skill and genius of a storyteller who has honed his craft.
Stories that feature a “non-traditional” Santa Claus can be hit-or-miss but, when approached with a certain lightness, even a horror story featuring a mall Santa can be a hit, as Anderson shows with “Well, You Asked for a Miracle”. Told from the point-of-view of the head security officer of a mall facing the busiest – and most frantic – time of the year, we are given insight into the mind of someone losing faith in the system, thanks to an entitled shoplifter. Enter jolly Saint Nick, or the man chosen to play the role for minimum wage. There is far more than meets the eye with this mall Santa, though, and the security officer learns all about it. But, does it result in him regaining his faith in humanity? You’ll have to read to find out, but it does make for a less emotionally devastating read, while remaining very entertaining.
The final story in the collection, “Detritus (Ten Pieces)”, is a direct sequel to the title novella in Anderson’s debut collection, Bones Are Made to Be Broken, and is equally heartbreaking in its emotional honesty. Struggling to deal with the aftermath of his mother’s suicide, and the teasing it brings at school, Kevin retreats into himself, away from everyone who wants to help but doesn’t know how. Striking another pupil at school begins a distressing journey of self-discovery for Kevin, and it often feels as though his fate could go either way. Anderson doesn’t pull his punches, and the story is all the better for it, as we bear witness to the emotional turmoil.
This is only seven of the seventeen tales contained within Anderson’s second collection, but it shows the breadth of his amazing talent. He is known for delving deep into the emotional core of his characters to deliver haunting and distressing tales of horror, but his work is so much more than that. His ability to breathe life into his characters and to render their environments in technicolour 3D is essential as groundwork for his fantastic storytelling and engaging prose. He is a student of the human condition and a keen observer of people, but he also has the incredible ability to weave compelling and original stories. And this is what makes Paul Michael Anderson a phenomenally talented storyteller, deserving of every word of praise received from readers and writers alike.
Everything Will Be All Right in the End: Apocalypse Songs by Paul Michael Anderson
In Everything Will Be All Right in the End: Apocalypse Songs, you’ll see the lengths a father will go in order to protect his child, the emptiness that revenge can harness, gods compelled to act after being forgotten, a boy carrying the weight of decisions he didn’t make, and monsters both within and without. You’ll meet people who have lost everything, faced everything, lived through the worst that could happen, attempted to pick up the pieces of their shattered realities, and you will hear their apocalypse songs.
Praise for Paul Michael Anderson
“Anderson announces himself as a major talent in the dark fiction realm.” – Fangoria
“Anderson writes with a sure, steady hand.” – Jack Ketchum, author of The Woman, The Girl Next Door, and Off Season
“Paul Michael Anderson’s writing doesn’t feel gimmicky, but it has a pulp edge to it. Anderson’s the real deal, guys.” – Dead End Follies“…Every tale has one thing in common: Anderson’s ability to craft a compelling, thought-provoking, dark and beautifully heart-breaking story displaying the darkest depths of the human soul.” – This Is Horror on Bones Are Made To Be Broken.