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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Strange Horizons, February 6th & 13th, 2012

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Strange Horizons, February 6th & 13th, 2012

“Aftermath” by Joy Kennedy-O’Neill

Reviewed by Matthew Nadelhaft

The past two issues of Strange Horizons have been given over to one story, Joy Kennedy-O’Neill’s “Aftermath.” The story didn’t seem overly long to me, so I’m rather surprised it needed telling over two parts, but then again, I’m new to online periodicals and probably don’t know how many screens the average reader is able to endure paging through before wanting to start a game of solitaire.

Actually, I was ready to fire up a game of solitaire, or even hearts, as soon as I realized the title of the story referred to the aftermath of – brace yourself – a zombie outbreak. “Oh dear God, not another zombie outbreak,” I cried. I wept, I raged, I cursed, but I read on, because it was my duty to review the story.

I hope all of Kennedy-O’Neill’s readers have some sort of duty overriding their aversion to not-another-goddam-zombie-outbreak-story, because otherwise they’ll miss out on a fresh and heartfelt approach to the genre. Whether or not the story is fresh and heartfelt enough to overcome the distaste of having to read about zombies will have to be an individual decision. A part of me still whines “Zombies? Seriously? Did it have to be zombies?” when contemplating this story, but other parts of me marvel at how much laudable content I found. In a zombie story.

To begin with, Kennedy-O’Neill’s treatment of the scenario is appealing in several ways. She makes an excellent choice in starting her narrative after the outbreak has ended, while the nation recovers (so at least it can’t be called a zombie apocalypse story). And she concentrates on the domestic, the personal repercussions and the practical issues faced by one family. Shortages of goods and services, rationing, blackouts, even changes in employment patterns and teaching after the outbreak are all carefully considered by the author and find their way unobtrusively into the narrative as they remake the lives of the narrator and her family. The personal focus and detail make the emotional impact of the story profound.

In addition to the careful thought showcased by this story there’s an excellent twist: “Aftermath” posits the end of the outbreak when a “cure” for the zombie infection is found – not when all the zombies have had their heads blown off. And so the societies, already staggering under the strain of horror, war, and economic catastrophe, must struggle with an even greater crisis – reuniting the survivors with their friends, loved ones, and neighbours who, a short time ago, had been monsters (or prey). Kennedy-O’Neill skillfully imagines and depicts both the cultural and emotional battle, for groups and individuals, to accept what they and their compatriots did and were. It’s a truly powerful concept which highlights the real horror behind any successful zombie story: those flesh-eating monsters were our friends and family. Could we really just reach for the shotgun, and would we forgive ourselves afterwards?

This fabulous treatment does undercut the other, more traditional horror elements of the story (how did a flu give the “turned” the ability to chomp through flesh as though they were sharks, anyway?). Kennedy-O’Neill’s prose is powerful and evocative, but sometimes falters under a few strange formalities (there are virtually no contractions in the story, and the word “that” crops up far too often). But these relatively minor quibbles aside, I have to confess to having been made, against my will, I remind you, to enjoy and even be challenged and moved by a zombie story. And that’s not something you can do with mirrors.