Monday, September 9, 2013

The House by the Crab Apple Tree: A Review

S. S. Johnson's The House by the Crab Apple Tree is an early nuclear-age, post-apocalyptic novelette (23 pages).  Published first in the February 1964 edition of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (copyright 1963), it is a grim story of a mother and her daughter trying to survive in barren icy area about 2 generations after the collapse of the modern world.

S. S. Johnson (S. S. for Simon Sigvart) (1940-?) began writing sports related stories for the Hartford Courant at age 14.  He appears to have graduated ~1963 from Colorado State University with a degree in Technical Journalism.  Since that is the point that the biography for this story appears, I did not find much else other than he kept writing.  Presumably being the author of Roaches in the Temple and other stories (1969), and Burning Index(1972), and a co-author of Modern Technical Writing (1990).

In grimness, I have seen this story commented on as a precursor to McCarthy's The Road.
Paul Brians in Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction :
A woman and her daughter are besieged by brutal men in a barbaric postholocaust future (probably the result of a nuclear war, since one of the men is horribly deformed, but the war is not otherwise specified). The story is more effective than most stories of its type because its sadism, rape, and cannibalism are not softened by the sort of fake medieval trappings common to New Dark Age fiction. This is not a new culture, but the end of culture.
Prior to the story, the mother, Suara, had been taken captive by a man named Weed, and along with the daughter, been taken to an isolated abandoned ranch house far to the north.  Far enough north that it was hoped that violent scavengers wouldn't be likely to show up.
Life in the north is not easy for Suara, and it is particularly hard to keep the daughter alive. 
It was too hard to find food for too many, she knew.  When Verie [the daughter] had gotten about four, Weed had talked about the advisability of killing her because of the food.  Feigning indifference, Saura had pointed out that there seemed to be enough for three, and Weed had grown fond of her, so he forgot the idea.  One winter they almost had to kill her so they would have something to eat, but they got through all right.
Now Suara hoped a man would come to live with them for Verie.  He could help with the planting and hunting. Then they would not have to be so afraid of starving to death because Weed had not been able to find enough in the summer to last. And a man would keep Weed away from Verie.
Unfortunately, more than one man shows up. Four very mean men, and one tied up, blind freak of man they call Alice (with a hint at his purpose) being dragged along with them.

I won't go too much further into the plotting, it is a longish short story after all, and I don't want a review longer than the story.  Let's just say that the general events are brutal, with just a hint of ambiguity at the end.  The mother and daughter are left to a brutal existence, with brutal men for company, but there is both an element of acceptance of life for what it has become, and a slight hope of an escape. It is a well done story, but obviously a bit hard to find at the moment.

We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.

Realism is not too difficult.  People are starving and running out of food.  It is not completely clear whether there is some sort of nuclear winter that has set in, or if they just moved to the far north to get away from populated areas.  Because the story has to move along quickly to fit within the space, there are a few events that are maybe not as carefully depicted as they might be, so we will call it a 6.

Readability is also easy.  It is a short story, and it moves along pretty quickly.  There are even a few plot twists thrown in within its short span.  It is a seven.

No comments: