Sometimes it feels like it’s the end of the world as we know it, and no one feels fine. But while the apocalyptic feeling hanging in the air over us may get oppressive, people still like reading — and seeing, and playing… — stories about the world coming undone. Which is where we find the stories in the new anthology, The First Five Minutes Of The Apocalypse (hardcover, paperback, Kindle); not in the laboratories or halls of government where they started the endtimes, or are trying to stop it, but on the ground, among the people whose lives are directly effected by the impending end. In the following email interview, First Five Minutes editor Brandon Applegate discusses how this short story anthology came together, and why he concentrated on the small side of the big end.
To start, what are the stories in The First Five Minutes Of The Apocalypse about?
I love apocalyptic fiction, but so much of it has taken on an action movie vibe. There’s a hero, there are obstacles for that hero to overcome to save or fix something and narrowly avert some awful outcome. It’s all very Die Hard. But when I think about the apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic fiction that has moved me most, it’s never about the hero, never about being in the room where they press the big red button. What moves me about the end of the world is the inevitability. It’s over. There’s no escaping it. You are going to die. What does that mean for you? What does it mean for your kids? How do you react? What do you do with your last moments? That’s what this anthology is about.
What inspired you to put this collection together, and what made you think this would be an interesting idea for a book of short stories?
I was reading World War Z, funny enough. I love Max Brooks, but at the time I was finding it a bit of a slog. But my favorite part of the whole book was the beginning, where the fictional protagonist interviews different people about the first time they encountered the undead. There’s a military person, a doctor who helps tribal communities, and a few others, and those beginning accounts were fascinating to me in their grounding in reality. It was just so…aware. This event took place in our world, and it was being told by real people in a detailed context at the beginning of a nearly apocalyptic event. At the end of that section, I wanted more than what I got. And usually I know that if I’m enjoying something, there’s at least a few people out there who are my brand of crazy. The title actually hit me first. In the shower of all places.
So, what kind of apocalyptic events are we talking about, and when and where do they take place?
There are so many different apocalypses in the book. Everyone came up with their own. Everything from nuclear weapons and comets to alien death lasers to diseases that make you hallucinate to angry lunar algae. The variation in types of apocalypse was wider than even I expected, although most of them take place in a modern context.
Why did you want to have this kind of variety in apocalyptic events?
I think it’s just a function of the way the project came together. In my head it was going to be harder to wrangle twenty-something authors to all write about the same event than it would be to let their imaginations take off and see where they carry you. There was one story that I ended up not putting in the book, which I sort of kick myself over, where the apocalypse was a disease that makes a person’s face seal up and an eyeball come out of their…rear end. It was a little too goofy for the tone I was going for, but man, was it entertaining. One of the things I love most about doing this is seeing people come up with things I would never have thought of.
But the other thing I want to reiterate is that, for this particular book, the when, where, and what of the apocalypse really don’t matter all that much. It’s the human stories that I wanted to tell.
How then did you come to find the contributors?
The list of authors in the indie horror community that write brilliant fiction is a long one indeed. I usually like my projects to be part invite and part open call. This allows me to showcase some names readers know while also introducing them to emerging authors and even first-timers. So what I tend to do is make a list of contributors I’d like to invite, whose style I think would work for the tone I’m shooting for. That list is way too long, and then I get back like 70% nos and 30% yesses, and then I have my invites. The rest comes out of the open call, and I work extremely hard to ignore things like name bias. Because the whole point is to give anyone a chance.
So, how often, when someone told you what they wanted to write about, did you have to say to a writer, “No, that wouldn’t happen in the first five minutes”?
Never. I don’t edit that way. I genuinely believe in the power of rampant creativity. “You want to do what? Oh man, I can’t wait to see that,” was my response far more often. I was also playing a little bit fast and loose with the theme. In the guidelines, I told people that it doesn’t really have to be five minutes after the bomb drops. It should essentially be a short period of time after the protagonist’s world ends. That could be the death of a loved one, the realization that they are going to die, anything. The end of the world can mean so many different things based on your perspective. There are stories in the book where the end of the world isn’t even directly addressed; it’s just that the protagonists encounter something and you’re like “yeah, that would probably kill everybody.”
If it’s not just about the first five minutes, why is the book called The First Five Minutes Of The Apocalypse?
Part of it was that I liked the sound of First Five Minutes. It’s got a good ring to it as a title.
The other piece was that I figured authors could interpret it pretty widely based on the guidelines. I’m not really restricting anyone to five minutes. Just make it a reasonably short period of time after the cataclysmic event hits home for the main character.
You previously edited an anthology called It Was All A Dream: An Anthology Of Bad Horror Tropes Done Right. So I have to ask: Were there any apocalypse-related tropes that you really didn’t want in The First Five Minutes Of The Apocalypse?
Zombies. I even said that in the guidelines. “We’re gonna get a lot of zombies, so points for originality.” And I think that’s why I didn’t get a ton of zombie stories. There’s only one zombie story in the book, and it is wildly different from what you’d expect.
I also mostly wanted to avoid main characters that were at the center of the apocalyptic event. I didn’t want the protagonist to be trying to stop the bomb or cure the disease or something. If the apocalypse happened today, and I didn’t immediately die, all I’d be trying to do is gather up my family and either try to survive or be with them until the end. And that’s the story I wanted to focus on.
What about ones you wanted to include, but only if they were, well, done right?
There are some in the book that are represented purely in one story and then subverted in another. For example, the trope of the mother who braves the apocalypse to find her children. There’s one heart wrenching story in the book that represents that trope perfectly, and then there’s another that turns it on its head to similarly devastating effect. This is what I love about tropes. I don’t think they’re meant to be avoided. I think they are meant to be iterative.
So then what genres are represented by the stories in The First Five Minutes Of The Apocalypse?
Hungry Shadow is primarily a horror press, so I focus on that genre typically. But there are definitely science fiction stories, even a few stories I’d consider light fantasy or weird. I’ve never really been all that stuck on genre. I just want a good story. And with this one, these stories were meant to hurt. I originally said I wanted all the stories to include a speculative element, but there ended up being some that don’t. I don’t like to limit myself too much. Maurice Sendak said something along the lines of “I don’t write children’s books. I write books I like and let the publishers label them.” I’m sort of like that, too. Just give me a good story.
Are there any genres that you intentionally avoided? Because in the interview we did about It Was All A Dream, you said, “I think I’d have trouble editing a book of sci-fi stories.”
I probably would have a little trouble editing an anthology of pure sci-fi stories, because too much sci-fi feels disconnected from humanity. Nine out of ten sci-fi stories I get for any project include the same few elements: a heroic captain, a starship, and an airlock. It’s very predictable and very plain to me. I can’t connect to it on a human level. Please note that I am not disparaging the science fiction genre. Some of my absolute favorite media, books, movies, TV shows, you name it, are science fiction. But it’s like some folks got too big a shot of Star Trek in their veins and can’t think outside that specific plot structure. Also, I love Trek. But it’s at its best when it’s at its most human. A dying Spock with his hand on the window telling Kirk “I was and always will be your friend.” Picard struggling to reintegrate into his own life despite experiencing PTSD from being taken and manipulated by the Borg. Data’s constant quest to understand humanity and in that understanding become more human himself. In these stories, the science, the ship, the minutiae is not the point. The people are. And that’s where variety arises. People are unpredictable. Give me stories that focus on people and not starships. Give me stories where I can’t predict the ending.
But to directly answer your question, I never intentionally avoid any genre. I just want to be surprised.
contributors Angela Sylvaine and Nicholas Bouchard
Now, Angela Sylvaine’s contribution to The First Five Minutes Of The Apocalypse is called “No More Meatloaf Monday,” while Nicholas Bouchard’s story is “Ten Totally Free Places To Watch The End Of The World.” Which makes me think these stories are…maybe not outright funny, but a bit cheeky. Are they?
Angela’s story is incredibly dark. Maybe one of the darker ones in the book. Angela aims straight for the heart, always, which is why I love her work. But I see, at first glance, how that title seems silly. But I love it because it disarms the reader to a certain degree, makes them even more susceptible to what happens next. Angela is a master at that.
Nick’s story, however, is definitely dark comedy.
Why then did you want to include something humorous in The First Five Minutes Of The Apocalypse?
I tend to think most anthologies, especially ones as determinedly dour as this one, need one or two stories that change the tone, give readers a little break. Tiffany Michelle Brown’s story has some dark comic elements as well. It gives the book texture, lets the reader breathe. And sure, some people won’t like the tonal variations, but you can’t please everyone. Much like in writing, in editing it doesn’t pay to think too much about the reader. You’ll get all caught up in what you think people want and end up with something that isn’t the book you wanted to make. And then, what’s even the point? I’m certainly not doing this for fame and fortune. I’m doing it to make things that I love and am proud of. I want to bring projects into the world that I, personally, would enjoy. And I know for a fact I’m not the only one who likes the things I like.
So, aside from having to fit the theme, what other parameters did these stories have to fit?
I didn’t want reprints for this one. And I kept the word count between one-thousand and four-thousand words. I tend to like short, sharp shocks. The most impactful short stories for me are usually twenty pages or less because they’re often very tight, honed to a point. It takes work to edit down. You have to kill your darlings, and in a well-edited story, you can see the blood on the page.
As I mentioned earlier, you previously edited the horror anthology It Was All A Dream. Is there anything you learned in assembling that book which directly influenced what you did with The First Five Minutes Of The Apocalypse?
So much. But I learn a great deal from every project I undertake. Honestly, from It Was All A Dream, I learned that I could actually do this. I mean run a press and edit books. Before that I didn’t know if I could, or if I would enjoy myself. I did. I do. I love doing this work, even if it’s a struggle to balance it with my own writing. I love working with other authors and artists. I love building and finishing things. Hopefully that comes across, that the book was built primarily with a love for books, a love for the process and the people involved.
What I’m hoping to learn from this one and the next is how to balance writing and editing. I don’t want to be a full-time editor, and I don’t want to be a full-time writer. I want to do both things. So…how? You’ll know I’ve figured it out when my next collection comes out.
One difference between It Was All A Dream and The First Five Minutes Of The Apocalypse is that every story in Dream was accompanied by an illustration by Christopher Castillo Díaz, but there’s no illustrations in Apocalypse. Why did you decide to not include illustrations this time?
The concepts in this book are so sort of philosophical, in many cases intentionally mundane, even domestic, that I think It would be hard to illustrate all the stories and make it dynamic. I just didn’t see that being part of this project. But what I did do, in the print edition, was to include stock photography as part of the formatting as a sort of de facto illustration at the beginning of each story. And I like how it turned out. I think the photography lends a sense of realism, which is what this book is about at its core.
Hollywood has been big on apocalypse stories lately. Do you think any of the stories in The First Five Minutes Of The Apocalypse could make for a good movie?
I cover some of this in the foreword for the book, but man, is it any wonder Hollywood has been all about the apocalypse lately? It seems like we’re leaping from crisis to crisis faster than ever. It’s very easy to imagine realistic ways that the world could end right now.
But yes, there are several of these stories that I think come across very cinematic and could make for a great film. Elou Carroll’s “Dirt And Blood And Silence” has the brilliant feeling of being a heartbreaking origin story for its protagonist. Matthew M. Bartlett’s “Smash Hit” is one of the more creative apocalypses in the book and somehow manages to be both claustrophobic and simultaneously give the reader a sense of what’s happening in the wider world, so it would be easy to expand into a much larger epic. Andrew Cull’s “The Scream” feels like it’s plucked straight out of a Hollywood contagion thriller in the vein of Bird Box or The Silence. There are more, of course, but those jump to mind.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about The First Five Minutes Of The Apocalypse?
It’s devastating, weird, creative, bizarre, heartfelt, honest, and more than anything, it’s very human.
Finally, if someone enjoys The First Five Minutes Of The Apocalypse, what apocalyptic novel would you suggest they read next?
Read The Road by Cormac McCarthy because it is the first apocalyptic novel I ever read where the apocalypse is not the point.
Read The Stand by Stephen King because its characters are so memorable and nobody does an epic struggle between the cosmic forces of good and evil (with a rock and roll soundtrack) like King.
Read I Am Legend by Richard Matheson because it has maybe the most masterfully twisted ending of any of them, and it is a masterclass in making the reader root for an unlikable protagonist. If you’ve only seen the movie, you’re missing out.
And read Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon, The Girl With All The Gifts by Mike Carey, Parable Of The Sower by Octavia E. Butler, Bird Box by Josh Malerman — apocalyptic fiction is a much more lush garden than people often think. There are so many more. This question is never easy to answer succinctly.