The end of the world begins on TV, with a seemingly unassuming live-streamed link up broadcast on the Discovery Channel. A biological terror of Biblical proportions is being unleashed, and its gradual but unstoppable progress subsequently recorded and documented and speculated on across blogging sites, Twitter and Facebook, as it spreads far and wide … This is how the end will be as imagined in Horror and Dark Fantasy author Tim Lebbon’s latest novel “The Silence”.
The coming of the Apocalypse will already be a familiar theme to anyone who watches even a small amount of horror, and you don’t have to read widely in the genre Lebbon has successfully made his home turf since the late nineties to find it being prominently featured on the printed page too: humans attempting to find a way to survive in a hostile post-apocalyptic landscape, singly or in small groups, has been fertile ground for countless writers across the last three or four decades, from Richard Matheson in his classic “I Am Legend” to the Pulitzer Prize winning Cormac McCarthy and his chilling 2006 masterpiece “The Road”. And, of course, the zombie genre has made this territory its bread and butter, most recently in the continuing AMC TV series “The Walking Dead”. Yet “The Silence” offers a fairly unique perspective on the subject, and it is largely down to the way we all now habitually interact with, learn about and experience the world virtually, through online social media platforms, that makes the approach taken here accessible as a narrative device in this kind of tale. The book is as much about the anticipation of a cataclysmic event (on an individual level and collectively as a nation), and what happens as people react to the gestalt-shifting news, as it is about the event itself or what form a post-civilisation landscape that any survivors might inherit would eventually take; it’s about learning to prepare for and to accept the end of a whole way of life that has always before been taken completely for granted by large numbers of its people.
In fact, the threat that brings about the complete breakdown of society and the death of millions across central mainland Europe in this novel, doesn’t arrive on British shores until nearly two-thirds of the way into the book’s narrative and, significantly, Lebbon choses to end the story not with some convenient wrap up that tidies away all the loose ends, but at the exact point at which the mobile signal on the iPad the protagonists have been using to monitor the worldwide crisis, finally goes dead on them -- which is probably the point when most post-apocalyptic narratives are just getting started.
The suspense throughout much of the book is founded on Lebbon’s ability to invoke the chill dread that comes of waiting for something awful to occur that is at once too terrible to fully take on-board, yet which one also knows to be utterly inevitable … much like death itself. And, when the dark cloud of that ‘something’ finally does arrive, the ever-dwindling power charge on the Apple device used by the family whose travails we’ve followed as they attempt to keep tabs on official News websites, Twitter, and other social networks where people are documenting their own personal experiences of the disaster, also acts as the barometer recording the steady decline and breakdown of a society through the depletion of its battery charge, with electricity-providing power stations going dark across the country as cities go up in flames. Throughout their nightmare journey, finding an electricity supply to re-charge the iPad so as to stay in touch with unfolding events (even if it’s just the virtual rumour mill of Twitter) becomes harder and harder for the protagonists, until eventually all power is lost and the device’s remaining battery level can only be watched sinking further and further into the red before it becomes a completely useless dead slab, taking with it any last available possibility of social engagement and outside human connection. Unnervingly, the novel ends when the knowledge that whatever will be faced next will have to be faced alone, becomes a conclusion that is impossible for the main characters to ignore.
This potent symbol of the internet as a marker of societal connection and human activity runs entirely counter to the more usual depiction of it as a tool of isolation implying social disengagement. The internet has become so central to all our lives that just to have it go down for a few days often feels like a disaster of epic proportions, cutting us off from an important means of self-expression as well as many regular interactions with the wider world that simply didn’t exist before its advent. Access to it being gradually removed becomes in the context of this novel a succinct demonstration of what a society's disintegration looks like, and implies at least one interpretation of the novel's title: the ‘silence’ is what occurs when people are cut off from the virtual links that bind them together as a civilisation, taking them back to a dark age in which they are forced to exist again in small nomadic groups, bound only by family ties, and unaware of anything that goes on outside of their immediate group or circle of acquaintances. In these circumstances, other people suddenly become a source of potential threat, and that’s exactly what happens during the course of this book: many of the initial difficulties and threats the main protagonists face during the first half of the novel are brought about by human selfishness, cruelty or irrationality.
The title has a more immediate meaning, though, which brings us to the precise nature of the threat that results in such a swift unravelling of the normal structures that more usually maintain civilisation. This is very much a nature runs amok genre of disaster story, initiated by the discovery of a previously unknown network of linked caves in Moldova that have been sealed off from the rest of the world underground for millions of years. Their exploration (live on television) leads to the uncovering of a whole new ecosystem that’s been evolving in total isolation, cut of in the primordial darkness beneath the earth. Unfortunately, at the top of the food chain of this discrete ecosystem, there is a cold blooded species of bat-like meat-eating reptile -- a high-speed flying predator that’s also an absolutely viscous killer. Its description, with its hundreds of razor-sharp piranha-style teeth, and jagged talons at the tip of bat-like wings, makes it sound like a mini, cat-sized version of the alien in the Ridley Scott film and its sequels (the reference is even made by one of the characters in the novel itself; as an in-joke, for Lebbon has also previously written a novel based on the “Alien” franchise, called “Out of the Shadows”). These creatures, which have existed in total darkness throughout their evolution, are blind and completely eyeless, but hunt by being able to detect even the slightest sound in their environment using sonar-like ‘tentacles’ that also help them avoid any obstacles, much like bats; they reproduce incredibly quickly and are parasitic, laying hundreds of eggs inside the bodies of those they attack in order to provide their offspring with a ready food source upon their hatching. When a few hundred or so are inadvertently released into the outside world with the unblocking of one of the cave entrances during the TV special, they tear to bits in a matter of seconds the group of palaeontologists, biologists and geologists who had been exploring the system. Something about the new oxygen-rich atmosphere the creatures now unwittingly find themselves released into after being confined to the dank underground world of the prehistoric cave system for their entire evolution, makes their metabolisms suddenly run wild. The principles of biogeography then come into play: the natural balance of ecosystems has been disturbed and the creatures grow bigger, increase in speed and voraciousness and start reproducing at an astonishing rate, preying on anything that makes any sort of sound, be it man, woman or animal. They flock like birds, but breed quickly, reaching such huge numbers that they start to fill the skies like a plague swarm, leading to their being given the name Vesps, after the sub-family Vespinae to which wasps belong. In the densely populated and noise filled cities of Europe, the creatures have a field day; while across the channel, in a small town on the outskirts of Monmouthshire, one ordinary family watches as the disaster grows into a continent wide panic -- the swarms across Europe getting ever bigger and spreading steadily towards the coast, coming closer and closer to mainland England with each passing minute …
The destruction of Europe’s great cities and the decimation of many millions of people is broadcast and reported via 24 hour television news channels and across the web. The Prime Minister makes speeches. A state of emergency is declared. People are advised to stay inside, lock their doors and bolt their windows, and, most of all … to stay absolutely quiet when the virulent plague finally arrives and settles itself upon the mainland. This is the final, most chilling inference of the novel’s title: not only are people henceforth to be cut off from wider community structures, but even any of the normal face-to-face forms of communication they might attempt to maintain with those to whom they are closest, will most likely prove fatal to any chance of their future survival. This disturbing idea permeates every page of the book as the prospect of a completely silent world dawns.
The disaster and the realisation of its likely consequences are documented from the point of view of an ordinary family that contains one member at least for whom this silent experience of life has already been made a reality: the story alternates between first person and third person singular accounts of the disaster by a deaf teenage girl called Ally and her father (a building contractor called Huw) respectively, with the latter racing back, when the catastrophe strikes, from a job to be with his wife and kinds at the family home. Huw is married to Kelly; and Kelly’s mother Lynne (who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer), also lives in the same house with the couple and their children. The youngest, Jude, is of course Ally’s energetic younger brother, while Otis is her beloved pet dog and constant companion. The family has one advantage over most others facing the coming onslaught, in that they have all had to learn sign language after the car accident that rendered Ally deaf (and which caused the death of her paternal grandparents) in order to be able to continue communicating with her. Thus they can also maintain and hold on to family relationships, even in the face of these unfamiliar and adverse circumstances in which absolute silence is now going to be mandatory for survival.
And relationships are indeed the focus of this book. As they join forces with Huw’s best friend Glenn, the novel brilliantly and forcefully documents the family’s decision to ignore Government advice to stay put and instead to set out, with all the supplies they can muster at short notice, on a desperate drive north, making their way along the motorways of England towards what they hope will be the relative safety of a secluded house that Huw owns in Galloway, Scotland -- formerly owned by Huw’s parents and inherited from them after their deaths. Huw’s feelings of inadequacy when comparing himself to Glenn, his protective feelings towards Ally born of guilt about not being able to save her from the accident that took her hearing and his parents' lives; his difficult relationship with Lynn, whose cancer is still being kept a secret from the children even during the long drive, although Ally suspects something; and the maturing Ally’s predictably strained relationship with her much younger brother … all these lingering threads of family discord, hidden fears and inadequacies that underscore average family life, are brought to the surface during the stresses of the trip; but ultimately what emerges is the complete devotion each family member has for the others.
Even before the true external horrors of this tale make their first appearance, the stakes are raised by a series of emergencies, faced one after the other during the early stages of the journey. Empty cash machines and looted supermarkets and shops & garages denote only the beginnings of the mass breakdown in law and order that ill soon also affect the family as they flee, hoping to reach their destination before the first Vesps appear over British skies. Indeed, other people are the main source of danger to the protagonists for the bulk of the novel. When the family reaches the Pennines, it is only to find this potential sanctuary has been blocked off from ‘outsiders’ by those already inhabiting the area, who’re unwilling to let themselves be 'flooded' by the hordes of people now fleeing the cities and bringing with them extra noise and clamour that will surely attract the rapacious Vesp predators. In many ways this novel foregrounds perennial British moans about crowded motorways, bad driving and the price of fuel, etc., and turns them into the stuff of a real apocalyptic nightmare rather than just the mundane commonplaces of workaday life. As accidents block roads in the mad rush to escape dangerous urban environments and fuel becomes something people kill for, the chances of Huw and his family reaching safety before the Vesps arrive become more and more remote; desperation making some people violent and unpredictable, creates a whole host of new threats to be faced before the true plague is even upon them.
Symbolic confirmation that the everyday norms of society have irrevocably broken down comes at the moment when Glenn and Huw’s family feel that they are forced to abandon the straight path defined by the motorway, and veer off-road into the marshy, rutted rural tract-ways and the stone-partitioned fields through which the road system ploughs its furrow across the English landscape. They’re heading into a feral realm at this point, outside the normal channels guiding usual social rules and the observance of the law; one that's defined by the untamed, weather-worn countryside. It is here they will face their greatest challenges and be forced to make some heart-breaking sacrifices. Lebbon’s vision in the final third of the book of a Vesp-dominated rural landscape, is particularly effective and evocative: a ravaged country of open storm-lashed skies beneath which are the scattered, half-eaten corpses of egg-bloated Vesp victims and the gutted remains of formerly hospitable country pubs; trees, hills and horizon infested for as far as they eye can see with these unpleasant creatures which, when encountered close up and individually, turn out to be even more icky and disgusting than when they are seen en masse: not only are they squealing, calculating and indefatigable killing machines, but they rather stink horribly, too!
For the climax of the novel, Lebbon introduces a macabre but very much more human threat, in the form of a religious cult led by an insane clergyman known as the Reverend, who forces his followers to remove their tongues with pliers, and sets his sights on forcing the remaining survivors out of their briefly attained sanctuary. The book does end, though, in a fashion that leaves one with the feeling that it is only the first chapter in what should be an on-going series, although as yet I’m unaware of any future plans for a follow-up. But with its vividly drawn characters and an escalating sense of desperation and horror so penetratingly evinced by the author, it’s only natural that, with no final resolution in sight, we may feel as we come to the novel’s final pages, like we don’t quite yet want to leave these characters, especially with their ultimate fates so clearly still in the balance. Then again, this is also probably the best praise one could give this atmospheric and utterly riveting story – a tense, unnerving tale of the end of the world made all the more rich and rewarding for being told almost exclusively through the eyes of an identifiably ordinary family, facing a terrible but oddly believable catastrophe, with only very bleak prospects of survival.