Storm damage from Hurricane Eloise; Panama City, FL; Florida Memory
I’ve found no finer description of a hurricane than the one in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. It’s there, in the thick of the central Florida muck, that her characters Janie and Tea Cake encounter the full force of a storm so powerful, so destructive that it seems to move with its own agency, and to do whatsoever it pleases. It’s a storm so awesome that it seems distinct from the very laws of nature, from the forces of its own creation, and it resembles instead a malevolent beast with particular enemies. Anyone who’s hunkered down during a Category 3 or higher can relate: when the storm hits, it seems impossible that the earth could conjure something so devastating, could undo itself so completely.
Louder and higher and lower and wider the sound and motion spread, mounting, sinking, darking. It woke up old Okeechobee and the monster began to roll in his bed…Under its multiplied roar could be heard a mighty sound of grinding rock and timber and a wail. They looked back. Saw people trying to run in raging waters and screaming when they found they couldn’t…As far as they could see the muttering wall advanced before the braced-up waters like a road crusher on a cosmic scale. The monstropolous beast had left his bed…He seized hold of his dikes and ran forward until he met the quarters; uprooted them like grass and rushed on after his supposed-to-be conquerors, rolling the dikes, rolling the houses, rolling the people in the houses along with other timbers. The sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel.
It’s in those terrifying moments, after the clouds have bruised the sky into an all-encompassing black, that Hurston writes, “They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”
There are many ways to die in Florida, and a hurricane is only one. For example, you could be undone by the effects of sea-level rise — more than 3.7 inches since 1996 — which will soon turn Miami into America’s Atlantis. Then there are sink holes swallowing subdivisions into the state’s limestone maw. Florida is where Americans are most likely to be bitten by sharks and struck by lightning.
There are also trends that, while they may not immediately kill you, will completely alter the state’s identity, and could end life as we all know it. The reefs are being destroyed, the citrus is greening, and the swamp has been invaded by massive pythons, cat-eating lizards, and titanic rodents.
And that’s just nature. Pay attention to the “Florida Man” news stories long enough and you’ll wonder how anyone survives for more than a day in the state. It’s distressing enough to worry about natural furies beyond your control, but now you’ve also got to watch out for face-eating madmen and self-proclaimed demigods with dendrophilic tendencies. Even the act of dying seems particularly terrible in Florida, a state where corpses buried in the fertile soil can rise again on their own. (In that context, one suddenly understands the meaning behind that Patty Griffin song.)
All this considered, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Florida has been the setting for several works of pre-, post-, and regular apocalyptic fiction for more than 60 years. The state is a veritable Gashlycrumb nightmare, capable of ending your life in infinite ways, and so of course it serves as an energentic muse for writers interested in doomsday scenarios. What might surprise you, however, is that some of the most exciting works in the canon of “Floridapocalyptic” writing are not necessarily warnings about natural disasters and tropical storms. Rather, the four works below are more imaginative takes on the state’s doom, each offering a glimpse into yet another way that night could fall on the Sunshine State.
Spreading out from a lighthouse along a southern state’s “Forgotten Coast” there exists a forbidden zone. Here, under watch by several arms of the U.S. government, a mysterious mass slowly expands, forever altering everything that comes into contact with its creeping, invisible border. “It did not allow half measures,” notes one of the surveyors in Jeff VanderMeer’s outstanding Area X trilogy. “Once you touched it, it pulled you in (or across?).” Its sudden appearance is kept secret from ordinary citizens — even those residing in the surrounding towns of Hedley and Bleakersville — but to certain individuals with the right security clearance, this much is clear:
The night the border had come down, it had taken ships and planes and trucks with it, anything that happened to be on or approaching that imaginary but too-real line at the moment of its creation, and for many hours after, before anyone knew what was going on, knew enough to keep distant. Before the army moved in. The plaintive groan of metal and the vibration of engines that continued running as they disappeared…into something, somewhere. A smoldering, apocalyptic vision, the con towers of a destroyer, sent to investigate with the wrong intel, “sliding into nothing” as one observer put it.
Is it the work of aliens? Is it something man-made? Was it divined by occult worshippers meddling with supernatural forces beyond their control? Can it be stopped? Can its entrance be closed? The answers are more complex than their questions, and they defy summary, as David Tompkins noted in a piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books. Borrowing a term from Timothy Morton, Tompkins described Area X as a “hyperobject,” or “too complex, too massively distributed across space and time, for humans to get a grip on.”
The connection is inspired, as readers will come to discover, and it’s made all the more so when you assume the book’s setting — which is never explicitly stated — to be Florida. After all, clues are abundant: the swamps, the mossy coasts, “the way that the distant sky formed dark curtains of downpours,” the rumrunning lineage of the region’s earliest inhabitants, and the alluvial limestone foundation upon which towns have been built. The description of Chipper’s Star Lanes (Note: Possible spoilers), a dive bar frequented by one of the book’s characters, is the kind of place that could only exist in the Sunshine State.
Indeed, the connection works so well because Florida, more than any other state in the nation, has behaved throughout its history as an ecological hyperobject, confounding development and civil engineering experts who’ve mastered massive projects in other, tamer parts of the country. For the Army Corps of Engineers (those “supposed-to-be conquerors,” as Hurston called them), the state’s tremendous network of aquifers and waterways has been like a hellish game of Whack-a-Mole: they dam one region, they flood another; they irrigate one pasture, they poison a reservoir. On a tropical peninsula where the highest point is only 345 feet above sea-level, you get the sense that nothing man does here will matter in the long run because, sooner than later, the entire place will be consumed by the earth from whence it rose.
In this way, VanderMeer’s Area X makes the most sense. In this way, Florida is the most likely place for a world-ending hyperobject to unspool, and to voraciously devour the rest of us with it.
This is the way the world ends: both with a bang and a dachshund. Or at least that’s how it must’ve felt to Randy Bragg when his sleeping dog was suddenly shocked off of his lap by the sound of an explosion in the distant south, toward Miami. Fortunately for him and his housemates, Miami — which was just nuked by the Soviets — is hundreds of miles from Fort Repose, which rests in the state’s central dead space, mutually far from the U.S.S.R.’s next targets: Tampa, Orlando, and Jacksonville alike. Though he can’t know for sure in that moment, what Randy and his wiener dog have just endured was the first salvo in World War III: a coordinated, multi-national, nuclear assault on not only the biggest cities in America, but the biggest cities in Europe, as well.
This is the jumping off point in Alas, Babylon, Pat Frank’s Cold War classic about the fate of one Florida town spared from nuclear winter. From here, the novel concerns itself with how people cope with an obliterated society, and how modern society would fare if it were suddenly stripped of all of its technological accoutrements.
In this way, Randy Bragg’s Floridian locale was incredibly fortuitous. Down south, he and his housemates don’t need to worry about the onset of frigid winters, and the soil is cooperative enough to grow sustainable agriculture. The waterways are relatively pristine — or at least they were at the time of the book’s writing, in the 1950s — and they volunteer enough fish to feed entire families. While there are versions of Fort Repose all throughout the country, you get the sense that the Floridian survivors are faring much, much better than their counterparts in Fargo.
It seems almost paradoxical, then, that Frank chose to set his post-apocalyptic vision in a place that at the time was mostly known for its pristine, Eden-like qualities. Then again, stains are most evident on untarnished backdrops. Perhaps it was the post-war development of Florida, marked by a rapid influx of new residents — Frank goes out of his way to mention several Ohio transplants in his novel — that inspired him. This degradation is touched on briefly when Randy, just after the blast, ponders the changes he’s witnessed in a single generation:
In his father’s youth, this section of Florida had been a hunter’s paradise, with quail, dove, duck, and deer in plenty, and even black bear and rare panther. Now the quail were scattered and often scarce…Randy had not shot quail in twelve years. When visitors noticed his gunrack and asked about quail shooting, he always laughed and said, “Those guns are to shoot people who try to shoot my quail.”
Progressing forward several decades, Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro concerns itself with a Florida even farther removed from an apocalyptic, nuclear event. Here, along the southern Keys, bands of people have been living for years cut off not only from the rest of the nation, but even from mainland Florida. The state of the nation is unclear, but we know for certain that Miami is an irradiated ruin. Stories of contamination are legion, and only the elders recall life before the blast. The survivors’ culture is scarcely recognizable. America — or at least the America that still exists — is no longer a mostly Christian nation, but rather one that recognizes the gods Allah, Quetzalcoatl, and Bob Marley in addition to Jesus.
In certain respects, it’s possible to read the book as a sequel to Alas, Babylon, albeit one that’s philosophically opposite. Whereas Pat Frank’s characters retain their ’50s-era gung-ho, “we can do this” mentality, and they remain focused on weathering their storm and progressing with their projects, the environment in Fiskadoro is bleak, hopeless, and devastated. Characters abandon their tasks and lose focus. (One has a particularly awful encounter with drugged up pirates who mutilate their own genitals.) At no time do you get the sense that anything will improve for Denis Johnson’s characters, who exist on the edge of the world, subsisting on whatever flotsam and jetsam wash upon its shores.
To some degree, its possible that Alas, Babylon reads more optimistically because in the ’50s, it still felt like humanity could right its course, and like Florida could be saved. By the time Johnson got to Fiskadoro in 1985, however, that glimmer of hope had been lost, and it was apparent that the end of the world would truly be the end of the world, and that there would be no coming back in the way we’d once hoped possible.
Native Floridians feel about their home state the way moths do about flames. On some level, they’re aware of how bad it’ll be for them to return, how easy it’ll be to fall in with their old crowds, and how the kind of people drawn to the state’s tropical climate have a way of acting as lotus-eaters around one another, stretching time out to perverse, unproductive lengths. They know this, and yet they return anyway. Laura van den Berg, who grew up in Orlando, must understand this truth as well, because why else would she focus the second half of her novel Find Me on her protagonist’s escape from a Kansan hospital down south all the way to Key West? Yes, the character has her reasons, but buried beneath them, one suspects that it’s the author’s inborn desire to return home that’s driving the action more than anything else.
That’s not a detriment, either. Find Me, which features some of the most beautiful writing I’ve read in years, picks up in the wake of a public health pandemic, the likes of which haven’t been seen in America since the great flu outbreak of 1918. Across the country, people are becoming afflicted by a strange illness that erases their memories, and soon kills them. A band of survivors has been holed up in a hospital ward so that medical professionals — or so they call themselves — can examine them for congenital immunity. Joy Jones, an orphan who grew up in Boston, is the novel’s main character.
While residents of the hospital are shielded from the outside world by the hospital staff, who limit their exposure to the Internet and television, Joy nevertheless discovers a secret about her early life. After escaping from the hospital, she can think of nowhere else to head than to the nation’s southernmost point: Key West, home to the person she’s most trying to find.
In a recent episode of The Book Report, Michael Schaub asks Janet Potter about why readers are so interested in post-apocalyptic fiction, and Potter says, “Some people say that it’s a way to process our cynicism as a society, that we are actively killing the world around us, and ruining our own bodies with the amount of toxins we’re constantly taking in, so we’re kind of speculating, like, if we are destroying our world, what will happen to us? Will we be OK?”
Maybe in Florida — in spite of everything else — we might be.