Cataclysm Baby, a short story collection by Matt Bell, explores fatherhood under the guise of a book of baby names. The innocent abecedary form belies the book’s dark contents. I don’t think it would be inappropriate to place the collection in the horror genre—if only to align it with my own desires and my love affair with horror movies—the book contains enough blood, guts, and magic to earn its place there.
The stories are set in a world twisted by the end of days, a skewed world filled with darkness, terror, and danger. Instead of focusing on the cataclysm of the world, the book turns our attention to stories narrated by 26 different fathers struggling to raise children and create families against the backdrop of a doomed planet and amidst environmental chaos. The setting gives way to imperfect fathers and kids that are born inhuman, some physically—sons born covered in fur, daughters that resemble sirens—some otherwise. The combination unglues the modern sense of parental love and authority and shows that there really is no set paradigm to raising a family.
The book is molded by Matt Bell’s writing, which is at once sad, beautiful, darkly funny, and refreshing. Bell is so steady and deliberate in the physicality of his prose that I found myself rereading passages aloud multiple times to feel the weight of each word. There is purpose and intent behind the brittle fur, the bones poking through skin, the thick clots of blood and flesh, the tears staining parents’ faces. His deeply unsettling characters feel real and sympathetic. The setting, despite its supernatural tendencies, feels wholly natural.
Parenthood is in the foreground of the blood, the dirt-borne daughters, the flesh-hungry children. The book asks questions that feel oddly universal: How do you survive and take care of your children when the world is undergoing such rapid change and chaos? How do you maintain traditional familial roles when the children you see as flawed are merely an evolving present tense, a natural part of a future that you can’t stop? What makes a “good father”?
I’ve been asking myself similar questions about fatherhood, not because I plan to be a father soon but because of how I see my father now. I see the age, the wrinkles, the years in which he would never know me, and his attempts to know me now when it feels too late. Our relationship is complicated at best. His time away from home when I was young and his rigid Korean traditions that, at times, border on xenophobia have kept him at a constant distance. Even in my adulthood, I have this inherent feeling that I will never quite match up to his expectations, and I ask myself why I need to match up to those expectations in the first place.
I remember in kindergarten, my school had a celebration for Father’s Day. You bring your father to school—when really he’s the one bringing you—and they have a big party with food and activities. They did the same for mothers on Mother’s Day. I remember a picture of my mother and me painting a spin art piece. A sheet of stiff cardstock spinning like a record. My mother and I squeezing bits of paint onto it. I wanted so many colors until they all mixed into a muddy brown with orange and red streaks. My father and I never made it, but I remember the intention, the want for it.
We showered together that day. I think I said something or did something or was a bad son, enough to annoy him. “If you don’t want to go, we don’t have to go,” he says in the shower. He turns off the water. He dries off. He leaves the bathroom and turns off the light. I sit in the tub, cold. I think I’m crying, but I can’t tell with the water still on me, dripping from my hair. I know when I step out that I will have to confront…something, that something bad will happen, so I stay in the tub. I think I sit there for half an hour, naked and shaking. I remember the crack on the hinged side of the door closest to me, the white light streaming in on the other. I don’t remember what happens next. I don’t know what my father says. I know he doesn’t come back for me. I know there are no pictures or spin art. I stand and tremble and dry off.
My favorite story in Cataclysm Baby is “Justina, Justine, Justise.” A man is put to trial for his adulterous crimes by his three blind daughters. They amputate his thumb, then his hand. He seeks consolation from the one daughter who defended him. “She meets my apologies with a slap, squirms free. She says, Don’t think I’m still daddy’s little girl. She says, I only defended you because no one else would. She says, In justice, we are divided, but in punishment, we are one.”
I understand their judgment, not from the perspective of the unfaithful father, but as one of the daughters, as the persecutor, the judge, the jury. I think about kindergarten and the years that followed when my father was a distant, intimidating figure, but I sympathize with the father in the story—in all the stories, really—and the pain he endures. I know the looks I give my father, the silent criticisms, the hurt he feels, and the life he missed in order to support his family. As I write this, I realize that I’m not as angry at my father as I’d thought. I am disappointed and scared of the person I’ve become and the good son I never truly was, and I am sad for the father I never truly knew. I don’t know if we will have a happy end, but Cataclysm Baby gives me hope that, even in the midst of apocalypse, there is still time to forgive, embrace, and build up from the dirt.
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