Apocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human
Previously published in Dawn’s Books & Authors.
What do you get when you take a teen gang, let them pedal smut in the school ground, throw in a supernatural bounty hunter called Ronin, some errant sprites, a mob of spider-controlled zombies, Molotov cocktails, a murder of Giant Crows, a ‘township tick’ that secures illegal electricity for the cost of a sacrificial goat, a powerful, ancient mixed bloodline, a part boy-part springbok creature, ancient Mantis gods & tentacles from the deep? You get South African writer Charlie Human’s debut novel, Apocalypse Now Now.
The South African writer Human is not to be confused with Pacific Rim actor Charlie Hunman, no matter what the first few hits on Google may insist (though Human has hilariously dealt with a great many tweets sent to him mistaking him for the man who will play the lead in the 50 Shades movie), has said he used Cape Town’s tabloids to incite ideas for Apocalypse Now Now. the phrase ‘Now now’ being a South Africanism ‘relating to the amount of time to elapse before an event occurs’. In this case, the apocalypse is not happening presently, but may, soon, and in Human’s story, it has to do with a young man in high school - always a great setting for a hellmouth, of course.
Baxter is the head of The Spider, a teen gang consisting of a glue-sniffing Ty, ‘the Inhalant Kid’, Kyle the ‘freakishly clever kid’ and Zikhona, ‘a mountain of Xhosa sturdiness in the gold bomber jacket’. The gang, which ‘evolved from the primordial pit of the Sprawl’, consider themselves the ‘Cinema Nouveau of the porn world’, when they sell old school and off the beaten track pornography to other teens. Baxter thinks they have a good system in place, their only threat being exposure caused by potential gang violence. But one day a student turns up dead, her throat cut and an eye carved into her forehead and soon after that Baxter’s girlfriend Esme disappears, leaving him no choice but to give up his role as the ‘most powerful piece on the board’ and depend on others to solve mysteries he can barely begin to understand.
The others Baxter has to depend on are at times very, very ‘other’. ‘Herbalist and Supernatural Bounty Hunter’ Jackson Ronin, who seems to have ‘grown organically from within’ his apartment, ‘like fungus, a human-sized version of something you’d fund growing under the sink’, is Baxter’s best bet at locating Esme from a potentially gruesome and possibly supernatural murder. At Ronin’s side, Baxter is thrown headfirst into the seedy, volatile and utterly perverse underworld of Cape Town, where he soon realises that nothing is ever just an urban legend.
African folklore is rich, dark and deep - an entire continent thick with myths and legends were available to Human to create this urban fantasy, and he has very deftly used a great many of those folk tales. Whether it’s the legend of Anansi, the West African trickster spider god, or the Central African ghost Obambo, or the Zulu myth of the Tokoloshe, Human deftly ties together a vast collective in a story that moves energetically, with constant action and some really well laid out reveals. There is plenty of violence, many mad twists, insane larger than life characters, magic and mayhem galore. Apocalypse Now Now doesn’t start off as strongly as it potentially could, but it’s a small price to pay for the hurtling speed and action that it presents in its the second and third parts.
There’s also the very strong, intriguing case of Baxter being an unreliable narrator, which adds to the tension in the book. We know right from the start that Baxter has psychological problems. In fact, the very first thing we are told is that Baxter is delusional, that there is ‘no dark, primordial creature. There is no weapons chemist, no bounty hunter and no girlfriend to rescue’. There is just Baxter, who is unwell and a victim of his own ‘counterproductive delusions’. As the story progresses, it often seems as if Baxter is schizophrenic - he hears very distinct voices in his head, each rationally arguing it’s stance, almost as if he is two very separate people trying to come to terms with one another. How much of what Baxter is telling us is true? How much of it his story is wish-fulfillment fantasy narrative created by the mind of a disturbed, depressed young man? ‘There are questions that run through your mind when you find out that you’re a serial killer’, is the first thing Baxter says to us. Admitting that he’s killed many people, but people who ‘looked more like monsters’ to him.
Regardless of Baxter’s own reliability, Apocalypse Now Now is a fun, manic ride into the underworld of a city with it’s own very unique burdens to bear, be they legend or fact. Charlie Human takes the raw, vibrant and complicated energy of Cape Town and weaves it into an engaging, strange and highly entertaining first novel that is just as funny and smart as it is dark and striking, with ‘no pause button’ at all.