It's pub day for my latest piece of silly/rage-fueled science fiction, "The Four Sharks of the Apocalypse." Have I ever been this excited about a publication? Possibly not. After all, for many years, my author bio has identified me as a "shark enthusist." It's high time I lived up to that title and honored my favorite ocean dinosaurs with a story all their own.
Plus, the story is accompanied by this incredible illustration, which is also coincidentally what my soul looks like:
"The Four Sharks of the Apocalypse" appears in the August issue of Zooscape, an online magazine of fantastic furry fiction founded and edited by Mary E. Lowd. Big thanks to Mary for including my story in Issue 18! If you like speculative fiction with animal characters, be sure to check out the full issue. In Mary's words: "Visit the nightmares and apocalypses in these stories, and come out the other side stronger for having faced humanity’s collective fears… and possibly even made friends with them."
"The Four Sharks of the Apocalypse: Story Behind the Story"
I'd been wanting to write some kind of shark story for a long time. Motivation arrived last year in the form of a themed call from Reckoning, an online magazine of creative writing that centers environmental justice. In 2023, Reckoning would be releasing an Oceans issue—perfect! Browsing some of the back issues, I came across the haunting piece "Dead Horse Club" by Jude Wetherell, which details the spooky shenanigans of four resurrected horses on New York's Barren Island. I loved that the story was broken into four sections, creating a collage-like rather than linear structure. Wetherell's four horses also got me thinking about the biblical story the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. After reading the verses from the Book of Revelation and learning more about what the different horsemen are thought to represent, I had my container: A story broken into four parts, each featuring a different shark-overlord and the disaster it delivers humankind.
Selecting the shark species that would stand in for the horsemen was the hardest part. I worried about hurting the feelings of the sharks I had to exclude, but alas: Life is full of excruciating decisions, and in the end, there could only be four. The White Horseman, who represents conquest, is evoked through Bull Shark, a notoriously aggressive species and one of the few sharks that's actually dangerous to humans. (Fun fact! The 1916 shark attacks that inspired Peter Benchley to write Jaws were likely committed by a bull shark, not a great white). The Red Horseman, bringer of civil war, is evoked through Goblin Shark, a totally amazing, totally weird-looking deep-sea shark who would, I imagine, have built up a lot of resentment toward its perscutors over the years. The Third Horseman brings famine; who better to own that disaster than Tiger Shark, a species renowned for eating just about anything? The final horseman is unusual in that it has a name ("Death") and bears no weapon. I decided to imagine it as a kind of leader of the other three—a Doomsday Supervisor, if you will—and for that honor, I cast Greenland Shark, a slow-moving, cold-water species and the longest-living vertebrate on the planet. It just seems like it'd be jaded and wise, doesn't it?
Symbolism is usually an element of craft that occurs on the back end of a story: After it's been written, after trusted readers have told me what resonated with them the most, then I can go back in and start to tease out, oh so gently, the scattered little hints lying dormant in the story's quiet moments. It was freeing to write a piece where the symbols were instead front-loaded and deliberately heavy-handed. The sharks represent the horsemen; the horsemen represent their respective dooms.
But why sharks? a reasonable reader might be asking. Why not, you know, "The Four Cats of the Apocalypse," or "The Four Squirrels," or "The Four Squids." Could this story work just as well if a different species was cast as the horsemen? For me, not a chance. It had to be sharks—and not just because I'm a self-professed enthusiast. Sharks loom large in our imaginations. They are the ocean's ultimate monsters. And yet their monstrousness coexists with their fragility, of which more and more people are becoming aware. The fact is, sharks have a lot to be angry with us about. Their populations are collapsing. We've cast them as villains, but the irony is that we're the villains, and fully deserving of whatever vengeance the sharks think to throw at us. If Bull Shark ever rises out of the ocean with a crown of barnacles on its head, I'll be the first to bow down.
Interested in supporting shark conservation? Make a gift to the American Shark Conservancy today!
Reckoning rejected my story for their oceans theme issue, so I dusted it off and sent it to Zooscape. Long live writerly resilience.