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Matheson, Richard – “The Last Day” (1953)

06/18/2013

An asteroid impact also goes to show that modernity is a fragile thing. The most aggressively “adult” story so far, opening on the morning of the titular day, after a night of orgiastic hedonism. We’re told that there were women involved, but none of them contribute anything to the conversation the following morning, apparently. Said conversation revolves around the usual end-of-the-world fatalism – a guy who committed suicide in the bathroom was the smart/lucky one, the main character notices his watch has stopped and doesn’t care what time or even what day of the week it is, and, because it’s breakfast time, someone notes “No more eggs. No more chickens. No more anything.”

Breakfast and conversation finished, the story turns into a quest narrative with the main character going to visit his family, despite the fact that he does not want to spend the last day listening to his mother talk about religion. Outside the apartment things are kind of cartoonishly chaotic – the asteroid has rendered the sky red, “like molten slag,” and has blotted out the sun, moon, and stars. As above, so below, and Matheson throws plenty of awful images at us: drunks passed out in their own vomit, beaten-to-death dogs, knife-wielding teenage gangs, people “running around wildly, as if they were searching for something. Others were fighting. Strewn all over the sidewalks were people who had leaped from windows and been struck down by speeding cars. Buildings were on fire, windows shattered from the explosions of unlit gas jets.

Once Richard reaches his family, though, all of that recedes into the background, aside from their actually rather affecting discussion about whether to wait out the end or avoid it via sleeping pills. By the end, only Richard and his mother are left, and it turns out she isn’t interesting in preaching at him at all, since she knows that they will be together again even if he doesn’t believe. Her attitude toward the end (“God closes a bright curtain on our play”) is vastly different from his (“The pride, the vanity of man’s world incinerated by a freak of astronomical disorder”), just as the end of the story (“They sat there in the evening of the last day. And, though there was no actual point to it, they loved each other”) is vastly different from the shenanigans at the beginning. The takeaway here is that love (faith?) can survive apocalypses that rationality/modernity cannot, I suppose.

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