The children in Matt Bell’s Cataclysm Baby are disgusting. They are disfigured, hairy, segmented. They break apart when they exit the womb. They are the harbingers of the apocalypse. The 26 stories in here culminate in a bleak, frightening vision of what happens when the parental structure falls apart.
But for as how post-apocalyptic Bell’s vision is, Cataclysm Baby is about the past. The 26 fathers are to blame, this bleak world they inhabit is the one they’ve built–they are cowards, they abandon. They murder: in “Xarles, Xavier, Xenos,” the father gives his son a 50-yard start before “I will shoot just once”. There is not a sympathetic character in this lot.
Ever since Ray Bradbury’s The Small Assassin scared the hell out of me, I’ve been a sucker for evil children in movies and literature, which is why I was originally attracted to Cataclysm Baby. I think parental and pregnancy-anxiety horror (and Bell does quite a bit of the latter here) is so effective because combines all these repulsion (body horror, slasher) /attraction (parenting instincts) elements. These contradictions are deeply unsettling, hard to comprehend and, I think, keep the genre taboo while we become desensitized to other horror.
But what I think sets Cataclysm Baby apart from most others I’ve seen/read, is that it indicts masculinity. Most evil children in movies and literature are products of Satan (The Omen), science (It’s Alive), ghosts/sexualization (Turn of the Screw), or general neglect (Ian McEwan’s early stuff) to give some examples. Cronenberg (The Brood) is the first example that comes to mind when talking about an active maternal influence on evil children, but for the most part, transient forces are to blame.
Bell’s work seems to be a reaction to this notion, and in fact, all notions of the father-role in evil children art: Because of a father’s transience/inaction, the child is awful and deformed. The fathers in Cataclysm Baby can’t blame Satan or science for the end of the world; their past (in)actions have given rise to 26 little apocalypses.
Anyway, great book. Read it.