Halloween Special: Watching the World End with Peter Darbyshire
The title of Peter Darbyshire's Has the World Ended Yet? (Wolsak & Wynn) isn't false advertising - the stories, which contain all the wit, weirdness, and insight Darbyshire is known for, really do deal with the end of days, complete with angels dropping from the sky.
The linked stories feature superheroes, zombies, ghosts, and many equally strange human counterparts in Twilight Zone-esque tales. Even in the midst of deeply bizarre situations, Darbyshire's characters are vibrantly real and achingly relatable, as he creates the most human of moments even as humanity faces its possible end.
We're celebrating Halloween today by talking with Peter about his spectacularly spooky, brilliant stories. He tells us about writing the end of the world accidentally, how the book is like a broken mirror, and how a group of retired superheroes made their way into the collection.
What drew you to imagine what the end of the world could look like? Was anxiety about the state of the world a factor in your writing at all?
Well, if I were truly paying attention to the state of the world, I would likely be barricading myself in an abandoned missile silo turned survivalist man cave rather than writing books. But at least the smart ones who are Ubering their way out to the silos will have something to read once the ruins become safe to explore again!
To be honest, I wrote a collection about the end of the world rather accidentally — which is fitting because I think if the world does end, it will likely be because of some ridiculous accident. I was just writing stories here and there in between books to get ideas out. As it happened, everything I was writing was basically apocalyptic. Blame the zeitgeist, I guess.
Some stories came from curiosity — what would happen if the angels came back but didn’t do anything? Others came from a quiet sort of desperation — would the world just end already and put us all out of our misery. Then there were a few fun ideas I had, like “The Calling of Cthulhu,” which features a rather unusual job placement agency for all the older gods who need new careers now.
I probably could have called it Has the World Ended Yet for Me? They’re mostly very personal stories. There’s a quote from William Gibson: “The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed.” I think you could say the same thing about the end of the world — look at the recent hurricane damage in Puerto Rico or wars in the Middle East or latest mass shooting or whatever. The end of the world is always happening somewhere but the apocalypse is not evenly distributed.
Did you know you were setting out to write linked stories when you began? How did you deal with the connections between different pieces during the writing process – did you map things out specifically or did the links emerge organically?
I realized early on that the stories I was writing were all kind of apocalyptic but in very different ways. I came up with a few ideas to link them but they all felt kind of forced, so I let them go. The book now has a chaotic, crazed feel to it — “Wait, how does this demon investigator story go with the retired superheroes battling angels?” But I really like the way that the structure of the book reflects its subject matter. We’re all mad here, right?
So the stories are both linked and not linked. The book is like a broken mirror. That said, there are a few easter eggs in the book where stories speak to each other, if people are willing to look for them.
You have an incredible cast of characters, but the retired superheroes are especially memorable. Where did the idea of superheroes in retirement come from for you? What made you want to depict them?
I’m spending time in care homes because of family, so of course that gets you thinking about your own mortality and what you’ll do with yourself once your career is over — voluntarily or not. I’m a parent right now, so I’m important to my kids if no one else by default — even though I don’t have any training or meet any of the requirements. But what will happen when no one relies on me and I no longer matter to the world at all? Maybe I’ll finally get to catch up on Netflix….
I originally wrote the story “Has the World Ended Yet?” with everyday people instead of superheroes. I changed them to superheroes when I was thinking about making the book a collection of superhero-themed stories. That ended up feeling too gimmicky to me, so I abandoned it. But I really liked the idea of retired superheroes, so I kept that story as it was. I mean, are you going to argue with angry supers about who they are?
Your previous book, The Warhol Gang, was described as "a warning" in one review. What would you hope readers would take from Has the World Ended Yet? Is there an element of a warning here as well?
I saw The Warhol Gang as the headlines of tomorrow. It was both reflecting some of our society and culture and trying to guess where these things might lead. I think some of the scenarios in the book turned out to be pretty accurate, for better or worse: the rampaging office co-worker drill, the rise of viral videos as a new communication medium, the Gun World theme park — even neuromarketing is a thing now. But all those existed before I wrote about them. Was it a warning? I don’t know. It was more like “The world’s gotten rather strange and out of control, hasn’t it? But what can we do?”
These days I think of The Warhol Gang as an alternate history. I predicted a lot of things that ended up more or less happening. But there’s no way I could have ever predicted the Trump presidency or all the other strange things that have taken place lately. My editor would have made me take them out as unbelievable anyway.
I don’t think there’s any warning element to Has the World Ended Yet?, although that’s probably a question for the reader than the writer. I see the stories more as an emotional reflection of our times. To return to the retired superheroes: remember when we could do anything, when we had an impact on the world? Yeah, those days are done now, and the end isn’t what we thought it would be.
The last story I wrote for the book was “Casual Miracles,” about a guy who can do miracles but only minor ones that don’t really change anything — he can switch people’s locks and part traffic and that sort of thing. He advertises his services on Craigslist. To me, this kind of summed up the emotional heart of the book: we all have our own gifts and powers, but what kind of difference can we really make in this world? Or maybe how can we really make a difference in this world. Because we keep trying even though it seems pointless, don’t we?
What is your reading life like while working on a long project like this? Do you avoid or seek out anything in particular, and what were you reading while working on Has The World Ended Yet?
I haven’t been reading many books lately because I’ve been too busy parenting a couple of young boys. Which maybe explains why I’m writing stories about the end of the world. Nothing like being a parent to make you feel like your life is over.
I’ve been kind of immersing myself in Twitter and other social media, just soaking up whatever weird cultural shrapnel gets thrown at me. So on a typical commute I’ll read something on Atlas Obscura about the Paris catacombs, a Washington Post article about the madness of the White House, a NASA press release about Saturn’s moons, a Discover article about stem cells, a Medieval Death Bot tweet about clerks running wild, a quote from Marcus Aurelius about how to cope with life, and so on. Maybe it all comes together in my writing somehow. Maybe. At the very least, it’s confusing the advertising bots trying to create a marketing profile of me.
What will you be working on next?
You mean the world’s not going to end? Damn it.
I guess I’ll have to write some more books. I’ll probably tackle the next book in my Cross series of supernatural thrillers, written under the pen name Peter Roman. The series stars Cross, the undying soul who wakes up in Christ’s body after Christ goes wherever he went after the Crucifixion. The last one, The Apocalypse Ark, followed Cross in his attempts to stop Noah from ending the world and the next novel will dive into the aftermath. Hmm, I’m sensing a recurring theme to my writing…
Peter Darbyshire’s work has appeared in publications across North America. His novel Please won the KM Hunter Artist Award for Literature and the ReLit Award for Best Novel, and was featured on CTV. His novel The Warhol Gang received rave reviews across Canada and generally disturbed people. He also publishes a series of spec-fic novels under the alias Peter Roman. Darbyshire lives in a safehouse outside Vancouver.