Bar None by Tim Lebbon (Night Shade Press, 2009) is a dark post-apocalyptic fantasy with a creepy numinous beauty and really good beer. End of the world, everybody, last orders if you please.
As if Nature was finally fed up with those meddlesome bald apes, a plague of plagues sweeps across the globe. Ebola, Marburg, Bird Flu, Swine Flu, Panda Flu, Siberian Tarantella, and Restless Spine Syndrome*; a simultaneous outbreak of every deadly disease wipes out nearly every human being in a matter of weeks. Five survivors, strangers to each other, have found shelter in a stately manor home just outside a Welsh city. They gather all the food they can and avail themselves to the Manor's extensive cellar of fine wines and ales. It's a wake for the whole world as they toast the past, try to make sense of their continued existence, and figure out what the hell to do next. All the while the five keep a certain distance from each other and avoid looking to the horizon where dark and uncanny shapes flap and circle in the beautiful blue new sky of an emptied world.
Six blurry months later the sound of a motorcycle tears through the silence. Astride it is a Mysterious Stranger who asks to be called Michael. With trepidation, the five welcome him to the manor and share with him a meal from their sumptuous if dwindling larder. That midnight Michael visits each of them individually, warning that things are just going to get worse. He urges that they trek down south to Cornwall and seek refuge with other survivors at a place called Bar None, the last pub on Earth. By dawn's break the enigmatic weirdo is gone and the five reluctantly agree to seek this possible sanctuary. After all, it's not like they have any better plans and besides, they are running out of booze.
Packing up all their supplies in two Range Rovers and Michael's abandoned bike they set off across a twisted landscape in search of...well, anything other than what they had. The Blighty they travel through is more unsettling than they ever imagined. Nature has been reclaiming its own as well, but not like they thought. Wolves, bears, and eagles seem to have returned to the Sceptered Isle. Trees are sprouting everywhere with an accelerated growth and in unrecognizable forms. There are other survivors, of a sort, as well. Here Lebbon plays with with certain tropes of the End of the World as We Know It. There's the Steely-Eyed Survivalists, Mohawked Cannibal Hordes, and of course those lovable Mutants – but all with a just enough of a twist. Of all post-apocalyptic fare, Bar None really reminded me of J.G. Ballard, especially works like The Drowned World or The Crystal World. The world is changing into something fierce and wonderful and it no longer has any room for folks like you or me.
All of this is told from the viewpoint of one of the five from the Manor, whose name we never know. His narrative is regularly interspersed with memories of his beloved wife Ashley, lost to the plagues. These scenes are entwined with reminisces of his other love, fine British ales like Greene King Abbot Ale, Marston's Old Empire, or Redruth Cornish Rebellion. Here, try a sip of this:
Theakston's Old Peculier, deep and dark and heavy, a smooth roasty beer with a hint of chocolate and an unmistakable vinous aftertaste, a complex beer, rich and powerful and as familiar to my tongue as the taste of Ashley's skin, the hint of her breath, the the tang of sweat on her neck as we made love.
A heady brew indeed. After one of these waxy rhapsodies our narrator rails against poncey wine aficionados and their overblown language. I guffawed at this Pot/Kettle hypocrisy but then had to stop in mid eye-roll. I am a whiskey lover. Although I consider myself egalitarian in my choice of rotgut , I must admit to snorting derisively when someone orders Jack Daniels. and have also known to utter nonsense like, "clear notes of maple and vanilla with a broad yet subtle fiery finish". Who am I to put down another's geekery, especially when lovingly crafted in prose. It is quite touching the way Lebbon weaves together all the senses into precious memorials of days and worlds gone forever.
Bar None is a very short novel, perfect for a lazy summer weekend with a "few" pints. As always, Lebbon's writing is lyrical, introspective and quite literary. The pacing is a bit languid, more Riddley Walker or The Quiet Earth than Mad Max. Don't fret, there is just enough action and some truly freaky horror to pique the interest of any genre lover, this ain't The Road by a long stretch. The premise is quirky and bizarre, but Lebbon never plays for cheap laughs. In the end this is a deeply sentimental and intimate look at memory, loss, and those perfect days barbecuing and tossing a few back with good friends. And flesh-eating monsters.
*Okay, I made those last three diseases up.
Commenter Grey_Area is known to the last drunks on Earth as Chris Hsiang. He enjoys a nice rye, neat with a water back.