Reviewed by Jess Landry
As the old saying goes, there are only two certainties in life – death and taxes. Although a compilation of tax-themed stories would be quite horrific, author John F.D. Taff chose to create his solo collection, The End in All Beginnings, about death and the human condition.
The anthology begins with What Becomes God, a tragedy about a young boy and the sacrifice he makes in an attempt to save his ailing friend. Childhood innocence is the driving force here, allowing the reader to empathize with the protagonist and the choices he makes, no matter how disturbing they may be. The story does take a few pages to get going and starts with a more sullen tone, but once the horror hits, it hits hard and doesn’t let go.
The second novella is Object Permanence, a story that centers on a select few who have the ability to manipulate time and those around them, ultimately cheating death for themselves while subjecting others to the consequences. The story shifts effortlessly from first person to third person point-of-view, showcasing Taff’s abilities as a writer and conjurer of compelling ideas.
Love in the Time of Zombies, the third in the collection, gives the reader a rest from the serious tones of the first two novellas and brings out a comedic air to lighten the mood. The title gives away the plot as the zombie apocalypse has swept the Earth and, amid the chaos, our hero finds himself falling for a girl he once knew. Thing is, the girl is now apart of the undead. While that may not appeal to the average person, it doesn’t stop our hero and his undeniable affections.
The highlight of the collection is the fourth story, The Long, Long Breakdown. It’s a post-apocalyptic tale that examines a father’s love and overbearing protectiveness for his daughter in a world ravaged by rising waters. The Long, Long Breakdown touches upon horror in a different way than the other stories do, taking a realistic approach to death and loss. The characters face threats of change, of venturing out into the unknown, but ultimately prove that life can flourish even in a constant state of fear.
The final novella, Visitation, pushes past horror and delves into the world of science fiction. A galaxy-wide lottery is held where the lucky winners receive a two weeks’ stay on Visitation, a haunted planet that is said to attract the souls of the deceased. Once there, the lotto winners are divided off into their own lake-side cabin where they wait for a sign from their loved ones. One man ventures to the planet to reconnect with his wife, but as he catches fleeting glimpses of her, he starts to believe something sinister is afoot. Taff’s take on the afterlife raises a great question of morality: if we had the chance to see our dearly departed one last time, would we take it?
Visitation is a fitting finale for our journey through death, a journey that starts as children in What Becomes God, takes us into adulthood with Object Permanence, then into the role of a parent in The Long, Long Breakdown and ends with the afterlife, placing a sci-fi spin on a good, old fashioned ghost story. Taff acknowledges the coming-of-age motif in his author’s notes section at the end of the book; a section that proves to be quite informative, offering insight to the origins and influences of each story.
Taff has penned an overall entertaining bag of tricks. The End in All Beginnings focuses more so on the human element of death. He examines the human condition, how our emotions influence our decisions when faced with life-changing choices, and how our choices may not always work in our favor. From making sacrifices to save the ones we love to having the ability to postpone the inevitable, Taff reminds us that although death is inevitable, meeting the reaper face-to-face may not always mean the end.