Daisy-chain earthquakes, mega-tsunamis, nuclear blasts, fast-style zombies: These are the troubling pictures moving on the walls of Sam Sheridan's brain at night. He's obsessed with the end of the world as we know it-or TEOTWAWKI, as certain advance-planning citizens, generally referred to as survivalists, know it. Sheridan ventured deep into the TEOTWAWKI demimonde in the course of researching his new book, The Disaster Diaries: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Apocalypse, an attempt to channel into a more utilitarian vein his anxieties about his and his family's chances of survival in a "bug-out situation."
Sheridan gives us a crash course in apocalypse prep. Picking up "primitive living" skills from the star of a survivalist reality-TV show and a guy who trains U.S. military SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) instructors, he goes on to study the ins and outs of eskrima knife fighting; the stunt driver's reverse 180; and, with an elderly Inuit man in Puvirnituq, Quebec, the key precepts to wrangling a pack of sled dogs in case of precipitous Day After Tomorrow–style ice age. As for the nightmare fantasies, Sheridan incorporates them into a parallel narrative, bookending each chapter with installments in a fictional survival saga starring himself, his wife, and his toddler son, with walk-ons by zombies, urban militias, and tire iron–wielding cannibals.
Taking into account how some of this might sound to those of his readers who don't spend their days chatting with the like-minded, Sheridan proceeds with relative caution, adopting a darkly humorous tone and aiming to keep the paranoia tamped down to a few contained embers, but equally determined to come out the other side with the skills to shepherd his family through a "grid-down" global catastrophe of unknown shape and duration.
Because it's all well and good to sit on your couch Monday-morning quarterbacking the decisions of a band of twentysomethings battling power-hogging aliens in a post-invasion Moscow (The Darkest Hour), or a desperate crew of Arctic researchers tasked with containing a virulent prehistoric parasite resuscitated by polar-ice-cap melt (The Thaw). Sheridan asks, would you do any better? "No," most readers, after a methodical personal inventory, should probably admit-especially if they've taken to heart Chapter 2's discussion of how in stressful situations we tend to lose functionality, including fine motor skills such as the ability to dial 911.
Sheridan, on the other hand, has a fighting chance, and not just because he's the author of two previous books titled A Fighter's Heart: One Man's Journey Through the World of Fighting and The Fighter's Mind: Inside the Mental Game. His participation in amateur muay thai and MMA competitions around the world, as well as his professional experience as a wilderness firefighter, an EMT, a cowboy, a construction worker at the South Pole, and a Merchant Marine, could certainly work in his favor. But Sheridan recognizes that to prepare for pure subsistence under the most extreme conditions, you need an even more eclectic résumé, and so he diligently sets about collecting the tools to turn himself into the Renaissance man (or rather, caveman) of the post-apocalypse.
Speaking of men, that is clearly the audience Sheridan has in mind for Disaster Diaries — men and the portion of the female populace that doesn't mind a rather unreconstructed vision of the family circle and who will be in charge of salvation come TEOTWAWKI time. During the life epiphany in the Peruvian Amazon that kick-starts his journey toward apocalypse-readiness, the one-a-day inspirational messages that flash through his head are as follows: "Women and children can afford to be careless, but not men" (The Godfather) and "Being a man is, precisely, being responsible" (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry). That, Sheridan summarizes, is "the secret philosophy of real manhood — a man takes responsibility for everything that happens."
He does occasionally venture out of his man-cave of gender essentialism to acknowledge a more contemporary division of labor, though, as in the chapter "Get the Hell out of Dodge," which covers the topics of situational awareness and "dent pulling" a getaway vehicle. Having met the challenge of stabilizing a neighbor's vitals after a gunshot wound (Chapter 6, "I'm Not a Doctor [But I Play One During the Apocalypse]"), and faced with dwindling resources, fictional Sheridan proceeds to lead his wife and child through a cityscape whose attractions include marauding gangs of sociopathic looters and a squadron of arachnoid alien invaders. However, conceding the benefit of teamwork (Chapter 11, "The Ultimate Aboriginal"), he has them divvy up point and slack positions and goes so far as to acknowledge his wife's superior shooting abilities.
Sheridan also has a habit of drawing a line in the sand to demarcate the zones of readiness and paranoia, then proceeding directly into the latter territory, where the residents have a reputation for stockpiling militia-style arsenals and shooting trespassers on sight. Still, he makes some effort not to overfeed the fantasy, pulling us back from the brink of assuming that our neighbor is siphoning water from our emergency tank to direct our attention to more immediate tasks like making fire with a bow drill, making traps out of sticks and stones, and making clothing out of hides tanned with brain oils-or at the very least, putting together a well-provisioned go bag.
Immersing yourself in Disaster Diaries does mean giving serious consideration to Sheridan et al.'s premises: that global catastrophe will likely lead to societal breakdown, that human nature will inspire some truly ugly behavior (though Sheridan backpedals on this toward the end of the book), and that most of us are drastically underprepared to cope with the basics of survival. "The supermarket is an illusion," says Cody Lundin, the reality-TV star, as he and his acolytes hunker down in the Arizona desert. Assessing "the majority of people composing our modern civilization" in his book When All Hell Breaks Loose, Lundin writes, "Pull the plug or turn out the lights and all hell breaks loose in their world, for they have no backup plan, nor do the majority care, or even consider the need to have a plan."
And that might sound familiar. Particularly if, while Sheridan is off shooting elk in the alpine meadows of Colorado or roasting rats over a fire he made with stone and paracord, you're the kind of person for whom the phrase "fending for yourself" tends to evoke images of Chinese takeout menus. Lounging around reading Disaster Diaries won't exactly help you bridge the gap, assuming that's a goal. In fact, it might be just enough of a primer to get the scary pictures moving on the walls of your own brain at night. But Sheridan advises not getting stuck in the pointless-contemplation phase.
Hollywood has provided the sketches for most of pop culture's grid-down scenarios, which play on our anxieties without taking away our appetite for Milk Duds, usually providing us with the narrative relief of a last-minute reprieve from total TEOTWAWKI. Here, there's no reprieve, and Sheridan recommends we get over it: "You and me, we're going to make it, at least those first twenty-four hours after the wave hits, the bomb drops, or those corpses start clawing their way out of the dirt," he cheerfully foretells in the Disaster Diaries version of positive thinking. And, he adds, "If you are one of the lucky 1 percent who survive the pandemic, it will be a damn shame if you die because you don't know how to start a fire."
It's a compelling thought, even if you've never had that dream where it's the apocalypse and you find yourself running through rubble-filled streets with no shoes on. Even if the locus of your anxieties isn't brain-eating post-humans, or flesh-eating bacteria, or even not having enough to eat in the wake of a global catastrophe, maybe it would still be good to know a few things-like how to turn off the gas in your apartment building after an earthquake, or how to conduct yourself when lost in nature with a dislocated shoulder. Plus, if you start doomsday-prepping now, maybe Sheridan will consider sharing some elk meat with you when shit hits the fan, and in the meantime, it might keep some nightmares at bay.
Photo of Sam Sheridan kissing a snake via.