In my last post of 2018, The Best of the Best of the Best Horror of the Year, I cited Stephanie Crawford and Duane Swierczynski’s “Tender as Teeth” as one of the top selections for the anthology series over the last decade. This unique piece of post-apocalyptic fiction takes as its jumping off point the end of a zombie plague (which wasn’t your typical uprising, anyway: “The dead didn’t crawl out of their graves. Society didn’t crumble entirely. The infection didn’t spread as easily as it did in the movies.”). A “survivor” here is not just a human who managed to fend off the dental cases, but also someone like the protagonist Justine, who was injected with a medical Cure after a six-months’ existence as a feral carnivore.
Justine’s problems are far from solved, however. Ongoing digestive issues and “death breath” are the least of her woes. She is not only traumatized, uncomfortable living in her own skin, but also tormented by others who view her with disgust and express venomous hatred toward her. Justine struggles with the infamy of her cannibalistic binge (since her lowest moment went viral: a well-timed photo caught her macabre banqueting on a baby). Now the outraged masses won’t let her forget her” amnesiac murder”; she realizes there’s “an entire planet filled with people who actively wanted her dead.”
“Tender of Teeth” actually features two related mob scenes. In the first, the photographer Carson (who snapped the notorious image of “Zombie Chick”) is attacked by the pack of protesters picketing outside Justine’s apartment. The group’s focus is soon diverted by Justine’s appearance in the window; the new offensive involves “Cursing at her. Gesturing at her. Spitting. Picking up tiny chunks of broken sidewalk and hurling them at her.” In the following scene, the zealots attempt to ambush Justine and Carson on a desert road outside Las Vegas. Even as an attitude of we-just-want-to-talk reasonableness is affected, the accosters come across as not just disingenuous, but as delusional lunatics (whose gun-toting points to a potential firing-squad fate for Justine). In neither scene does this group come off well. Justine thinks of “her personal Raincoat Brigade” as “the biggest bunch of vultures this desert has ever produced.” Arriving at Justine’s apartment, Carson notes that the persistent protesters looked “tired, haggard, and vacant eyed. Ironically enough, they kind of looked like you-know-whats.”
Just as with their handling of the zombie apocalypse, Crawford and Swierczynksi are not content to fall back on cliches when presenting mob violence. As he’s jumped by the hatemongers outside Justine’s place, Carson considers:
In the movies there’s always an explanation. Your antagonists go to great pains to tell you exactly why you’re going to receive a brutal beating before the beating actually happens. Not in reality. When a mob attacks you, and blood’s filling your mouth, and someone’s kicking you in the back and you can feel your internal organs convulsing…there there are no explanations.
The authors also endeavor to demonstrate that “angry mob” might not be the most accurate label for the antagonistic assembly in the story. Fear appears to be the ultimate emotion driving the irrational “Disbelief in the Cure” movement, “a groundswell of people who brought out these pseudo-scientists claiming that the Cure was only temporary, that at any moment, thousands of people could revert to flesh-eating monsters again.” Tellingly, Justine’s concerns are with the murderous hands of a “frightened mob.”
A clever and original tale (that would make for an incredible film adaptation), “Tender as Teeth” takes a healthy bite out of misguided, self-deputizing pursuers of mob justice.