William R. Forstchen

In this essay, R.S. analyzes William R. Forstchen’s use of gruesome details and appalling imagery in “One Second After,” to construct a horrifyingly realistic scenario that depicts a person’s tendency to lose their humanity in the wake of a disaster.
“One Second After,” is a novel by William R. Forstchen, a college professor of military history, that follows John Matherson and his attempt to rebuild his small, isolated town after the United States was stuck by an EMP that rendered the whole nation without power. With the United States at war with an unknown enemy, Matherson watches civilization devolve around him without the crutch of technology. Humans become animals eating, stealing, and killing whatever they may have to in order to survive. Events like these are illustrated through disturbing details and horrifying imagery and contribute to the theme that during times of disaster, people will often lose the values that one may consider “human.”
In a scene from the beginning of the novel, after only two days without power, the protagonist, John, had already been forced to leave the traditional societal mindset behind. Upon entering a pharmacy to obtain insulin for his diabetic daughter, John witnesses a man addicted to prescription pain-killers attempting to vault over the pharmacy’s counter, and steal his prized pills. John puts his years of civilized behavior behind him and resorts back to the basic, beastly instinct of protection, and smashes a liter of beer over the man’s head. This both immobilizes the criminal and disfigures him. Immediately after the incident, John felt, “embarrassed by what had just happened,” and realized that, “he had broken a societal taboo” (Forstchen 78). The widespread panic spreading throughout the nation resulted in many people, including John, to react in a primal way. Those who did not follow this pattern, failed to survive. The violent imagery in this scene aids in shaping the theme that people lose their humanity during times of disaster.
Sixty-three days without power resulted in a John Matherson that was unafraid to take the life of another man. After awakening due to the barking of his dogs, John knew that there were intruders in his home. With the survival of himself and his family on the line, John did not hesitate in firing shotgun rounds into looters. John was hardened by the collapse of society and was unaffected by the blood on his hands. This was not the first time he had to kill in his dangerous world. “The execution-style killing hadn’t bothered him in the least. After the first one, it starts to get easier, and in this case, where the men had been invading his home, threatening his girls, it didn’t bother John in the slightest” (253). The inclusion of John’s apathy to the killings illustrates the theme that people lose human values during times of catastrophe.
While the story focuses on John Matherson, humans around the nation were losing their humanity as well. John’s town identifies the threat of “The Posse.” The Posse is a large mass of people following the prophecies foretold by their leader: a Satanist that believes he was contacted by the devil and must lead these people on a path of murder, torture, and cannibalism. An old recon plane, constructed without modern electronics and therefore unaffected by the EMP blast was used to see the destruction that the Posse left in the nearby town of Morganton. The pilot, Don, attempted to tell John and the town’s council about the gruesome scenes of cannibalism and torture he witnessed from above. “‘They had something like a gallows set up. Bodies were hanging from it…’ Don shook and started to cry. They were cut open, some without legs and arms. Ten or more like that. Like hogs hung up to be butchered. My God…’” These vivid and disturbing images emphasize the lack of humanity possessed by the Posse. However, they were not always like this. It was the national loss of power and the accompanying disasters that caused the Posse members to lay down their humanity in exchange for rifles and machetes.
Throughout “One Second After,” William R. Forstchen establishes a setting that can be classified as horrifying, unforgiving, and merciless. In order for people to survive, the must resort back to their instincts and away from ideas that would be classified today as “normal.” When depicting John taking out the druggie and shattering holes in intruders or the disgusting tendencies of the Posse, Forstchen uses violent, gruesome, and appalling imagery along with the incorporation of details that can be considered shocking to establish the theme that people lose their humanity when faced with a disaster.
(R.S. 2014)