Category Archives: horror

Sow by Tim Curran

Tim Curran writes such wonderfully juicy tactile horror prose that it makes me wish Sow bit off more than it chewed. Sow starts with Richard realizing his pregnant wife, Holly, is not just pregnant with their unborn child, but with an unspeakable, nameless horror. Richard is only hastily sketched – he’s described as the kind of guy who bores the census takers – and Holly even less so – we get not much more than wistful descriptions of her summery smell before the possession turns her into a stinking baby bag. 

Curran captures a lot of the male anxiety around pregnancy, which, as you might have noticed, has become an absolute political nightmare in the US of A. Richard’s wobbly mental state, and the ways he shifts between seeing Holly as Holly, and Holly as this fecund sow-witch that he vividly imagines murdering reminded me of the factoid I learned when I was pregnant myself with my first: American women are more likely to be murdered (usually by the father) when they are pregnant than to die from any other pregnancy-related condition. Spousal (or partner) abuse is more likely to start at pregnancy than any other time. But Curran’s not really interested in such psychological jibber-jabber, and Sow is instead a sticky, straightforward witch-possession story with a lot of gross-out fun, if you’re into that sort of thing. 

Maybe this is just a gendered response on my part. I’m not even kidding when I say that the birthing sequence in Breaking Dawn is absolutely the scariest fucking thing I’ve ever read. It’s freaky for a lot of reasons, but one being the way it broke the mother’s terror into all these perspectives, all bearing down on her, this cacophony of people expressing all the things she cannot about how fucking gross and wrong the whole thing is, leaving her, the mother, smiling beatifically at a baby covered in blood with a full set of teeth. That’s possession, for me, but I admit I have my girl bias. This may work perfectly for dudes as an expression of procreative terror. 

I did really like the almost off-handed descriptions of rotting, rural Midwest. I just drove through 200 miles of the Minnesota outback, and the half-caved farmhouse just klicks down the road from a sign for some shitty office-park in development (“Ask us about our signing bonus!” “Think Barnum for your headquarters!”) spoke to the bleeding rural landscape and its metastasizing suburbanization. There’s a land war out there, fought over the most fertile farmland in the world. That the abandoned piggery would spit forth horror into the mushrooming condos spoke to me. 

So, a fun little thing, shot down in a sitting. I don’t think this is novel length, though I find it hard to determine length in the ebook format. The brevity is a selling point, as there isn’t enough here, in what Curran has decided to take on, for many more pages. More’s the pity, because I think there’s more here.




Thank you to Netgalley and DarkFuse for the ARC. Their novella series is just aces for horror shorts. 

The Five Stages of Plagiarism: In Which I Rattle a Little about Word-Theft

It’s probably just the clustering illusion or some other freak cognitive thing, but two relatively high profile cases of plagiarism just came to my attention today. (I’m not saying they broke today, just that I noticed them today.) First, Lianne “Spiderbaby” MacDougall, Quentin Tarantino’s girlfriend and horror critic, was caught cobbling her articles together from pretty much everywhere. From the comparative links, it looks as though she started out snagging sentences here and there, weaving them together into a coherent article, but by the time she was caught, had moved into full-on fuck it mode, and was copy-pasting other articles in their entirety. But no matter the manner of the plagiarism, it appears to be systemic to her writing output for a very, very long time. Second, turbo-plagiarist Jonah Lehrer has, for completely inscrutable reasons given that two out of three of his previous books have been recalled and pulped due to plagiarism (at presumably considerable expense), been given a new book deal. What is the punchline to this book deal? Allegations of plagiarism have surfaced for the proposal of the book he has yet to write. I strongly recommend checking out Tom Scocca’s hatecast on the matter, as his ire is beautifully articulated.

It was a fun rabbit hole to fall into this afternoon, charting the ways the scandals break and various reactions to the plagiarism. There’s a plagiarism playbook out there, which runs something like the Kubler-Ross model of grieving:

1. Denial. “I’ve never even read the book I supposedly plagiarized from.”

e.g. Alex Haley, after getting busted for plagiarizing from The African when he wrote Roots.) I didn’t know large swaths of Roots were plagiarized, even though the suit happened in 1987 and the trial, despite the out-of-court conclusion, is pretty definitive. I liked the deposition by an old classmate that he’d actually given Haley his copy of The African years before he published Roots. How bad do you have to piss off your classmates for them to do that?

2. “Mistakes were made” style apologies.

Lehrer, after getting busted the first time for self-plagiarism and manufacturing Bob Dylan quotes, describes how he barfed “into a recycling bin” (Reduce, reuse, recycle!) He then goes on to describe his systemic plagiarism as a “lie, a desperate attempt to conceal my mistakes.” Uh, no. there was nothing desperate about the ongoing theft. That wasn’t a mistake, or an unfortunate case of cryptomnesia. When copy-paste is involved, it’s not an echo or a memory unwittingly recalled. 

3. Acting like the plagiarist is somehow more sinned against than sinning.

From an email from Spiderbaby to a blogger who was one of the first to detail the thefts: 

Hi – my name is Lianne. 

I’m asking that you please stop writing about me online and let me address the issue. I’m writing an apology for my blog now that I will make available for everyone. I’m undergoing some issues right now and I’m receiving emailed death threats (and have been for the last month) which is why I haven’t commented at all on any of this.

The email goes on to reiterate the above statements three times, like she couldn’t figure out how to say what she was going to say and then say it. You can get out of practice with writing, apparently. I am aware that it’s a pretty big nightmare to be a woman in certain fan communities, and that rape and death threats are par for the course when women, well, when women do anything. I don’t think that is an appropriate response to plagiarism. But let’s decouple the actions of fan culture shitheads from the problems of being a plagiarist. No, she shouldn’t get death threats for being a plagiarist – and it’s notable that the fuckwit Lehrer keeps getting book deals when she gets told to die, in your fucked-up gendered response category – but sweeping her actions under the rug won’t make the shitheads go away, and it doesn’t dispute the facts at hand.

4. It’s not theft, it’s post-modern “mixing”! You old people don’t understand.

Teen phenom Helene Hegemann gets busted for lifting copiously from another writer’s novel, claims that “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.” Which, allow me to make a jerk-off motion with my hand. I mean, heavy hitters such as Lethem have published avowedly lifted works such as The Ecstasy of Influence: a plagiarism in Harper’s, which cobbled together an essay on appropriations and authenticity in art by stealing every single line. This smells faintly of vinegar and water – or as we would say in French, douche – but at least it’s upfront, and more importantly, the theft is an important meta-factual part of the argument of the the essay. Lethem’s not stealing because millennials don’t understand personal property the same way, lol, but because theft and originality are like a steak dinner and the dog under the table – they are always going to be in the same room. One’s going to end up inside the other eventually. 

5. Ca$hing in like a boss! 

I’ve already mentioned Lehrer, who seems entirely unrepentant, and will continue shaking his stolen tailfeathers as long as idiots in publishing are willing to keep handing him money. I honestly don’t even understand the thought process of these editors, who say a bunch of mealy-mouthed stuff about “second chances”. We’re on at least the fourth chance with Lehrer, after two books have been recalled and he got hugely fired from the New Yorker. It seems like a bad bet to keep letting him “write”, and seems like a questionable thing to do when Big Six publishers are besieged by Amazon and shifting business models and whatever. (Not that Amazon is dealing with plagiarism any better. Welcome to the Way It Is.)

But then there’s Q.R. Markham, nom de plume of the Brooklyn bookseller Quentin Rowan, whose debut spy novel, Assassin of Secrets, was recalled within weeks of its release by Little, Brown, due to the fact that it was a quilt of dozens of other fictions patched together. Rowan ended up the subject of a painfully lame New Yorker profile. Sample lines:


 “As writers from T. S. Eliot to Harold Bloom have pointed out, ideas are doomed to be rehashed. This wasn’t always regarded as a problem. Roman writers subscribed to the idea of imitatio: they viewed their role as emulating and reworking earlier masterpieces.”

I mean, come on. That is such unbelievable bullshit. Sure, it’s totally true that a literature, in the sense of works understood by its writers and readers to be in the same stylistic ballpark, are going to riff ideas and images off of one another – genre as a scaffold of shared experience – but this isn’t anywhere near copy-and-pasting someone’s work without any fucking attribution. Maybe I’ve been unduly influenced by the thousands of FBI warnings I’ve been subjected to when watching movies, but the right to copy is a real thing. It’s called copyright, motherfuckers.

Maybe I’m being insincere in my outrage though, because I want to put on the boxing gloves when people dismiss 50 Shades of Grey as plagiarism, because while that book is totally shit, and it started life as fan fiction, it’s mostly shitty in its own special shitty way, and, as far as I can tell, James wasn’t copy-pasting huge swaths of Twilight. She was just taking a bad idea (one that did not originate with Meyer, I’ll note) and made it worse. Good job. Maybe I’m being too narrow in my definition of plagiarism, which I’ve mostly built using hazy understandings of copyright law and fair use, but I seriously cannot credit any criticism of 50 Shades based on Twilight being super original in its stalker-hero and average-yet-special protagonist. I can credit criticism for tons of other reasons, just not that one.

Anyway, the New Yorker article ends with Markham/Rowan chatting excitedly about how some fool publisher had decided to publish his next, presumably-not-stolen novel. Cha-ching! Let’s win from our fail, brothers and sisters! I’m cheered to see that book in question, Never Say Goodbye, has one one-star rating on Goodreads, no one has written a review, and only eight people have shelved it. (Although I would like to know wtf with the publication date of September 11, because there are lot of reasons why that might be problematic. Whatever.) One can only hope Lehrer’s new clusterfail of a book will sink without as little comment, but I suspect that will not be the case.

So. I meant to write a post about my own experience with Internet plagiarists, specifically the adorable Texas educator who trolled a bunch of reviews on Goodreads, including one of mine, which resulted in the discovery of dozens of his plagiarized reviews – stolen from such out-of-the-way reviewers as Roger Ebert – and the resultant crowd-sourcing of the links necessary to take his stolen shit down. It’s a long story, and one full of lolcats, and maybe I’ll tell it tomorrow. That experience very much made me think about the psychology of plagiarism, which is such an odd thing, and something I barely touch on in my link-fest here. (I’ll just say that writing about plagiarism makes me twitchy about linking to anything that might even remotely be source material, because, Lord, do I not want to get caught not citing sources in a post about not citing sources.) Goodnight, friends, maybe we’ll talk about this some more later.

Day by Day Armageddon

When I was in the 8th grade, my English teacher pulled one of those Lord of the Flies-style writing experiments on us. I have this feeling that the background of this writing experiment had something to do with House of Stairs, which we read at about the same time. House of Stairs is an oddball little YA fiction which is about a group of children being ‘sperimented on by a totalitarian regime which includes, I believe, a taxonomy of personal ethical states which caused a fair amount of consternation. (I should really reread that, because a lot of it has drifted in the intervening *coughcough* years.) 

Anyway, the writing experiment had us pretending to be on a plane going on some kind of exchange program, but then the plane crashed and we were all stuck on a desert island without any adult supervision. We were split up into groups, or I think more accurately, we split ourselves into groups, and then went wandering off in search of food or shelter or whatever. The teacher would periodically lob pieces of paper with events scrawled on them – a storm, or an attack of bees or something – that we would have to incorporate into our teen survivalist narratives as we wrote furiously about how we found a pineapple tree so we wouldn’t starve tonight. (Editorial comment from the teacher: pineapples grow on bushes.) 

We never did split into factions and try to kill each other, at least within the confines of the survivalist teen story playing out in class, though I think it would be accurate to say we were already split into factions and trying to kill each other in real life. The teacher – whose name I’m struggling to remember – would explain certain things in her lobbed paperballs – like how we were all suffering from some kind of poisoning because we weren’t boiling our water, and then we’d duly figure out that we should be boiling our water and incorporate it in our stories. It’s kind of embarrassing how we just went for the most obvious physical solution to whatever trouble she tossed our way, totally ignoring the very real, very social-combat stuff we were living day-to-day, but then we were 13, and she was kind of a psycho for trying to get us to kill each other fictionally. The writing experiment ended with Zuckerman getting eaten by sharks after going mad, and then we got rescued. My frame narrative was that I was in a psych ward, having gone nuts after my experience on the island. I’m sure my story was hugely insensitive to actual mental illness, but then it doesn’t exist anymore, except as a half-memory, so I’m safe. 

I thought of this teenage writing experiment when I was reading Day by Day Armageddon, being the point of this anecdote. Our possibly unnamed narrator – though I wasn’t paying close enough attention to key on a name-drop – starts a diary on New Year’s Day after being sent back to San Antonio on leave from the US Navy. He chats a bit about Christmas with his folks in Alabama (or possibly Arkansas; I can’t differentiate between the two because I’m a sucky Northerner) then sketchy stuff starts happening in China, then the US. Narrator dude seems to have a preternatural sense of when to fortify the house, like someone were lobbing authorial information from on high, which he does with an outrageous attention to detail. I believe he even specifies the size of drill bit when he screw-guns some plywood up on the lower windows. 

Narrator dude – forthwith to be ND – hangs out in his house a lot, obsessively watching tv, trying to get through to his folks, and rationing his MREs. The walking dead start hanging around the house, so he dispatches them with fire in a way that seems like it would end in the neighborhood getting torched, but whatever. He eventually meets up with a neighbor – an engineer, you know – and then they picaresque around the zombie apocalypse hijacking planes from small airports and trying to find a safe place to be. ND and neighbor (Dave?) end up on an island for a while, which seems like it might be sweet, but then the island is big enough to have a shitton of walking dead on it, but too small to have much in the way of necessary foodstuffs and whatnot. 

So. Before I start and-then and-then and-then-ing like this novel, I should probably pull back and talk about some higher level shit. I read the first maybe third of this novel a half dozen years ago, when Bourne was writing it as a serial internet narrative thing. This book was one of the early Internet book phenomenons, back when such a thing was notable. (And I’m using the term “phenomenon” pretty loosely, but his blogging did result in for realz publication, which was something back in the day. Maybe it is still notable; I don’t know.) I didn’t want to go on with it at the time, because it’s so…hokey? straightforward? but then I recently decided to check out the really pulp edges of the zombie genre, and here I am. 

The shitty editing and overall bollocks of this novel can be chalked to its diary format, which makes me a little resentful of the diary format. Is it fair to give embarrassing grammar a pass just because the book is supposed to be a diary, and it’s not like people bother with grammar all that much when they don’t think anyone is watching? I’m going with no, because despite the cutesy intentionality of all the scribbles and underlining, typos is typos, and those are some fucking typos. That said, this was a delightfully wonky read written by someone who obviously knows his way around various hardware. I’m going to guess that Bourne himself is a military dude just like ND, and there’s a lot of really detailed descriptions of guns & ammo, and a refreshingly sensible take on how things might work, or not, in the zombie apocalypse. He calculates head shot radios and amount of ammunition left. He nerds out on tech. 

There are zero characters – not even ND, who is more a collection of MacGuyver-like skills than a person – but the narrative occasionally slips up into something like a voice. ND has ticks, like the phrase “no joy” when something goes wrong, but he’s pretty squeamish about emotions. Neighbor-possibly-Dave has to kill his wife, and starts bugging out emotionally for a while, and while ND notes this, he doesn’t do anything to correct it. It just sort of works its way out conveniently without any comment. Various chapters end with the question, “why am I living?” Which, good one, because other than a few brief moments where things aren’t shit, there’s not much to live for other than gun-cleaning and food-sourcing. Even the action scenes are bloodless, and often rushed to the point of not registering. 

So, this was fun to read on a hangover Sunday, but it’s not, like, good on any kind of technical level. Cool, arresting images are squandered, like the zombie on a crucifix thing which might be becoming a trope, and was dealt with insanely awesomely in Zombie in a Penguin Suit (Question: what’s black and white and red all over? Answer: AHHHHH.) A number of events parallel This Dark Earth, but that has a ton more style, and actually engages the diary format in one of its sections as a device. (But Wittgenstein’s Mistress blows everything out of the water in terms of post-apocalyptic diary format, not that it’s even fair to mention.) I don’t really care where this goes, because I have no one to invest in, but it was fun while it lasted. It’s almost refreshing to read something so little interested in the questions of what makes us human and how to construct a reasonable society in zombie fiction. I’ll just be here running the numbers and cleaning my guns.

All Politics is Feudal: This Dark Earth

So, I was recently watching The Dark Knight Rises, and kind of craughing to myself about what a brilliant expression of post-9/11 fascism it is. I don’t mean the term “fascist” in its sloppy usage of “stuff I don’t like” or “dad”, but the more old school definition of authoritarian militarism that positions the arbiter of justice not in law, but in an idealized übermench, you know, with your usual racial and nationalistic overlay on what makes the mench über. Bad guy Bane talks a lot of shit about giving power back to the People – invoking the dialectical enemy of fascism, communism – but as a fascist tract, there is literally one person who might be considered “the people” with a speaking part, and that’s Catwoman’s wing-girl. She has maybe three lines. The police state and the über-police state are pretty much the only important players in a city of 11 million, the People existing either to cheer Batman or drag rich people from their homes dumbly. It’s pretty much a Leni Riefenstahl film, both in terms of ideology, and stunningly beautiful fascist aesthetics. 


A diver in the 1936 Olympics, photographed by Riefenstahl

Putting aside some lumpy plotting – which no doubt was caused by Heath Ledger’s untimely death after so perfectly capturing hysterical nihilism in The Dark Knight (and I’m glad they didn’t re-cast the Joker) - The Dark Knight Rises brilliantly expresses the not-so-latent fascism of the superhero story. It’ll be interesting to see what the Nolanizing of Superman comes up with in Man of Steel, because Superman was your granddaddy’s very first anti-fascist American fascist superhero. (Sometimes you gotta fight fascism with fascism, apparently.) Somehow I don’t think it’ll work, because Superman is boring, and the best fascists have some chutzpah. The old fanboy saw is that Kent is the disguise, and overpowered aliens posing as dorks are hard to put the banners up for. Squeeze out that single tear, fascists, then we’ll root for you. 

Anyway, some what belabored point being that I was reading This Dark Earthat the same time, and kinda musing to myself about all the post-9/11, fear state, how-will-we-maintain-our-humanity-in-the-face-of-terror that I see as endemic to the zombie narrative. This Lord of the Flies with cannibal corpses has been going on at the very least since 9/11, but certainly bubbling there in Romero’s game-changer, Night of the Living Dead, where he rips the shit out of the American nuclear family and societal structures, and probably even earlier in your older school Voodoo sorcerer controlling reanimated slaves folklore. (Sophomore level paper topic: taking the farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead as a structure that symbolizes the Freudian psychological model – id as basement, ego as main floor, superego as attic – map the movement of the characters within this landscape as pertains to societal construction. Et cetera.) 

So, This Dark Earth is, in some ways, a very traditional zombie story, starting in a hospital becoming overrun as the doctor very slowly accepts what is occurring around her, complete with zombie infants and a chemical dump outside of town. A basement-bound reunion of mother and child, a bullet in the brain of a turned husband, a military group using a woman as rape fodder and mama, a barbed wire settlement slipping towards feudalism, a girl writing notes that she’s sure no one will read – it’s all there, and more – the wrangling and hand-wringing of the boy grown into a world with new rules, the prince of this new dark earth. The steam train. The slavers. Jacobs hits all of this, lightly, humanely, with an eye toward the individual that I feel gets lost in a lot of zombie stories, somewhat perversely. Even with very large time shifts, the pacing is furious while still managing a tightly personal tone. 

A lot of people are going to invoke AMC’s The Walking Dead with this book – and I guess I am too – but this book checks a lot of the stupid societal bullshit of that show – Rick shouting about how “this isn’t a democracy” and then getting his ass bitten by eye-patched demagogues (but not literally, of course), Carl turning into a squint-eyed tiny badass, the rheumy moral mouthpiece wondering “but at what cost?” I’m still into Walking Dead for the set-pieces, because those continue to thrill, but I have no patience for the people or the society of that show. And I’ve lost patience with the characters of Walking Dead because it never comes out and owns the inherent fascism of the zombie survivor community, not with any finesse anyway. Breathers are all imbued with exceptionalism in the zombie apocalypse. It’s numbers; that’s all. But on Walking Dead, Rick gets to be touched with the invisible hand of narrative superiority/safety, lending his leadership a sort of unassailable divinity that should just suck it. This Dark Earth addresses that impulse to feudalism, and it does so while being beautiful in an unshowy way. 

I almost don’t want to recommend it to your average non-horror reader, because I think what Jacobs is doing is subtle, this slow, personal invocation of all the tropes of the genre, that sets them all up and knocks them all down, slowly, like a steam boiler, like cancer. Death is the greatest democracy there is; we all have our one vote. Survivalist groups in the zombie apocalypse are often pictured as Spartan paramilitary camps set against the undead Athenian mob. I think that we tend to conceptualized survival this way shows our instinct towards feudalism – the dictatorial Governor in Walking Dead growling about terrorists, the slaver in This Dark Earth looking for a king to behead. Both Carl and the “Prince” here are positioned as the members of the New World Order, unable to remember the world before the mob, groomed in violent expediency to threats both real and imagined. I’m not sure where Walking Dead is going to go with Carl, but I have my suspicions, and I’m already girding my loins for disingenuous speeches about honor and stuff. 

this is not a democracy anymore, it's a ricktatorship with an image of Rick Grimes from Walking Dead

Observe Jacobs, instead:

The world loves a tomato because it’s red. The apple is red too. But the tomato’s flesh is the flesh of mankind.

Do the dead love the flesh of man because it is like a tomato? We’ll never know. But I have my suspicions.

As the matriculating Prince observes as he filches tomatoes from their tenuous garden. There are times when this is too much, like in an overtly symbolic sequence that has our boy crucified, quite literally, on an exit ramp sign, but then Southern Gothic (which this book is also, in many ways) often can’t help its dips into histrionic religious imagery. Jacobs runs this linear and time-skipping narrative hand-over-hand, from one point of view character to the next, which I believe works beautifully with the stakes and danger of the undead-filled world: you will hear this voice, but you will not know when this voice will end, or if it will pick up again on the edges of another person’s story. Knock-out’s sequence, and the boys on the steam train were especially tight. (And I have another sophomore paper topic ruminating about the train as it fits into the American landscape as some kind of echo of industrialism and colonial expansion, but I haven’t worked out all the kinks.) Certainly, This Dark Earth isn’t reinventing the wheel in terms of zombie narratives, but I thought it dealt with the tropes in a thoughtful manner, which for me can be much more enjoyable than genre-confounding gimmicks or the like. I, for one, welcome our zombie apocalypse feudal overlords, at least as described by John Hornor Jacobs. Hail to the king, baby. 

Love & Zombies by Eric Shapiro

Love & Zombies by Eric Shapiro is one of those things I haven’t known what to say about because experience isn’t reflection. I enjoyed reading it, but I’m not sure I can say anything smart about it. I blew through a bunch of novellas all in row, which made me have a whole thing about what makes a good novella versus a novel or a short story, but then I waited too long to write any of those thoughts down. But let’s see if I can recreate some of it. 

First off, the novella is a funny beast, occupying an odd middle distance. Novellas can fail in a lot of ways: not concise enough, meaning they should have been cut to a short story, or taking on too much, meaning they should be a novel. (And the latter might not actually be true, because some of my most hated books were expanded from short stories and/or novellas.) I feel like this book fell into the latter category, in that there was a lot going on, but expanding this scenario would only weaken it, while the specific aims of the story needed a little more time. The most successful novellas I’ve read often occur in already established worlds, so the exposition is just gestural, and then we can go from there. It was the exposition stuff that didn’t work so great for me here, so. 

Love & Zombies starts with a very satisfying first person voice: self-effacing while self-aggrandizing, and just freaking funny. The way he introduces you to the other characters – a girlfriend, an asshole best friend – was really grand, with a lapping, anecdotal quality I enjoyed. Turns out the asshole friend wants to pull some ill-conceived and unethical job for a cuss-ton of money, and our protagonist goes along with it for pretty stupid and illogical reasons. Which was okay by me, because I’ve certainly done stupid things for stupid friends, and I’ve probably stupidly entreated friends to do stupid things for me, and sometimes they’ve even gone along with it. Childhood friends especially, because even though we were just friends because of proximity, when you think about it, nostalgia plays its ugly hand.

The set up is very pulpy, and therefore pretty bananas. Main character dude is feeling emasculated because his hot girlfriend is possibly too GGG, and he’s not feeling worthy of her. This kind of amazing perfect gf for an admitted loser could piss me off, but our MC actually acknowledges that his feeling are dumb, and doesn’t put his crap on her. The stupid, unethical thing in this case is to drive out into the Nevada desert from California, find a zombie, and then squire her to Las Vegas, which is where everything, in pulp style, goes even more pear-shaped. 

Oh, did I mention there were zombies? This being one of the things that didn’t work so great for me in this novella. Apparently there have been zombie outbreaks all over the flyover states, but places like southern California have heretofore been untouched by the zombie plague. Which, fine; maybe my irritation with this set up is that I live in a flyover state full of zombies, so this sort of coastal insouciance about the zombie plague reads a little lame. I think it works in the whole personal metaphors of the main character, so it’s fine, but it doesn’t work on a nuts-and-bolts nerd world-building level. I guess I’m just saying that the world doesn’t make any sense, except as a personal metaphor, which is why this both works and doesn’t as a novella. You can’t expand it, but you can’t contract it either. 

I’ll just say: I liked the voice on this thing a lot. The main character is right: I may not like him, but I love his girlfriend, or maybe I just like how he talks about his girlfriend. (Which is another thing: as much as he talks about the girlfriend, I didn’t feel like I got enough screen-time from her to really dig her, except as a construct of the protagonist. Which is also fine, on some levels, because it’s about him thinking about her and not her. Just, it would have been nice to get a third act snap where you see what he says about her from a slightly different vantage, which would be her vantage. First person though, whatever.) 

I liked the near-zombie girl and the throats she rips out half-pretending to zombification. I also liked a lot of choices made by the protagonist, because while nostalgia may be sweet, his friend was a huge asshole. I’m not enamored of the tie-up, which read too cutesy perfect for me. Maybe the average novella should end with blood on the floor, because we don’t have the investment in your usual novelistic HEA. Maybe. It’s possible I’m bloodthirsty in my needs. 

Two of the novellas I read in my novella week were DarkFuse titles: this and Worm by Tim Curran. Worm was decidedly more about gross pulp thrills, while this was more voice-driven, with a chatting, hipster douchebag protagonist and his admittedly stupid problems. You could almost smoosh them up into a single hot novel, something with killer voice and killer kills. I kind of did that by reading them back to back, which I would recommend. The nice thing about novellas is you can put them down in a sitting, much like a zombie. Love, however, takes more than a headshot to vanquish. A worthy take-home, all told. 

Thank you,NetGalley, for the ARC. 

Fiend: A Novel by Peter Stenson

About halfway through Fiend: A Novel, I thought, fuck, what am I doing. I’d sworn off drug abuse fiction after Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. Christ, already. I get it. Drugs are bad. (And before you go humorless on me, understand that I’m kidding about “drugs are bad” being the PSA of Requiem.) But good thing Greg sent me a message alerting me to the existence of this, because it’s also got zombies and it’s set in the Twin Cities, two things I pretty much adore when they’re done right. This does them right, in my humble, undead, Midwestern opinion. I always fucking knew St Paul was full of zombies. (Minneapolis might be too, but our heroes never venture to my side of the river.) 

Chase is coming off of a week-long tweak when a little girl tears the throat out of a Rottweiler, then attempts to eat his face off too. Being on the end of a meth binge, he’s not so sure she’s real until his friend Typewriter caves in her skull and sets the house on fire. Like 28 Days later or Rick in Walking Dead, Chase and Type have missed the zombie apocalypse in their altered state: turns out everyone died one night, and then the next day, a bunch of ‘em got back up. Following the odd, but mostly unbroken convention in zombie lit, no one calls them zombies. Because the zombies giggle – which is hugely ominous at points, all this soft laughter coming from god knows where, or loudly from behind a straining door – the band of survivors call them Chucks. For the chuckling, you see. And the really fun part: only people high on meth, and continuously high on meth, survive the zombie apocalypse. The tweak shall inherit the earth. 



Concentrations of meth labs in the US. 



The voice is first person, with a stripped down punctuation and almost stream-of-consciousness. I say almost, because its really more stream-of-highass-award. This sort of damaged-by-drugs narration can grate, I find, often taking the lazy way out when it comes to control of the prose or the tone. I found Stenson to be quite good at both, and he just did a masterful job of vacillating through the extreme highs and lows of the junkie. There was a lack of affect and incuriousness running through even the highest sections, so that it wasn’t too precious either (a problem sometimes in druggie lit, I think). Lots of body horror, juicy, yucky descriptions, and repellent metaphors. The horror went comic a lot too, because bodies are funny as often as they are gross. The lack of quote marks on the dialogue was cool, running it so that you sometimes can’t tell if Chase said it or just thought it real loud, and it’s not like he knows or anyone is really listening anyway. The obvious analogy to make here is The Road, but I think it’s much more like The Reapers Are the Angels in terms of use of dialect, idiom, and genre pulpiness. (Though this isn’t nearly as stagy or ponderous, for better or for worse.) Certain punctuation won’t survive the apocalypse, apparently; literacy is as cooked as the meth when you’re dealing with zombies. 

I also really liked the local setting, because I totally know those kids from White Bear Lake – called, uncharitably but accurately “White Boy Lake” around here – who come rolling in with their privilege and rebellion, and then acclimate to the leveling effects of a decade of being strung out. The Hmong cook certainly has some shit to say about Chase and his ilk, and the demarcations of the neighborhoods and landmarks comes from someone who hasn’t just googled that stuff. Locals, heed this passage:

At Summit, the apex of our shitty little town, stands the governor’s mansion with its slabs of imported stone and then the Summit Club, and I picture F. Scott sitting in there writing about Bernice bobbing her hair. From this elevation we can see West Seventh, the flats of St Paul, where we see poor white Chucks shuffle around, tiny as ants, each and every one of them unified in their singleness of mind. Beyond them, across the Mississippi, not really visible, streets like Chavez and Independence, the skin once again darkening. Our city: each neighborhood segregated, first by economics, then by race. Each neighborhood now hosting its own walking dead, its own hidden pockets of shit-smoking motherfuckers trying to find the next hit.

I almost has the fury of Colson Whitehead’s final pan of a zombie New York in Zone One, but St Paul isn’t New York, and Mark Spitz’s averageness is a different coping strategy than being fucked up. Whitehead’s protagonist Mark Spitz could never get up to the grandiloquent bullshit of a junkie, the sine waves of hope and despair; Chase would never ruminate with such urbane disconnect. There’s no taxonomy of survival narrative, just a sloppy, ugly existence from one hit to the next. Plus, really, fury isn’t a Midwestern thing when you get down to it. These autopsies of cities are personal things, and I respond to that personality immensely. I can see my house from here. And it’s on fire.

I thank Netgalley heartily for the ARC, and apologize if I’m not supposed to quote. 

Review: Walking Dead: Welcome to the Tombs

Man, I’ve really blown it posting the review for the third season Walking Dead finale, Welcome to the Tombs in a timely manner. Sorry. Here it is now!

I’ve never been much of a gamer, and I think some of this was the clumsiness of some of the earliest video games in their storytelling. I freely admit I haven’t engaged in the newer, more complex narratives – the barrier to entry in cost of platform and the games themselves is too high – so I’m going off of the oldschool stuff like LucasArts games from waaaay back in the day, Myst, and Mortal Kombat. I wanted to set my 386 on fire when, in Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, I had to pilot a fucking balloon over some fucking thing, and my clumsy letter-punching resulted in that balloon being on fire. Which, good. You be on fire, asshole.

The real problem was that, before the burning dirigible section of the game, Fate of Atlantis wasn’t really about flying a godamn balloon, but about poking around and having conversations and solving puzzles. Or take Mortal Kombat. I loved fighting my sister or my bff Suzy (who is a very serious gamer) through the game, trash-talking and trying to figure out the fatality sequence that would make that one dude suck your near defeated enemy’s bones out. That was fresh. I even went so far as to play against the computer, and made it all the way to the big boss.

The problem with the big boss (which may or may not be pictured above, as my googling skills are not great) was that he was so much unbelievably harder to beat than anyone ever. Johnny Cage? Girly-man. Sonja? Take that. Boss man? OMIGOD YOU HAVE SIX ARMS AND NOW I’M ON FIRE. There was no steady escalation of skills, no smooth leveling up, but fighting a bunch of people and then getting murdered. I never did beat that jerk, and I ended up resenting having to go back through a bunch of drudgery just to get to him and get murdered over and over again.
This season on Walking Dead has been a fair amount of drudgery and then getting murdered. On some level, I respect it. When the Governor turned his gun on his own people, absolutely destroying the possibility that the big conflict between Woodbury and the prison was ever going to take place, I did admire the balls it took to screw my expectations that hard. (Sorry about the mixed metaphor?) But I also felt like I was in that godamn balloon again, with it in on fire, wondering why a narrative that has been setting up this big boss conflict between two dudes would then make it about whatever that shit was about.
You could put it in the bank that Walking Dead would have an explosive finale, so I don’t even know what’s going on. Which is not to say I didn’t like aspects of the episode. Despite being frustrated by Andrea’s complete inability to multi-task – seriously, you can try to pick up that damn pliers while talking – the locked room conversation between Andrea and Milton redeemed her character some, and ended with a phyrrhic sadness that represents the best of the downbeat possibilities. They are all infected. We kill or we die. Or we die, then we kill.
I am still busy hating some characters though, like Hershel, who is, as my friend Rachel pointed out, the reincarnation of Dale. I get the distinct impression I’m supposed to view him as the moral center of the group, what with all the bible-readin’, but he’s a narc and dork. I didn’t read Carl shooting that kid in the face as a cut-and-dried murder at all. He told the guy to drop the gun. Reaching closer with the gun is not dropping the gun, and could switch to shooting you in the face in less than a moment. I also get the impression we’re supposed to see this as a counterpoint to the Governor’s zombie daughter – if I’d been like this, she’d still be alive, etc.
I also think the scene where Michonne openly forgives Rick for selling her to the Governor is serious white dude wish fulfillment bullshit.
However, the episode gave me some shocks, confounded a lot of my expectations, and sets up a much more interesting mix for next season. Now that all the fighter-types are dead, how are they going to manage the prison community? Much about the Walking Dead – end of the world and zombies aside – is really very conventional storytelling, with very conventional plots. Surprising me beyond the mechanical – omg, they’re killing Lori in episode four?? – takes something, and this episode was a surprise. Boo!
I am still mad about the flaming balloon though.
Sonja wins.

Worm by Tim Curran

an infographic of all the sandworms in fiction: the pit of Saarlac, the things from Beetlejuice, the sandworms from Dune, and the Tremors monsters
from DanMeth.com

Worm is a gross, nasty little smash-and-grab about toilet monsters, and absolutely as fun as that description implies. You know, if you like nasty body horror stuff with a queasy sexual overlay, which I do! Sometimes. Here, anyway. (Sheesh, this review is stupid so far.)

 One fine morning in a possibly Midwestern town, the streets all fill with black, disgusting sewage, like all the underground pipes have flushed onto the street. There’s not a lot of screwing around with characterization or motivations, because really, when you’re being attacked by a blubbery sludge-dripping razor-toothed worm, how much other motivation do you need? 

I wasn’t very into this at first because the first character you meet is one of those unemployed assholes who’s dealing with his (supposed) emasculation by being a total fuckwit about his wife and dog. If it’s such a chore to have someone feed and clothe you, then GTFO. But that’s before I realized that this story wasn’t going to be about whatever interpersonal gender blahblah, but ass-eating toilet monsters. The sludge in the streets starts bubbling up through the sinks and drains and (yay!) toilets. All the possible gross permutations of phallic sewage monsters with chainsaw-ish teeth killing people are explored, including a few that surprised me. Go toilet monsters! 

Unlike the various sandworms from fiction I can think of – and Tremors is probably the best comparison here, though that’s more intentionally campy – these are sewage worms, and as such, are pretty great. I almost always think that horror novels should be shorter than they are, unless they’re, like, psychological and shizz, so the brevity here is good: gross out, gross out, gross out, BIG BOSS, the end. Worm is apparently one in a series of horror novellas put out by Dark Fuse, and I have totally put in for a couple more of them from Netgalley (which is where I got this one.) 

I’m a sucker for pulp imprints, because while they put out a lot of dross, the experimental nature of the manifesto can result in some really electric stuff. This wasn’t one of the electric stuffs, for me anyway, but slogging through the sludge is part of the fun of pulp, and that’s made horribly manifest here. Toilet monsters’re gonna getchu!

titanic-deck

Deck Z: Unsinkable. Undead

SPOILER ALERT: THE BOAT SINKS.

I was talking to a friend about these monster history things. It seems there are two broad classes of them, the classic mash-up (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies et al.) and the secret monster history, like Deck Z: The Titanic: Unsinkable. Undead. It wasn’t the issues of state’s rights as a stalking horse for slavery, it was vampires that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was fighting. I’ve pretty well sworn off the former, because if I love the book enough to read it again with some hastily graphed monster fight scenes, then I love it enough to get all huffy and snobby about liberties taken with tone, character and interpretation. (Don’t even get me started about the shit show that is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls; ugh.) And if I haven’t read the classic in question, there’s no way I’m going to screw up my (possible, eventual) read of it due to some monster b.s. But secret histories? Even dopey, pulpy ones? Sure, why not. 

On the face of it, the Titanic disaster should marry well with the concept of zombies. There’s an Onion headline from Our Dumb Century that reads: World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Ice-Berg. 

The Titanic disaster and its aftermath seem almost ridiculously fraught with issues of class warfare and technological hubris, a big floating microcosm which tore open and showed the ugly realities of class divisions. When you sort the dead by class, you see precisely how lethal it is to be poor. (See also, Hurricane Katrina, but in a much messier form, and adding in the always fun factor of race in America.) There’s all these great characters and tidbits from the sinking too – J. Bruce Ismay getting absolutely walloped by Congress in the weeks to come, the Unsinkable Molly Brown, the musicians playing their last concert on the deck, Guggenheim and other industrialists choosing the heroic but kinda silly-looking end in their smoking jackets, Capt. Smith going down with the ship, etc. etc. 

Zombies are often about class and colonization as well. Or at least, the Modern Granddaddy of Zombies, George Romero, has gone that way a good deal, especially in latter day stuff like “Land of the Dead”. There’s always more have-nots than haves, and they are hungry. They will storm your moated enclave once they realize you are in it. Their appetites may be unnatural, but, hey, that’s consumerist culture for you. Add in the fact that ships are cramped floating disease-breeders, and you have a built in reason why the zombie outbreak was contained – they’re all that the bottom of the sea – Titanic and Zombies seems like a really good idea. 

…which is all stuff I thought when I checked this out of the library last week, and is a good example of me letting my usual over-thinking set up unrealistic expectations for the pulp crap I read. Jesus H. Christ, Ceridwen, you are reading a book about zombies on the motherfucking Titanic. Chill the fuck out with your socio-metaphorical jibber-jabber. God. Suffice it to say, all the garbage I went on about about the metaphorics of zombies and the sinking of the Titanic was either non-existent or so lightly touched as to be just an artifact of the memeplexes of those things, and not, like, deliberate. Which is totally fine, and I’m not going to throw a big tantrum about not getting the things I unreasonably want. 

A somewhat mad scientist type, a one Dr Weiss is sent to Manchuria to deal with an outbreak of plague that has a new alarming strain. In an ethically problematic move, he collects the Toxin from the brain of an infected shaman woman, at which point he figures out that the German (?) government wants to use that Toxin as bioweapon against the Russians (?). I don’t really know, and I admit my history is spotty. There’s a big chase involving an Agent who is maybe a Russian Jew working for the Germans or something – seriously, I just wasn’t paying that close of attention. He ends up on the Titanic running to America to set up a new mad science lair and find a cure for the plague. The Agent steals the Toxin, and then predictable zombification of the lower decks ensues. There is also a gender-switching moppet who is best not spoken of. Moppets, man, I hates them. 

At which point the story becomes somewhat first person shooter, with Weiss, moppet, Capt Smith, and various redshirts leveling up through the decks of the ship. The secret history is a little stupid, in that it’s like, oh, but Ismay was still a skin-saving knob, but now it’s because of zombies and not just the regular imminent death he faced. Smith was giving confusing orders because he’d just battled his way through Deck Z for 24 hours, and was more concerned with keeping the zeds off the life-rafts than whatever other reasons he was being confusing. The zombie fighting stuff was passable, but not particularly interesting. At one point there’s a huge fan they have to stop and then crawl through, restarting it so that the zombies would all get chopped up, which seems like a great idea, but reads real flat. Plus, I just started laughing remembering the bit from Galaxy Quest about the stupid spinning fan that was in every episode.

My ears perked up when Weiss started droning on about plague, which I eventually figured out he meant Black Plague, and I have a somewhat unhealthy obsession with the Black Death. It ended up being one of those things that was annoying to me because I know too much about it, which I think is generally the death of this kind of fun. But, the incubation period! But, the survival rates! But, Jesus Christ, you are still reading a book about zombies on the Titanic; cut that out. My knowledge of the Titanic disaster is completely pop cultural, but I imagine to the knowledgeable, this would be annoying as hell. Like, I seriously googled if Captain Smith was ever in Afghanistan where he learned to be a swordmaster, and I’m thinking not. Shrug. I don’t care, but others may. 

Oh, and one zombie nit-pick. For whatever reason – and I have my pet theories, believe me – zombies are almost never called zombies in zombie fiction. Walkers, biters, skels, zed-heads, Zack, the infected, ragers, phone-crazies, etc. Given that the term zombie, referring to the contagious undead and NOT a semi-golem in the thrall of a sorcerer, pretty much originates with Romero in 1969, everyone jumping to call these plague victims zombies is a little bullshit. I feel like vampyr would be a more historical appropriate term, because in the early part of the 20th century, vamps were still the yucky contagious undead and not romance heroes yet. And because Weiss is (probably) German. The zombie was still an individual monster. 

Motherfucking TITANIC with ZOMBIES, Ceridwen. Shut your face. 

So there.

Zombies vs Unicorns

Zombies Vs. Unicorns

Zombies vs. Unicorns is a solid collection of zombie or unicorn themed short-stories. Sadly, there was only one story that featured both, which let me down a little. Of course, when I think about it, a bunch of stories that only were about zombies fighting unicorns would have gotten old fast, but I really would have liked to see just one zed/uni battle. Just one. Somebody write this for me, please? I did not like the “humorous” “banter” between the two “Teams” – it felt like semi-witty Internet banter which is hilarious when it’s happening, but doesn’t read well when you come back to the thread a month later. Certainly the editors Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier had a really good time though, and that is nothing to sneeze at. Go Team(s).

So, to the individual stories:

“The Highest Justice” by Garth Nix: Aw, Garth, man, you know I love you, but this story was not a success. It displays his typically good writing, but the story doesn’t go anywhere. It felt like the beginning of something interesting about the source of power, of rule, of justice, something that could have developed but it strangled off way too short. Shame, really. (Points for being the only story with both a zombie and a unicorn.)

“Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Alaya Dawn Johnson: I liked this one a good deal. A zombie story, but with a novel explanation for the zombie protagonist, who is not a shamber or a groaner, but instead an emo teenage serial killer with a prion disease. God help me, it’s also a love story, one that was surprisingly effective. (The zombie kid’s not really dead though, so I didn’t have to freak out. Necrophilia = gross.) The zombie metaphor usually comes down to the whole mass consumerism/inevitability of death thing, but this twisted the drive of hunger with desire, along with some Oedipal fun. The romance is between two boys, and I know there’s something here about coming out and passing and all that, but I haven’t sorted all of that out yet, which makes the story surprisingly layered for a short story. I also really enjoyed how the characters talked about music and art, not in a topical name-dropping way, but in the obsessive enthusiasm and status-displaying name-dropping way that captured something really perfect about adolescent courtship rituals. Yup, I am a dork and grown-up for writing that sentence that way.

“Purity Test” by Naomi Novik: Urban smartass meets smartass unicorn. I don’t know, this didn’t really work for me, but I think it’s really more me than it, and the smartassery was pretty solid. There was something tonally off for me between the hungover runaway teen sleeping in a park set-up, and the bubbly, cheeky froth that was the dialogue. But, I give it tons of points for a solid Leia reference.

“Bougainvillea” by Carrie Ryan: Yeesh. Very effective and beautiful story about the daughter of an island dictator after the zombie apocalypse. The story ripples with nostalgia, which gets its throat slit in the final pages. Tears the hell out of wish-fulfillment narratives.

“A Thousand Flowers” by Margo Lanagan: Now, this is the stand-out in this collection, no contest. I didn’t expect a unicorn story to creep the freaking stuffing out of me, but this does. I really expected something different from the set-up: a peasant boy finds a ravaged noblewoman in the forest. You can almost write it from there: his tender ministrations, blooming love, whatever. No. Reminded me strongly of one of Angela Carter‘s wolf stories, the way it plays with narrative voice, the creation of folklore, bestiality (!), a bunch of other stuff. My word. Forbidden love never seemed so wrong.

“The Children of the Revolution” by Maureen Johnson: Maybe I’ve read too many zombie short stories, but this hit a lot of marks I’ve seen in the zombie dance before, but a lot less effectively. I just didn’t like the barely coded references to certain actresses, her rainbow tribe, and her hot actor boyfriend. (No, not Josephine Baker.) Felt lazy. Points for creepy kids though, even though creepifying kids is maybe too easy too.

“The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Unicorn” by Diana Peterfreund: This is another one where my disinterest is probably more personal than objective. I found myself shimming a lot, because there seemed like a ton of extraneous information, which in a short story seems weird. I found the concept of the venomous unicorn silly beyond the telling of it, and I thought the set-up of the religious household and their weird ideas about the return of venomous unicorns (seriously, it makes me laugh to write that) both underdeveloped and overdetermined.

“Inoculata” by Scott Westerfeld: Hmm, liked this, but it felt like an opening act, and I wanted the ideas explored more fully. So it’s pretty great as a teaser, but fails a bit as a short story, because it’s certainly not self-contained. Maybe that’s a bs thing to complain about – wanting more – but sometimes I think not enough credit is given the the form of the short story, its conventions and expectations. I’m not a short story aficionado or anything, but it bugs me when the thrust of the story can be spoilered in a short sentence in the editorial opening.

“Princess Prettypants” by Meg Cabot: My affection for this story is certainly beyond its literary merit, because it’s going to be dated in 15 minutes, and might be overly teen-y for some. A girl is given a unicorn by an aunt who always gets the gifts wrong – you know the aunt, the one giving you teddy bears in your mid-twenties – a unicorn who farts rainbows – literally! But then, date rape! sexting! the boy next door! Super fun to read though, and you go, girl!

“Cold Hands” by Cassandra Clare: Fail. I’ve heard tell of this Cassandra Clare from all the flaming and whatnot on the bookblogoverse, but I’ve never read anything by her. I think I’ll leave at this. Other than a bunch of other niggling nitpicks, my biggest problem was where the eff is this taking place? It’s all medieval whatever Dukes and public hangings, but then there’s CDs and pop cultural references, and the set-up is all, hey this one sorcerer cursed the town, and I’m like, okay, then, we’re in England? Wait, just kidding, England doesn’t actually have magic, and the monarchy is constitutional these days, so, seriously, where and when are we? Plus, everyone sounds like Americans. It’s a frustrating lack of coherence, one that started me picking the threads, and then the whole story fell apart. The more I think about it, the more this story fails – seriously, why don’t they just burn the dead – curse over! – and rrrromantic stories with zombies grrrrrosssss me ooooouutt.

“The Third Virgin” by Kathleen Duey: Another metaphor that I did not expect to be explored through unicorns, this time centering on their healing powers, but I don’t think this one worked as well for me. It’s told through the voice of unicorn, a voice which is pretty boring and overly expository, and would probably be better served through a third person narration. Good though; not perfect.

“Prom Night” by Libba Bray: A really nice sucker punch of an ending on this collection. The zombie apocalypse takes the adults first, leaving a town of traumatized teens aping adulthood. They play at jobs, take drugs, try to reenact the rituals that mark the movements from one stage of life to another. Yeah, right. Here it comes.