Filler content that is not Dan Brown

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #10:-

INFERNO edited by Ellen Datlow

Reviewing Inferno (Tor paperback, 384pp, $15.95) feels very much like a case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. Originally issued in hardback in 2007, and billed as ‘New Tales of Terror and the Supernatural’, the anthology has snapped up the International Horror Guild Award, the World Fantasy Award and the Shirley Jackson Award, which should tell you more about the quality of work it contains than anything I can say, but I’ll venture a few words anyway.

Opening tale “Riding Bitch” is doubly welcome in that, while I’ve read several of his novels, this is the first time I’ve sampled K. W. Jeter’s work in the short form, and it’s an impressive, not to say off the wall, appetiser. The biker protagonist is given the task of transporting his dead ex-girlfriend to the undertakers by tying her to his own body. The black comedy element is obvious enough, given such a premise, but Jeter elevates it above this to deliver an almost visionary tale of love lost and renewal.

Stephen Gallagher’s “Misadventure” lacks the originality of the Jeter and has a by the numbers feel. It concerns a haunting at a swimming pool, with a ‘sensitive’ workman setting things to rights. Gallagher’s telling is as assured as we’d expect from him, and with its quiet effects and well drawn characters it does the job of holding the reader’s interest, but all the same there’s a distinct sense that this is something we have all seen before, and the author has nothing new to offer.

“The Monsters of Heaven” by Nathan Ballingrud deals with the case of a couple whose child has gone missing and the strain that places on their relationship, as each looks for someone to blame, but then they find a child substitute of sorts when they take in one of the damaged angels that has fallen to earth and attempt to nurse it back to health. The emotions here are keenly felt, with the hurt and grief of the characters in the foreground, and there’s a fine sense of ambiguity at the back of it all, with no attempt to explain or make credible the existence of the angel, except the vaguest suggestion that it is their guardian angel, meeting this couple’s need for someone or something to care for and fill the void in their lives. There are also angels in Elizabeth Bear’s “Inelastic Collisions”, but they dwell on earth by feeding on humans and so have a vampiric dimension to them. It takes another of the fallen to show them that there is a better way in a story that reminded me strongly of an episode of old TV series The Hunger. Bear makes the idea her own though by placing the emphasis squarely on the friction between an angelic being and the coarseness of our own reality, with barbed prose that makes not her angels, but their whole situation, seem monstrous.

“The Uninvited” by Christopher Fowler casts a wry eye over Hollywood fun and games, with the story of a satanic clique who attend studio parties specifically to bring about the death of their designated victim for the night. Reminiscent of Bradbury’s The Crowd crossed with The Player, the story is well told, with a finely developed mood of menace and sense of place, the superficiality of the Hollywood scene captured perfectly, even if ultimately the ending is predictable. Mike O’Driscoll’s “13 O’Clock” sees a father’s anguish for his nightmare haunted son taking a turn for the worse in a story that is filled with genuine emotion and develops at a convincing pace, with its picture of love turned sour, of loving too much, and the terror that can bring. There’s another father and son relationship at the centre of “Lives” by John Grant, a fascinating piece about a young man who cannot be killed, though all around him are going down like flies. The idea here holds the attention all the way, the possibilities inherent in being the one who always survives, and the anguish that causes for both the character and those in his life.

Lee Thomas’ “An Apiary of White Bees” is one of the most substantial stories in the collection, with a discovery at an opulent hotel leading to an invasion from the past. The details are built up with compelling authority and the character of the marriage challenged and repressed gay hotelier is totally convincing, while the touches of horror are all the more effective for being so muted, with rich language and imagery throughout, and an ending redolent of ambiguity. In “The Keeper” by P. D. Cacek a young girl who has survived the Holocaust inflicts her memories on the family who have taken her in, with tragic results, a story that is moving and authentically told. “Bethany’s Wood” by Paul Finch sees Mark go looking for his mother, thought dead many years ago but actually revealed to be living in isolation with her goddess worshipping girlfriend. The story has some intriguing elements to it, the suggestion of something outré occurring, but these are all in the nature of red herrings and with hindsight there really doesn’t seem to be much point to it, just an overlong and unwieldy set up for a nasty end twist, while the viewpoint character’s borderline misogyny does not make him a sympathetic voice (this is almost certainly intended, but a miscalculation on the author’s part).

Lucius Shepard’s “The Ease with Which We Feed the Beast” is a compelling character study that provides an unsettling snapshot of a psycho who murders his friends but manages to translate these events into mythic terms, abdicating responsibility for his own actions along the way. “Perhaps the Last” by Conrad Williams has a museum guard falling prey to the imaginary girlfriend he invents for himself, a tale where elegant language is put to good effect in embodying the protagonist’s loneliness. Pat Cadigan’s “Stilled Life” features a woman whose ambition in life is to succeed as a living statue, but she can only attain this goal at a huge cost, a fate from which her friend tries to save her, the story building assuredly and offering insights into a strange mindset, while at back of it all is the hint of some much more substantial terror.

Glen Hirshberg’s “The Janus Tree” is the longest story and also the finest, a tale of possession, though that is only apparent at the very end, presented as a minutely detailed account of childhood bullying and love gone wrong, the sadness of the protagonist echoing off of the page, with a claustrophobic backdrop of small town desuetude. “The Bedroom Light” by Jeffrey Ford is odd and delightfully quirky, just a man and woman in bed and talking about things, their weird neighbours and the possibility that the house is haunted, all of it beautifully crafted and with humour bubbling away in the background, so it doesn’t matter that there is no real narrative drive or any obvious point to it all, one simply enjoys being regaled by an amiable raconteur. Terry Dowling’s “The Suits at Auderlene” closes out the collection, an entertaining ghost story, with iron suits, tormented souls, a mad old lady and a fallen meteor, all elements that should be clichéd but which Dowling makes seem as fresh as yesterday’s morning dew. It has a traditional feel to it, but at the same time demonstrates there is still plenty of mileage in the old tropes of the genre, that we can look forward to many more ‘new tales of terror and the supernatural’

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Song for a Saturday – The Only Living Boy in New York

Something from the S&G glory days.

Nowadays it seems that we all get our news from the weather report, and the news is that storms are coming.


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Filler content with added EAP

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #10:-

POE edited by Ellen Datlow

January 19 this year saw the bi-centennial of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe, arguably the greatest and most influential figure in the Horror genre. To mark the occasion, multiple award winning editor Ellen Datlow invited some of her favourite writers to produce work of their own inspired by that of the master, and the end result was Poe (Solaris paperback, 525pp, £7.99). Each of the 19 tales contained within its pages comes with an introduction to the author and an afterword in which they reveal their Poe template and talk briefly of the how and why behind their tale, and for the Poe aficionado guessing which work they are riffing on is all part of the fun.

Kim Newman’s “Illimitable Domain” is the perfect introduction to the collection, containing as it does plot summations of several Poe masterworks. Newman doesn’t focus on a particular story or poem, instead delivering a marvellously tongue in cheek tale in which Roger Corman’s success at adapting Poe for the silver screen sees society infected with a creeping Poe virus of sorts, so that every film produced, every song and book, every new fashion, reflects the influence of EAP, regardless of the creators’ intentions. By way of explanation, Newman pitches the idea of Poe’s revenge, his spirit reaching out from beyond the grave to seize a fame he was denied in life, but it’s simply a hook on which to hang a joyous barrage of in-jokes and Poe trivia, to poke fun at the derivative and hack cultural ethos of Hollywood, and even comment on how the artist can come to feel constrained by his creation. It’s Newman doing what he does best, having fun and dazzling us all with his erudition at the same time.

Melanie Tem’s “The Pickers” is a sinister variation on The Raven, and a much quieter piece than the Newman. A grieving woman’s life is invaded by a group of scavengers, the pickers of the title, who may or may not be human. She resists at first, but also establishes a rapport with the leader of the pack, only as the story progresses things grow increasingly sinister, with the woman stripped of everything, even her existence. The story can be read on two levels, with the character of Toni both a victim of rapacious home invaders, but also somebody who has given up on life, whose grief causes her to abandon the things she should hold dear. Tem’s sharply focused writing puts over both the emotional dilemma of the character, and the horror that attends her dissolution, with an ending that will haunt the reader. Less successful is E. Catherine Tobler’s “Beyond Porch and Portal”, which takes as its point of departure the mystery of Poe’s last days, when he turned up drunk and in strange clothes, with no memory of where he had been, dying shortly after. Tobler provides an otherworldly explanation, with Poe tripping to another dimension where time is somewhat different, and also gives us the inspiration for much of his work. The whole thing seems rather forced though, with the characters enigmatic in lieu of being interesting or engaging, and while the alien environ provided an intriguing backdrop the story simply didn’t grip me, seeming more like the deathbed dream of a deluded man than something that could actually have taken place. In a word, it lacked verisimilitude.

Laird Barron is a writer whose work, what little I’ve seen of it, I find very hit and miss, with “Strappado” firmly in the former category. Kenshi and Swayne are part of a group of spoiled and wealthy aesthetes who are lured to a remote destination where they are promised a part in the latest performance work by a renegade artist whose oeuvre borders on cultural terrorism. The plot trajectory shouldn’t surprise anyone, but Barron builds the story credibly, his observation of tiny details reinforcing our sense of dread, and regardless of how much we expect it, the denouement when it comes is devastatingly matter of fact and brutal. And the consequences are not just physical: the events resonate and take an emotional toll on those who survive. In contrast, there’s an elegiac quality to “The Mountain House” by Sharyn McCrumb, a restrained and charming conflation of NASCAR and Poe’s “The Haunted Palace”. The widow of a stock car racing champion retires to the mountains where she is granted a peek into the afterlife, the chance to see that her loved one is happy and doing what he is best at. This should be a silly story, overripe with sentimentality, but it’s not. McCrumb captures perfectly the emotions of the character, making us feel with her and share the uplift of the ending.

Delia Sherman’s “The Red Piano” is the closest this collection comes to a genuine Gothic chiller, and for its inspiration takes Poe’s heroines, Ligeia and Lenore, Berenice and Madeline Usher, with their ability to reach out from beyond the grave and touch the lives of those remaining. A university professor moves into an old house, and is warned never to play the red piano which stands in one of the rooms, but sometimes she hears a piano playing in the house next door. Her neighbour, named Roderick of course, sets out to court her, but he has a dark secret in his past, one related to his dead wife and the red piano. With its elegant prose, understated characterisation and beautifully paced plot, this is the story that seems most akin to Poe’s own work, though informed with a modern sensibility and a somewhat less romanticised view of undead femme fatales.

“Truth and Bone” by Pat Cadigan brings to mind not so much the work of Poe, but Ray Bradbury stories like Uncle Einar and The April Witch. As in those tales we are introduced to a family who have special abilities, mostly useful but sometimes more of a curse than boon. Teen Hannah is just coming into her ‘power’, but it’s one of those curse ones, knowing how and when people are going to die. She tries to prevent a tragedy, only to have things go hideously wrong and create a greater mess than the one she was trying to avoid. The characters are everything as far as this story is concerned, with Hannah afraid of what she has become, how her family will feel about her, and at the same time manipulating others to achieve her goals. Cadigan gives the impression of knowing far more about them than she reveals, and her use of dialogue helps to add depth, while the compassion underlying the story is a big part of what makes it special. A surface reading works just fine, but there are all sorts of subtexts waiting to be stumbled upon, to do with growing up and the angst of being a teenager and special.

“Flitting Away” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is the most powerful piece in the collection, and one which I defy any reader to experience without being moved and horrified. There isn’t any supernatural element; what Rusch gives us is far more chilling. The story tells of the dilemma of a woman who is raped and left for dead, the account disturbingly matter of fact and shot through with tiny details that make it all so terribly real and heartrendingly sad in what it reveals to us of man’s inhumanity. The woman dreams of ‘flitting away’ to escape the horror of what has happened to her, but there is no escape, and so she is plunged back into a world of pain and terror, where nobody can be trusted and justice is not to be expected, and at the end of it all reader and character alike are reduced to screaming ‘Why? Why?’ Of course there is no answer, just the possibility of communicating the victim’s agony in the hope that it might make a difference.

In the awkwardly titled “Kirikh’quru Krokundor” Lucius Shepard dispatches a team of academics to a site in the jungle formerly occupied by a cult and now abandoned. There are echoes of Lovecraft in the mysterious buildings with their unusual architecture and statuary suggestive of an alien presence. But Shepard is thoroughly modern, placing the emphasis on the tension between the characters, two of whom have a ‘past’ and are not above hanging their dirty washing out to dry with some firecracker dialogue, the undercurrent of sexual tension obvious. This makes them easy prey for the alien virus they unwittingly set free, a life form that infests humans with the urge to fuck relentlessly and without emotion. Isolated incidents of sexual congress between unlikely partners clue the characters in to what is happening, but cannot prevent the cluster fuck that is to follow, with people reduced to channels for animal lust, and nothing more than that. The story grips with some vivid descriptive writing and solid characterisation, and Shepard nails it down with a bittersweet codicil that, in the best horror genre tradition, hints things are not really over.

The last two stories in the collection are inspired by The Masque of the Red Death, and they are among the best that it has to offer. “Lowland Sea” is set in the near future and tells the story of a media mogul who retires with his entourage to an isolated stronghold, where they pull up the drawbridge and prepare to sit it out while the plague rages outside. Author Suzy McKee Charnas doesn’t do much with Poe’s plot other than change the names to indict the guilty, with the strength of the story in the bleak, dystopian future that it portrays, where slavery has been repackaged and the wealthy don’t even need to keep their jackboots in the closet. Added to that there’s the undeniable satisfaction of seeing it all come undone for the smug idiot cast in the role of Prince Prospero.

John Langan’s “Technicolor” is remarkable for the cleverness of the telling and the, possibly mock, erudition that informs the text. Tone of voice is everything here, as a disagreeably self-satisfied academic lectures his pupils on Poe’s classic The Masque of the Red Death, and Langan gets it pitch perfect. A discussion on the colour scheme in the rooms of Prospero’s dwelling place diverts into the pathways of secret knowledge, and brings the revelation that the narrator has something on his mind other than Literary Criticism 101. It’s a story that holds the reader every bit as spellbound as the pupils in the classroom, though not with the same results, Langan building his case with remarkable skill, confidence and audacity, luring us in before delivering the killer stroke at the finale. It’s a marvellous note on which to end this striking collection, a volume that for breadth and diversity, not to mention the sheer quality on offer, aptly celebrates the birth of one of the horror genre’s greatest practitioners.

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Trailer Trash – The Great Wall

Matt Damon saves China. For some reason this reminds me of World War Z.

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Filler content with sexy zombies

A short feature on zombie erotica that originally appeared in Black Static #21:-


Given the theme I approached RIGOR AMORTIS (Absolute XPress paperback, 138pp, $14.95), an anthology of flash fictions and poetry containing zombie erotica that began life as a joke bouncing about on Twitter, with a degree of trepidation, only to be pleasantly surprised at what I found. Editors Jaym Gates and Erika Holt have assembled a collection that is varied and substantial, while in the main avoiding the pitfalls implicit in the material (e.g. a propensity to rape and gratuitous sexual violence), though I’m not about to admit to being sexually aroused by any of it as you never know who might be reading this.

After her and her introductions by the editors, Lance Schonberg’s poem ‘And Yet
in Death’ sets the tone for much of what follows, with its tasteful celebration of a wife’s beauty lingering on past the end of mortality. The stories and poems that follow are presented in four sections, each headed up with a striking illustration and flag of convenience titles, the first of which is Romance.

Opener ‘Delivery Day’ by Jacob Ruby, has a lesbian protagonist looking to replace her partner with a zombie girlfriend, dealing with the prurience of the delivery man, then having to bond with the newcomer. It’s a subtle, understated story with the zombie performing the role of a sex doll, and yet bubbling away beneath the surface of the matter of fact narrative a feeling of real need, a lonely woman reaching out for contact of some kind, even from a zombie. The delusions of love seem to be central. In Jay Faulkner’s keenly felt ‘Always and Forever’ we get the other side of the coin, with a wife who makes the last sacrifice she can for love, leaving the house and her husband before the change takes hold. There’s a sense almost of nostalgia about Nathan Crowder’s ‘Dancing Tonight: Live Music!’, the story picking up on a theme of Romero, a zombie couple re-enacting the dance hall sexual encounters of their living years. There’s a frantic quality to their fucking and yet an emptiness also, as if they are just machines of rotting flesh and bone following a programme, no purpose to what they do, just a puppet show without an audience, demonstrating the vacuity of sex without love or feeling.

Alex Masterson’s ‘There’s Plenty of Room in My Heart’ is a blackly comic and playful celebration of the narrator’s zombie love, the poem’s title and last line a riff on the old ‘no more room in hell’ adage. In ‘Like Smoke’ by Johann Carlisle we get a whiff of the traditional, with voodoo references and a New Orleans setting, as a man brings back his beloved at a terrible cost, but one which he considers worth it, the story explicit in its descriptions of sex and with an undercurrent that captures the playfulness and dependence of people in love, people who will do anything to have those feelings endure if only for a moment longer. Similar themes appear in Xander Briggs’ story ‘Surrender’, with a woman’s happiness secured when her abusive lover comes back to her, even if he is now a zombie, the story a neat take on female masochism and need. For the couple in ‘Unparted’ by Wendy N. Wagner, the wife becoming a zombie is simply a means for them to continue their marriage post-cancer, the sense of need oozing off the page, but mingled with a genuine, can’t let go kind of love.

The stories in the Revenge section are not quite as substantial, with a greater reliance on twist endings, but still gratifying in the main. ‘Love, Love (and Chains) Will Keep Us Together’ by R. Schuyler Devin is reminiscent of Laymon’s novel Island in the way in which the protagonist uses the zombie plague to be with the girl of his dreams and keeps to himself the knowledge of a cure, giving rise to questions about who the real monster is in this scenario. Voodoo is back in play for ‘Erzuli’s Chosen Few’ by Lucia Starkey in which a woman’s plans to make her rough lover a gentler man go astray, the voodoo gods having
the last laugh. The moral of the story seems to be that happiness eludes those who seek it outside of themselves. M.G. Gillett’s ‘Your Beating Heart’ is one of the weaker offerings, obliquely written and only gradually unveiling its intent, with technique used to cloak the fact that all we really have here is the genre cliché of a man returning from the dead to wreak vengeance on the person responsible.

The title ‘Swallow It All’ pretty much tells you exactly where Jennifer Brozak’s tale is going, but there’s a certain cheesy satisfaction to be gained from this account of an arsehole husband who finds that she’ll bite off more than he bargained for when he brings his wife back to give him a blow job. The perils of giving imprecise instructions have seldom been spelled out so clearly. Another deserving male gets his comeuppance in Renee Bennett’s ‘Danny Boy’, but there’s a bittersweet quality to the revenge, the story’s protagonist taking an ironic comfort in the fact that even as a zombie her former partner still wants her body. We get a different take in ‘Syd’s Turn’ by R.E. VanNewkirk, as two lovers incorporate zombie role play into their sex games, but things go wrong when one of them doesn’t play by the rules, begging the question when is a safe word most definitely the wrong word.

The Risk section opens with one of the highlights of the collection, John Nakamura Remy’s glorious black comedy ‘Forbidden Feast at the Armageddon Cafe’. With some gleeful description and much relish, the prospect of haute cuisine for cannibal gourmets is brought alive on the page, the story a tasty antidote to all those cookery programmes cluttering up the TV schedules. Nigella was never this nasty, but possibly Gordon Ramsay was. In ‘Date Night’ by Pete ‘Patch’ Alberti a woman keeps bringing her dead lover back for sex, but it’s definitely a case of diminishing returns, the story’s end twist delighting as the full scope of what is taking place is revealed. ‘My Summer Romance’ by Sarah Goslee gives a vampire(ish) twist to the zombie trope, as a young girl falls in love with a zombie woman, not realising that she is being exploited, the story enlivened by some nice touches of detail about dating in the post-zombie age (e.g. the Personal ads on craigslist with such terms as ‘Z-curious’ and ‘No maggots please’ as a desiderata rather than ‘Non-smoker with GSOH’). The spectre of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies hangs over ‘Second Sunday in September’ by Steven James Scearce, the story of an upper class gal determined to still marry her betrothed even when he becomes a zombie, the idea pitched with a no doubt severed tongue in cheek and showing that there are some contracts you simply can’t get out of. ‘Obligate Cannibal’ by Kay T. Holt has a zombie doctor starting a sexual relationship with her patient, the story a bit longwinded, but with a delicious final twist as payoff for reader perseverance.

Final section Raunch opens with ‘Urbanites’ by Pete ‘Patch’ Alberti (him again – it’s not just the zombies that come back in this anthology), in which a couple continue their swinger lifestyle even after they become zombies, with not much to the story in terms of plot development and themes, but lively writing, plenty of graphic sex and a nice touch or two of humour. A couple of the stories are set in brothels. ‘Mitch’s Girl’ by Carrie Cuinn has a man falling for the zombie he must prep to work in a specialist brothel, an undertone of lost innocence to the tale, while Damon B’s ‘Liberation Den’ comes at it from the other side, with a couple who visit a zombie brothel finding that their feelings about this leisure pursuit differ greatly, causing them to drift apart, but only as a way of coming even closer together in a twist ending that seems so very obvious with the benefit of hindsight. The protagonist of ‘Honey’ by V.R. Roadifer learns that the only way to get a decent fuck in the post-zombie world is to go with a female zombie, only there is a rather nasty sting in this particular tale. Similarly in ‘Sublimation’ by Don Pizarro the bored and neglected wife of an ambitious necromancer gets some zombie satisfaction, the story raunchy and with a neat twist at the end.

The last story in the book, ‘Cloudy With a Chance of Zombie Orgasm’ by Annette
Dupree is the longest and at fourteen pages is not something I’d consider to be flash fiction, but that’s okay as it’s also one of the best, and certainly the sexiest, as gun toting heroine weather girl Poppy Lynn shoots up zombies until she learns that fucking all comers is far more satisfying. Cue lively lesbian sex and zombie men with slug like penises that detach for deeper penetration, in this wild ride come skull fuck which is as much fun as it is borderline incomprehensible, with echoes of Farmer’s Image of the Beast in the text. It’s a fitting end to a collection that shows the possibilities of both flash fiction and zombie erotica, making the reader think and feel, though not so much turning him on, and never mind what it says on the tin (but your mileage may differ). I loved it.

According to the tag line on the front of the ARC I got sent, THE LOVING DEAD
(Nightshade paperback, 256pp, $14.95) by Amelia Beamer is ‘the ultimate zombie love story’. There’s a lot of love in the book, mostly of the unrequited variety, and any number of messy relationships, with that between Kate and Michael, the two viewpoint characters, at the centre of the story. The couple house share in a suburb of Los Angeles, and work together at retail outlet Trader Joe’s. Kate is involved with married man Walter, a sugar daddy in all but name, while Michael is heavily into Kate, only too afraid of rejection to take the chance of telling her how he feels. As with all good love stories, zombie or otherwise, ‘will they or won’t they’ is one of the main narrative planks, and at some point before the final page we get resolution of a kind, though not exactly a happy ending: there is little reason to fear that this book will ever translate to the silver screen as a zomromcom vehicle for Jennifer Aniston, though I’d love to see Hollywood try.

The zombie plague is spread by the exchange of bodily fluids and so there is a fair bit of sex, though not enough to leave you feeling short changed by Rigor Amortis. It all kicks off with Kate deciding to explore her sexuality with belly dance teacher Jamie, who then turns into a zombie. Fortunately for Kate the handcuffs are on by that stage, but that doesn’t prevent other interested parties becoming infected. What follows is a pretty wild roller coaster ride of a story, taking in a trip on a zeppelin, a pitched battle at a supermarket, a hospital overrun, and assorted misfits gathering inside Alcatraz for a last stand, with Beamer riffing madly on the tropes of zombie cinema and giving each one her own unique twist.

Perhaps one of the most distinctive aspects of this book is the matter of fact nature of what is going down. The characters have watched all of the films and they’ve read The Zombie Survival Guide. When the shit hits the fan nobody is especially surprised, nobody denies the reality of what is happening, so indoctrinated have they all become with zombie folklore and myth. The effect is rather like witnessing the actions of one of those sad, misguided people who believe that soap operas are real, who mistake the actors for the characters they play, only here it’s acted out on a greater scale, the zombie apocalypse filed under business as usual. At back of all this there’s an engaging and very dry humour at work, seen most obviously in such things as an incidental homage to the original Haitian voodoo tradition, with the zombies controlled by the crack of a whip, or if you don’t happen to have a whip about your person the Indiana Jones app for iPhone will serve just as well, and in the deadpan conversations Kate has with her family members (is the zombie apocalypse a window of opportunity for her brother to come out as gay to their parents?).

The various relationships are worked out well, with Michael’s infatuation with Kate convincingly developed, his final act borne out of love every bit as much as it reeks of an emotional desperation. He travels for most of the book, and Kate is the destination he has in mind, even if the attraction, like that of a moth to a flame, may ultimately prove his undoing. She is a young woman who likes to experiment and take risks, conflicted in her relationship with Walter, wanting to do the best by everyone in her circle but not quite sure how to accomplish that. Kate’s fallible, she tells lies, she screws up, but there’s no meanness in her, and she will sacrifice herself for others when the circumstances merit. There’s an aura of shop soiled nobility about the character.

With the ending we come almost full circle, Kate finding closure with one of her lovers and starting a new relationship, only the world has changed. In the new world order the living dead can function as useful members of society thanks to drugs which allow them to control their appetites, but all the same they are pariahs, tolerated but not accepted, forced to live in the shadows and able to trust only their own kind. And there’s a subtext for the taking here if anybody cares to pick up on it, with the zombie state as a metaphor for homosexuality, a role that used to belong to vampires before they came over all emo and shiny. It’s a stretch, but not an impossible one, and even if your reach doesn’t extend quite that far this is still a fun book that breathes new life and vitality into an old corpse. Recommended.

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Song for a Saturday – Rene and Georgette Magritte…

…with Their Dog After the War.

I love Magitte, and I love this video.

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Filler content with Romans

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #9:-

Anno Mortis by Rebecca Levene
(Abaddon paperback, 358pp, £6.99)

You could be forgiven for thinking that Abaddon’s Tomes of the Dead releases have got out of sync with their titles. The last book in the series was called I, Zombie, bringing to mind Graves’ classic I, Claudius, but it’s this latest release that is set against the backcloth of the early Roman Empire, with Cl-Cl-Claudius given a bit part in the proceedings.

The year is 40AD and the mad Caligula is on the throne. Wannabe writer Petronius and barbarian gladiator Boda stumble across a plot by the Cult of Isis, led by the priestess Sopdet and writer Seneca, to open the gates of death and release the dead upon the world. The slave Narcissus also learns of the plot, but none of them can prevent disaster, despite the help of Boda’s enigmatic and mysterious countryman Vali. With an army of the living dead crowding at the walls of Rome, the four of them must venture down into the underworld to undo the damage and restore hope to the world, but it appears that neither Sopdet or Vali are who they claim to be, and something is going on that none of the others can begin to suspect.

Bottom line with this, it’s a fun book, with plenty of action and an ever escalating series of threats for the likable protagonists to deal with. From the early fights in the arena through to the shipboard brawl with inhuman guards, from a chariot race through the streets of Rome to a pitched battle with a zombie army, it never lets up for a moment, and concludes with an epic journey into the underworld, which was as distinctive and colourful as it was engaging. I’m not sure what an expert in comparative mythology would make of the mix and match mythology that underpins the story, but Levene did enough to make it credible for a dilettante such as myself. Similarly, while you’re probably not going to read this for the history, what she does give us of the ancient world is convincing enough to pass muster for all except the most informed. There’s some good, solid characterisation too. Petronius stands out, on the one hand a bit of a wastrel, but on the other he has the proverbial kind heart and grows morally during the course of the story, learning to question the assumptions of his class, while the burgeoning romance with Boda was a nice touch, two people who are complete opposites coming to respect and care for each other. Mad Caligula was a particular delight, willing to sacrifice the whole world to be reunited with his dead sister Drusilla, and with a hair trigger temper that could see anyone feeling his ire. In the modern world he would probably be an editor.

I had a good time with this and it keeps up the quality of Abaddon’s Tomes of the Dead series nicely.

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