Sunday was Z-Day round Chez Tennant, about which more later. In the circumstances there was only one story I could read as part of my ongoing appreciation of work by female contributors to Black Static for Women in Horror Recognition Month – and that was Suzanne Palmer‘s “Zombie Cabana Boy” from issue #17.
Palmer, whose fiction has also appeared in Interzone, is an old style storyteller, with a keen sense of plot and character, placing emphasis first and foremost on entertaining the reader. This story, like the other work I’ve seen by her, wouldn’t have looked out of place in the pulps of yesteryear, though possibly some of the sex might have needed to be toned down depending on how far yester-year we’re talking. She puts me very much in mind of writers like William Tenn, the same blend of narrative control, wry humour and a barbed satire lurking beneath the surface.
The story’s opening line sets the tone and captures the voice – ‘Yeah, I’m ashamed, of course I’m ashamed.’ What follows is a first person confession of sorts that can’t help but put the reader in mind of “Interview With the Vampire”, though in this case the person taking notes is a female police officer. The narrator, Marilou, comes over as slightly self-justifying and a tad sorry for herself, but there’s humour in the woman’s voice that means we never take against her.
I’ll leave aside the circumstances of this confession, as that might give too much away, but the back story is that, after the death of her husband, Marilou moves to tropical climes, where she becomes involved with a group of middle-aged women who resurrect young dead men to be used for their sexual pleasure. Repelled at first, Marilou is soon drawn in and finds that she herself has a talent for raising the dead, becoming a business partner of ‘black widow’ Helen. Unfortunately Marilou falls in love with one of her sexual partners, the cabana boy of the title, and Helen disapproves, so the stage is set for a power struggle and byzantine revenge.
With its careful working out of the mechanics of zombie sex and its logistics as a criminal enterprise the story has a foothold in urban fantasy territory (though probably not paranormal romance), while its use of the zombie trope harks back to the earliest prototypes, the model that served in films such as Lugosi vehicle White Zombie, where the living dead are used as slaves, manual labour. Marilou doesn’t see things in quite this light though, or consider it a problem, at least not until she learns that women are also being resurrected to serve as sex slaves for elderly men (the double standard is alive and well and living beachside).
It’s a fun story, well written and with a delicious plot, and you can enjoy it as nothing more than that, but there are serious issues touched upon, deftly hidden in the narrative. By focusing on the sex trade Palmer gives her story a very modern slant, and is able to pose questions about the nature and morals of prostitution and drug use. How do we feel about Marilou and what she does? Is the body nothing more than a casing for the soul, and if so is it then okay to use it for other purposes once whatever animating principle was in residence has vacated the premises?