Four novel reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #37:-
I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed a couple of short story collections by Ralph Robert Moore, and said as much in the pages of this magazine, but AS DEAD AS ME (Sentence Publishing paperback, 205pp, $13.95) is my first novel, and it came as something of a shock. Considering the originality of his work in the short form (an example appears in this issue of Black Static), I was surprised to see him tackling one of the horror genre’s most familiar tropes, the zombie apocalypse, though the author gives it his very own, uniquely individual spin.
Our protagonist Jack opens the book by getting involved in a car crash, when driving to visit his girlfriend. Hospitalised, he is in a unique position to view the onslaught of the zombie plague, barely escaping with his life and surviving through scavenging until rescued by a military unit. Led by the avuncular Colonel, this small band of survivors flees to an island free of zombies, hatching plans to rebuild civilisation with all the zeal of a Wellsian artilleryman planning the downfall of Martian invaders. Jack becomes a respected member of their community, taking part in foraging raids that bring back an oil tanker to meet the community’s energy requirements, food and livestock and medical supplies from the mainland, and in a daring raid on a prison for women adding to their genetic stock. The future is looking bright, but of course this is a work of horror fiction and there are no happy endings, with the tipping point now reached and the narrative plunging into a dive from which neither characters or reader can recover, with flesh on every side and not a man alive, to paraphrase Coleridge, though you’ll have to read the book yourself to determine if doing so is apt or not.
As Dead As Me is, as I’d expect from Moore, a well written and fast paced story, one that takes no prisoners. As regards the plot, I have only the one reservation, in that I would have expected some of the survivors to have seen Romero’s Land of the Dead and twig what is going on with the zombies at the end, and also – plot spoiler alert!!! – I’m not convinced that water pressure wouldn’t have crushed any zombies attempting to reach the island by walking along the sea floor, so on that score the ending doesn’t quite ring true. Credibility may be beside the point however, in that the bleakness of the book’s last pages, underlining the futility of man’s attempts to survive, is the whole point of the story, with a final, soul crushing image of endless numbers of zombies marching from one horizon to the next and never finding what they seek.
While this is, undeniably, a dystopian zombie novel, one in which the living do not get back up off the deck and show the dead what they are made of, Moore plays fair with the reader who came expecting something more upbeat, providing plenty of thrills and spills along the way and offering visions of hope, even if only to ultimately render them all null and crushed beneath the wheels of his narrative. There’s plenty of sound and fury, as with the fight on the oil tanker, various running battles and the increasingly desperate efforts to escape from the prison as the zombie horde batter at the gate and walls. Along the way we get peaceful interludes, moments in which we can see what Jack and the others are made of, the kind of people they might have been in other circumstances, and the grace under pressure that they demonstrate in the face of a world that has fallen in on itself and in doing so torn away everyone they ever loved. By making his characters so fully rounded, Moore gives us a reason to care about them, and this in turn makes the book’s resolution all the more poignant and painful. Kudos also to him for avoiding clichés in developing his dramatis personae; nobody here goes mad or betrays the others, the soldiers don’t turn into murderous zealots and the solitary scientist on the scene doesn’t just happen to be the one who unleashed the zombie plague in the first place, all of which I found rather refreshing. These are just ordinary human beings, acting with common decency in the face of the unacceptable, and that is all she wrote.
The other thing that comes over very well, is the need for hard choices to be made, with the wounded killed rather than left behind to become zombies, the abandonment of ideas of faithfulness in the face of the need to breed, and with even the zombies considered for reproduction, raising questions that will probably polarise the readership and introduce a grim streak that undercuts the story. And so yes, Moore has written a zombie novel, but it’s not just another zombie novel. He takes the familiar and makes it heartrendingly sad, but not at the expense of the action fans of this subgenre will have come to expect from zombie fare.
Eric Red’s DON’T STAND SO CLOSE (Short, Scary Tales Publications hardback, 268pp, £19.95) is the story of new kid in town, seventeen year old Matt Poe, for whom the ultimate teenage wet dream becomes a reality, with beautiful teacher Linda Hayden lusting after his hot young bod and drawing Matt into a torrid affair. But when Matt decides to end things after becoming enamoured with nice girl Grace McCormack, the daughter of the town’s Sheriff, his teacher turns out to not be quite as obliging as she is in other ways. In fact Ms Hayden has a history of this type of thing, travelling round the country from one educational institution to another and seducing the students in her charge, often driving them to suicide.
This is a fast paced tale of teenage lust turning sour, and entertaining enough on that level, with plenty of twists and turns, the kind of thing that Richard Laymon in his heyday would have knocked out of the park. More than anything it reminded me of the film Swimfan, with a teacher replacing the besotted bathing beauty in the role of sociopath with benefits, and of course by making his femme fatale a teacher Red opens up a whole other can of worms touching on our fears regarding the people we trust to look after our children. But there are problems. For starters, I’m not quite convinced by the idea of Ms Hayden fitting into each new community and moving on when her ‘work’ is done – there would presumably be relocation fees, expenses etc., and I would hope schools run background checks on the staff they employ, but none of this seems to have been satisfactorily addressed. Eric Red is a scriptwriter whose credits include Near Dark and The Hitcher, and perhaps this background explains why he can’t resist the clichéd ending of having the monster escape and live to slay another day, while the explanation via back story that he gives for Linda’s behaviour, laudable as it was in creating motivation and some sympathy for the devil, complicates things in that Matt Poe no longer seems such an obvious victim for her.
The biggest obstacle for me though is the writing. There are too many scenes where I simply can’t envisage how the action takes places, as when Matt has his hand up Linda’s dress during a burial ceremony and apparently no-one notices (yes, they’re standing at the back of the crowd, but either Linda hikes up the dress or Matt has to bend double, neither of which convinces), or the scene when a jock is knocked out of the cab of a farm machine by an assailant he hasn’t noticed in the small space and manages to fall onto the spokes of the thresher at the front of the vehicle. I don’t say these things are impossible, but as described here I simply can’t visualise them. Another thing I found annoying were sudden shifts of perspective, so that we’re reading about Matt and Grace, he and she, him and her, and then disconcertingly it changes to something more detached like ‘the teenager’ or ‘the kid’. There are also moments of the ‘eyes rolled round the room’ type, as when Matt is in the living room of Ms Hayden’s house and ‘whirled to see the grandfather clock upstairs loudly toll nine o’clock’. The sex scenes, where delicacy of expression is almost obligatory, are especially cringe worthy, with references to motors revving and pocket rockets, while phrases like ‘He was overcome with overwhelming lust and sexual fever’ and ‘His fingers met moistness as her gloved fingers pressed his fingers deep inside her’ seem to have been penned with one eye on the Bad Sex Awards. As well as being about horny teenagers the novel sometimes feels like it could just as easily have been written by one. I’ve loved what I’ve seen of Eric Red’s work as a scriptwriter (the films referenced above), but have serious doubts about his prose chops on the basis of this evidence. Don’t Stand So Close needed a thorough edit to realise the potential of the story, instead of leaving the reader with a sensitive ear wincing at such prose indelicacies.
Though it’s the most recently published, I believe AXE (Double Dragon eBooks, 294pp, £3.06) is Terry Grimwood’s first novel. Forty something Steve Turner still clings to his dream of success as a rock musician, occasionally playing with his band at night while keeping body and soul together by working on a building site during the day. He hooks up with Lydia Walker, a white bread woman who appears to be out of his league, but who is attracted to his gruff honesty and has a past that includes an abusive husband, from whom she is in hiding. All seems well until Steve becomes the owner of a parcel of old music, which may have been written by legendary guitarist Andy Crane, a man who died in mysterious circumstances. As he plays this strange music, Steve is transformed, tapping into the hellish power of The Song that underlies all existence and unleashing forces that are inimical to life as we know it.
Axe lacks the ambition of Grimwood’s later books, titles like The Places Between and Bloody War, and the prose sophistication of Soul Masque (see above). What we have here is a bog standard, balls to the wall tale of forbidden music and gateways to power, of cursed instruments and unwelcome revenants, told with considerable panache and working so well because of the humanity Grimwood brings to the endeavour, the way in which he makes the people central. At the heart of the story is Steve’s relationship with Lydia, gradually deteriorating as The Song captivates him, Steve becoming a distorted mirror image of her hated husband, with the idea of love saving them both a straw at which they clutch. Steve is changed in other ways, getting angry with his band mates who seem ready to give up on the dream of rock stardom, to accept that they are now family men, with responsibilities. Seen in the relationships of some of the other characters, the underlying theme here seems to be that there comes a moment to abandon our dreams before they sour and taint the rest of our lives, our whole world. Add to that an intriguing back story courtesy of Andy Crane and his enigmatic lady love, some finely drawn characters, plus a battery of spectral effects and in your face horror imagery, and the end result is a novel that, while it won’t break any moulds or win any awards, is an entertaining read from a writer who knows his stuff.
Lastly we have MECHAGNOSIS (Dog Horn Publishing paperback, 144pp, £12.99), Douglas Thompson’s fourth novel, and the third that I’ve read by him. Scott Malthrop is a murderer, but one who is able to hide his crimes through the manipulation of time. His house has been given over to an enormous device known simply as The Machine, built by Scott and his father, and which he believes enables him to travel in time. But as Scott’s distortions of the fabric of reality grow ever more extreme, he comes to the attention of Wroclaw, a local Police Inspector, and two angels sent back from the end of time. The only escape route for Scott Malthrop, is to disappear inside the bowels of The Machine.
It’s a short book compared to its predecessors, but probably Thompson’s most challenging work to date, and I’d be lying if I claimed to understand it fully. If I’m engaging with it correctly, the master conceit here seems to be that objects (and The Machine is just an assemblage of objects, a personal Palace of Memory) have the potential to induce sensations so intense that they transport us back to the time when we first encountered them (think Proust’s madeleine, though as I haven’t actually read In Search of Lost Time that comparison could be totally off target). Memories are made real, in a world where the mechanical and the organic have fused to create some new form of gnosis, knowledge. Onto this scenario Thompson has grafted a police investigation, one that is as satisfying as it is convincing, with shades of The X-Files in the mix, and add to that the spiritual/metaphysical aspects which question the nature of reality and consciousness itself. And yet it remains a very human book despite the esoteric concerns. Scott’s crimes are committed primarily to keep his secret, but at the same time by preserving their bodies in The Machine he can ensure those he loves remain close to him, like Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians choosing the moments in which to live. Beautifully written, beautifully characterised, particularly in the case of Wroclaw, an old man yearning for the things he feels he has missed out on, this is a book that will reward future readings, one that like The Machine itself, has secrets to reveal, visions of other realities.