Filler content with dead men (and women) – Part 1

Three reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #3 as part of a feature on zombies:-

DOWN AMONG THE DEAD MEN

While its place in popular culture is assured, courtesy of films, video games and Michael Jackson’s Thriller, until recently the zombie has lagged behind some of the other great horror archetypes in the literary stakes. Yes, there have been fine novels such as Somtow’s Darker Angels and Dickinson’s Walking Dead, but nothing to compare with the body of literature that has accrued around, for example, the vampire, and most of the significant developments in the zombie subgenre have come courtesy of film. In the main I think this is due to the zombie’s status as a ‘blue collar’ monster, terrifying en masse, but with no memorable individuals for the reader to love or loathe in the way that we do such iconic figures as Dracula and Lestat, though there’s evidence that may be changing post Romero’s introduction of Big Daddy in Land of the Dead.

And yet, regardless of all the foregoing, it seems that here at Case Notes we are in the middle of a glut of zombie novels. Go figure.

US author Brian Keene is in the forefront of the zombie invasion. His 2004 novel The Rising was a thrill a minute tale told of a post-apocalyptic world in which the dead are reanimated by ancient spirits and where humanity has its back to the wall. Dead Sea (Leisure paperback, 337pp, $7.99), Keene’s latest, is set in the same milieu, but for all practical purposes can be read as a standalone novel, with the demonic element of no concern.

Forced by fire and zombies to flee his safe house in East Baltimore, Lamar Reed falls in with two children, the precocious Malik and Tasha, and heavily armed former biker Mitch. They find sanctuary aboard the Coast Guard cutter Spratling and take to the high seas with a crew of other desperate people, and for a time all looks rosy, but their security is an illusion. The zombie threat gets a foothold aboard the ship, from which point on it’s a tale of diminishing returns, as the ever dwindling band of survivors fight to reach the safety of an offshore oil drilling platform.

Like the other books by Keene that I’ve read, Dead Sea is a fusion of the action and horror genres (Rambo meets Romero). The action side of things is accounted for by the numerous fire fights and set pieces that punctuate the narrative, and as far as that goes it’s an exciting and gripping story, with plenty of bang for our buck. The characters are well drawn and handled convincingly, with Lamar an agreeable protagonist, one with feet of clay but all the more engaging for that, trying hard to live up to the role of hero that’s fallen into his lap courtesy of a Joseph Campbell quoting academic, and feeling inadequate even as everyone else thinks otherwise. And we get all the tensions and hostilities that inevitably arise in any small group forced into each other’s company, with Keene never missing the opportunity for another turn of the screw.

As for the horror side of things, that’s down to the zombies, of course, plus the obligatory lashings of gore and images that stick in the mind, such as a field of the crucified living dead, writhing on their crosses. More significant still is the sense of hopelessness that permeates the text, as every lifeline that’s thrown to the characters is cruelly snatched away, and an unrelenting feeling of despair grows with each page. Ultimately, as the world collapses around him and possibilities dwindle, it’s through growing into the role of father and protector to the children that Lamar achieves a kind of personal redemption. The subtext, if there is one, seems to be that, in a time when the world is going to hell in a hand basket, you find happiness and hope wherever you can. It’s a hard message to hear, but Keene is a gifted storyteller, one who will hold your attention every step of the way on this journey into some heart of darkness, and regardless of how bleak, Dead Sea is never less than entertaining.

Cherie Priest’s Not Flesh Nor Feathers (Tor paperback, 400pp, $14.95) is the third Eden Moore novel. Eden, for those not in the know, is a young lady with psychic powers (she can heal quickly and talk to spirits), and a resident of Chattanooga.

When street people start to disappear the authorities don’t take the matter seriously. A friend of Eden’s tries to involve her, but she doesn’t place much credence in his story of things coming out of the river, though it does tie in with her aunt’s misgivings about Eden’s plan to move into a riverside apartment. Another friend, TV news reporter Nick, enlists her aid when the resident ghost at the Read House hotel turns nasty, performing poltergeist attacks on Eden and others. Of course the two plot strands connect, and when the river rises to flood the city an army of zombies take to the streets, led by the restless spirit of a dead girl, with death and destruction following in their wake. It’s up to Eden to contend with tragedies both natural and supernatural, and put things back together as best she can.

Not Flesh Nor Feathers is a book with associations. Inevitably, as it concerns the flooding of a southern city, New Orleans will spring to mind, though Priest is at pains to point out in her afterword that the book was planned and sold before Katrina was anything more than a name, and while the writing took place afterwards it was not her intention to address that very real disaster in her fiction. Nonetheless, those events will inform any reading, and add a frisson of recognition as the waters rise and the authorities are shown as hopelessly unprepared, all their defences useless against the advancing tide, while human beings find themselves trapped and give in to panic. Other than that, with zombies in lieu of spectral pirates and a flood standing in for maritime precipitation, there are elements of the plot that could easily step into an identity line next to Carpenter’s The Fog. Similar themes of retribution for past injustice inform the book. Of course, Carpenter didn’t invent or have a monopoly on those concerns, and Priest more than makes them her own, adding racial intolerance to the mix. These twin associations, real and fictional, give Priest’s novel a solid grounding, one that will resonate for most readers.

Eden is an engaging character, every bit as likable here as in her initial outing, feisty and tolerant, but with an edge to her. Instead of being simply a pretext for super heroics and plot leaps, her abilities are portrayed convincingly in that they not only serve her well in the survival stakes but come with attendant self-doubt and pain. And she also has a memorable supporting cast, from street person Christ Adams to possible romantic interest Nick, through her overly protective aunt and uncle and estranged brother Malachi, who has more than his own share of past sins to atone for (and he does). Priest puts them through their paces with a skill that enables suspension of disbelief as the ever more fantastic elements of the plot unfold, with scenes of outright horror interlaced with quieter, more chilling interludes. Few readers will easily forget either the fury of the poltergeist attack on Eden or the chilling scene in the prologue where two young women hide in the loft of a flooded building and listen to dead hands knock against the boards beneath them, but these and other set pieces are simply the appetisers for Eden’s final frantic struggle against rising floodwaters and rampaging zombies.

David Wellington published his first novel, Monster Island, online and, near as I can figure, became the rage of the blogosphere, subsequently garnering a publishing contract (in the UK something similar happened with the case of Belle Du Jour – we get high class call girls, and in America they get zombies; so which country is backward, do you think?).

The central character in Monster Planet (Thunder’s Mouth Press paperback, $13.95), the third and final volume of the series, is Sarah, the daughter of Island’s protagonist Dekalb, who has survived in Africa, where isolated pockets of humanity continue to hold out against the zombie menace, but this idyll is coming to an end. When her mentor Ayaan is taken by minions of a powerful necromancer, the Tsarevich, Sarah comes up with an audacious plan to rescue her, but this involves travelling to America, where the Tsarevich has plans of his own, including a search for the magical Source. The trek brings her into contact with many characters from the previous volumes, including her father and his nemesis Gary, and the ancient druid Mael Mag Och, who plots the end of all life. Sarah must make hard choices, deciding not only the fate of the world but that of her father and her best friend Ayaan, who has become a lich and thrown in her lot with the Tsarevich.

Wellington has been praised, deservedly, for his originality and his trilogy, with its near future setting, the characters’ easy familiarity with advanced weaponry and military technology, their use of viruses and cryogenics, all give the books a thoroughly modern feel. And yet by the third volume science has given way to what, for all intents and purposes, feels like magic, with an older prototype of the zombie peeping out from behind corners in the narrative, so reading it I cannot help thinking of Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique stories superimposed on the world of the twenty first century.

The cover proudly proclaims “A Zombie Novel”, but Wellington seems loathe to use the Z word. Instead we get ghouls and liches. We get necromancers at war with each other, and ferocious battles between the living dead and super strong mummies. We get dead people bred for intelligence and special abilities, so that at times the Tsarevich seems like Professor X surrounded by his own team of mutants. The streets of New York, the battlefield for Island, are now overrun with strange, luxuriant growths, plants that will feast on human flesh, while Gary, the enemy of yesteryear is reborn as a many legged monster. And at the end of it all is the Source, a Gaian like eruption of energy that can be used to kill or cure.

It’s intoxicating stuff, and the end result is an adventure novel, one with numerous twists and turns of fortune, characters we believe in and care about even as we shudder at the circumstances that shaped them, a wealth of invention and incidental colour. Never less than readable, this is a series that transcends the zombie subgenre to offer a new merging of fantasy and horror in the modern world. In a nutshell, Wellington has brought back the magic and, kicking against the traces, made his zombies sexy.

(TO BE CONTINUED)

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