Filler content with dead men (and women) – Part 2

Following on from Tuesday’s blog post, here are a further four reviews from the feature on zombies that originally appeared in Black Static #3:-

DOWN AMONG THE DEAD MEN (continued)

The Devil’s Plague (Abaddon paperback, 256pp, £6.99) by Mark Beynon is the third volume in the publisher’s Tomes of the Dead. The premise behind this series is to take a historic period and introduce zombies into the mix, for which there’s a fine precedent in Somtow’s American Civil War novel Darker Angels. I enjoyed the first two Tomes very much, and there are the reviews to prove it, but this volume was disappointing.

It’s set against the background of the English Civil War, which Cromwell was losing until he made a pact with the Devil and turned the tide with the aid of an army of invincible horse borne warriors known as the Kryfangan. But of course there are consequences to such tampering with the natural order, and the dead return to life to battle the Kryfangan. The story is told mainly from the viewpoint of theatre troupe manager Sir William Davenant, who finds Charles Stuart hiding in a tree after the Battle of Worcester and agrees to help him escape to Portsmouth. Along the way the pair and their travelling companions get into and out of various scrapes, with a final flurry in London when Kryfangan and zombies engage in all out war. There follows a hiatus of fifteen years, with the capital city abandoned to the combatants, before Charles Stuart returns in the historically significant year of 1666 to predictably cleanse the capital with fire.

This is all rather ramshackle, with Davenant’s predisposition to get caught and then escape soon growing tiresome, so that you don’t think of the story so much as plotted as a series of fires and frying pans thrown together to get the characters where they need to be. The Kryfangan are a horrendously contrived plot convenience, made no more realistic by attempts to identify other occurrences in history, and in a hopelessly naff epilogue that even a Hollywood hack might have blanched at we get Churchill meeting a Mr Cipher. Red herrings are planted as well, with a witch introduced and then abandoned, the suggestion that Charles Stuart is boarding the wrong ship which comes to nothing, and so on.

The writing doesn’t quite catch fire either, even if London does. The action scenes don’t come alive in the way that they did in previous volumes, and they seem doled out sparingly, with everything saved up for the big finale, regarding which, given the ferocity of both zombies and Kryfangan, I have to wonder how the conflict got dragged out for fifteen years, as a war of attrition seemed like the last thing on the cards. There are too many intrusive flashbacks used to move the plot along and some of the most obvious foreshadowing I’ve seen; Davenant, who’s spent fifteen years in exile on the Isle of Wight, wonders what happened to his old mate Charles Stuart, and then wonders who was in the boat that crept ashore last night, only to find standing on his doorstep the next day…

The only parts of the book that worked for me, were the characterisation of Davenant and his troupe of actors, the picture of the life of a travelling thespian in puritanical times, where staying ahead of the authorities is the name of the game. And, as if to prove that this was the book’s real narrative thrust, the main story ends anticlimactically with Davenant and his merry band getting to put on a long delayed performance for their rightful king. Check out the previous volumes first, if you want to know what the Tomes are capable of.

Terror Island (Hadesgate paperback, 271pp, $11.99) by Rakie Keig also started life on an internet blog and comes with a cover blurb by David Wellington, but as with Monster Planet there’s an old school feel to it. Old school in the sense that it brings to mind the classic Universal films in which Dracula met Frankenstein and Wolfman, with the same sense of gleeful fun and anything goes invention, but also a similar cavalier attitude to narrative cohesion and failures to address credibility.

Anna Martin and her student friend Mike are invited to visit a remote island off the coast of Norway, where her research scientist father is based, but on arrival they discover that he has gone missing. More revelations follow, as research station head Dr Ehren tells them the island’s secret. Its soil has special qualities and for centuries it has acted as a safe haven for creatures considered supernatural by the human world. There is a village populated by werewolves, a vampire stronghold and three hundred zombies are contained in an enclosure on the far side of the island. Humans are here to experiment on the other life forms, with cooperation of a degree from the first two categories. And, of course, it’s only a matter of time before things go pear shaped, with the zombies breaking out of their containment and attacking the humans, while vampires and werewolves join in to forward their own agendas.

My reservations are mostly to do with credibility. Even allowing for the existence of such a magical island, Ehren’s willingness to permit Anna and Mike access to what must be one of the world’s most closely guarded secrets doesn’t stand up to close examination. Similarly, Anna has dreams of a strange girl who guides her actions, but this ‘psychic’ gift is never properly explained and doesn’t seem to serve any useful purpose except to act as deus ex machina in the novel’s end game. And there are other unanswered questions, such as the reason behind the murder in the first chapter and the fate of Anna’s father. Whether these are simply plot holes or riddles to be solved in a future volume is never made clear, and certainly I can see a lot of potential as regards the latter option.

Reservations aside, what remains is an exciting adventure story with some attention grabbing action scenes as humans, zombies, vampires and werewolves duke it out, with the desperate fight inside the humans’ compound in particular offering some edge of the seat stuff. Keig’s prose is somewhat raw compared to the other writers reviewed here, but she sets a breakneck pace as the story progresses, allowing the reader as little opportunity to catch his breath as she gives her characters, and continually pulling new surprises from up her sleeve. Nor does she stint on gore, with the zombies and others showing a lack of restraint and table manners that would challenge the ingenuity of a Tom Savini. Characterisation is handled with competence, so that each member of the cast has his or her own defining traits, and are easily recognisable. Yes, it is unsophisticated fare, obviously a first novel and pitched as entertainment rather than aspiring to any status as art, but Terror Island is never dull and taken on its own terms will provide a few hours of horror fun for most readers.

Deadbeat: Dogs of Waugh (Humdrumming paperback, 166pp, £7.99) by Guy Adams is the second novella in an ongoing series, and bucks the zombie stereotype by presenting zombies with personalities. I missed the first book and so am not too sure about the backdrop to this series. It seems to be set in a Britain where there is a zombie community existing just below the radar, known to the authorities but not of any real concern, and for all practical purposes the zombies seem to be just like everybody else, except dead. Adams’ protagonists, bar owner Tom and gadfly friend Max, are like nothing so much as the living dead equivalent of Wooster and Wooster, drinking, chasing girls and acting like fools. Toto, we are not in Pittsburgh, and that’s for sure.

Dogs of Waugh also has the most original plot conceit, cleverly turning around anthropologist Wade Davis’ theory that the zombie state can be drug induced. Here it’s the dead who are infected with a drug that induces all the symptoms of life, and thus become ripe for enslavement by the book’s evil mastermind, an agreeably nasty bit of work called Waugh, who unleashes a zombie army and some ferocious other dimensional dogs on our heroes when they throw a spanner into his works. Fortunately Max and Tom have some rather unlikely but powerful allies of their own.

As a first step, a small caveat emptor: while it is a very nice product there is a lot of white space in this book. The novella accounts for 127pp of the total, but thanks to chapter divisions 55 of those pages are either blank or contain nothing except the name of the viewpoint character. The pages that do contain text have up to 48 lines, but all the same there’s no getting away from the fact that you don’t get as much story for your money as you might expect.

Having said that, what we do get is a thoroughly satisfying and ingenious concoction, with Adams’ audacious riff on the zombie legend sure to put a smile on most readers’ faces. There’s a whole cast of larger than life characters, with the evil Waugh in particular a memorable creation, a believable and thoroughly ruthless megalomaniac, but one who has a soft spot for his henchmen, so much so that he goes off the rails when the head honcho is killed. There are some great set pieces, such as Max getting chased by the infernal dogs and Tom’s standoff with a night club full of zombies, and Adams integrates these well with the prevailing mood of comedy, so that the two effectively reinforce and play off of each other, while Max’s deprecating tone of voice is a constant delight. In another ingenious twist, Adams supplies some DVD style extra features, with a writer’s commentary on how the book was written, a short story concerning one of the minor characters, a trailer for the next in the series and a recipe for the Deadbeat Martini. It’s a neat touch and the perfect cap to a book that seems to revel in doing things differently, while not taking itself entirely seriously. And it also has the funniest one line chapter since Myra Breckinridge woke up in a hospital bed and demanded. “’Where are my breasts? Where are my breasts?’”

World War Z (Duckworth paperback, 342pp, £8.99) by Max Brooks, the son of actor and director Mel Brooks, is the most realistic of these novels, both by reason of the rationale given for zombies (a virus, Solanum, causes the condition) and the unusual method used to tell the story.

Subtitled An Oral History of the Zombie War, Brooks’ work is set in the aftermath of that great struggle and pitched in the form of a series of interviews and extracts in which the people who survived tell their stories. We get the first incidents of the zombie plague in China and then its spread to the rest of the world. We learn of the ineffectiveness of contemporary models of warfare against the zombie menace and the drastic measures that are forced on the various nation states, with a pull back to defensible areas. We then learn of mankind’s great fight back and the aftermath of the war, with the various efforts at reconstruction. There are individual incidents, such as the disappearance of the entire nation of North Korea, the evacuation of Japan and Cuba’s ascendancy in the new world order. Various soldiers talk about their difficult tasks during the war, such as those charged with tackling zombies underwater or in the catacombs beneath Paris, the methods that served them well and the sacrifices that were made. Points are made about the remorseless nature of the zombie enemy and how he is the first to be truly committed to total warfare.

Brooks plays it deadpan and as a result World War Z is an eminently engaging read. He captures perfectly the voices of a vast range of different characters, people from all walks of life, adding to each those touches of detail that enhance the verisimilitude of the whole. His gradual build up and revelation of the zombie threat is assured, and he makes realistic the danger of ‘shuffling’ zombies, something which to many of us might seem somewhat overstated. He gives us an alternative vision of the world at war, with the human spirit seen at its best and worst, plunged into the depths of despair by defeat and soaring on the wings of victory. The net result is a truly gripping story, one that holds the attention all the way and, thanks to its thoroughly modern format, cannot help bringing to mind such news reports as the recent avian flu outbreak or the foot and mouth crisis of a few years’ back, which in turn adds another frisson to the reading experience. For Brooks, zombies are just another illness waiting to happen and, even if we don’t actually believe that the dead can return to life and eat the living, the picture of a contagion out of control and demanding draconian measures is an unsettling one.

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