OR: Concrete Jungle

A review that originally appeared on the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com on the 1st of August last year:-

With growing concerns over climate change and the resurgence of fascist politics, while never truly out of fashion, apocalyptic fiction has acquired an unwelcome topicality in the early years of our new century. Australian writer Brett McBean gives us a rather intriguing and different end of the world scenario with his 2010 short novel CONCRETE JUNGLE (Tasmaniac Publications limited edition hc/pb, 210pp, $80/$14).

It appears that Mother Nature has decided to push the reset button and giant trees sprout with prodigious speed, pushing up through concrete and metal, undoing man’s mastery of the planet in a matter of hours. The story is told from the perspective of a group of people trapped in an underground parking garage, who gradually realise what has happened and must find ways to survive in a radically altered world, one where their species is not automatically king of the hill.

Paul just dropped into the mall for a last minute birthday present for his estranged son when the disaster occurred. Mother Beth and rebellious daughter Candice are two posh women and rather out of their depth at first, though they soon learn to do what they must to survive, no matter how terrible. Elderly Harold has lost first his wife and then his grandson, a witness to their deaths, but despite his grief he has military experience that will serve the group well in their struggle to survive. And, as ever, the biggest danger in this scenario comes courtesy of other human beings. Introducing weirdo Bruce, who appears to have wandered in from a Richard Laymon novel and sees the end of the world as an opportunity to go native, daubing his body with war paint, making weapons, given leave to kill and rape whoever he wishes.

With a dedication to J. G. Ballard, I’d guess that his disaster/urban blight novels were a source of inspiration for the story, though McBean lacks both Ballard’s prose chops and his psychological acuity For me the book was a fast paced and exciting read, with wet work that put me very much in mind of the aforementioned Laymon’s oeuvre. There is no pity here; terrible things happen to the nice people just as much as they do the bad, and McBean seems unwilling to spare no-one.

The backdrop to the story has about it both a feel of originality and at the same time a sense of just desserts for wasteful mankind. The characters are well drawn, given a depth in the early stages that serves the writer well as they later interact with each other. Only Bruce appears to have no real motivation for the way in which he behaves, is simply an embodiment of the bestial side of human nature. And, as with Laymon’s work, I have the reservation that there isn’t really much in the way of a psychological dimension regarding what happens to these people; the physical hardships they endure seem to exist in a vacuum, with no real emotional kick. They get hurt, they scream and curse, they get up and do it all over again, but perhaps I’m being overly analytical and that’s just the way things would go down in this sort of scenario. Hopefully I’ll never get to find out. Ultimately the book feels like splatterpunk more than anything else, albeit a rather sophisticated form of the subgenre and with a socially aware sensibility to the work.

There are two bonus stories set in this “shared” world. ‘Lullaby’ by Tim Kroenert has a group of friends and strangers trapped in a bar when the trees rise, but their comfy billet is upset by the invasion of a spider swarm, which is when they discover everyone’s agenda. It’s a story that doesn’t add anything to the premise, but written with an amiable and laidback prose style that captures perfectly both the camaraderie and the perfidy of the protagonists. Nate Kenyon’s ‘The Cage’ presents us with a prison scenario and the guards fearful of their charges post the Event, though one of the guards isn’t who he appears to be. It’s a decent little story with some memorable characters and daring to ask questions about the nature of justice and revenge. Neither story has the depth of the main event, but then I wouldn’t expect them to. This is Brett McBean’s show.

Artist Keith Minnion serves up some fabulous illustrations to complement the text, the kind that give rise to epithets like “worth the price of admission alone”. The book was produced in a limited edition of 26 lettered hardcovers and 180 numbered softcovers, all signed by the writer. Tasmaniac have probably sold out by now, given the tardiness of my reviewing practises, but you may be able to find copies of this attractive book elsewhere if you shop around, and if the asking price is too steep then Cemetery Dance have released an edition for Kindle that might meet your horror needs.

I note that Brett McBean has gone on to complete a Jungle trilogy, with Neighborhood Jungle and Suburban Jungle to carry the story forward. Those are available on Kindle too.

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