Composite Creatures

Composite Creatures by Caroline Hardaker is the kind of book, and reading experience, I find very difficult to talk about. I know that, theoretically, I am capable of actual criticism of the book — like, maybe it’s not great how Hardaker keeps the reveal for the last pages, and then the coda is kind of a retroactive infodump — but then none of that actually matters. This book set me wailing around the house, absolutely distraught for no reason I could identify with precision. It’s like my interior state became too large, too full with the proceedings, and I end up this inchoate mess who has lost language.

I’ve had this experience a handful of other times, where I have this paralyzed, almost jealous feeling about a novel. Notably, they all tend to be debut or early novels by women in often claustrophobic environments: The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke, Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng, Severance by Ling Ma, even God’s War by Kameron Hurley, even though that’s a bit of an outlier in terms of tone. They’re all a little messy, but have the viscera of an artist’s early work.

I’ve always been a fan of the Gothic, which can sometimes be almost cartoonishly large, in both literal and emotional spaces. Degenerate, aristocratic families rot in their crumbling manses, dead wives haunt the folly in diaphanous dresses, and hulking, Byronic figures silhouette themselves on the mountaintop, in the sheeting rain. The trappings of the hardcore, Victorian Gothic are so outsized they verge on comedy, if not deliberately, then in that blinking naiveté which is hard to discern from actual irony. Sometimes the satire can’t be told apart from its object, and Gothics often play with that ambiguity. I’ve been reading the Gormenghast books, for example, and that has both the gravidity and comedy of Gothic fiction in spades.

But Gothic that goes small — that details a cozy bungalow in some suburb, and the inconsequential denizens therein — absolutely catches me where I live. I’m completely susceptible to narratives of women locked in domestic environments which have been rendered inexorably, permanently strange. My outsized reactions might seem easy to psychoanalyze — look at mom, mommishly momming — though I think my affinities are probably at least as messy as the works that provoke them.

We meet Norah on a first date with Art, and everything about it feels jumbled and and wrong-footed. Their relationship with each other has been mediated by an ominous medical corporation called Easton Grove for inscrutble reasons. Though their first date feels no better than average, they are overly congratulatory of how well they got on, and seemingly rush into a cohabitation and marriage. Their first holiday party, to which Norah invites friends from her Life Before, is a master class in social anxiety and dangerous subterranean fault lines. The conversation always dances around some essential violation or transgression of Norah’s, one which must be worse than that Art is boring and American. Norah shies constantly from thinking of her previous lover, the one the friends knew, and this avoidance is a central lacuna, both in terms of narrative, and her personality.

Into this void, Easton Grove sends Nut, a mysterious creature who feels, at least in the beginning, like cross between a cat and an infant. They’re not supposed to name her, nor are they supposed to give her run of the house, but both things happen inexorably, even as these encroachments upend their lives. Art is a midlist writer of crime novels of some success, and Nut’s (and to a lesser extent, Norah’s) intrusion into his writing space disorders his ability to write. Norah more wholly embraces Nut, going against the edicts of Easton Grove, and her everyday companionship with the creature is shot through with anxiety and transgression. Norah often feels to me like Kat from The Mad Scientist’s Daughter: Both live with this inexplicable being in a cozy home in a dying world. Because the world is dying, quite literally, outside the windows of their small domestic spaces.

Norah’s relationship to art is all over this novel, and it would probably be easy to make some pat announcement about domesticity and its impact on creatively or whatnot. For one, her husband’s name is Art, and he is, indeed, an artist (though there’s a lowkey but constant denigration of his crime novels as unserious or lower order, both self-deprecatingly from him, and from others.) More importantly, Norah came into some money — the money that made it possible for her to enter into her relationship with Easton Grove, Nut, and Art him/itself — because of her artist mother. Her mother was locally influential painter, and after her death, her paintings acquired a posthumous cache, and sold for much more than they could have while she was living. Norah, by contrast, works some sort of corporate drone job, and even with Easton Grove’s meddling, is content largely to languish in the middle of the org chart. A large part of her emotional energies go to Nut, and though I think it could be possible to read this as the ways women are lanced of creative purpose by child minding — a sort of A Room of One’s Own where the room contains a fucking baby — but that’s too simple a reading.

I have two children — teenagers — on the cusp of becoming. I live in a comfortable house occasionally uncomfortably. Outside of our domesticity, the oceans literally burn. While I may (and do) struggle with my creativity — maybe some day I’ll finish that novel of Gothic spaces — I am absolutely paralyzed by how fucked up the world is, how terrifying it is to have brought people into this world, who then have to survive the coming cataclysm. Norah’s crisis is both creative and procreative, and I feel in my guts how they both consume and create one another. The old saw about both art and children is that they are a form of immortality. When the world dies around us, neither feels permanent, which is the whole point of immortality, n’est pas?

There feels like a line out from Composite Creatures to Wittgenstein’s Mistress in a weird and winding way. I know my appreciation of Markson’s po-mo novel is all ass-backwards — like, I couldn’t care less about whatever bullshit he’s going on about i/r/t philosophy, but I am gutted — gutted — by the overt plot of the novel. In Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a woman possibly named Kate is the only living animal left on earth. She writes Twitter-length missives on a typewriter in the basement of a house she’s occasionally inhabiting, about what she’s doing and Classic literature and only very rarely her past. It is a record that will be read by no one, not even the narrator, who eschews retrospection. Of course, it’s fiction, so it is read, and by thousands, but that’s not the point.

The point is a dead and dying world inhabited by a being self aware enough to worry about the future, and self-involved enough to cannibalize whatever is at hand to survive. Kate pulls down a house on a beach and burns it for warmth. Norah, well. Her response is what happens in Composite Creatures, isn’t it?

And you know what? I can’t even blame her, even if much of what she does is unforgivable. There but for the grace go I.

Zombie Children in The Walking Dead

ETA: At the very end of this list, I say out loud: there’s no way there’s going to be a zombie child in the last whatever dozen episodes left until the end of the series. So of course, there was just one in episode 5 of the 11th season, “Out of the Ashes”. Lol, assholes. I’ll add that in later.

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I started trying to enumerate child zombies in movies when I watched the second Resident Evil movie, which has a whole classroom full of zombie kids swarm and then drag off one of the characters. I was so surprised by this: I couldn’t think of many movies that have a single child zombie, let alone a whole freaking classroom full of them. (Since then, I’ve identified two other films with classrooms full of zombie children: Cooties and The Girl With All the Gifts. It only makes sense that pedagogy intersects with zombified children when you think about it.) I started writing a post about undead children in film, but when I hit The Walking Dead, the post started getting unmanageable. So in the interests of sensible essay length, I’ve rounded up the instances of zombie children in The Walking Dead here instead.

I do think it’s notable that there are only a handful of zombie children in the entire 11 year run of The Walking Dead. Certainly, some of this has to do with what a pain in the ass working around the restrictions placed on child actors can be. Imagine a kid has to sit for 2 hours of makeup, how much time is even left in front of the camera? If someone is going to write a zombie child, it’s going to be to a specific purpose, otherwise why deal with the bother. Still feels a little weird there are so few, and none since the 6th season. Below is my list of zombie children we encounter in The Walking Dead, in chronological order.

NB: I have excluded teenagers from this list (which would bring the countte up by another maybe 8-10) because I feel like an adolescent is a different thing than a straight up child, both practically and metaphorically. Likewise, I wouldn’t have included any undead babies, but there isn’t a single one in the entire run, so I didn’t have to worry about it. I’ve included two children who die in-narrative but don’t zombify because I think their story intersects with the themes you see with other undead children.

Unnamed child, “Days Gone By”

Though the series ends up having very, very few child zombies in its 11 year run, the very first zombie we encounter in the entire series is a child zombie. The cold open follows a man in a sheriff’s uniform and car pulling up to a highway gas station. (This is Rick Grimes, but we don’t know him yet.) He walks through stalled cars and the detritus of human habitation towards the gas pumps, where there is a sign hanging that says “No Gas.” He hears the patter of footsteps, and bends down to look under one of the cars. Little feet in grimy bunny slippers walk along, and we see a hand come down and pick up a teddy bear. “Little girl,” the man says, over and over, telling her he can help her. She has her back to him, and long blonde hair like the original zombie child, Karen from Night of the Living Dead. When she turns around, it becomes clear she’s dead, her lips torn away to reveal the silver braces on her teeth. She growls and starts towards him; he shoots her into her second death. She lands on her back and the camera cranes up over her now lifeless body in the grass.

There’s definitely an element of shock value to this scene, not in small part because it depicts a severe transgression: thou shalt not murder children on screen. However, I think this whole scene would run very, very differently if the child were anything other than a blonde white girl. Small town cops have a long history of facilitating the lynching of Black children, from Emmett Till, who was 14, to Tamir Rice, who was 12. The fact that Rick had to shoot down a pretty white blonde girl shows you exactly how out of balance the world has become. On the one hand, The Walking Dead does a pretty terrible job of addressing race overtly — for example, Merle Dixon’s racist monologues are so on the nose as to be embarrassing, and only partially redeemed by Michael Rooker’s expert delivery. On the other, in scenes like the first one, they know exactly what their choices mean to an American audience. Oh my god, you killed Karen.

Maybe this is something of a sidebar, but the scene directly after Rick kills the child opens with Rick’s deputy partner Shane delivering what he describes as a sermon on the perfidy of women. He describes his irritation with a woman in his life who apparently doesn’t turn off lights when she leaves the room. (Is this a stereotype of women? I feel like I’ve never heard that before.) He then disquisitions about how this makes her a hypocrite when she becomes upset about global warming. He relates to Rick all the bon mots he would have delivered had he not respected women so much or somesuch. Rick politely refuses to engage, but then seconds later, castigates his wife Lori for criticizing him in front of their kid. “The difference between men and women? I would never say anything that cruel to her, and certainly not in front of Carl.” This is probably outside the purview of this essay, but there is a lot to unpack here i/r/t gender roles, children, etc.

Palmer children, “Torn Apart” webisode

These zombie children are almost a sight gag — they are wearing party hats when they leap out and devour their neighbor — but contextually, there is some commentary on domesticity going on. We are first introduced to them (we can hear them banging upstairs) when a man breaks into his neighbor, Mike Palmer’s house to find a gun. The neighbor appears and threatens the interloper Andrew with a gun, then asks him what he’s looking for. “Guns,” says the man, at which point the neighbor delivers a sneering monologue about how Andrew always looked down on him, but who needs real America’s guns now, eh? Mike also explained that it is his birthday, and he already had to kill his wife, but couldn’t bring himself to shoot the kids. He counts out the bullets — one for the dog, two for the kids, one for me, etc — then turns the gun over to the man, who shoots him. By counting out the bullets like that, Mike implies Andrew should put the kids down as well. We eventually see the kids when Andrew returns to find the neighbor’s car keys. They attack and kill him, meaning he obviously didn’t carry out the neighbor’s dying wish.

Andrew is part of a little domestic melodrama going on next door, which includes him, his ex-wife, their children, and his current wife. Though he and his ex-wife have a chilly peace, he’s overbearing with the kids, shouting them down with little reason. Mom accuses him of being out of touch because he’s a weekend-and-holidays parent. The step-mom dies, reanimates, and tries to murder her step-kids, at which point his ex-wife and the mother of the children puts an ax in her skull, telling the step-mom to “stay away from my family.” All of this is incredibly on the nose. Divorce and remarriage are existential threats to the children. Absent fathers shirk their responsibilities to their own demise.

Honestly though, I don’t want to overstate, because there is a lot of morbid humor in a deadbeat dad getting attacked by birthday-behatted kiddies. In the end, the mom sacrifices herself so her kids can live, and eventually becomes the first zombie Rick Grimes encounters (but the second we see on screen), the so-called bicycle zombie in the park.

Sophia Peletier, “Pretty Much Dead Already”

Carol’s pretty blonde daughter, Sophia, provides all of the motivation for The Walking Dead’s annoying second season. She’s chased off in the first episode by walkers in a herd that passes them by on the highway. The group goes after her, and are taken to Hershel’s farm once Carl, Rick’s 12 year old kid, is shot by accident. (I only mention this because it feels like a parallelism: Rick’s son is imperiled at the same time Carol’s daughter is in missing, making danger to children something of a theme.) Hershel is high-handed and superior through the whole season, delivering sermonettes on the humanity of the walkers and asserting his land rights whenever someone says something that bothers him. I get it, on a level. We’re living through a brutal pandemic, and many, many people are making public health into a private rights issue, which is part of what Hershel is doing here.

In the last third of the season, it is revealed that Hershel has been keeping Sophia (and a whole passel of other walkers) in the barn on the property. Rick even knows that Hershel has been keeping walkers in the barn, and no one thinks to check for Sophia. After Rick and Hershel show up with walkers controlled with dog-catchers’ poles, Shane begins ranting angrily about the profound lack of reality driving both Rick and Hershel’s actions. (One of the more annoying parts of season 2 is that mostly, Shane isn’t wrong.) Shane kills the collared walkers before he knocks the lock off the barn and lets all the walkers out. Rick’s group shoots all the emerging walkers while the people too soft to enact violence — Hershel. Lori, Carl, etc — cower and cry. Once all the walkers are dead, they hear a growl from the barn and an undead Sophia emerges. Carol tries to run to her, but is held in place by Daryl. Rick raises his gun, in a parallel with the first season, and shoots the zombified Sophia.

I know this is the expediencies of television, but I literally do not understand why anyone ever gives Hershel the time of day after this disaster. He kept zombie Sophia in the barn for the entire season, while everyone was worried sick looking for her. He knew they were looking for a girl and couldn’t be arsed to check. (Additionally, because of his insistence that the undead are just sick, his daughter Beth is nearly killed by her zombified mother at the beginning of the next episode.) This is a disastrous lack of reality, and Hershel’s delusions have moved from passively dangerous to actively so. After the barn massacre, Hershel flounces, telling Rick’s group to get off his land, and it’s only after his farm is burnt to the ground that he seems to appreciate Rick might have been right.

But it doesn’t take long for show to begin justifying his bullshit. Maybe it’s just American middle class theology, which he often spews: He’s the godamn paterfamilias, the head of the family, and all of his choices are the right ones because he’s the only one with the right to choice in the first place. By the time he dies a season or two hence, he’s the moral mouthpiece and kindly patriarch, which is a pretty appalling choice, if you think about it even a little. He kept a woman’s dead child in a barn, and then told her to get off his land once that was discovered. Fuck Hershel.

Penny Blake, “Say the Word” & “Made to Suffer”

Bucking precedent, Penny Blake, the undead daughter of the 3rd and 4th season antagonist The Governor, is a brown-haired white girl. We first meet Penny in a 3rd season cold open: The Governor is brushing the hair of a girl. We never quite see her face, and can hear a soft wheezing. The girl is quiet until hairbrush snags on her hear, tearing a chunk of hair and skin off her head. Then she starts struggling, and it becomes apparent that she is undead. The Governor restrains her, putting a bag over her head, then cuddles with the struggling, growling walker. He tells her that daddy still loves her, then puts her back in the closet crawlspace with some irritation when she won’t settle. (We get this sequence of events in a later episode, with the added detail that he’s been feeding her human flesh, which is one of my least favorite zombie tropes.)

Much of the third season is spent drawing parallels between Rick and the Governor in regards to their leadership styles, so it’s of note that the next scene after Penny’s introduction is the horrible aftermath of Judith’s birth and Lori’s death. It’s Daryl who steps up to direct the group in what needs to be done, while Rick is first catatonic, then runs off into the prison with an ax, presumably to kill every walker he can find. The Governor obviously lost his daughter, and instead of grieving her death, he keeps her murderous corpse in the walls of the house. (I have this thing about houses as embodiments of the psyche, so that tracks.) Rick lost his wife, and instead of caring for his daughter (or son, come to that), he hauls off on a murderous rampage.

Sidebar: There is also something of a zombie kids fakeout later in the episode, when Daryl and Maggie look for formula in an abandoned nursery school. I fully expected zombie kids to pop out the whole time, but the only thing that did was an opossum. (Which Daryl shoots and then says, “Dinner.” Maggie deadpans, “You’re not putting that in my bag.”) Another setup for a zombie child happens with Daryl, Denise, and Rosita are scavenging in an apothecary in the 6th season episode, “Twice as Far.” Denise finds a zombie with a cast next to a pack and play. She runs a flashlight over the wall, where the word HUSH is written over and over. When the flashlight settles on a stationary tub, a toddler sized shoe sticks out of bloody water. It probably would have made sense for this dead toddler to be a walker, but this scene is already disturbing enough, thanks.

The Governor’s zombie daughter meets her eventual, final demise when Michonne discovers Penny. First she thinks Penny is a live child he’s imprisoned, but when it becomes clear Penny is dead — and honestly, wouldn’t Penny reek — she goes to kill her. The Governor intervenes, begging for mercy. It’s probably the most nakedly emotional we ever see the Governor; he is in real anguish. Michonne kills her anyway, which results in a pretty brutal fight scene, during which his fish tanks full of heads are destroyed as well. I don’t think there’s much deeper going on here, other than the Governor’s ties to his past (and therefore his humanity) have been well and truly severed.

The death of another ersatz daughter — this time the girl Meghan Chamblers — also marks the Governor’s severance from humanity, later in the 4th season. After his first assault on the prison is unsuccessful — and he murders a fair number of the Woodbury residents — he ends up in the wilds alone for a time. Eventually he finds the Chambler family hiding out in an apartment building: two sisters, their father, and one of the sisters’ daughter. After bonding with the child and beginning a relationship with her mother, the Governor begins to amass the power and structure necessary to wage another assault on the prison.

The child ends up being his justification for his ruthless megalomania, while also checking his worst impulses: he can’t be too overtly evil or his found family will bolt. His girlfriend appears with a dead Meghan in her arms — Meghan was killed by a buried walker — just in time to see him hacking Hershel’s head off with Michonne’s sword. His unrestrained violence makes him incapable of keeping a family, which is his overt motive for the violence, in a sort of ouroboros. (Obviously, this is so much window-dressing; the Governor is just a psycho.) Which is kinda interesting, because TWD very often implies the exact opposite: Rick is constantly enacting ethically dodgy violent expedience in the name of community or domestic safety, up to, and including, sneak attacking a rival group as a preemptive strike and murdering people in their beds.

Lizzie and Mika Samuels, “The Grove”

Alright, technically, neither Lizzie nor Mika zombify in the course of the narrative, but the dangers of domesticity and fears of and for children are all over their story. Lizzie and Mika are, again, pretty blonde girls who join the group while they are living in the prison. Lizzie is 12 and either a budding sociopath or emotionally damaged by living through the zombie apocalypse (or why not both?) She has developed dangerous and alarming beliefs about the nature of the undead — that they are her friends, that she can hear them speak, that they are just like the living — which she then acts on in increasingly bloody ways. When she was introduced, she’s naming walkers, and when Carl admonishes her to knock it off, saying they kill people, she retorts that people kill people and they still have names.

After the prison falls, Carol and Tyreese end up on the road together with a little found family of Lizzie, Mika, and baby Judith. After finding a pecan farm with a well-stocked farmhouse, they decide to rest for a bit. It’s a sanctuary and relief from their time alone on the road. Tyreese and Carol discuss maybe staying indefinitely while Lizzie spirals more and more into her delusions. She feeds a downed walker, almost allowing him to bite her; she had a complete meltdown and tantrum when Carol kills a walker whom she was “playing” with. Late in the episode, Tyreese and Carol are horrified to discover Lizzie standing over a dead Mika, bloody knife in her hands. She tells them she’s going to show them that walkers are friendly when her sister reanimates. She also implies she’s going to murder the baby Judith, who is lying on a blanket behind her. Carol and Tyreese talk her down, and Tyreese takes her and Judith inside while Carol does the needful with Mika’s corpse.

That night, Carol and Tyreese have a heartbroken conversation about what they’re going to do about Lizzie. She clearly can’t be allowed to be around an infant, but she’s also dangerous indirectly: they realize she was the one mutilating animals and feeding the walkers back in the prison, which eventually lead to walkers breaching the fences. (Tyreese also thinks she must have been the one who killed his girlfriend, but of course that was Carol, who has been keeping that from him.) Though I don’t think anyone voices this out loud, they decide she will have to be killed. Carol takes her out, tells her to “look at the flowers” — which was a self-soothing method she and her sister used — and then shoots her in the back of the head.

This is obviously a different Carol than the one who watched Rick kill her zombie daughter back in season two, and a very different Carol to the one who submitted to an abusive husband in season one. She’s a harder, more violently expedient Carol. She was the one back in the prison who was teaching the children survival skills over the objections of parents who wanted to shield them from the violence in the world. Carol believes that her daughter might have lived if she’d known how to wield a knife, which is why she teaches the community kids how to do so. That one of her students then uses those knife skills to kill another child feels like an unfair irony. It almost seems like a narrative punishment that Carol feels compelled to murder a little girl who looks a lot like her own dead daughter.

There is a similar situation in the comics — one where an older sibling kills a younger one — but it is handled very differently. The adults lock up the kid and then spent the night arguing about what should be done. While they are incapacitated by indecision, Carl sneaks into the place the kid is held and kills the kid himself. Comics’ Carl makes the hard choices he believes the older generation is incapable of, and the episode shows the disconnect between the generation being raised in the zombie apocalypse, and the one whose instincts belong to a different world entirely. That sort of generational gloss isn’t in evidence in Lizzie’s story: it’s more about Carol’s role as a parental figure to children. Since the prison, Carol uses violence to protect domesticity. In “The Grove”, that violence finally turns inward, destroying the very thing it was supposed to preserve.

Noah’s brother, “What Happened and What’s Going On”

This the first and only Black child zombie in The Walking Dead’s run. He is one of Noah’s younger twin brothers whom Tyreese encounters and is bitten by when they return to Noah’s gated community. Little backstory: the group encountered Noah while Beth was being held by former Atlanta PD who have taken over a hospital. When he’s sprung from that situation, Noah tells the group that his family lives in a gated neighborhood not far from the hospital — or they did a year before he was incarcerated. When they arrive back at his neighborhood, Noah is horrified to discover the community is overrun. Tyreese tries to comfort him, but Noah runs directly into his old house.

Tyreese follows and ends up in one of Noah’s brothers’ bedrooms, where one of the brothers is disemboweled and dead on the bed. He’s distracted by a photo of the two boys sitting on a porch swing when the other, undead brother attacks and bites him. He reflexively kills the boy, then sinks down with his back to wall and goes into shock. Much of the rest of the episode shows Tyreese hallucinating various dead characters from the show: Beth, Bob, and, notably, the Samuels sisters as friendly voices, the Governor and Martin (one of the Terminus bad guys) as the voice of regret and recrimination.

The Walking Dead doesn’t much go in for overtly symbolic arthouse stylings, but much of this episode, especially anything having to do with Tyreese is very much in the mode of a dream sequence, down to an atypically impressionistic cold open. Tyreese has been having a crisis of violence for the last while, reluctant to enact the violence that life in the zombie apocalypse seems to require. In his vision, Martin and the Governor keep telling him that his reticence to kill has instead gotten people killed, while Bob espouses a more cheerfully fatalistic philosophy: everything has happened as it should. The girls tell him that “it’s better now”, which I take to mean, it’s ok that we’re dead and that you’re going to die.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to make of all this, especially with Lizzie Samuels on the side of happy fatalism. The Walking Dead often severely punishes its characters who eschew violence, and this seems like the most symbolically overt example of that. Tyreese doesn’t want to kill, which is what’s necessary to protect the people he loves. As a consequence, he is killed by a reanimated family member, a child and representation of the promise of domesticity.

Unnamed child, “No Way Out”

In this 6th season episode, one in which the city of Alexandria is overrun with walkers, we catch a glimpse of a single child zombie within the horde. It’s possible this lone undead child is the son or nephew of someone on set, like the two zombie children in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead are related to Tom Savini, the effects person. This one zombie child is just part of a mob of walkers, and we know literally nothing else about him. However, given the context, this kid might be more deliberately placed than just crowd scene background. The child Sam sees the zombie child right in the middle of a freakout about the “monsters”, a freakout which ultimately gets him, his older brother, and his mother killed.

Backing up a bit: the Alexandrians have been split up by the invading horde, and Rick and a few others are trapped in Jessie’s house. Jessie is the mother of Sam and Ron, who are about 10 and 16. Sam’s most important on-screen relationship, outside of his immediate family, is with Carol. Sam takes to her early on in her sojourn in Alexandria because she is the source of cookies in her guise as dumb housewife Carol. (Carol’s ability to code-switch, especially in this period, is impressive. She’ll go from ditzy lady to stone cold killer in a second.) But when he follows her into places he’s (and she’s) not supposed to be, what he gets is brutal truths Carol. She clearly doesn’t want to get involved in the life of another child, and she’s constantly trying to run him off while almost reflexively caring for him.

It’s probably also pertinent to mention that both Carol and Jessie have both experienced domestic abuse: Carol in the past, while Jessie’s is ongoing. Carol doesn’t believe she’d still be alive if her abusive husband were as well. She advocates that Jessie’s husband be killed — it’s the only way, in this hard world, to deal with that situation — not in small part because of the effect of the abuse on Sam. After some serious machinations, Rick indeed does kill Sam’s abusive father, which isn’t the thing that puts Sam over the edge. It’s when one of the Wolves breaks into the house and tries to murder his mom (in the kitchen, and in a crazy harrowing fight scene) that he really spirals into his anxiety.

By the 6th season, before the city is overrun, Sam has confined himself to the second floor of the house, unable to function even within the family structure. He leaves food to rot and draws endless pictures of the undead and the dying. “Nothing changes up here,” he tells his mom when she tries to lure him downstairs with cookies. The changelessness of the second floor is broken when Rick carries a bitten and dying Deanna, the community’s leader, up to one of the spare bedrooms. The walls of the city have been breached, and walkers fill the streets. Sam’s mom, Jessie, steps away from their ministrations to Deanna, but she’s harried and barely containing her frustration with Sam’s anxiety. “Just pretend you’re somebody who’s not scared,” she says, and then turns back to the more pressing crisis.

Because here’s the thing: often children hide their crises from their parents out of shame or fear, and at the same time parents are sometimes too caught up with the trouble in front of them to identify and head off the trouble quietly brewing. Jessie knew there was something wrong with Sam, something potentially serious, but there was always more going on around them that required attention, plus his was a quiet, unassuming kind of wrong. Sure, telling Sam he should pretend to be someone else probably isn’t best practices, but by the time the zombies are scratching at the door, she’s out of options.

The group decide to smear themselves in walker guts and slip camouflaged by death through the overrun streets. Sam is terrified, but Jessie talks him into it. They make it all the way to a sheltered clump of trees, where they regroup for their next push through the horde. The minister, Gabriel, is going to take baby Judith to the church, and the rest of the group is headed for the armory. Rick wants to send Sam with Gabriel to the church, but Sam objects: I can do it, he says, entreating his mother to stay with here. Both Jessie and Sam want Sam to be able to handle this so strongly that Jessie capitulates, and everyone head off, hands linked.

But force of will can’t overcome such deep seated anxiety. In the middle of the zombie horde, Sam melts down. He hears Carol in his head telling him the monsters are coming for him, and stops in his tracks. His mother and Rick try to get him to move, come on, Sam, you can do it. When he looks into the zombie horde, he sees a zombie child, about his age, walking within the throng. At this point Sam begins keening, and the zombies close in, surrounding and biting him. In short order, both his mother and older brother are dead. The family is gone in the span of a minute. (Carl manages to get himself shot, again, like when Sophia disappeared.)

The undead child, in this context, ends up being an avatar of Sam’s anxiety. It is his greatest fear made manifest, right before it is truly made manifest. It’s also the ultimate dramatic irony: he was so afraid of become a walker that he did things that made him into a walker. That he hears Carol’s voice when he sees the undead kid ties Carol, again, to the death of a child, though I legitimately do not understand why it’s Carol Sam hears. Sure, ok, she threatened him a season ago, but she’s not why he’s broken from reality. He was abused by his father and was witness to a brutal attack on his mother by a stranger. Of course he’s paralyzed by anxiety. (And I’ve got to say, poor fucking Carol, because they do this again to her when her adopted son dies at the hands of the Whisperers.)

This undead child is the last zombie kid we ever see on The Walking Dead unless, of course, there’s another in the last half of the 11th season, though I doubt that given the further restrictions of Covid on filming. I think it’s interesting that this last zombie kid may or may not be real: he’s more of a psychological manifestation than a concrete actor in the narrative, and pretty subtle for all that. The Walking Dead has done psychological woo dream sequences before — Rick talked to a dead Lori on the guilty-conscience-ma-phone for a whole season, Tyreese hallucinated his dead friends while dying, etc — but they tend to be pretty loud and obvious. Too bad they learned subtlety just in time to never use it again.

ETA: Jasmine and Bobby, “The World Before” & “What We Become”

This one is a little oblique, but bear with me. I rewatched the episodes with Virgil recently because he appears in the last half of the last season, and I couldn’t remember what his deal was. In season 10, he encounters Michonne and some others in a library, where he rescues one of their number from a walker and then runs off. The Oceansiders capture him creeping round trying to steal a boat; he and Michonne have a tense convo; they decide to sail for his island. Once there, they (but mostly Michonne) clear a building of walkers. In the end, they find a room full of hanged walkers, suspended and wheeling their feet uselessly in the air. Virgil comes into the room, picks a show off the floor, and replaces it onto the foot of one of the hanged walkers. This is his family, dead and reanimated, hanging from the ceiling. We don’t see what happens, but it’s implied that Michonne puts them down, and then they bury them.

It turns out that Virgil is a nutter, having imprisoned the other members of the island community once he accidentally lead to the deaths of his family. We’re never given the ages of his children, but from dialogue cues, I get the sense the daughter is young, maybe prepubescent. Even less is known about his son. Michonne spends much of the episode hallucinating the road not taken, one where she lets Andrea die and ends up as Negan’s right hand. Back in Oceanside, Michonne’s daughter, Judith, waits anxiously to hear from her mother. Michonne also finds evidence that her partner and Judith’s father, Rick, is alive, though she’s not able to act on it immediately. She and Judith have a conversation where Michonne decides to strike out and find Rick, which is a hard choice between partner and child.

Unnamed child, “Out of the Ashes”

Whelp, I was wrong about there being no zombie children in the last season of The Walking Dead. The fifth episode, “Out of the Ashes” deals with children a lot, both obliquely and obviously. The cold open is a dream sequence in which Aaron tries to protect his daughter, Gracie, from a number of villains from seasons previous: whisperers, Wolves, walkers, maybe even a Savior or two. (Aaron adopted Gracie after our people, the ostensible good guys, killed her parents in a sneak attack on the Saviors.) The walls are breached, which leads to a discussion about how they don’t have the tools to effectively fix the fence. Aaron & Co head back to Alexandria to scavenge any supplies. There they find assorted Whisperers who have been looting and squatting in the place, which sets Aaron off big time.

Later we see tiny badass Judith training a group of other children how to use swords. She’s distracted by a group of other kids, lead by a boy who must be a little older, taunting a child zombie who has his head stuck through one of the holes in the wall around their community. They’re poking their fingers in the walker’s snapping jaws and pulling out before they get bit. Judith tells them to knock it off, then the older boy knocks her over and tells her she talks too much and that’s why her mother left. Judith pulls a knife and dares him to say that again. He demurs and the group runs off.

There have been a number of scenes with the apocalypse kids interacting this season, and they have mostly been as bad as this one. An episode or so ago, a bunch of tiny badasses, including Judith and Hershel, all sat around playing cards and discussing how their parents don’t want them to worry when they’re out facing near certain death. While I think this is not true to how kids interact, fine. It’s not anywhere near as bad as this mess with Judith and the bully by the fence. Where do these kids come from that they are so cavalier with the walking dead, especially after the walls were breached that very morning, and several community members got killed?

I get that kids can act like immortal, entitled assholes, but this kid absolutely must know the world of hurt in store him both if he got bit, or if any adult found him. That Judith didn’t just cut a bitch instead of threatening to tell Rosita is, frankly, bizarre to me. I know I get down on the show for overuse of violent expedience, but here it is absolutely called for. The stakes are too damn high for nonsense like this to be allowed. Which the show even knows on a level, as that’s what the zombie child more or less symbolizes: he’s what’s going to happen to them if they don’t knock it off, and not just symbolically.

Just to argue with myself a bit: I can see the psychology of why these kids would fuck around with walkers, even while knowing the finding was inevitable. I think a lot of stupid dangerous Tiktok challenges — eating Tide pods, inhaling cinnamon, climbing crates — are the risk-taking behavior of the hopeless. We live in an unstable world, which is burned and parched and buffeted by storm, by plague. Refusing to vaccinate, eating fish cleaner and horse paste, all of these maladaptive performances of “freedom” make climbing up on some crates knowing you’re going to fall look positively benign. At least in that case, the only person hurt is the climber. So, okay, I still think that sequence was badly done — the dialogue — but it probably does capture the cultural moment, such as it is.

Either way, I’m not going to make any more predictions about whether there will be more undead kids on the show.

Around the World with Zombies!

Some time last winter, the incomparable sj and I decided to do a deep dive into zombie movies from all over the world. I have a hobby horse about how egalitarian zombie movies are: They are the soccer of cinema, able to be made on a shoestring and an iPhone. They don’t necessarily require much in the way of acting, and can be shot on abandoned lots and in your nana’s backyard.

While this is true of post-apocalit in general, zombie movies are also incredibly local affairs, once the lights go out and the phones stop working. People either bunker up with their neighbors in a crisis situation which is bound to show the societal fractures in sharp relief, or head out onto the road, contemplating the blood-soaked landscape as it spools by. I tend to be real irritated with the American D-grade zombie movie — all that American exceptionalism, gendered violence, and authoritarianism sets my back — but I’m not as familiar with other countries’ stupid national ideals. Largely, these films were made (or became available to an American audience) in the last 5 years — I’m not trying to catalog all foreign zombie movies, but more hit the ones being made now, which speak to more current national hopes and fears. This is why I’ve included Peninsula, but not its predecessor, Train to Busan: more recent, more better.

So in the interests of international inquiry, let’s go around the world with zombies!

Canada/Mi’gmaq First Nation

Blood Quantum

Alright, teeechnically we watched this before we’d formally decided to go around the world with zombies, but it is nonetheless a) from not-America and b) completely flipping awesome. As far as I’m aware, Blood Quantum is the first Native zombie film ever made, and it’s absolutely perfect. It hit a lot of themes about colonialism that I wanted from Betaal — an (East) Indian series that features locals/aboriginal people against the ghosts of British imperialism — but Betaal ended up squandering its premise. Which is not to say that Blood Quantum isn’t uniquely, perfectly attuned to the concerns of Native America, instead of some generic colonialism theme.

Blood Quantum is set on the fictional Red Crow Mi’gmaq Reserve in Canada. It opens with a Native fisherman trying to gut salmon that refuse to stay dead, an image that becomes a little more freighted with meaning if you know the backstory of the decades of both legal and literal violence surrounding Mi’gmaw fishing rights. The film then follows Tribal policeman (and the fisherman’s son), Traylor, as he navigates his way through both the beginning of the zombie apocalypse and pretty messy family drama. Both of his sons end up in jail “on the other side of the line” (i.e. white people jail), and he leaves them to cool it while he deals with events peripheral to the oncoming zombie apocalypse. His sons are very clearly set up as oppositional but entwined: Lysol was the son Traylor had too young and too fucked up; Joseph clearly had a more stable home, but almost idolizes Lysol and his tough luck posturing.

After this establishing opening, the movie jumps to the future several months later. Native Americans are immune to the zombie virus — though they are not immune to getting torn apart by zombified white people — so they’ve cut the bridges to the reserve and are riding out the zombie apocalypse the best they can. They are taking in non-zombie non-Natives, but that’s hugely problematic: white people are being dicks, as usual, attempting to recolonize the reserves now that their already colonized land is a shitshow. Traylor’s two sons come into increasing conflict: Lysol doesn’t want to take in any more white people, while Joseph and his pregnant white girlfriend keep bringing home survivors. The inevitable bloodbath is gleefully gory, and while the ending doesn’t go full nihilism, it’s still pretty damn grim.

(And not that this has anything to do with anything, but there are a ton of Native actors in this film who were also in the Twilight series. When I was a lass, you could play 6 Degrees of Separation of Native America with the late 80s movie Powwow Highway; basically every working Native actor was in that. Probably the next movie to perform this function was the 1998 film Smoke Signals. So it’s funny to see fucking Twilight kind of functioning that same way with the new generation. I can entirely see Blood Quantum being this kind of movie going forward, which is perfect.)

French Canada

Ravenous

I’ve now watched Ravenous (or Les Affamés, in the original French, if you prefer) twice, and while I really really enjoyed it both times, I also think I’m missing something entirely in the film. Ravenous is more the road trip kind of zombie film, where it moves around a locale taking the pulse of the community in extremity. The locale here is a remote village in northern Quebec. I think the film is talking very specifically to and about a French Canadian audience. Given that I know basically nothing about French Canadian culture, the types and tropes are often illegible. That said, Ravenous is musing and odd, with striking, beautiful landscapes and a downbeat ambiance. Much of the action takes place as a group of survivors make their way through the countryside, and I was earnestly impressed the way the filmmakers managed to make wide open spaces, like fields or a stretch of highway, feel claustrophobic. The zombies are also powerful strange: they group together building these strange towers of domestic items — chairs, appliances, a desk — the purpose of which is never explained. Also, dolls where you pull the string on their backs and they cry are totally horrible.

Straight Up France

The Night Eats the World

The Night Eats the World has a set up reminiscent of the German zombie movie Rammbock: Berlin Undead, which I have not included on this list because that was made more than 10 years ago. In both, a guy tries to return the artefacts of their relationship to a now ex-girlfriend. In The Night Eats the World, the dude shows up while the girlfriend is having a pretty epic party. She understandably brushes him off in the middle of said rager, and he retreats to a quiet bedroom to sulk. When he wakes up, the apartment is empty, disheveled, and with blood smears on the walls. He does eventually find the ex-girlfriend, now zombified, and barricades himself in her apartment to wait out the zombie apocalypse.

The Night Eats the World is incredibly musing and introspective for a zombie movie. What little action there is is mostly seen from a distance, and the most (sort of) human interaction the guy engages in is with a zombie trapped in a barred garden entrance. When I first watched this movie, I thought it was a little boring, but I watched it again a couple months into the epidemic. Whoo boy, did it hit different. The way the main character manages his isolation and low key terror felt uncomfortably familiar. The Night Eats the World definitely captured the mood swings, melancholy, and anger of quarantine, and the ways we can both hunger for human contact and viscerally fear it. Yeesh.

Belgium

Yummy

This Dutch & English language film follows a woman, her mother and boyfriend to a sketchy Eastern European cosmetic surgery clinic. The young woman (who is stacked, yo) wants a breast reduction, and her kinda trashy mom is there for a smorgasbord of cosmetic treatments, including, ahem, anal bleaching. I kinda don’t need to say more than “sketchy Eastern European cosmetic surgery clinic”; the zombie outbreak is basically inevitable. I was fully expecting a dumb but fun time — not that there’s anything wrong with that — but Yummy ended up being a cut above. For one, the cinematography is absolutely freaking gorgeous, and that’s not something I’m used to seeing in American zombie films. (I think the landscape picture road trip kind of zombie movie can be prettily shot, but even those can go the 28 Days Later shitty digital video route.)

A lot about Yummy ended up being legitimately surprising. I’m pretty resigned to the whole gamut of shitty gender roles in zombie narratives: sexism, toxic masculinity, sexual violence, &c. For example, the otherwise beautifully shot, well acted, and introspective zombie movie, It Stains the Sands Red, is almost fatally marred by a lovingly documented and wholly unnecessary rape scene midway through. Given the nexus of bullshit you can find, semiotically speaking, surrounding plastic surgery, I really expected Yummy to perform a lot of said bullshit. They regularly subverted my low expectations, which might sound like the damns of faint praise, but I really don’t mean it that way. That was legit well done. The filmmakers also came up with a whole fake language, called Balkanese, that the clinic workers speak to keep it from being tied too specifically to any given country. Which, that’s so awesome. Although Yummy is pretty high on the splatter/gore scale, which is unsurprising given the setting, the scene that legit made me cringe was when someone gets their fingers crushed by a manhole cover. That was horrifying. Plus one all around.

Austria

Attack of the Lederhosen Zombies

Now this horror-comedy set in the Austrian Alps WAS dumb but fun. Lederhosen Zombies is deliberately campy, and occasionally delivers the kind of gloriously silly gore that only the unserious can deliver. There are, for example, zombie deer. The film opens with a bunch of professional snowboarders (or somesuch) yelling woo and doing their thing. Also the owners of the ski chalet fuck around and find out with some sort of chemical in the snow machine. This is an incredibly rompy movie, with set pieces that are evenly split between honestly inventive and the dreary usual. Like, the leads kill so many zombies with their snowboards because Chekhovian snowboard. I was amused and bored in equal measures, but full points for all the Austrian national costumes, sight gags, and silliness.

Germany

Sky Sharks

I just, everything about this movie sounds right up my alley. There are zombie Nazis riding on flying sharks, just as a premise, and it only gets sillier from there. The production value is high, and there are even character actors I heart, like Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, in key roles throughout the movie. There’s at least one extremely well-done animated sequence (maybe two?). Unfortunately, the plot, such as it is, is so disjointed that who even knows what the stakes are, why anything matters, or what even is going on. In addition to the plotlines involving Nazi Germany experimenting on sharks and/or zombies, there was also a subplot with the Vietnam War (and zombies and maybe sharks?) which I legit didn’t grok. In true B-movie style, there are several grindhouse style sex scenes which end in huge boobies covered in blood. I suspect mood might have a lot to do with my irritation with this movie, as I had serious playback issues the entire time. As it stands, much of it felt pandering or impressed with itself, too busy trying to one-up itself that it forgot to build any kind of through-line, either emotionally or narratively speaking. That said, I can see a situation when I was all on deck for Sky Sharks, and it’s possible with another viewing I’ll change my mind. I don’t want to warn anyone off, because Sky Sharks is so weird it deserves a viewing by any undead enthusiast. Maybe it’ll work for you.

Israel

JeruZalem

JeruZalem is pretty questionable as a zombie movie, because the monsters herein aren’t very zombie-like, but I’m including it as a contrasting edge case. The movie follows two Jewish American girls, Rachel and Sarah, on their trip to Israel. They had planned to stay in Tel Aviv, but after discussion with a fellow traveler called Kevin, they head instead to Jerusalem. Probably not a huge surprise that a creature feature set in Jerusalem, a city vitally important to the three major Abrahamic religions, would lean into religious mythology. (I just learned that Baháʼí is also Abrahamic, which is neat.) Rachel and Sarah bop around Jerusalem, hanging out with the Muslim hostel owners, flirting with Israeli solders, sightseeing, clubbing, etc. On Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement and repentance, the girls are startled by an explosion and fighter jets flying over the city. (The film keeps referring to as Yom Kippur as “judgment day”, which is technically correct but maybe a little histrionic — I see what you’re doing there.) They first assume a terrorist attack, but when the dead start rising and attacking people, it becomes clear this is sectarian violence of a much more biblical kind. They then race to get the hell out of Jerusalem (literally! har har) before the gates close and they are trapped in the walled city.

The principles in JeruZalem do refer to the creatures therein as zombies or the undead, and there are a couple zombie-like attributes: the affliction is transmitted by bite, and the turned then turn on the living in mobs. But they also have freaking wings, and, in one expository video from 30 years before, appear to be able to be exorcized from the host. Zombie narratives are by and large secular affairs, even despite the occasional invocation of religious idiom. (Like the line from Dawn of the Dead: “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead walk the earth,” or the graffiti scrawled in 28 Days Later: “Repent, the end is extremely fucking nigh.”) Zombie narratives tend to be stories of the end of modernity, not a biblical or metaphysical end, but then JeruZalem is, kind of neither? Honestly, I’m not precisely sure what the take-home of the film is. There is some discussion of Jerusalem syndrome in the film, which is when visitors to the holy land become convinced they are either messianic or biblical figures. Jerusalem syndrome affects members of all faiths; for instance, David Koresh had it. It would be possible, given what happens to Sarah in the end, to read the movie as an allegory for how American Jews are sometimes radicalized by return to Israel. I don’t know, maybe not. Either way, the zombie-like creatures in JeruZalem are doing something decidedly different, metaphorically speaking, than your traditional Romero zombie.

New Zealand

Last of the Living

This ridiculously low budget zombie movie follows three dudebros as they bop around the zombie apocalypse. After a beginning which finds them “bantering” in a mansion, I was real worried I would seriously fucking hate these guys, but they end up not as awful as anticipated. (Though still objectively dorks.) With a budget this small, the film has to rely more on dialogue than zombie thrills, which is a problem for two reasons: the actors suck, and the script is reheated leftovers. Which is not to say I didn’t end up laughing at both the intended and unintended comedy. The sequence in the record store was legitimately funny (which in turn shouts out to the band who wrote the theme song — God save us all.) Extra points for a pretty seriously nihilist ending — usually this kind of scrappy garage project can’t bear to give its dudebros anything but the happiest of endings.

Last of the Living kind of reminded me of this terrible zombie movie my aunt was in, called I Am a Middle Aged Zombie Too. Shot entirely on location in Washburn, WI, it features an all-local cast and some hilariously awesome Wisconsin accents. But, legit, I wouldn’t like the movie half so much if my Aunt Kristen weren’t in it as a zombie who gets killed by some Rad Hat ladies; it’s just too dumb and local. Which is kind of my thesis for why zombie movies are so great, so I’m being a little contradictory here. Oh well. 

South Korea

Peninsula

Peninsula was styled as Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula when it was released in the States, as Americans might be too dumb to understand a sequel that doesn’t have any character continuity with its predecessor. Set some time past the events of Train to Busan, the people who have escaped the zombie apocalypse on the Korean peninsula are now a people in exile and diaspora. The opening sequence follows Marine Captain Jung-Seok and his family — a sister, brother-in-law, and nephew — as they race through the countryside. They end up abandoning another family to the zombies, but make it onto a ship out of Korea. When a shipmate zombifies, Jung-Seok is forced to bolt his sister and nephew in a room full of zombifying passengers. The brother-in-law, Chul-min, survives to remind him of his shame forever. We then check in with him & Chul-min in Hong Kong several years later, following them through negotiations with gangsters to head back to Korea, basically to commit a heist. (Which, that kind of sounds like Army of the Dead a little, now that I think of it.)

As per all heist narratives, everything goes to shit once they get hold of the truck full of money, and the crew is either scattered or killed. The family Jung-Seok abandoned turns out to be still alive. A Warriors-style gang self styled as a militia unit captures Chul-min, which is where my least favorite part of this otherwise entertaining film takes place. The militia has one of those zombie cage-match situations, and I am so bone-tired of that trope. I just feel like it’s something like narratively lazy, playing out a meaningless spectacle full of sound and fury that signifies nothing. Once past this irritating sequence, Peninsula gains both plot and emotional momentum, and that ending is an absolute edge-of-the-seat nail-biter with very real stakes.

#Alive

I’ve gone back and forth whether to include this South Korean film, because, best I can tell, both this and an American film called #Alone were developed from the same script at roughly the same time. #Alive’s release is a less than half a year before #Alone, which I assume means they both had to be in production at the same time, though admittedly Covid-19 played havoc with the 2020 release schedule, among other things. The set up isn’t dissimilar to the The Night Eats the World, in the sense that the focus is on an individual isolated in an apartment due to a zombie plague. The key difference in both movies is that the main character continues to be connected through the Internet to the rest of humanity, at least until the power goes out.

The Korean adaption more clearly emphasizes the isolation and despair of its lead, the way doomscrolling stands in, poorly and imperfectly, for actual human interaction, both lifeline to the lonely and impediment to real connection. #Alive also is much nuanced in the way it uses media — the ways we construct a version of ourselves for public consumption, and how we consume other people’s closely cropped identities in turn. The lead papers over the windows to avoid the horrors outside, an then invites them right back in through the computer screen. While these same overt actions happen in #Alone, I just didn’t feel the same freight of meaning, I think partially because the lead in #Alone is a Taylor Lautner type who spends an inordinate amount of time with his shirt off. There are ravening zombies, dude, maybe cover some of that bitable skin. The Korean version also deemphasizes the romantic element of the lead’s interaction with the neighbor, which causes unnecessary drag on the momentum in #Alone.

I think #Alive is much more successful that #Alone, but there’s one sequence I prefer in the American version. In #Alone, Donald Sutherland lends his regretful gravitas to a zombie trope found in both films: the grieving relative feeding live people to a zombified family member. I find this trope incredibly distasteful, but Sutherland does elevate the proceedings somewhat. Additionally, the zombies in #Alone are often repeating the same things over and over, and the characters theorize this is because some part of them is still aware, but they are driven by their violent compulsions. In the scene with Sutherland and his now-zombified wife, she’s both begging them to kill her and trying desperately to attack them, and it’s pretty gutting. I don’t remember the zombies in #Alone doing this, though it’s possible that’s due to the limitations of subtitles. That detail notwithstanding, #Alive still seems more relevant to our Zoom-mediated realities & life in lockdown, and coherent in its storytelling.

Philippines

Block Z

Much as I love zombie movies, they don’t all that often catch me right in the feels. I go into them at a reserve, emotionally speaking, because I know that few, if any, of the characters are going to make it out alive. Block Z managed to break through my arms-length emotional stance, and did it while delivering some seriously harrowing thrills. It’s honestly one of the best traditional zombie movies I’ve seen in the last while. The movie opens with a father dropping off his daughter to her med school rotations. (This is the titular Block Z — it’s a wing of the hospital.) Their relationship is strained after the death of her mother, &c. There, she plays nurse to a bitten woman with a small daughter. The mother dies, she comforts the girl, taking her away from the death. Then the mother reanimates and begins to attack the nursing staff and other patients. From there, the zombie plague spreads through the hospital and out into the city.

The opening has a compacted sequence of establishing relationships with the med student’s colleagues, teachers, and patients, and it’s pretty impressive how many relationships they sketch in such a short period of time. A lot of the plot of Block Z is melodramatic (in a good way!): fathers disconnected from daughters, children grieving mothers, rich assholes lording their wealth over others, cops and colleagues, friends and enemies, all fighting their way through a situation they aren’t prepared for. The zombies are the Eastern kind, with jerky, almost insectile movements, screaming, and fast. I find them much more alarming than the Western kind: slow, stupid, and moaning. Several times, people sacrifice themselves for others, and it never feels cheap or exploitive. Once, a child throws herself at her zombie mother, and it’s heartbreaking. Block Z knew exactly where to get me. Good job.

Malaysia

KL Zombi

This was pitched to me as Malaysian Shaun of the Dead, which is accurate on some level. There are several sequences where the half-assed “hero” of this film, a guy called Skinny, kind of bops around the zombie apocalypse completely oblivious to the zombies all around him: he delivers food and snatches the money from a zombie’s hand through a gate; he plays field hockey with zombified teammates not understanding that their attempts to tackle him have a more dangerous purpose. Really more a series of vignettes than a full-on narrative, KL Zombi — the KL stands for Kuala Lumpur — vacillates between funny and tiresome. For example, there’s a sort of Shaklee salesman slash televangelist called Bro Khalid who factors in one of the side-plots, and everything having to do with him was aces. The third act gets especially tiresome — there’s the zombified son of a cop and a bullshit ethical dilemma surrounding him — but then some ointment made by Bro Khalid ends up de-zombifying people. Which, I get why a comedy would seek to make everything ok in the end, but that kinda ruined all the stakes? In addition to not making sense? The sexual politics are often questionable, especially in the opening and closing sections, though thankfully it’s just the garden variety chauvinist kind, not the sexual assault kind, a thing I see far too often in zombie movies. KL Zombi is not essential viewing, but it definitely had the feeling of a passion project with a group of people super into it. That goes pretty far for me.

Japan

One Cut of the Dead

At this point, I’m going to try to get One Cut of the Dead onto every zombie roundup I do: It is suuuuuch a good movie. Unfortunately, this movie has such a massive conceptual spoiler at the first act turn that I can barely say anything at all about it. While a film crew is filming a zombie movie, they are attacked by real zombies. The opening 30 minutes or so are done in one single, continuous take, which is all the more impressive for how much ground they cover. This isn’t Wallace Shawn and André having dinner in a fixed location. I recently watched George Romero’s fifth zombie movie, Diary of the Dead, which has a similar set up: college students making a horror movie start living one. Much as I love Romero, Diary of the Dead really suffers in comparison, though I do acknowledge that horror and horror-comedy are different animals. Romero’s social commentary feels like a Boomery indictment of internet culture which fundamentally misunderstands how that works, and the delivery is dreary and leaden. One Cut’s milieu is the film industry, and it’s an affectionate sendup of the types and tropes one encounters as a journeyman in the industry, in addition to being just a whole lot of fun. I can’t recommend it enough.

Review: His Lordship’s Last Wager by Miranda Davis

A million years ago, I picked up The Duke’s Tattoo by Miranda Davis because I read some sniggering reviews about it: get a load of this. And it’s true, and funny, that the opening action is one of the heroine sedating and then permanently inking a certain peer’s unmentionables, and then how their rivalry and his revenge turns into love, &c &c. Oh, and all of this takes place in a Regency romance, I believe in Bath. It’s pretty much the best. Sure, whatever, none of that is likely, but neither is getting lucky in a barouche, and that happens in Regency romances all the freaking time. 

a four wheeled horse drawn carriage which seats two, open, but with a sort of umbrella over the passengers

Seriously, you’re not getting laid in this comfortably even in modern clothing, let alone the yards of fabric those poor assholes had to wear in the Regency. 

Anyway, Davis’s almost overblown prose — she has an excellent vocabulary and isn’t afraid to use it — and sideways sense of humor completely won me over.

But then came the The Baron’s Betrothal, which, while written in the same winsome prose, was a tiresome will-they-won’t-they that I didn’t appreciate. Admittedly, I almost never appreciate a will-they-won’t-they, but then The Baron’s Betrothal also was thin with the humor that so radiated from The Duke’s Tattoo, so I don’t think it wasn’t just my predilections talking. Fast forward several years, and Davis’s newest book, His Lordship’s Last Wager, pops up on one of my if-you’ve-read-this-then situations, and I figured I’d give her another go. I mean, even the book I didn’t like wasn’t bad, just not to my tastes.

Boy, but I found His Lordship’s Last Wager charming. The set up is ludicrous, again: a zesty young woman gulls a lord-type into helping her transport a trained bear to Ireland. Look, I’m not going to explain how such a situation comes to be, partially because I can’t remember exactly. Like the lord-type, the reader finds herself wondering what the hell happened to result in a trip through the aqueducts and canals of England of yore. I was super into it, because, wait, lemme tell you a story. 

My great-grandmother, the one I’m named after, was born in the US just months after her parents stepped off the boat. (I think assholes would call her an anchor baby.) Though we don’t know for sure, my family suspects that great-great-grandpa knocked up the neighbor girl in a small town in Wales, and due to the fact that he was an inveterate alcoholic (ah, the Welsh), the families sent them on their way to America. She managed to have another child, a boy, before she succumbed to Industrial Revolution Pittsburgh. Great-grandma and her brother were settled into an orphanage — her father being too drunk to care for them — but not after the family in Wales entreated her and her brother to “come home”. The trans-Atlantic voyage was too scary for a young girl, so they stayed.

Fast forward many moons, and my mother took that faded correspondence, and tried to find our living relatives in Wales. Several things hampered this: the family names were Jones and Edwards, which are about as common as you can get; the family wasn’t Church of Wales, which would be the establishment church, but Baptist; and the Baptist church in the area burned down in the early 70s, so all the records were ash. We found the house on a trip to Froncysyllte when I was a teenager, and the current owners were kind enough to let us look at the deeds (which corroborated pretty much all of the family lore), but it was a dead end.

But we were in the area, so we touristed around for a while. One of our more memorable visits was to the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, which is still functional, a crazy waterway strung between high Welsh hills. Observe: 

a black and white photo of a large aqueduct being drained

Though I don’t think our intrepid Regency lovers plied this waterway, much of the action of the novel takes place on the canals that crisscrossed Britain, moving goods and people just like the railroads. Davis notes that there is little contemporary description of the canals in their heyday in the 1800s, as they were largely commercial. Who writes stories about truck stops or container ships? So too, back then. But they’re fascinating places, and it was entirely enjoyable to read a Recency romance that took place on the rough waterfront instead of the cultivated lawn.

Obviously, this is still a romance, so it’s not going to get too icky or realz. And that’s fine. I’m not usually reading Regency romance for the articles, and I don’t need some big bummer to prove the situation serious. That said, this novel was charming and lively, funny and unusual, and totally worth it for the reverie about my lost family alone. 

How to Find a Princess by Alyssa Cole

Somehow, I missed the previous and first installment to the Runaway Royals series by Alyssa Cole, How to Catch a Queen, though I have read all of the Reluctant Royals books. My enjoyment of How to Find a Princess was not dependent on having read the previous novel, though it’s possible I would have a better understanding of things like the World Federation of Monarchies, an organization which one of the heroines works for, and the fictional country Ibarania. Maybe not; often this kind of series is more shared world than anything.

Makeda Hicks is having one of those epically bad weeks that one finds in comedies. She’s not only passed over for promotion for a job she has earnestly thrown herself into, but is summarily laid off. (Adding insult to injury, the job she was applying for is given to an unqualified Becky whom Makeda has been propping up. Said Becky keeps calling Makeda for unpaid instruction, which.) When she heads home early to the apartment she shares with a girlfriend, the girlfriend is more than halfway out the door, saddling Makeda with both the rent and a small business loan Makeda co-signed. She drags ass back to her grandmother’s B&B to try regroup, which is where Beznaria Chetchevaliere finds her. Bez is an investigator for the aforementioned World Federation of Monarchies — which appears to be run by broad caricatures of Upper Class Twits, and is a delight to read about — and is searching for the lost princess of Ibarania. She has a personal stake in this as well: the Chetchevaliere family has acted as bodyguard to the royal family for ages, and Bez’s grandmother has taken some heat for “losing” the previous queen. In contrast with Makeda, whose self-effacement threatens to become self-annihilating, Bez is brusquely self-assured.

Makeda is wounded and tetchy when Beznaria first appears, and her antipathy only deepens when Makeda learns Bez is on a search for the Ibaranian heir. Apparently, Makeda’s mother, due to her own mother’s stories of a tryst with a Ibaranian king, made Makeda’s childhood very difficult? So she wants nothing to do with either Beznaria or Ibarania? Honestly, this aspect of the novel made the least psychological (and logistical) sense to me. I understand the psychological effects of growing up with absent or neglectful parents, and Makeda makes sense as a product of that environment. It tracks that Makeda has become almost hyper-competent after parenting her own addict mother, and that she’d have a heightened sense of shame. But I don’t really understand how the Ibaranian monarchy is at fault, even if her mom focused on that as a sort of addictive fixation. Maybe this is just growing up white, but I knew several people who claimed some sort of nonsense pedigree, and no one much made fun of them. Hell, I even had the full on national costume of a country some of my people were from, and they were all alcoholic slate miners. I also don’t understand why the Ibaranian monarchy didn’t investigate Mama Hicks’s claims 20 years previous, waiting instead to focus on her daughter. Makeda’s mom would be all over that. Makeda, instead, is totally over it.

This little infelicity isn’t that big of a deal though: the story is about the ways Bez and Makeda’s distinctly different but complimentary personalities strike sparks off each other. Bez reads to me as neurodivergent, which she thinks of as her too-much-ness. She has a weirdly confident resignation to eventual rejection: she’s not going to change for people, but she fully expects them to disappoint her by wanting her to change. Makeda, by contrast, bends over backwards for everyone, but in a way that can occasionally seem thoughtless? For serious, the ex-girlfriend shouldn’t have defaulted on that loan. But Makeda similarly shouldn’t have pushed the ex into running a business she was unqualified and unsuited to run. It looks like she’s helping, but her assistance is sometimes compulsive, more about internal motivations than external necessity. By the time Bez comes striding into her life, Makeda is in full on snapping wounded phase, trying to reorder her personality to its exact opposite. This is going as well as one might expect. Which is to say: not.

The first third of the novel tracks Bez and Makeda while they are both living at the grandmother’s B&B, and this is the most broadly comic section. There are hijinks with both cats and plumbing, and Grandma Hicks is one of those dirty old ladies who is wise by way of teasing. Once Makeda agrees to return to Ibarania, the middle section switches locales to a container ship, where several romance tropes are deployed with a vengeance: only one bed! fake marriage! forced proximity! I am here for all of that, but others may feel differently. In the last third, once they’ve finally reached Ibarania, Cole delivers a fairly epic plot twist, one that I didn’t see coming, not even a little. (This is the second time she’s caught me out; I was similarly surprised by the reveal at the end of The A.I. Who Loved Me.)

I enjoyed the tight relationships both heroines had with their grandmothers, and the story’s offbeat and unexpected directions. Stories involving royalty often focus on makeovers and the trappings of wealth, and this was well-grounded in a reality of loan payments and rent. However, because the container ship was so cut off from both events in Ibarania and the States, sometimes the emotional through-lines felt a little disconnected. It does very much keep the focus on Makeda and Bez’s relationship, which I think is a good thing, but it was still a little disjointed. How to Find a Princess was an engaging read with likeable characters and a big surprise at the end. I’m happy I have another book to read in this series, even if it is out of order.

I received my copy from Netgalley.

Review: Wild Sign by Patricia Briggs

I have a definite thing with the paranormal concept of “mating”, which is mostly understood to be an unbreakable romantic bond that exists independent of the emotional state of love. Obviously, romance novels have certain parameters to them, namely, that there be an HEA or HFN, so mostly they don’t address the glaring problem that a bond like this, one independent of emotion, can represent. So I kind of freak out when writers address the potential disconnect between mated bond and honest affection, because it’s so vanishingly rare. The newest Alpha & Omega novel, Wild Sign by Patricia Briggs, addresses this issue. The only other novel that I can think of that takes on a disconnect between mated bonding and real affection was one of Elizabeth Hunter’s Irin Chronicles, The Secret. That instance was utterly heartbreaking.

I have a pet theory that the “mating bond” acts as a sort of safety net for people writing overbearing asshole types, which many of these shifters tend to be. The whole pack hierarchy of dominance/submission, which is de rigueur in shifter narratives, offers up a steady supply of pushy, domineering alpha males (literally! har har) whose behavior towards women would be legitimately alarming in real world contexts. (Hell, often their behavior towards other men as well.) With the introduction of the mating bond, that more or less ensures the romantic lead won’t go fully physically abusive, though of course the more intangible methods of abusing and controlling one’s partner are still fully on the table. Admittedly, the Alpha & Omega series isn’t quite a romance series, though it includes a strong romantic through-line, so much of my noodling about the mating bond doesn’t apply, exactly.

The Alpha & Omega books follow the married couple and mated werewolf pair, Anna and Charles Cornick, the Omega and Alpha of the series name, respectively. The werewolves in this universe are often incredibly violent, and the pack bonds are just the thinnest check on that violence. This is in direct contrast with shifters like the Changelings in the Psy-Changeling series by Nalini Singh, whose shifter nature instills a sense of protectiveness and community. Singh’s Changelings are almost constitutionally incapable of abuse; Briggs’s werewolves are all too capable of violent outbreaks, and in some cases predisposed. Further, Charles acts as his father, Bran Cornick’s enforcer, and Bran is the pack leader of all North American werewolf packs, a sort of uber-alpha. His direct pack is made up of the hurt, damaged, unstable, and otherwise not housebroken werewolves. As his dad’s strong arm, violence is literally Charles’s job. His bond with Anna provides ballast for him, a line out to softer, kinder human emotion.

But the mating bond between Anna and Charles — one that seems genuinely enviable — is not the relationship at issue in Wild Sign: it’s the prickly, disconnected connection between Bran Cornick and his mate, Leah. The fact that they are mated but seem to have a deep antipathy for one another has been a thing not just in the Alpha & Omega series, but the Mercy Thompson books as well, where Leah acted as mean step-mom antagonist. Frankly, the way the antagonism between Mercy and Leah was introduced and maintained was indicative of a problem Briggs had writing relationships between women, at the very least in the earlier novels in that series, but really going up to the one that took place in Europe? I find the individual novel names forgettable. Anna’s relationship with Leah has been less antagonistic, but largely Leah is portrayed as a harpy Bran ruefully puts up with. And honestly, if I were Leah, I would be less than impressed with Bran’s lackluster care and concern. His treatment of her as an irritant has never sat well with me.

Wild Sign acts as a corrective to this, and gives us not just Leah’s backstory, but also the origin story for her relationship with Bran Cornick. Anna and Charles head out to the California wilderness to investigate an off-the-grid town full of magical users which seems to have vanished without a trace. Apparently, this town was on land that Leah owns, and both the land and the reason for the town’s disappearance are connected to her mating bond with Bran. Suffice it to say, there’s some real nasty shit in her backstory, the kind of thing even Briggs addresses mostly euphemistically. Her bond with Bran is anything but ideal, almost an echo of said nasty shit, and it’s completely legible why they would hold each other at a distance. They are bonded by trauma, unbreakably so, but trauma isn’t actually ennobling, and intimate violations can play havoc with one’s ability to be intimate.

It’s a lot, and there were certainly points where I wondered if maybe it was too much. But then Briggs has never much shied from really nasty traumas, especially in Alpha & Omega. Charles and Anna met, after all, when he had to execute her pack leader because of the alpha’s brutal sexual, physical, and psychological abuse of Anna and others. And indeed, the antagonist in Wild Sign dredges up this history of violence for Anna — makes her relive it — in a way that felt true to the ways trauma can resurface, even for people who are functionally healed. Shifter narratives, especially those that center on werewolves, deal often with body trauma, I find, something having to do with the werewolf’s lack of control over their body, and the violence of the physical change.

That said, there are some real moments of levity in Wild Sign, like Anna and Charles’s run in with some sasquatch, or the basis for the monster of the week the novel has going. Which is good, because darkness pushes on everything they do, threatening to snuff out the sometimes tremulous light. It’ll be interesting to see what comes next.

Alpha Night by Nalini Singh

I went back and forth about even reviewing Alpha Night, the most recent Psy-Changeling Trinity novel, because it didn’t quite work for me, but for the usual reasons that Psy-Changeling books sometimes don’t work for me. At a certain point it’s on me that I keep reading books that have general themes that can bug me. But then I also want to noodle around and figure out why so few of the Psy-Changeling Trinity books work for me so far, when the last 4 or 5 of the Psy-Changeling installments are my most favoritest of any of them.

So, a quick rundown of the series: Psy-Changeling is a 14-book series set on an alt-Earth where there are 3 kinds of humans: regular humans, like you and me; the Psy, a psychic race who have subjected themselves to brutal anti-emotional conditioning called Silence for the last century; and the Changelings, animal shifters who cluster in packs of Changelings and who shift to similar animals. Changelings can be insular about other changelings — like wolves and cats won’t get on — but humans intermix fine, and do fairly broadly. Also, the Psy often treat humans like shit, as humans have no natural defense against psychic interference. Because the Psy actively repress emotion, child-bearing and rearing is a contractual affair, and the whole race has been cut off, both socially and genetically speaking, from the other two under Silence. The larger arc of the series shows the slow dismantling of Silence, as it turns out repressing emotion in a psychic race is debilitating to the point of species-level collapse.

As a romance series, this larger arc was seen through individual novels that focused on a specific pairing, and gave the background arc a really broad, global sense, like this really was fate-of-the-world stuff, but seen though the eyes of individuals. Mostly the individual outings focused on Psy/Changeling pairings (hence, like, the name of the series), but there are also plenty of Psy/Psy or Changeling/Changeling couples. As a huge nerd, I just went through and counted up: there are 5 Psy/Changeling pairings, 3 Changeling/Changeling pairings, 3 Psy/Psy pairings, and 3ish that include a human. (I say 3ish because one of the “humans” is a member of the Forgotten, a sort of rogue Psy population who submerged into humanity once Silence was initiated.)

On a personal level, I always much prefer a Psy-Changeling novel which focuses on the Psy. On a racial level, they are dealing with profound trauma and abuse, and I think romance novels, with their focus on emotional connection and physical pleasure, can be a perfect environment in which to explore recovery from trauma, especially body trauma. Singh is especially good at this kind of plot, as she never succumbs to the Magical Vagina, those ladyparts whose simple application can heal the most traumatic of injuries. Trauma is real, recovery is often slow, and sometimes people don’t heal completely. The Psy narratives often detail the beauty of the most simple pleasures, anything from burst of sweetness and warmth when you take a sip of hot cocoa, to the feel of silk on the skin. I’m a pretty big sucker for Beautiful Life philosophies.

I’m less interested in Changelings because I find the pack construction frustrating, and the dominant/submissive stuff actively annoying. There is nothing uniquely annoying about the way Changeling culture is constructed compared to other UF/PNR, so I’m not trying to single Singh out. In most shifter narratives, the animal shifters organize themselves around an alpha who is the mostest dominant. In Changeling packs, the dominants act as the government/cops of the pack, while the submissives and maternals, you know, act as healers or school teachers or whatnot. Of course, as you can see from the nomenclature, this is all highly gendered. Occasionally the dominants will talk about how terrifying it is to be called up in front of the maternals, but this strikes me as more of a joke situation: haha, look at the strong dude afraid of his mommy! I literally can’t think of a single maternal named character. (ETA: Wait, that’s not true: I can think of one, and it’s one of the very few female Sentinels. Having her be a maternal solves the problem of her love interest’s fragile ego when he thought she was more dominant than him. Which, that’s pretty fucked up.)

Anyway, The Psy-Changeling books reach a crescendo with the fall of Silence, which then necessitates a global change on all levels of society, and including all three races. During Silence, the three races seemed largely to govern themselves. The Psy were subject to the Psy Counsel, a collection of a dozen or so complete psychos. Psy who showed any kind of emotion were subject to reconditioning or rehabilitation: the first was painful and cruel, and the second resulted in a vegetative state. Changeling packs were organized around an Alpha, as I mentioned before, though there is some law regarding the interaction of the members of Changeling packs with each other. (There was apparently a series of disastrous Territory Wars in the previous century.) Humans seem to have the usual human systems, but then I can’t tell if the nation-state exists, or if there is a global body that advocates for their rights. That doesn’t really matter, I just bring it up because a lot of the legal structures in this world are very lightly sketched, which gives Singh a lot of latitude to bend the world to the characters.

Anyway, after the fall of Silence, and therefore the dissolution of the Psy Council, there are a few books showing the messy interim period until they get their new government systems off the ground. I positively live for this period, in fiction, as I think it’s hard to pull off, but incredibly rewarding. And Singh positively shines given a situation where individual relationships mirror real and important changes in the larger world. By the close of Allegiance of Honor (which honestly read like a clip show, because we check in with literally all the couples from the previous 14 books), global government has been realigned under the Trinity Accord. Trinity, as the name suggests, brings representatives of the three races together, in addition to various important factions within the larger groups: the E-designation Psy, the Forgotten, the Human Alliance, the Arrows, &c &c.

The Psy-Changeling Trinity books are absolutely a continuation of Psy-Changeling, so it’s more like season two than a whole new series. That said, I’ve been kinda bored by them. The first Trinity novel, Silver Silence, I was pretty excited about because it followed a major supporting character, Silver Mercant, who was aide to Kaleb Krychek. Alas, I find bear changelings annoying, which is who the Psy Silver falls in with. (Though, honestly, after spending time with the Moscow wolves in Alpha Night, who are all self-serious bores, I’m more than ready to hang out with the dopey drunk bears again.) Ocean Light also follows a long-running character, the guy who was the head of the Human Alliance, but it recycled the “medical tech might kill me” plot that was way better deployed in Vasic’s book, Shield of Winter, plus the hero was not the kind of asshole I appreciate. (Kaleb Krychek being the ❤️️asshole❤️️ standard.) I did enjoy Wolf Rain, which complicated the E-designation in a really cool way, though the heroine was a million times more interesting than the hero.

Alpha Night follows the alpha of the Russian wolf pack who lives in Moscow along with the Silver Silence bears and Kaleb Krychek. (This is a not dissimilar set up to San Francisco which has cat and wolf packs, and also major Psy players Nikita Duncan and the NightStar family.) Selenka Durev is not the only Changeling alpha who is also a woman — the ocean-wide pack of BlackSea’s First (basically an alpha) is also a girl — but she’s the first we’ve focused on. At a conference of E-designation Psy — who act as a bulwark for the PsyNet, a psychic plane which is necessary for all Psy to, like, continue being alive — Selenka has a fateful meeting with Ethan Night, a member of an insular Psy military unit called the Arrows. Mating at first sight is not supposed to exist, but that’s exactly what happens.

Which, this is right up my damn alley. I dig the narratives that complicate or otherwise rough up tropes of whatever genre, and the mating bond one finds in shifter stories especially makes me itchy. A really fucking fascinating series which does this particularly well is Elizabeth Hunter’s Irin Chronicles, specifically the third in that series, The Secret. That story features a woman who is permanently bonded to another supernatural creature as sort of experiment by that being, which results in both of them locked into both mutual need and mutual antipathy. It’s tragic as hell, and completely, horribly abusive. Alpha Night, unfortunately, doesn’t really do anything with this mating-bond-at-first-sight situation. It’s not supposed to be a thing in the Psy-Changeling universe, so it’s remarked on a lot by the characters, who then often reference genre fiction. Singh also includes excerpts from publications supposedly written in-world. (For example, there’s a soap called Hourglass Lives that I think is a riff on Day of Our Lives, which is so adorable.) I get a kick out of genre fiction commenting on the genre through showing their characters interact with in-world media. (For robust examples of this, check out the Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells, or Yoon Ha Lee’s Revenant Gate.) It could have been an easy thing to interrogate instalove in this context. Alas.

The interpersonal conflict instead is largely the one between Selenka and her father, who was passed over as alpha when her grandfather died. He’s whiny and entitled, and gives Selenka no small amount of grief. I really love when Singh writes about shitty Changelings who have shitty relationships, because sometimes they’re just a little too perfect. Mating bonds render things like spousal abuse impossible, and they’re so full up with protective instincts that they can be incredibly high-handed and high-and-mighty. (And, honestly, sometimes the way those protective instincts are portrayed looks pretty overbearing to me. The loudest example I can think of was Jenna’s brothers’ behavior in Caressed by Ice. She managed to get them to stand the fuck down, but she had to be really, really assertive in a situation where they were almost physically restricting her. They don’t own her, and nothing about that was healthy.) Selenka’s relationship with her father is heartbreaking, especially because its based on real, longstanding resentments and disconnects. And legit, her relationship with her mom is pretty fucked up too.

Her relationship with Ethan, by contract, is remarkably frictionless. He snaps into his role as the alpha’s consort pretty easily. He even interacts with pack mates with exactly what the situation requires, something which stretched credulity when coming from a scarred and traumatized member of an insular paramilitary unit. Like, how? Even his relationships with other Arrows heretofore have been bad. Most of the frisson in their relationship had to do with his bizarre and sometimes out of control psychic powers, which isn’t a conflict but a situation. I really could have used a little more conflict between these two, because suddenly being bonded to someone you don’t even know sounds kinda nightmarish, and that isn’t really acknowledged.

So I don’t know! I think my sense of malaise with the Trinity novels is that I don’t feel an especial sense of danger anymore. Unless they’re singular psychos like Ming Le Bon or the serial-killing Psy Council member, Singh’s evil organizations are often cartoonish. I don’t credit their motivations, so I don’t feel that much tension. The Trinity series has had really remote antagonists, so the overt plot doesn’t really resonate with the romantic plot for me. You’ll notice I didn’t even mention the overt plot of Alpha Night, because it really made no impression. In comparison, I can remember both the advancing mythology and the interpersonal relationships in, say, Heart of Obsidian, with perfect clarity, even years later. I think I read somewhere that the next Trinity book is going to deal with the PsyNet breaking apart, which is the kind of BFD that might really provide some grist for the main couple. Here’s hoping! I legitimately love this series, and I don’t like feeling on the outs.

Review: Beauty and the Clockwork Beast by Nancy Campbell Allen

This was written a while ago, after our move, but I only got around to posting it in its edited and spellchecked form like half a year ago. Then there was some catastrophe and I lost a bunch of posts. So this is it again!

I’ve been listening to a lot of audiobooks recently. We recently moved, so I’ve been working on the various paint and plaster projects necessary to make this house not be the godforsaken beige that the previous owners thought was a good idea. Which means I have hours and hours of monotonous work that is perfect for audio. I listened to an urban fantasy trilogy I’ve read before, hit some China Miéville because rwrrr, and then moved on to midlist steampunk.

Beauty and the Clockwork Beast by Nancy Campbell Allen is one of those titles that promises some stupid stuff. I am sometimes in the mood for stupid stuff, and I felt reasonably sure I knew what I was going to get, given my experience with steampunk on the romance end. There would be an inventor’s daughter, one of those irrepressibly zesty daughters of the upper class who be impressed upon to find her father’s killer / continue his work / fall in love with the staff / automaton / vampire / werewolf. I once read a short story collection of steampunk stories where two thirds of the entries went this way. Two thirds.

But that is not what I found in Beauty and the Clockwork Beast! Or it is, just a very little, but the bulk of the novel is character study, riffs on Gothic fiction, and well written prose. Jeez, who even does that?

The plot follows one Lucy Pickett as she goes to stay with a cousin who is more like a sister to her. The cousin, Kate, was recently married to the younger brother of an earl, but has been ailing since she took up residence as the lady of Blackwell Manor. The earl himself, Miles, has a pall upon him, after his wife and sister died within a day of each other half a year ago. The wife died in a manner befitting the Blackwell curse, and the sister was torn apart by wild animals. It’s all pretty sketchy.

Lucy is a botanist herself, and a member of a society that is working towards the usual medicinal uses, but also pharmacology that is useful against vampires. This is a world with magic and animal shifters (of which Miles is one) and vampires. But it’s not a world with ghosts, so it troubles Lucy some to encounter the ghost of the earl’s sister for several nights running. She and Miles end up playing detective in the earlier deaths, Lucy’s sister’s illness, and Miles’ blackmail.

While there are many things about the detective plot that make me want to tear out my hair — there are ONLY TWO OR THREE VIABLE SUSPECTS JFC — I was so in love with Lucy. She’s no inventor’s daughter, an appendage on a Great Man, but a scientist in her own right. I do want to acknowledge that in the world this fantasy is based on, women really didn’t have many opportunities to education short of what they could filch from their fathers and brothers. That often steampunk girls have mad scientist or inventor fathers is not my issue. It’s that most often the father is a Great Man, and the daughter-protagonist a mere shadow of his genius or keeper of his legacy, without a lot of agency in her own vocations or avocations.

This might be a little harder to explain, but hear me out: she’s also not gadding about in trousers because she’s so transgressive zomg, but a careful woman of her class and station. Look, I love me a firebrand, a character who smashes shit and gets stuff done. But I weary of 1) characters who haven’t earned it and are just middle class fantasies of rebellion dressed up in pantaloons 2) Strong Female Characters ™ who do everything in their power to shit on girlishness, the trappings of femininity, and any woman who might still live under its aegis. Lucy is often well and truly frustrated by how she as treated as a scientist and a woman, but she’s got good table manners, and knows how perform a perfect curtsy. She has good relationships with other women — not just one, but several — and even treats unlikable female characters with kindness and empathy. In short, she is a good person.

Aspects of her prescribed gender roles chaff, absolutely, but some don’t, which make Lucy an altogether more believable and nuanced character than someone wearing a leather corset on the outside of her clothes shooting out the lights all the time or whatever. She’s not someone’s bondage fantasy of a Strong Woman. Moreover, her worth isn’t predicated on her father, or her magical powers (she has none other than education and experience) or her anachronistic badassery. It comes from her diligent work ethic, loyalty to those she loves, and innate kindness. Which, whoa. I was well pleased to encounter someone of Lucy’s mettle in this sort of steampunkery.

There are things to complain about, for sure. The detective plot is almost offensively stupid, even while the technical details of this specific steampunk world are careful and considered. Miles holds onto his secrets 80 pages past when he should. People almost never ask the obvious questions when confronted with a mystery, and blithely go about their business like idiots. At a couple crucial points, characters forget important details like wow. Oh, and the most childish complaint: dude is not a clockwork beast, whatever that means, just the regular kind. (Of course I know writers rarely have control over titles; chill.)

That said! I feel like this was ahead of the curve. Lucy is such a practical, well drawn character, and she acquits herself with grace. May we all, etc.

Strange Nostalgia: The Queening of Ceridwen

Note: This was written ages ago when I was still on Goodreads.


I’ve been cleaning out my books for the past couple weeks, which has been an entirely complaint-worthy endeavor. I’ve also had a pretty good time finding things I’d totally forgotten about, like this book. Mum bought me The Queening of Ceridwen by Esther Elias I think when I was in high school, solely on the basis of it having my name in the title. Having a really weird name meant that I never got to have those dippy tourist mugs and key-chains with my name on them growing up. I disparage them now, but it is only because they are sour grapes. Sour, sour grapes.

Anyway, I totally love this book. I’m not going to star it, because I don’t think the star-system here makes any sense usually, and for this it’s especially weird. The Queening of Ceridwen is a book about a Welsh corgi named Ceridwen. This is a sequel of sorts to Profile of Glindy, who was also a Welsh corgi, and Ceridwen’s “true love”. I’m making them sound like fiction, but they are memoirs of house pets, and totally earnest. Both books were written by their “mistress”, as she refers to herself, and are absolutely amazing. Whenever I find this book I can’t help myself and read out the table of contents to my husband in a fake British accent. (This doesn’t actually make any sense, because the author is from Pittsburgh.) Some chapter headings:

6. We Move From Our House on the Hill and Glindy Goes to Heaven
10. The Story of Her Struggle With Diabetes
15. “Blest Be the Tie That Binds” – It’s Ceridwen

And my all time favorite:

Epilogue….An Interview With St. Peter – Sometime Later

I am absolutely trying not to make too much fun of Ms. Elias, even though this book is completely nutty. Especially the parts where she talks to the dogs. My grandfather when he was in his 80s wrote and self-published two books, which cannot be found on most book review sites, although you can find the second volume on Amazon, last I checked. (We accidentally left a bunch in my grandparents’ house after Grandma died, and I think the new owner tried to make a quick buck on the self-published works of a 90 year old.) The first volume of Full of Sound and Fury, Grandpa’s book, was a collection of plays he’d written for high school performances. He was the drama coach for a high school forever, and as a young man he did summer stock and other theatrical endeavors. His second volume was more personal hokum and anecdotes.

Interestingly, he was a fan of the dramatic dialogue with imaginary or literary figure like the author here. (Maybe it’s a Pittsburgh thing – that’s where he lived too.) When he died, I went through the bits he was collecting for the third volume on his computer, and a lot of them were conversations he imagined himself having with God. Not serious St Augustine stuff, but like large runs of puns and literary allusions, wisecracks and goofing off. He was serious at times too, grappling with the very concept of an afterlife, partially because I think if he had born in another time, he would have been a casual atheist, but that sort of thing was generationally impossible.

Anyway, I’m trying to wind up to a point about writing and publishing. All kinds of stuff gets written and some of that stuff gets published, and an even smaller percentage of that stuff gets read, and an even smaller percentage gets read by a large group of people. I’ve never read my Grandpa’s books in total. I couldn’t handle it when he was living, because it was all too much of that balderdash and personal mythology that I could get from him firsthand. (And, frankly, a non-trivial percentage was hurtful bullshit.) Then he died, and it was still too much of his balderdash, but now it was tinged with the grief of his loss, and my guilt for never reading it while he was living.

But read or not, the writing of those books kept him alive. I am not exaggerating in any way. He was pretty active senior. He’d audit college classes ostensibly to learn something, but mostly to hang out and hold forth his brands of BS. Teachers either loved him or HATED him. But by the time he was 80, he was increasingly homebound, and as a consequence began suffering from depression. (Or, counterpoint: he suffered from depression his whole life, but they finally found a name and a treatment for it.)

I don’t know where he got the idea to write memoirs, but I suspect it was the man who was his editor through the process, a man who had been Grandpa’s student a few decades previous named Edwin Koval. Anyway, he started writing on of those electronic typewriters and worked up to an old desktop that we gave him. He’d retreat down to his big old desk in the basement and tap away. Writing gave him a place to use his voice, let him manage his legacy, and let him act out his conversations with God. Publishing was almost incidental, although I’m sure that he, like any author, would prefer to be read.

So, I don’t know. The whole thing is funny. I’m never going to read The Queening of Ceridwen cover to cover, but it makes me really happy that it exists, this elderly woman writing her loving eulogies to a couple of stumpy dogs. From what little I’ve read, she’s also working out what she thinks about the afterlife and her own approaching mortality, which is a pretty great thing for her to have done. And not to mention too sore a subject, but sometimes I see authors flip out on bad reviews from time to time. I understand; no one wants to have their work disliked or dismissed.

But, God, most authors should be so lucky as to have someone read their book, let alone work up the energy to dislike it. Maybe this is just readerly arrogance, and I’d feel differently if I were published. But every book is trying to find its audience, and the review process is part of that, even the bad ones. The audience of The Queening of Ceridwen is totally girls named Ceridwen who had a grandfather from the same hometown as the author who self-published his memoirs too. The rest of you will probably not be interested. It is pretty wonderful to find every couple of years in the mess though. I still love it.

Review: Big Bad Wolf by Suleikha Snyder

One of the strengths of the paranormal fantasy is its ability to make the metaphors manifest, and then play with them in really concrete terms. One of my favorite werewolf stories, for example, is Ginger Snaps, a turn of the millennium film about two pubescent sisters, one of whom begins turning into a werewolf. The lycanthropy in Ginger Snaps works as this really extreme metaphor for all of the dangerous becoming that happens to girls in puberty: sexually, personally, socially. One of the reasons it works so well is that the actuality of puberty is going on as well — the lycanthropy is a metaphor, yes, but the real world thing exists too. The metaphor doesn’t erase the reality, it heightens it.

There’s this really great scene where the younger sister goes to the school nurse and begins describing the changes in her werewolf sister — sexual awaking, blood, hair growth — and the nurse clucks knowingly and gives her a pamphlet about “Your Changing Body!” or somesuch. It’s a gesture to how the literature about puberty is both accurate, physiologically speaking, and absolutely misses the mark when it comes to the lived experience of the average person at that vulnerable period. I don’t remember getting a pamphlet about dealing with sketch dudes on the bus when I was 14, but unwelcomed sexual attention is, unfortunately, a very real aspect of puberty for many girls & people assigned female at birth. The way the werewolf is used in Ginger Snaps doesn’t erase or replace the experience of puberty, it heightens it.

Anyway, point being, for every story like Ginger Snaps — which flawlessly combines both the metaphorical and the actual — there’s a dozen which treat the metaphor of the paranormal other as somehow more real than actual, legitimate, real world problems, prejudices, and bigotries. This is especially true when the paranormal identity is understood to be a persecuted minority and acts as a stand in for race. I’ve seen many fictions erase systemic racism in lieu of the simplified and ahistoric “prejudice” against their made up whatsit. It’s not that I don’t think people wouldn’t be bigots about werewolves/shifters/vampires should they be revealed to be real, it’s that I think they’d be racist about them in addition to all the stuff they’re already racist about.

Which is why Suleikha Snyder’s Big Bad Wolf is such a godamn breath of fresh air. So much — so much — paranormal fantasy takes place in a magical America which isn’t riven by bone-deep, brutal, and violent disagreement about who gets to count as a person. We’ve all seen the state violence — children in cages, Black people murdered by the police with no accountability — and that’s not even getting into the stochastic terrorism that makes up the background radiation of the Trump years. If, somehow in the last four years, supernatural beings were added to the population as a category of persons who exist, they would have been subject to the exact same treatment as every other minority. Which is to say: poorly, and worse and worse for intersectional identities.

Big Bad Wolf focuses largely, though not exclusively, on the relationship between Neha Ahluwalia and Joe Peluso. He’s a white former soldier who murdered six Russian mafia dudes, and she’s a Desi lawyer who’s been tasked with defending him in court. He was part of a super secret military unit which was changed through scientific fuckery into a wolf shifter, but for unknown reasons he never used his shifting abilities when he smoked the mafia dudes. Neha has a PhD in psychology in addition to her JD, so she’s sent in to try to get him to cooperate with his legal defense. So far he’s been anything but cooperative.

Joe and Neha have an almost immediate connection, one that discombobulates them both. He’s got a healthy dose of self loathing going on, both because of his military service and because he legit murdered 6 dudes in cold blood. Her motives are a little less legible — he is, after all, a murderer — but their dialogue is snappy and I’ll allow a lot of emotional latitude setting up a world this complex. At a certain point Neha has to decide whether to follow her intense reaction to Joe, or stay on the straight and narrow. She makes the leap, and ends up on the run with Joe, dodging the cops, the Russian mafia, and possibly the military.

Because that’s the thing: this novel takes place firmly in Trump’s America (though I’m reasonably sure he’s never named). As the child of immigrants and a lawyer, Neha has a richly textured understanding of how scary it is out there for brown people, for women, for non-Christians. Early on, Joe tries to pull some economic anxiety bullshit on her — you’re just into me because I’m working class — and she’s like pffffft, that’s nothing. I’ve survived the last four years; slumming doesn’t factor. Yes, absolutely, he’s seen some shit, and what was done to him was wrong. But his experience of being hung out to dry as a shifter once the military was done with him is just one injustice. There are so many others, and there’s no rules that say you only experience the one.

As the first in a series, there are a lot of people, organizations, and lore that need explaining, and the narrative feels occasionally cluttered with their introductions. Relatedly, because there are so many people, the character sketches of anyone but the leads are pretty rudimentary. This is less a complaint and more an observation. Even though there are a lot of moving parts, Snyder has a firm hand on her exposition — I never felt like, who the hell is this person, I have no idea how they fit in. Given the size of the cast, that’s no small feat.

Yesterday, I bolted down all 6 episodes of Staged, a pandemic-produced BBC series starring David Tennent and Michael Sheen. I’ve watched a couple other shows produced during the pandemic, stuff like Host (a pretty cute found-footage horror film about a tele-séance) and Locked Down (which I turned off after 15 minutes because of its fucking awful script.) Staged was absolutely pitch perfect, the pandemic production I didn’t even know I needed, coming at just the right time. Big Bad Wolf is exactly like this for me, a corrective to the sometimes ahistorical metaphorical landscape of the paranormal, coming at a time when history demands accounting. Put less douchily: It’s so welcome to see family and friends on the pages of of a novel, living in the same conflicted and dangerous reality, but intensified by a paranormal element that gives the everyday that much more freight.