The Cold Commands by Richard K. Morgan

I reviewed this ages ago, but have just gotten around to re-posting.

If what you feel has been missing from your average Tolkien-clone is hot, gay sex, then this is the book for you.

No, j/k, I’m being immature, and I’ve never been one to let a one-liner lie. What I have been missing from your average Tolkien-clone is hot, gay sex. While I love Tolkien, his far-reaching over-shadowing influence on later fantasists results in an awful lot of heraldic bullshit and courtly fol-de-rol, with wide-eyed teenage boys who are Ken-like from the waist down pining for perfect gfs and bloodlessly questing for the Sparkly McGuffin. Oh, the Sparkly McGuffin! Forged in the fires of Mount Plot by the Great Evil Tautology!

Richard K. Morgan strides in with his great swinging dick – I mean dirk – and knocks all this stuff over. Smash! Smash! Wheee! This sounds like it could be a lot of fun – and there certainly is fun to be had – but as Morgan’s first foray into fantasy, he seems to fall into some common fantasy traps. The world building is painfully slow, clearly designed to be nuanced enough to cover another couple of books, but I wonder how much of this could have been contracted or excised completely. (I can’t believe I’m bitching about nuance.) The names are all annoyingly polysyllabic and oddly similar, meaning lazy readers such as myself are often confused and lost. I get why people in fantasy can’t be named “Steve” and “Bob,” but the names seemed tin-earish. (Also, why does everything have to start with a G or a K? What is it about these letters that says “sword and sorcery” to English speakers? C’mon, linguists, I need to know.)

At about halfway, I was ready to give up, so I came on bookface and got a little pep-talk from Mike’s review — unfortunately no longer extant —  which reminded me why I tend to dig Morgan’s stuff: the snarling misanthropy, the unbelievably brutal violence that is neither precious nor glorified, the biting political invective. The later half of the book rapidly picks up steam; the almost tedious details of the earlier half of the novel coalescing into textured history – and one that doesn’t feel the need to name every damn rock and twig in remembrance of some heroic act a millennium ago, but one that has a dirty, lived-in feel. All the f-bombs, drug use, whores – and believe me, I’m sick to death of authors using whores to make their fantasy worlds seem “real” – mesh convincingly into a world that values character over genre conventions. I actually lol’d when, late in the novel, one of the principles meets with what is functionally an elf princess, the sister of his new lover, and they have one of those standard heraldic-I-can’t-really-speak-your-language meet-cutes full of ye gads forthwith forsooths, at the end of which she says, “Fuck with my brother, and I’ll kill you” in roughly that phrasing. Ha! Good times.

And did I mention the gay sex? Mostly, I think sex scenes in non-romance novels fail because they do not do work to push the narrative along. (Romance novels tend to understand the importance of the physical mirroring the emotional.) Like Morgan’s fight scenes, the sex is embodied and explicit, and discomforting to read. The protagonist’s homosexuality isn’t something pasted on, theoretical, but a fledged desire. Morgan’s got himself some running themes about how the powers that be build an artifice of morality that they hide behind, using your “sins” – the ones they created for you – as a lever to make you perpetrate real crimes, institutional crimes like war, the kind of crimes you never really come back from. There’s a running gag where characters ask one another “Have you ever killed a child?” Invariably, the answer was, “I was in the war, wasn’t I?” It would almost be funny, if it weren’t so damn sad, that a lot of reviews I’ve read (here and elsewhere) spill more ink about the man-on-man-elf action than they do about the explicit horror of the violence – the thing with the heads in the third act I’m not going to be able to scrub out for a while – and I think this is Morgan’s point. An institutional morality that justifies war while squealing like a bunch of faux-prissy voyeurs over a private, consensual act creates institutions, and moralities, that I find distasteful, to say the least.

Burn it, burn it all, might be Morgan’s take-home message, one that I’m not comfortable with either, but one for which I have no easy retort. Morgan explicitly takes on the “consider the children” argument and tears it to shreds. I’ve often joked about finding nihilism sexy, but it’s mostly because I’m afraid of it, and desire and danger like to hold hands and skip together. I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue reading this trilogy – and Morgan earns my respect for tying this one off in a way that I could end it here – but in writing my review, I’ve talked myself into it. The dark lord is rising. Let’s see what he does next.

The Last of Us: When You’re Lost in the Darkness

However many years ago (many), I diligently rounded up every The Walking Dead episode as it aired. It was in the doldrums of season 3, so I did a lot of bitching, but it was still a fun exercise. I know I’m super bad at follow-through when I assign myself homework, but I’m going to make a stab at it with HBO’s newest zombie show, The Last of Us. Already I’m off to a great start, because it’s been a solid week since the show premiered, and they’ve already aired episode two. But to begin my chatting about the first episode, I’m going to make some disclaimers and talk about zombie tv, ok? Ok.

The Last of Us, like The Walking Dead, is based on preexisting media, this time a video game instead of comics. I had read up to the second compendium with The Walking Dead — roughly when the prison is breached — but I don’t have that kind of background here. I’ve never played the game, so I don’t have any particular feelings about this casting choice or that. I do know that the usual suspects are mad about Black people existing and whatnot, but those types can dry up and blow away. I’m going to take the individual performances as they are, and not as some perfect 1:1 version of the video game. I totally get having things in your head if you’re familiar with a specific narrative, but that’s not where I’m coming from. Moreover, perfect fidelity to source material is not my metric for success. One of my favorite film adaptions of a book — and, coincidentally, another zombie narrative — is Pontypool, based on the novel Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess. The film uses only one of the intertwining plotlines in the novel — which are alluded to in brief, weird interludes — because an attempt to portray everything that happens would get diffuse quick. The narrative’s simplicity makes it a stronger film.

So. The opening of The Last of Us is very much what Colson Whitehead, in Zone One, described as the Last Night. It’s the last day of normalcy before the world falls away and everything changes. As the wry narrator in that novel observes: “At their core, Last Night stories were all the same: They came, we died, I started running.” Whitehead’s ironic dismissal is a sort of inversion of Chekhov’s old saw from Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The unhappy beginning of any zombie story is the same: they came, we died, etc. I say ironic, because however distanced the reader is by narrative bracketing or other literary tricksiness, those Last Night stories are individually, personally gutting. Every Last Night story is about someone losing everything, often violently. That zombie stories flatten this trauma to some snatched keys and a locked bathroom door speaks to the emotionally insulating power of the genre trope, something writers have to consciously write against.

We first meet Joel and his daughter Sarah on the morning of his birthday. Sarah’s got all the poise of a child who’s had to keep things together because her parents won’t — or can’t. The mother is absent — I presume dead because there are still pictures of her in the house — and Joel seems to work too much. He promises he’ll be back in time for them to celebrate his birthday, but this is inevitably not the case. We then follow Sarah through her day: she goes downtown to fix a watch with (unknown) special significance; she visits with the neighbors she finds affectionately annoying. During these mundane tasks, there’s this thrum of disquiet. The wife of the man who fixes her watch hustles her out of the store, telling Sarah to get home before she hurriedly closes up. In one of the more unsettling scenes in the pilot, the catatonic grandma at her neighbors’ goes through unnatural facial contortions, but we only see this out of focus behind Sarah’s turned back. Sirens blare in the distance constantly.

This opening does such a good job of showing a normal that is just on the edge. Sarah keeps listening too long at things in the distance, or seeming watchful in moments that aren’t overtly wrong. A nice detail: when her father eventually turns up, he remarks that she finally locked the door, something she apparently never does. A lot of Last Night narratives don’t linger much in the moments Before. A good example would be Zach Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake, which has the heroine witness the bloody murder and reanimation of her husband in the first minutes, then never much fusses with her grief; indeed, I don’t believe he’s mentioned again. But The Last of Us almost gives us an Obituary, in Whitehead’s taxonomy of Last Night narratives: a tale told to the intimate, with a full accounting of the loss. The other two possible modes are the Silhouette, for those to whom no connection was felt, and the Anecdote, suitable for large groups and the more long-term of the short-term traveling companions. (These distinctions will come in handy when talking about how Ellie and Joel interact, later.)

The day winds down quietly. They have cake and fall asleep in front of the tv watching a movie borrowed from the neighbors. This peaceful tableau is interrupted by a call from Joel’s brother, Tommy. Tommy’s gotten himself thrown in jail in Houston for assaulting someone, and Joel goes to bail him out, leaving a sleeping Sarah. She wakes up later to the sound of helicopters and distant booms. When she goes next door to investigate why their dog is out, she finds a blood-soaked kitchen with grandma feasting on her daughter’s body. Joel and Tommy return and order her into the truck, at which point they race off, trying to get out of the city. In their mad dash out of the city, there’s all manner of unsettling shit going on, but just over there, and then you’re past it. When Sarah is eventually killed — you can see this coming a mile away — it’s at the hands of a soldier, not one of the “clickers” (as the zombies here are styled.) He clearly gets orders to kill the two civilians over his walkie, shooting at them as they run away. This sets the themes for the rest of the episode: the government cannot be trusted, and only people working through mutual aid and community organizing are going to get anything done.

The narrative skips ahead 20 years; the location is now Boston. We don’t immediately catch up with Joel. Instead, we follow an unkempt and dirty child as he makes his way through the wreckage of modernity. I immediately got all excited because I’ve been working on a catalogue of zombified children, and this kid seemed stumbling and glazed enough to register as infected, if not a full-blown zombie. He’s allowed into the Boston FEDRA QZ (Federal Disaster Response Agency and Quarantine Zone, respectively) but strapped down to a wheelchair, The Girl with All the Gifts style. A woman speaks gently to him while he’s given a shot. We catch up with Joel after this sequence: He’s loading bodies into a pyre when a woman working alongside him balks at putting a child in the fire. It’s the boy from earlier; he must have been euthanized. I suspected that was what happened, but now I know, and without a lot of arm-wheeling. There’s a lot of nicely compact storytelling going on without a lot of fuss, like government-style posters on the wall which explain how the location of bite relates to infection time, or the fact that government is now conducted on scraps of paper and a stamp.

We follow Joel through his day. He lines up work for the next, talks to a guard who turns a blind eye to his smuggling, and tries to contact his brother, who is apparently the other half of the supply chain. Tommy’s been radio silence for longer than usual, and it’s making him and his girlfriend Tess nervous. Along the way we get a good cross-section of life in the QZ. The FEDRA administration of the QZ is apparently dystopian enough to have an organized resistance against them, a group called the Fireflies. When a deal of Joel’s falls through, he ends up grudgingly agreeing to take a young girl to a Firefly location outside of the QZ, at which point he’ll have what he needs to find his brother. This marks Bella Ramsey’s entrance into the narrative. I sincerely love a foul-mouthed sass, and Ellie’s character is that plus some. The Fireflies believe she’s important, though the not so hidden football is that they believe she’s the key to a cure. (There will be more on this later.)

On their way out of the QZ, they come in conflict with the guard Joel is friendly with. This confrontation was similar enough to Joel’s run-in with the soldier who murdered his daughter to trigger a pretty healthy rage response. He ends up beating the guard to death, while Ellie looks on in horrified wonder. Everyone completely does their jobs here, especially Ramsey, who manages to convey a lot of complex emotion. Joel’s violence on her behalf registers almost as a form of affection: he is willing to kill to protect her. I’ve often said that violence nurtures domesticity in zombie narratives, often paradoxically, and that’s not always or often a good thing. Largely this takes the form of white men murdering folk because of some high-handed ideal which crumbles the minute you look past the soundbite (pun intended). But here it’s much more nuanced than most. Ellie and Joel both have their motivations, which ultimately lock together. He’s still grieving a daughter; she’s never had a parent, let alone baseline affection from the adults around her. They don’t lock together here in the first episode — that would give short shrift to their very real trauma — but you can see how they might.

All in all, I was well pleased with the beginnings of this story. My kid, who is a video game nerd, was a little dismissive when I asked him if he’d watched this. “The video game is trying to be a movie,” he said, “so it makes sense the adaption would work.” While that definitely gave me food for thought about the aims of both genre and medium, it didn’t crimp my enjoyment. Inevitably, the take-home is that mushrooms are fucked up, a sentiment I can get behind.

The Year in Reading: 2022

I rounded up the books I’d read for the year a couple years back, which I hoped to make into something of a tradition. Alas, I’ve never done well when I assign myself homework, so last year went by without a roundup. But I guess I’m back! We’ll see how this goes. I’m still pretty focused on lighter fare, like I was at the start of the pandemic, but I’ve managed to slip in some horror here and there, mostly stuff I’d read already. In fact, I did a lot of rereading this year; I’m just not interested in surprises. So, without further ado:

Stuff I read for class:

The Collected Works of T.S. Eliot. If you weren’t aware, I finally finished up the English degree I started eleventy million years ago. The class itself was a senior seminar style class — where your grade is based on a single, bigass paper — and the class was called “T. S. Eliot and War.” We started with the WWI poets — Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, &c — and then worked our way into Prufrock, The Wasteland, and the Four Quartets. It’s been a hot minute since I seriously read poetry, so it was very rewarding to get hip deep in the one of the most important poets of the 20th Century. I’m not sure who this is attributed to, but one pithy take on Eliot goes: Modernism begins between the second and third lines of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham. A small town gets knocked out by an unidentified force, after which it turns out all the women of childrearing age are knocked up. A comedy of manners that ends on a bang.

Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. This novel defies the wisdom that you shouldn’t have too much weird stuff going on in a novel, because first up, almost everyone on earth is blinded by a celestial event, and then, while society is breaking down and everything is a mess, giant, ambulatory, carnivorous plants start preying on the survivors. Fun fact: Alex Garland lifted the opening of Triffids, which follows a patient who was convalescing in hospital & who doesn’t know about the recent cataclysm, for 28 Days Later.

The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. O.G. alien invasion narrative, which reads really weird now. Published in 1897, it pre-dates both world wars, and it shows. My paper ended up being on what Wyndham took from Wells when he wrote his own alien invasion narrative, fifty years and two world wars later.

Hidden Wyndham by Amy Binns. As far as I know, the only biography of Wyndham available, published in the last few years. I feel like Wyndham is experiencing a little bitty renaissance, because he is so much more interesting than many of his peers. Hidden Wyndham publishes just scads of his letters to the love of his life while they were separated by the war, and I admit I cried.

The History of Science Fiction by Adam Roberts. I also read a lot of academical stuff for the paper, but I’m not going to bore you with psychoanalytic takes on mid-century scifi or whatnot. I mention The History of Science Fiction because I read around for sections which dealt with my specific topics, and hit a three page analysis of The Midwich Cuckoos which was better than every other bit of criticism I’d read about that novel by a country mile. I made a mental note to get back to his fiction when I remember; Roberts is also a science fiction writer himself. I recommend following his twitter if you’re into extremely erudite dad jokes and multi-lingual puns.

Zombies!

Most of my zombie reads were rereads, so we’ll start with the new stuff.

Love, Lust, and Zombies: Short Stories edited by Mitzi Szereto. Short story collection about people banging the undead. Look, I know. Would you believe I read it for the articles? I do think it’s notable, given the burgeoning subgenre of monsterotica, that zombies almost never are portrayed as fuckable, a paradox of the zombie’s curious detachment and their voraciousness. Something something, quip about the little death and the big one.

The Down Home Zombie Blues by Linnea Sinclair. Turns out, not actually about zombies, which I found incredibly disappointing. Buddy-cop alien-invasion narrative with hive-mind space chthulu, set in Florida. Make of that what you will.

Everything Dies by T. W. Malpass. I read the first “season”; this is apparently some kind of serial. Decent, but it’s got the wordiness of serials and the tendency to jump around in a way that works when you’re consuming something episodically, but not so much in a binge. I’m on the fence about whether to continue.

The First Thirty Days by Lora Powell. Self-pub with the requisite typos and infelicities, but stronger than most. Kinda not into the fact that a vaccine is responsible for the zombie apocalypse. Given the pub date, this isn’t Covid vaccine denialism, just the regular kind, but it still rankles. I liked the slow collection of survivors; I didn’t like the cartoony bad guys in the third act. I also enjoyed that these zombies were fast zombies initially, but as they decomposed, they got more like the shamblers of yore. Not that physics exists in zombie stories, but I liked that these zombies decomposed like bodies would.

This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers. YA novel about a young woman who is suicidal when the zombie apocalypse hits, and ends up riding it out in the high school with a collection of frenemies. There’s a real thing that depressed people tend to do better in crisis situations, because they’ve been catastrophizing the whole time so sure, why not zombies. Beautifully written and worth the reread.

Severance by Ling Ma. Legit, I reread this almost exclusively because I watched the AppleTV series, Severance (no relation). This novel definitely cemented my opinion that zombie novels more accurately capture the experience of living through a pandemic than fiction about pandemics. This lappingly memoirish novel follows a post-college millennial through a global outbreak of Shen fever, which strips its victims down to one rote action until they die of exposure or malnutrition. She keeps working her publishing job as New York empties, masked and Zooming with a smaller and smaller group of people.

Zone One by Colson Whitehead. This is maybe the third time I’ve read this, second time I’ve listened to the audio, which is very good. Once you get past the 50c words and the complex syntax — not to mention how aggressively deadpan the narrative voice is — Zone One is seriously freaking funny. It’s honestly become one of my favorite novels. Zone One is also elegiac about a lost New York, like Severance, and is probably best understood as a 9/11 novel, of sorts.

The Dark Earth by John Hornor Jacobs. Another super rewarding reread. Jacobs isn’t reinventing the zombie wheel here — they’re pretty standard shamblers — but this book really cemented a lot of my early ponderings about the American instinct towards fascism, what zombie stories tend to say about domesticity, etc. The way the story is told through interlocking perspectives is absolutely aces, and there’s a sequence with a steam train which rules.

Seanan McGuire

The InCryptid Series. McGuire is seriously seriously prolific, so if you’re looking for three dozen novels or so because you’ve got a long weekend, look no further. I read the first four InCryptid books — Discount Armageddon, Midnight Blue-Light Special, Half-Off Ragnarok, and Pocket Apocalypse (I was today years old when I got the pun the title; the novel takes place in Australia), but I bounced off the fifth, Chaos Choreography. This is notable, because it usually takes me two books to run out steam with a series and have to take a break. InCryptid features a sprawling family of cryptozoologists (some of whom happen to be cryptids themselves). The first was published in 2012, and it isn’t so different from the glut of urban fantasy published in the 2010s, but they get weirder and more McGuire-like as they go on, which is cool to watch happen.

Wayward Children. I continued my read of Wayward Children with Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Beneath the Sugar Sky, and In an Absent Dream. I can’t recommend this series enough. It’s a sort of meta-portal fantasy, and the plots have the logic of dreams and nightmares. In an Absent Dream is absolutely gutting so I had to take a break, but I’ll be back.

Mira Grant. I also read a couple of her novels published under the Mira Grant name, which I think largely she uses for her more science horror stuff, but who even knows. Alien Echo is a YA novel set in the Alien universe. Olivia and Viola are the twin daughters of xenobiologists whose colony gets overrun with xenomorphs. Totally decent tie-in novel. Kingdom of Needle and Bone has a similar vibe to the Newsflesh books, which I enjoyed greatly despite my often loud bitching. Unfortunately, the book is about a pandemic, and I am not capable of reading about pandemics right now. I suspect this was supposed to be the start of a series, but Covid put an end to that, along with so much else. Oh, and speaking of that, I am absolutely dying for another killer mermaids book, like Into the Drowning Deep, but I think there might be some fuckery with the publisher? I really hope they get that nonsense worked out.

Ann Aguirre

Galactic Love. I’ve found my way working through Aguirre’s back catalogue because she’s a rock solid journeyman writer who is often quietly subversive as hell, especially when it comes to toxic genre tropes. Like in the first of her Galactic Love series, Strange Love, Aguirre takes on alien abduction romance, a sub-genre which is often a trash fire of dub-con and dudes with weird dicks. Strange Love is instead a charming, funny story with a talking dog and a Eurovision-ish contest, and the alien doesn’t even have a dick. This year I read the third, Renegade Love, which isn’t as great as Strange Love, but is still pretty great. It’s about a froggy dude in a murder suit, what more could you possibly need to know?

Mirror, Mirror. Mirror, Mirror is the second in her Gothic Fairytales series, after Bitterburn. I really enjoyed the Beauty & the Best retelling in Bitterburn, even if the end fizzled a bit, but I feel like Mirror, Mirror, which takes on Sleeping Beauty (sort of), was a misfire. The novel’s protagonist is the step-mother, and while I appreciated the attempt at inverting the tropes — it’s the mother that’s evil, not the step-mother — I don’t think the novel really gets under the hood of what those tropes say about motherhood, etc. The novel instead just relabels the good mom and the bad one.

Grimspace. The first in the Sirantha Jax novels about an FTL pilot who gets pinned as the patsy in some galactic political fuckery. Peripatetic space opera which moves pretty fast. The main character sometimes annoyed me with the gormlessly naïve thing that is common to this kind of protagonist, but still a totally decent novel.

Witch Please. Bounced off this hard, but then I have close to zero patience for contemporary romance, which this is. Just including it because Aguirre writes in a lot of different genres, which I think is nifty, even if they’re not to my taste.

Jessie Mihalik

I discovered Mihalik some time in October, and I’ve been tearing through her books. Incredibly fast-moving space operas, often with labyrinthine galactic court drama and some light kissing. The Consortium Rebellion series — Polaris Rising, Aurora Blazing and Chaos Reigning — just keep getting better, partially because I think she stops relying on tropes and types so hard. (Like one of the characters in Polaris Rising is 100% Riddick with the serial numbers filed off). Too be clear: tropes and types are what makes a genre, so I’m not slagging this, just observing. The first two of the Starlight’s Shadow series, Hunt the Stars and Eclipse the Moon, have a Vulcan-y psychic race which I am totally into, but I think the books are occasionally hamstrung by their first person narrators, especially the first. I’m reading The Queen’s Advantage, the second of the Rogue Queen series right now. The first, The Queen’s Gambit, has an Amadala-type elected queen, which is silly, but then mostly she’s queen so the title works, which is whatever. They’re all superfun books, and if you’re looking to while away an attack of insomnia, don’t pick these up because you will never go back to sleep. Just one more chapter.

Various Series I Continued Reading

Kiss of the Spindle by Nancy Campbell Allen. Steampunky take on Sleeping Beauty, and the second in a series begun with Beauty and the Clockwork Beast. The previous novel had a really cool protagonist, but the mystery plot was almost offensively stupid. Kiss of the Spindle improves on this by having a cool protagonist, and then also the whole locked room mystery was fun to watch play out. The antagonist ended up being the most compelling character by far, and I was bummed to see the next novel in the series wasn’t about him.

Raven Unveiled by Grace Draven. The last (?) of the Fallen Empire series didn’t quite work for me. We’ve met both main characters before — Gharek of Cabast and Siora — and the novel is supposed to be a redemption arc for the former. Alas, I felt like he was too much of a jerk to be redeemed, so I was ambivalent about the novel. I will always love Draven’s prose style, but I just can’t love Gharek. (I also reread all of the Wraith Kings series, of course.)

Irin Chronicles by Elizabeth Hunter. I read the first three of the Irin Chronicles series ages ago, when PNR was in its angel phase. I loved how Hunter dealt with the concept of a mate bond. Hunter addresses a specific fucked up situation which would inevitably happen if indeed the mate bond existed in book 2 or 3 of the Irin books — can’t remember exactly. I’ve only seen one other writer address this situation (but not this well). I never continued on with the series because of my aforementioned need for series breaks, but I finally got around to reading books 6, 7 & 8, The Silent, The Storm, and The Seeker. (I skipped #4, The Staff and the Blade, because I find Damien and Sari kind of annoying.) They were all enjoyable in their own ways, but The Seeker rises to a crescendo which could serve as a series ender, if she decides not to go on.

Ruby Fever by Ilona Andrews. Perfectly cromulent conclusion to Catalina’s arc in the Hidden Legacy series. The husband and wife team behind the pen name have this tendency to rely on eugenics in their magic systems, which can flower into full-on magical fascism. (The Kate Daniels books especially are guilty of this, most egregiously in Blood Heir, which I also read this year. I did not like Blood Heir.) Fortunately, in Ruby Fever they seem to be aware of how screwed up a system based on heritable magic would be, and there’s some direct critique in the novel. Ruby Fever also showcases their trademark ability to begin a novel with three totally screwed up but seemingly unrelated situations, and then have them escalate and entwine into a massive disaster. Even if I’m not into a book of theirs, they are very, very good at what they do. (Oh also, apparently I read Fated Blades, their most recent novella in the Kinsmen Universe, a series which they started and abandoned over a decade ago. I didn’t love it, but it was fine.)

Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells. The sixth Murderbot Diaries book, Fugitive Telemetry takes place before book 5, so the timeline was a little confusing at points. I thought we were going to get a road trip with ART after the last? Anyway, fun little locked room (locked space station?) mystery, full of Murderbot’s trademark kvetching. For a series based on a bot what murders, the Murderbot Diaries are surprisingly cozy reads. Murderbot just wants to get back to its stories when other peoples’ horseshit gets in the way. Big same, Murderbot.

Last Guard by Nalini Singh. I reread a few Psy-Changeling novels this year, to better and worse results. I invariably enjoy the books which focus on two Psy as the romantic leads, because all the growling and posturing of the changelings gets real old fast. The Psy are dealing with massive trauma, on a society-wide level, and Singh never defaults to the love of a good woman (or shape-shifter, whatever) to heal the damage. Her characters are going to have to work for it. Anyway, Last Gaurd has for its protagonists two Psy with disabilities — one physical and one mental. This is notable, because the Psy have practiced an incredibly nasty form of eugenics for last 100 years. We also get a closer look at the first gay couple I’ve ever seen in the Psy-Changeling novels. I think this is probably the best of the Psy-Changeling Trinity books to date.

Dukes are Forever and From London with Love by Bec McMaster. Dukes are Forever is the conclusion to McMaster’s London Steampunk series, and it absolutely sticks the landing. The series takes place in an alt-Victorian England where the upper classes have turned into literal blood-sucking parasites due to a communicable disease which is basically vampirism. It’s not a particularly careful alt-history — if you want that from your steampunk, read Meljean Brook’s Iron Seas series instead — but it is incredibly pulpy and energetic. From London with Love is an epilogue novella, which isn’t required reading or anything, but it was a nice denouement to a series I followed for whatever dozen books.

Various One-Offs

A Lush and Seething Hell by John Hornor Jacobs. Two novellas in a cosmic horror vein. While I liked The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky, a post-traumatic wig-out set in a South American country’s slide into dictatorship and its horrific aftermath, it didn’t quite get me like My Heart Struck Sorrow, about some librarians collecting the textured horror, sorrow, and folklore of the American south. There’s an alt-history where I became a folklorist, and I deeply appreciate the porousness of the collector and the collected. Also, while there’s some eldritch stuff going on in the center of both novels, the real horror is other godamn people.

Half a Soul and Ten Thousand Stitches by Olivia Atwater. Gaslamp fantasies set in the Regency period, and really very good. Atwater has a delightful way of shifting the perspective just enough so that somewhat tired tropes become interesting again. The main character in Half a Soul reads to me as non-neurotypical, and the protagonist in Ten Thousand Stitches is a servant, of all things. Both act as pretty furious indictments of the class system — far beyond the more anodyne “it sucks to be a penniless relation” kind one can find in this sort of thing.

Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree. Baldree pinned the coziness slider all the way up on Legends & Lattes, a fantasy novel about an orc mercenary putting up her sword and opening a coffeeshop. If you’re looking for a comfort read with a focus on simple, sensual pleasures, this is the book for you. Also, there’s a huge, adorable dire cat.

Titus Groan by Melvyn Peake. Technically finished this in ’21, but I never did a round up last year, so. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is almost always invoked alongside the Gormenghast trilogy, and I can see why that is to a degree: they are both essentially English in a way I can identify but not define, and both describe a world on the knife’s edge. Both Gormenghast and Middle Earth are close to, if not wholly, a fantasy of manners, describing worlds circumscribed by the weight and the import of tradition and legend. Both end with this tightening sense of change introduced into a system which has been essentially (purportedly, nominally) changeless. Peake uses the language of apostasy to describe this coming cataclysm: the concepts of both heresy and blasphemy permeate those last chapters which detail the young Titus’s earling: the world of Gormenghast is as rule-bound as any horror novel, and often more obscene. It’s completely legible to me that someone born at the burnt end of the Edwardian era and who lived through the second world war would produce something as strange as Gormenghast — born as the old world falls away and the new one burns. All hail Titus, the 77th Earl of Gormenghast. God save us all.

Midnight Bargain by C. L. Polk. Probably the best read-alike to Midnight Bargain would be Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal: the setting is Regency-ish, but the situation is complicated by a tiny bit of magic. Beatrice Clayborn comes to Bargaining Season with her family mortgaged to the hilt to fund whatever alliance can be made through her marriage. She’s also practicing magic in secret, a magic which will be severed and suppressed by a marital collar. The metaphors at play could absolutely be too on the nose, but Polk has a Regency-level restraint and never overplays the obvious gendered (and class) dynamics. 

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. I could probably put this in the “books I read for class” category, because I peer reviewed a paper about this, Brave New World and 1984. I’d already read the other two, so I thought, what the hell. And I’m glad I did, because this book ended up being an absolute banger. Written in the Soviet Union in 1920-ish, We is THE classic dystopia; both Huxley and Orwell cribbed from Zamyatin. D-503 is an engineer in a city made of glass and organized by scare quote “rational principles” un-scare-quote. The novel itself is an epistolary, of sorts: the One State is building a generation ship to colonize and proselytize aliens, when they find them; he is writing to the as yet undiscovered aliens. He kinda reminded me of the narrator in “The Horla,” a short story by Guy de Maupassant, the way he gets more and more unhinged as the narrative progressive, the difference being that We is a satirical comedy and “The Horla” is not.

So that’s it! I probably read some other stuff I can’t remember, but this is definitely the high notes. Another year, another teetering TBR.

Cozy Catastrophes: A Very British Invasion in The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham deliberately invokes The War of the Worlds to repudiate the concept of social Darwinism, but in such a way to be legible to a post-war audience. The Midwich Cuckoos, a novel about a group of otherworldly children born to a quiet English village, doesn’t look much like an alien invasion story, let alone Wells’s Martian invasion. A flying saucer is photographed on the town green during an event called the Dayout, in which the entire town is rendered unconscious, and all the women of childbearing age become pregnant. This photo and some impressions in the grass are the extent of the direct evidence that the Children – as they come to be known – are alien in nature.[1] Indeed, the sometime authorial mouthpiece, Dr. Zellaby, posits that the Children aren’t alien so much as the next iteration of human (Wyndham, 197). Like the strangeness of describing the birth of sixty-odd children as an alien invasion, it seems odd that the events in The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells are described as a war at all. Technologically superior Martians do, indeed, invade Surrey, but the Edwardian British military is so outmatched there is only the most cursory resistance. The invasion continues unchecked, until the Martians are felled, ironically, by the “transient creatures”[2] of bacteria. The war alluded to in the title is one of evolutionary struggle: because humans have been locked in “an incessant struggle for survival” with microorganisms, we have developed a resistance to their ill effects (Wells, 168). The Midwich Cuckoos is in dialogue with The War of the Worlds throughout, updating and localizing the Wellsian position against social Darwinism in what is best understood as a post-Holocaust novel.[3]

Several times in the novel, Wells invokes the contemporary debate between T. H. Huxley and Herbert Spenser. Huxley was vigorously opposed to Spenser’s concept of “evolutionary ethics:” that societies are subject to the same evolutionary forces as individual biota, and that this evolution always tends toward higher forms. Spencer saw the competition apparent in nature as an appropriate model for human ethical conduct. To wit: society should be constructed to allow maximum competition between individuals, with the accumulation of wealth as the indicator of “fitness.”[4] To Huxley, fitness in biological terms didn’t equate to moral rightness, and evolution was a biological process that didn’t require our intervention. Put another way: society is not natural process like evolution, a process which is morally neutral precisely because it is outside of our control.[5] That being said, the Darwinism in The War of the Worlds does perform a moral function, and the themes of the novel are overtly about the conflict between science and religion, and the brutality of colonialism. Wells uses the Martian invasion to illustrate to his Imperial British audience what it might feel like to be colonized by a technologically superior force.[6] Sarcastically invoking the language of social Darwinism, the unnamed narrator lays bare the cruelty of colonialism:

And before we judge of [the Martians] too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought. […] The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit? (Wells, 9)

The extermination of the Tasmanians is attributed to “our own species,” not the British Empire. The Tasmanians themselves have a “human likeness,” but ultimately aren’t human. Blaming rote biology and Darwinian competition for the destruction caused by colonialism both justifies and excuses that violence. It is all to the good of the species, in the end.

Another reason The War of the Worlds reads so strangely to a modern audience is because it was written before both world wars. This leads to odd little moments, like when one of the rubberneckers at the site where the Martians’ cylindrical craft has landed suggests building a trench around the craft, and his friend responds, “You always want trenches” (Wells, 39). Given the British experience in World War I, the mention of trenches becomes ruefully comic, an accident of history Wells certainly couldn’t have anticipated. Though Wyndham’s experience of the World Wars was almost exactly as he describes Gordon Zellaby’s – “Too young for one war, tethered to a desk in the Ministry of Information in the next” (Wyndham, 15) – the cultural, and, in some cases, literal landscape had profoundly changed in the time between the two novels’ publication. The man christened John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris wrote under a half a dozen pen names during his life, all of them variations and permutations of his given name.[7] His works in the 1930s, when writing for largely American pulp science fiction magazines, are in line with their contemporaries: often occurring on spaceships peopled with Venusians or Martians, occasionally with lurid, sexualized covers.[8] But the outset of World War II put an end to the era of pulp serials of the 1930s, and the Beynon and Harris personae. While a couple short stories written before the War were published during, he wrote no fiction during the war years. During the Blitz, he lived and worked in London as a censor for Military Intelligence,[9] and eventually joined the war effort directly, including taking part in the Normandy Invasion. It isn’t until 1951 that he publishes a novel under the Wyndham name. While the John Wyndham novels in some ways have the ornament of earlier pulp serials – ambulatory carnivorous plants![10] abyssal aliens![11] – they work by “submerging his fantastic element”[12] into the everyday in the tradition of H. G. Wells. In The Midwich Cuckoos, John Wyndham reaches back before both World Wars, and updates The War of the Worlds, the original British Invasion narrative.

Wyndham manipulates the reader into identifying with the concentration camp guard, whose moral imperative is to commit genocide, paradoxically to save civilization.[13] As Zellaby, the man who detonates the bomb, says days before the end: “It is our duty to our race and our culture to liquidate the Children” (Wyndham, 201). Not kill, not defeat – liquidate the Children. Just after this stunning utterance by a man who has acted as father figure and teacher to the Children – in addition to functioning as the expository mouthpiece – Zellaby yet again invokes Wells, bemoaning how Wells didn’t anticipate a moment in history when governments contemplated – then perpetrated – the systematic eradication of their citizens.

Take H. G. Wells’s Martians, for instance. As the original exponents of the death-ray they were formidable, but their behavior was quite conventional: they simply conducted a straightforward campaign with a weapon which outclassed anything that could be brought against it. […] Yet, over-all, what do we have? Just another war. The motivations are simplified, the armaments complicated, but the pattern is the same and, as a result, not one of the prognostications, speculations, or extrapolations turns out to be of the least use to us when the thing actually happens (Wyndham, 180-81).

The invasion of Midwich by its own children and their eventual destruction is not “just another war:” it is something decidedly worse. Zellaby uses the language of Darwinism to conceptualize and situate the Children of Midwich, invoking the social Darwinism used to justify some of the most horrific atrocities of the 20th Century. Social Darwinism recasts a fight for “our way of life” into an existential struggle, and ultimately, a zero-sum game.

Welcome to Midwich

From the very beginning there are several similarities between The War of the Worlds and The Midwich Cuckoos, the most foundational being the sense of place. The events in the Wells novel are so perfectly mapped to turn of the 19th century Surrey and London that a contemporary reader would feel deep familiarity with the landscape.[14] For a reader at a remove of place and time, this can be alienating in and of itself, so the most successful of adaptions – such as Orson Welles’s 1938 radio play – retain the original novel’s almost documentary feel. In his radio play, Orson Welles relocates the invasion to Grover’s Mill, New Jersey,[15]and the action moves through similarly legible locales towards New York City. This verisimilitude famously resulted in more than a few listeners taking the story of invasion as fact.[16] Situating alien horror in carefully recreated local spaces both imbues the alien with a sense of reality and heightens the effects of the horror.[17] Wyndham also details the locale of Midwich, site of his alien invasion, with cartographic clarity; the first chapter is given almost completely over to description of the town and the second its inhabitants. Like The War of the Worlds, the portrait of the mundane detail of Midwich foregrounds the uncanniness of the Children once they arrive on the scene. The key difference in these portraits is two-fold: first, the town of Midwich doesn’t exist, and second, the portrait is satirical.

Midwich is positioned as a sort of everywhere and nowhere, embodying an “Arcadian undistinction” of composite and consummate Englishness. “The vicarage is Georgian; The Grange Victorian; Kyle Manor has Tudor roots with numerous later graftings. The cottages show most of the styles which have existed between the two Elizabeths” (Wyndham, 6). The town’s minor claims to fame are so minor they would only ever be known to locals, and the narrator’s description pokes some gentle fun at various English luminaries. “Other events include the stabling of Cromwell’s horses in the church, and a visit by William Wordsworth, who was inspired by the Abbey ruins to the production of one of his more routine commendatory sonnets.” When the narrator, Richard Gayford, returns to Midwich to find the road into the town blocked, it is made all the stranger due to the “simple ordinariness of the place” (Wyndham, 5). Consequently, the events of the Dayout – the 24-hour period in which the inhabitants of Midwich lose consciousness and 61 women become pregnant – has all the elements of a farce. People, cows, cars, buses, ambulances, and any other creature that strays into the influence of the invisible dome over the town fall unconscious in visible but unapproachable heaps. On the other side of the line, a corresponding collection of rubberneckers, firemen, constables, and a not insignificant number of military men collect, trying to ascertain the scope and radius of the affected area. This culminates in two ferrets being dangled over Midwich in a helicopter, at about which time the people of Midwich revivify, presumably to the ferrets’ relief (Wyndham, 22-34).

Unlike the locations in The War of the Worlds, Midwich can feel generally familiar to anyone because it is not precisely familiar, but the satirical nature of the portraiture cues us into the fact that not everything that occurs in the novel is to be taken at face value. Midwich is encased in a dome and scrutinized by an increasing military presence in the beginning, and ultimately, that dome never comes off, and the military presence never relents. Starting with the Dayout and continuing through to the Children’s psychic compulsion which entraps the locals in roughly the same space, the town of Midwich is effectively isolated from their neighbors, and from larger British life. Even before the pregnancies are discovered or the Children born, military intelligence endeavors to hush up the Dayout. The diegetic reason for suppressing information about the Dayout, at first, is the presence of The Grange, a scientific research installation run by the military within the affected area. This furtiveness seems to be a reflexive act by a society still on a military footing after the end of World War II, because even the Colonel in charge of “Operation Midwich” doesn’t know what the Grange does. “Trouble is, for all we know it may be some little trick of our own gone wrong. So much damned secrecy nowadays that nobody knows anything” (Wyndham, 28).

Given the publication date and the internal timeline, the Children must have been born in the two years after VE Day. Many of the major characters are former (or current) soldiers – including the narrator, Richard Gayford, his war buddy now in military intelligence, Bernard Westcott, and Gordon Zellaby. The events of the Dayout are put under “the intimidating muzzle of the Offical Secrets Act” (Wyndham, 40). All through the novel, the relationship between the Children and the larger world is discussed in military terms: the impending birth of the Children is referred to as “D-Day” and a “battle” for which they’ve booked a “commando of midwives” (Wyndham, 78-79), and after their birth the vicar, Mr. Leebody, observes: “It has been a battle, […] but battles, after all, are just the highlights of a campaign. There are more to come” (Wyndham, 86). A militarized society has turned its gaze inward, towards the next generation.[18]

The Narrator

The narrative style in The Midwich Cuckoos leans hard on what Damon Knight calls “Wellsian retrospective clarity”[19] – subjective narration with the imprimatur of an objective perspective. Like in The War of the Worlds, the events in Midwich are related at a comfortable remove in time, a “narrative focalization which invests the text with the aura of authenticity.”[20] The reader never questions the information provided by the narrator in The War of the Worlds, despite the narrator being untrustworthy in several key regards.[21] In the rhetorically masterful opening, the narrator details the motivations and preparations of the Martians. The Martians “scrutinized and studied humanity,” and “slowly and surely drew their plans against us” (Wells, 7). At no point does the narrator mention humans and Martians meaningfully communicating, even in the six years following the invasion; he simply cannot know this about the Martians’ intent. His assertion is instead designed to shock Wells’s contemporaries out of their “infinite complacency” (Wells, 7). Because these assertions are made at the very beginning, the narrator’s suppositions are presented as fact in a way the audience won’t question, even if they are never corroborated.

In The Midwich Cuckoos, the narrator, Richard Gayford, and his wife Janet are new members of the Midwich community. Despite their year spent living in Midwich, transplants are rarely considered a local after the passage of several years (and, indeed, often not even after the passage of several decades.) He’s further at a remove in that he and his wife were absent for the Dayout, and therefore avoided gestating one of the Children themselves. The opening of the novel, wherein he details the events of the Dayout and its direct aftermath, are within his lived experience – a first-hand account. But it doesn’t take long for the narrative to spread beyond what our narrator himself experiences. Richard himself addresses this: 

And now I come to a technical difficulty, for this, as I have explained, is not my story; it is Midwich’s story. If I were to set down my information in the order it came to me I should be flitting back and forth in the account, producing an almost incomprehensible hotchpotch of incidents out of order, and effects preceding causes. Therefore it is necessary that I rearrange my information, disregarding entirely the dates and times when I acquired it, and put it into chronological order. If this method of approach should result in the suggestion of uncanny perception, or disquieting multiscience, in the writer, the reader must bear with it the assurance that it is entirely the product of hindsight (Wyndham, 46).

At this point, the narrative assumes almost a third person impartiality for the second act, only occasionally broken by Richard’s often milquetoast interjections or his wife Janet’s more pointed barbs. Like the Wellsian narrator, Richard is part of the action, but often peripherally. For instance, several chapters of The War of the Worlds are given over to an account of the Martian invasion told from the perspective of the narrator’s brother.

Wyndham makes several important changes to the Wellsian storytelling style which subtly undercut the overt message and its messengers. Many of the biographical details from Wells’s narrator are relocated into the character of Dr. Gordon Zellaby. Zellaby and the narrator from The War of the Worlds are writers of cultural criticism, of the type that largely exists to be ironic considering subsequent events in the novel. (Richard is also a writer, but there is one allusion to his publisher on the first page, and it is never mentioned again.) Zellaby’s son-in-law says about While We Last, one of two of Zellaby’s Works named in the text: “It had been an interesting, but, he thought, gloomy book; the author had not seemed to him to give proper weight to the fact that the new generation was more dynamic, and rather more-clearsighted than those that preceded it…” (Wyndham, 12). The other named text is, fittingly, The British Twilight (Wyndham, 75). The unnamed narrator in The War of the Worlds, at the time of invasion, is “busy upon a series of papers discussing the probable developments of moral ideals as civilization progressed” (Wells, 12). When he returns home after the novel’s cataclysmic events, he finds his work in progress interrupted at the moment of (no doubt now thoroughly wrong) prognostication: “’In about two hundred years,’ I had written, ‘we may expect–‘” (Wells, 176).

Wyndham relocates the expository authority to Dr. Zellaby, while the voice of credibility – scientific or otherwise – resides in the unnamed narrator in The War of the Worlds. Largely Richard serves to ask prompting questions when Zellaby is holding forth; Wells’s narrator can more than hold forth on his own. In The War of the Worlds, because the narrator can control how his expository scientific speculations are perceived, we tend not to question some very questionable things. The narrator only tells us in the epilogue that his “knowledge of comparative physiology is confined to a book or two” and that the operating theory in the narrative for the Martians’ sudden, collective demise – that they have no natural resistance to earthly bacteria – is an assumption “so probable as to be regarded almost as a proven conclusion” (Wells, 175). Because he’s the one telling the story, he can present his subjective experience as objective fact. He boasts: “Now no surviving human being saw so much of the Martians in action as I did” (Wells, 128), but we have no way of knowing if that is true.[22]

By splitting the functions of the narrator in two, Wyndham ends up undercutting both Richard and Zellaby. This split creates the opportunity for the depiction of contrary reactions to Zellaby’s Darwinian speculation. In one humorous instance, Richard glances over at his wife, Janet, which shows him she’s not listening anymore. “When she has decided that someone is talking nonsense she makes a quick decision to waste no more effort upon it, and pulls down an impervious mental curtain” (Wyndham, 117). Richard, who is narrator but not mouthpiece, can subtly impact how that mouthpiece is perceived by showing reactions other than his own. While there is occasionally pushback against the narrator in The War of the Worlds, he can frame those objections as meritless or specious. The narrator at one point falls in with a curate, and the curate’s reaction is like Janet Gayford’s reaction to Zellaby. “I began to explain my view of our position. He listened at first, but as I went on the dawning interest in his eyes gave place to their former stare, and his regard wandered from me” (Wells, 71). At this point, the curate interrupts, ranting in biblical terms. The narrator responds by questioning the curate’s manhood and derisively dismissing his theology. “Do you think God had exempted Weybridge? He is not an insurance agent, man” (Wells, 72). The curate’s inattention to the narrator’s exposition says something about the curate – that he is hysterical and irrational – while Janet Gayford’s inattention to says something about Zellaby’s theorizing – that it’s nonsense.

While Zellaby’s disquisitions don’t have the imprint of a true narrator’s authority, Richard is a much more damaged narrator than the one in The War of the Worlds. Once past his own (slight) involvement with the Dayout, everything that Richard Gayford records must be an aggregate of information told to him by the people of Midwich, and subject to the same embellishments and distortions of any collected folklore. This becomes most apparent when Richard recounts events for which not only was he not present but were not attended by any other men. After the powers that be – the vicar, the doctor, and Zellaby, critically – figure out that all the pregnancy-capable people of Midwich are capably pregnant, they set up a town meeting to be managed by the brusquely efficient Angela Zellaby, Dr. Zellaby’s wife. This is after the men decide not to inform the women of the likely alien nature of their pregnancies, something Zellaby blithely refers to as “benign censorship” (Wyndham, 58). During the meeting, it becomes clear that the women already know this. Angela’s opening statement alludes to this directly: “If any married woman here is tempted to consider herself more virtuous than her unmarried neighbor, she might do well to consider how, if she were challenged, she could prove that the child she now carries is her husband’s child” (Wyndham, 64).

The meeting itself is precipitated by the attempted suicide of a pregnant 17-year-old, information which is relayed to the reader after a long list of abortion attempts. 

One not-so-young woman suddenly bought a bicycle, and pedaled it madly for astonishing distances, with fierce determination. 

Two young women collapsed in over-hot baths. 

Three inexplicably tripped, and fell downstairs. 

A number suffered from unusual gastric upsets (Wyndham, 52).

The words “pregnancy” and “abortion” do not occur in the text. Instead, information is conveyed stating plain facts, with a twist of wryness or mild sarcasm: the bike ride is laden with superlatives, marking the act with strangeness, and the falls down the stairs are “inexplicable,” a feigned ignorance which gestures to a reason that can be explained but not articulated. The satirical nature of the proceedings puts a spin on everything we hear. Everything that happens in that single-sex meeting is by needs relayed to Richard, and while they might accurately describe events, much will be encoded in gendered language and lacuna, the gaps as well as the utterances. Like the Children, the people of Midwich exist in two gendered collectives, and the social conventions are so strong that a lot of information can be conveyed with very little actually said.

The Treatment of Religion

Wyndham uses the characters of Reverend Hubert Leebody and his wife, Dora, to illustrate religious responses to the Children. Mrs. Leebody most easily maps to the curate character in The War of the Worlds, with whom, in one of the stranger interludes in the novel, the unnamed narrator finds himself trapped in a partially collapsed house. While the narrator witnesses the Martians doing truly terrible things from his hidden vantage – the image of the alien sucking the blood of a captured human through a pipette, like a straw, horrifies – he saves much of his fury for his fellow human. The stress of the invasion has driven the curate into a kind of catatonia, alternating between gibbering inaction and hyper-mania. He refers to the Martians as “God’s ministers” (Wells, 71), and understands the attack as a form of divine retribution.[23] This infuriates the narrator – “What good is religion if it collapses under calamity?” (Wells, 71) – and expresses Wells’s own hostility towards organized religion, which he felt deliberately impeded the improvement of humanity under rational and scientific principles.[24]

Similarly, Mrs. Leebody sees her unnatural pregnancy as a form of divine punishment, though she expresses feelings of godly persecution with considerably more restraint. “When things – unusual things like this – suddenly happen to a community there is a reason. I mean, look at the plagues of Egypt, and Sodom and Gomorrah, and that kind of thing.” Immediately in the text, there are three immediate responses: by Zellaby, Zellaby’s pragmatic wife, Angela, and Dora Leebody’s husband, the Vicar.

“For my part,” [Zellaby] observed, “I regard the plagues of Egypt as an unedifying example of celestial bullying; a technique now known as power-politics. As for Sodom” He broke off and subsided as he caught his wife’s eye.

“Er—” said the Vicar, since something seemed to be expected of him. “Er—”

Angela came to his rescue.

“I really don’t think you need worry about that, Mrs. Leebody. Barrenness is, of course, a classical form of curse; but I really can’t remember any instance where retribution took the form of fruitfulness. After all, it scarcely seems reasonable, does it?”

“That would depend on the fruit,” Mrs. Leebody said, darkly (Wyndham, 69).

In addition to being typical of Wyndham’s low-key satirical humor, the three responses to Mrs. Leebody’s feelings of collective punishment are illuminating. Zellaby, as usual, while feeling “impelled to relieve the awkwardness,” only contributes to it by walking right up to talking openly about homosexuality in mixed company. He conceives of religion as a sort of political theater, which he discards as “unedifying.” Her husband, the vicar – much like the curate in The War of the Worlds – ends up sputtering: he has no coherent response to his wife’s feelings of spiritual retribution. It is Angela Zellaby, yet again, who delivers a brusquely reasonable response, one that Dora Leebody dismisses. “I am a sinner, you see. If I had had my child twelve years ago, none of this would have happened. Now I must pay for my sin by bearing a child that is not my husband” (Wyndham, 70). I’m not sure if this circumlocution refers to an abortion, a miscarriage, or simply a desire not to have children, but Dora Leebody nonetheless occupies the position that events are divinely ordained.

Rev. Leebody, while nonetheless tirelessly ministering to the people of Midwich, doesn’t express theological consideration of the Children until near the very end, after the Children have impelled the Pawle brothers to commit suicide. (Honestly, this is a little surprising, given that Leebody is introduced listening to a program on “pre-Sophoclean Conception of the Oedipus Complex,” a title which evinces an obtuse intellectualism more closely aligned with Zellaby’s rhetorical style (Wyndham, 17)). He posits that because the Children are not made in God’s image – God is, apparently, singular, and the Children exist as gendered collective-individuals, to use Zallaby’s term (Wyndham, 117) – they cannot be considered using the same moral yardstick. Despite this theological argument, Leebody nevertheless uses the language of Darwinism. “They have the look of the genus homo, but not the nature. And since they are of another kind, and murder is, by definition, the killing of one of one’s own kind, can the killing of one of them by us be, in fact, murder? It would appear not” (Wyndham, 151). Zellaby sees the implications of this argument straight away: if it is morally permissible for the villagers to kill the Children, then the converse is true. Notably, given his actions in the end, Zellaby rejects this reasoning as “ethically unsatisfactory.” He sees Leebody’s version of God’s likeness as too parochial. “But, as I understand it, your God is a universal God; He is God on all suns and all planets” (Wyndham, 152). Tellingly, Zellaby distances himself from viewing the Children in theological terms – it is “your God”, not his – even when it comes wrapped up in scientific jargon.  

By contrast, while the narrator in The War of the Worlds finds the anxious, vituperative morality of the curate infuriating, he ultimately sees the death of the Martians in religious terms. When the Martians are felled by simple bacteria, which he describes as “the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put up on the earth” (Wells, 168), he finds their deaths “incomprehensible.” He only begins to understand their destruction through biblical analogy. “For a moment I believed that the destruction of Sennacherib[25] had been repeated, that God had repented, that the Angel of Death had slain them in the night” (Wells, 169). He ends this epiphany with his hands reaching for the sky, thanking God (Wells, 170). He does downplay this religious exultation later in the epilogue, in a passage which eloquently captures the lingering effect of trauma.

I must confess the stress and danger of the time have left an abiding sense of doubt and insecurity in my mind. I sit in my study writing by lamplight, and suddenly I see again the healing valley below set with writhing flames, and feel the house behind and about me empty and desolate (Wells, 179).

It is in the heat of the crisis that the Wellsian narrator turns to the religion of his childhood. The Martians chose Surrey according to some providential scheme – despite his heated dismissal to the curate earlier – and therefore his suffering has meaningful purpose.[26] Zellaby evinces no such religious framing. While he jokes after the Dayout – during which he and his wife were chilled to the point of hypothermia – about the “underlying soundness of fire-worship” (Wyndham, 57), this isn’t a meaningful religious statement. In the end, Zellaby’s justifications for murdering the Children arise from the brutal logic of evolutionary struggle interpolated into polite society. The threat the Children pose is existential, not rhetorical, or moral. Wyndham very carefully strips out any religious justification for Zellaby’s actions, implicitly or explicitly. There will be no Darwin ex machina.

Welcome to the Jungle

The War of the Worlds ends with more whimper than bang, something that seems to trouble later adaptions. Having the Martian antagonist simply fall over dead serves the point Wells is making about Edwardian colonial complacency or the applicability of Darwinian evolutionary struggle in society, but it isn’t particularly satisfying on a narrative level. The Orson Welles radio play from 1938 – when the world was on the brink of the defining global conflict of the 20th century – punches up the call to arms by the artilleryman, a character the narrator meets in the ruined, empty streets of London. In the novel, the narrator is initially taken by the artilleryman’s rhetoric, which is a fever dream of Darwinian descent, where the survivors will have to “invent a sort of life where men can live and breed, and be sufficiently secure to bring children up” (Wells, 156). They’ll live in the underground and “degenerate into a sort of big, savage rat” (Wells, 157).[27] In the radio play, the artilleryman’s speech is a rousing call to arms; in the novel, the narrator is chagrined to have been susceptible to the man’s “imaginative daring” which, in the cold light of day, seem unhinged (Wells, 158). For Wells, evolution was a force greater than his Martian invaders. While his characters may conceptualize the war between the worlds as a religious, moral, or ethical struggle, the simple unalterable fact is that the true struggle occurs outside of conscious thought, on a biological level. “With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter” (Wells, 7).

Wyndham’s take on the alien invasion neatly reverses the action of Wells’s novel. While it may end on a literal bang, the invasion itself is submerged under – to quote a snarling contemporary review – “layers of polite restraint, sentimentality, lethargy and women’s-magazine masochism.”[28] There are no heat rays or chaotic retreats, no monstrous antagonists. The invasion occurs within the confines of the domestic, and its focus is a group of children who are, from the very first, defined in military terms and as a racially constructed other.[29] If indeed the Children are the next iteration of humanity, as Zellaby posits (Wyndham, 197), then there is no rational reason not to step aside and let nature take its course. In Wells’s narrative, the Darwinian struggle is both inexorable and outside of conscious control. In The Midwich Cuckoos, by defining the Children as evolutionary antagonists, Zellaby positions himself as an agent of evolution. The Children must die so his children can live.

Zellaby describes his final act as a “heroic sacrifice” (Wyndham, 212), and Wyndham is careful remove any moral objections but the most glaringly obvious one: the premeditated murder of children by a suicide bomber.[30]  None of these children are either his own or his grandchildren – his own wife was already pregnant during the Dayout, and his daughter’s cuckoo child one of three who died of influenza (Wyndham, 110). He himself has “a matter of a few weeks to live” (Wyndham, 212), and he takes pains to ensure only he and the Children will be killed in the blast. In a purely intellectual way, this is an elegant (final) solution to the Gordian knot the novel has twisted itself into. The Children themselves (assuming, for the moment, the usual role of Dr. Zellaby), while talking to Bernard, describe the political gridlock which will ensue should the perceived threat of the Children become more widely known. Even if parliament could be roused to contemplate annihilating the Children, “what government in this country could survive such a massacre of innocents on the grounds of expediency?” (Wyndham, 193). Immediately preceding their destruction, Wyndham takes a moment to remind you forcefully that these are still children. The narrator observes, as the Children remove AV equipment from Zellaby’s car:

There was nothing odd or mysterious about the Children now unless it was the suggestion of musical-comedy chorus work given by their similarity. For the first time since my return I was able to appreciate that the Children had ‘a small ‘c,’ too’” (Wyndham, 208).

The chapter heading here is “Zellaby of Macedon.” The most famous leader from Macedonia was, of course, Alexander the Great, who amassed one of the largest empires in antiquity during his short reign. He is also known for cutting the Gordian knot – or solving an intractable problem by bypassing the perceived constraints of the problem. Zellaby solves the problem posed by the Children by personally acting against them, thus bypassing all the thorny issues of societal or governmental ethics. Yet again, Wyndham is using his subtle satire to undercut Zellaby. Aligning Zellaby with Alexander the Great seems highfalutin and shows off one’s classical education, but when you get right down to it, the appellation “Zellaby of Macedon” is ridiculous. A sick old man is not comparable to one of the greatest generals of antiquity. This is in line with the treatment of Zellaby throughout the text: Zellaby looks like the authorial mouthpiece, but there’s a twist to his portrayal. 

The final epigraph – Si fueris Romae, Romani vivito more – which is typically translated as “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” is instead parsed as “If you want to keep alive in the jungle, you must live as the jungle does….” Zellaby neatly inverts the meaning of the phrase, which is originally about operating within spaces of different cultural rules and expectations by those rules and expectations. Peeling back the artifact of society reveals the more “fundamental expression,” to use Zellaby’s phrasing: brute, biological survival (Wyndham, 213). That the ending invokes the jungle after the events of a novel which could comfortably be described as a comedy of manners feels jarring, just as jarring as a verbally circumambulatory philosopher calculatingly suicide-bombing a classroom full of children. The Children are strange and often uncanny, but not obviously so. They are gestated and born to human mothers; they can be carried off by flu or killed in car accidents; they like sweets and movies like other children. They have what Wells called the “human likeness” when ironically discussing the British destruction of indigenous people (Wells, 9). The acts of violence attributable to them are exclusively reflexive: they respond to attack with an aggressive defense. When one of the girls discusses how they will supersede humanity in the end, it is in terms of biological superiority, not wholesale annihilation. When their destruction by the British seems imminent, their response is to try to flee. Their danger to humanity is only inferred or imagined in the context of Darwinian struggle. As Zellaby says, “[The Children’s] immediate concern is to survive, in order, eventually, to dominate” (Wyndham, 199). If one’s simple existence is couched in terms of existential struggle, the final, genocidal act in The Midwich Cuckoos, perpetrated by an avuncular figure against a classroom full of children, becomes inevitable.


[1] John Wyndham, The Midwich Cuckoos (New York: Modern Library, 2022), 29-30, 40. All subsequent references are to this edition and are noted parenthetically in the text.

[2] H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds, ed. Patrick Parrinder (New York, NY: Penguin, 2005), 7. All subsequent references are to this edition and are noted parenthetically in the text.

[3] Adam Roberts, The History of Science Fiction (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 310-312.

[4] McLean details how Wells dismantles Spenser’s Darwinism. See Steven McLean, “The Descent of Mars: Evolution and Ethics in The War of the Worlds,” in The Early Fiction of H. G. Wells: Fantasies of Science (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp. 89-113, 98.

[5] Their philosophical disagreement is, of course, considerably more complicated than what is written here. See Klára Netíková, “T. H. Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics: Struggle for Survival and Society,” E-LOGOS 26, no. 1 (2019): pp. 4-18, https://doi.org/10.18267/j.e-logos.460, 4-7.

[6] Paul K. Alkon, Science Fiction Before 1900: Imagination Discovers Technology (New York, NY: Twayne Publishers, 1994), 48.

[7] In one bizarre instance, one of his novels, The Outward Urge, is attributed to not one but two pen names: John Wyndham and Lucas Parkes. For description of the publishing history see Amy Binns, Hidden Wyndham: Life, Love, Letters (Hebden Bridge, UK: Grace Judson Press, 2019), 220.

[8] Brian W. Aldiss, Billion Year Spree (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1973). 290.

[9] Amy Binns, Hidden Wyndham: Life, Love, Letters (Hebden Bridge, UK: Grace Judson Press, 2019), 108-111.

[10] The titular triffids are exactly this. John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids (New York, NY: The Modern Library, 2022).

[11] The alien antagonists of The Kraken Wakes are deep sea creatures who wage war literally on earth. John Wyndham, The Kraken Wakes (New York, NY: Modern Library, 2022).

[12] Damon Knight, In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction (Chicago, IL: Advent Publishers, 1974), 178.

[13] Adam Roberts, The History of Science Fiction (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 310-312.

[14] The appendix to the Penguin edition includes several maps where you can follow the action of the novel, in addition to annotation of the locales mentioned. H. G. Wells and Andy Sawyer, “Appendix: Note on Places in the Novel,” in The War of the Worlds (London, UK: Penguin Classics, 2018), pp. 181-185.

[15] Howard Koch, Orson Welles, and H. G. Wells, “Mercury Theatre on the Air: War of the Worlds,” Indiana University Bloomington (Indiana University, 2017), https://orsonwelles.indiana.edu/items/show/1972.

[16] My grandfather, G. Edward Busch, was 31 at the time of the broadcast, unmarried, and still living with his parents in Pennsylvania, which wasn’t that far from the invasion site in New Jersey. He returned home from work to find his parents very upset by the broadcast. As both a scientist and a dramatist, Ed was a keen fan of Orson Welles, and assured them the broadcast was during the Mercury Theatre hour, and that the country was not being invaded. There is dispute about how many people took this broadcast seriously, but family lore, at least, suggests it was, albeit provisionally. For a discussion of the panic from the man who wrote the script for the radio play, see Howard Koch, The Panic Broadcast: Portrait of an Event (New York, NY: Avon, 1970).

[17] Károly Pintér, “The Analogical Alien: Constructing and Construing Extraterrestrial Invasion in Wells’s ‘The War of the Worlds.’ ,” Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies (HJEAS) 18, no. 1/2 (2012): pp. 133-149, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43488465, 137.

[18] For in depth psychoanalytic analysis of the Children of Midwich, see Steven Bruhm, “The Global Village of the Damned: A Counter-Narrative for the Post-War Child,” Narrative 24, no. 2 (May 2016): pp. 156-173, https://doi.org/10.1353/nar.2016.0013.

[19] Damon Knight, In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction (Chicago, IL: Advent Publishers, 1974), 253.

[20] Károly Pintér, “The Analogical Alien: Constructing and Construing Extraterrestrial Invasion in Wells’s ‘The War of the Worlds,’” Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies (HJEAS) 18, no. 1/2 (2012): pp. 133-149, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43488465, 137.

[21] Wells scholar Patrick Parrinder addresses the many ways the narrator of The War of the Worlds is ultimately untrustworthy, especially about the Martians. Patrick Parrinder, “How Far Can We Trust the Narrator of ‘The War of the Worlds,’” Foundation 28 (1999): pp. 15-24, https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/how-far-can-we-trust-narrator-war-worlds/docview/1312028428/se-2.

[22] Patrick Parrinder, “How Far Can We Trust the Narrator of ‘The War of the Worlds,’” Foundation 28 (1999): pp. 15-24, https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/how-far-can-we-trust-narrator-war-worlds/docview/1312028428/se-2, 16-18.

[23] Denis Gailor, “‘Wells’s War of the Worlds’, the ‘Invasion Story’ and Victorian Moralism,” Critical Survey 8, no. 3 (1996): pp. 270-276, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41556021, 273.

[24] S. J. James, “Witnessing the End of the World: H.G. Wells’ Educational Apocalypses,” Literature and Theology 26, no. 4 (December 21, 2012): pp. 459-473, https://doi.org/10.1093/litthe/frs052, 461-462.

[25] This refers to the biblical account of the historical Assyrian siege of Jerusalem in 701 BC by Assyrian king Sennacherib described in 2 Kings 18–19 and Isaiah 36–37

[26] Patrick Parrinder, “How Far Can We Trust the Narrator of ‘The War of the Worlds,’” Foundation 28 (1999): pp. 15-24, https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/how-far-can-we-trust-narrator-war-worlds/docview/1312028428/se-2, 23.

[27] This scenario is what more or less plays out in Wells’s The Time Machine, which was published two years previous to The War of the Worlds. H. G. Wells, The Time Machine, ed. Patrick Parrinder (New York, NY: Penguin, 2005).

[28] Damon Knight, In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction (Chicago, IL: Advent Publishers, 1974), 254.

[29] Adam Roberts, The History of Science Fiction (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 311.

[30] David Ketterer, “‘A Part of the … Family [?]’: John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos as Estranged Autobiography,” in Learning from Other Worlds: Estrangement, Cognition, and the Politics of Science Fiction and Utopia, ed. Patrick Parrinder (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), pp. 146-177, 165.

Book review: Love, Lust and Zombies

I’ve been doing a crap job of keeping up with ye olde blogge. Some of it is the way the pandemic screwed up my reading, sending me straight to historical romance and lighter fantasy. Fantasy I could have probably pulled out some bullshitting about: it’s close enough to my wheelhouse, if not in it entirely. Romance, less so. I don’t want to be that dilettante dabbler in a genre talking out my ass, like every Valentine’s Day column of “romantic books which aren’t romance novels because cooties” which includes motherfucking Lolita. I’m better versed now, but, judging from how often I’m out of step with other readers when I check bookface reviews, I just don’t want the grief. Sometimes reading for pleasure is just that, and I’m not going to assign myself homework out of some misbegotten sense of staying current or whatever.

That said, I’ve recently been sidling back up to my old love, horror fiction, specifically zombie fiction. I reread both Severance by Ling Ma and Zone One by Colson Whitehead. They both only get better with a reread. They’re both the kind of lapping retrospective memoirishly close-third-person which doesn’t tell their stories linear-like, so during a second pass (or third), you already have the shape of things, and can really marinate on the details.

Like my experience with rereading World War Z at the beginning of the pandemic, it was kind of alarming how prescient they were, Severance especially. Also because I’d reread Severance after watching the series of the same name (no relation), I definitely took home some millennial ruminating about the nature of work that, while I’d noticed it before, became much more foregrounded this time. Even the indefatigable Mark Spitz from Zone One, whose musings cover that storied island, New York City, more than the workaday, presses his attention to the nature of work:

Hard to believe that reconstruction had progressed so far that clock-watching had returned, the slacker’s code, the concept of weekend. It had been a humdrum couple of days, reaffirming his belief in reincarnation: everything was so boring that this could not be the first time he’d experienced it.

Colson Whitehead, Zone One

Then I started reading an anthology of zombie short stories called Zombies! Tales of the Walking Dead edited by one Stephen Jones. (Not, as I’d mistakenly thought, Stephen Graham Jones, who is a very different writer.) After reading the introduction, I was afeared Zombies! was going to be a snore-fest. I was initially rebuked by a rollicking short story by Clive Barker called “Sex, Death and Starshine”, which was both sick and delightful. But then as I trudged on, my initial fears came true. Zombies! takes a kitchen sink approach to inclusion in the collection.

While this can be sort of fun for the completist — hey I didn’t know Edgar Allan Poe wrote a zombie-ish story! called “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” — so many of the stories I encountered were dated, clumsy, or only peripherally about zombies, more in the vein of cosmic horror than the living dead. (Look, I get that arguing genre is a losing game, so I’m not going to do it, but things are about what they are about, and not other things, and cosmic horror has decidedly different concerns.) Anyway, I’ll probably hack my way through this eventually, as a completist, but it’ll be homework and not any fun.

Which brings me rather long-windedly to Love, Lust and Zombies, edited by Mitzi Szereto. I was poking around in the library catalog because I was looking for this book I know is about a thinking zombie, but couldn’t remember the name of. (It ended up being Dust by Joan Frances Turner, fyi.) My ears perked up when I saw Szereto’s name. She’s the author of The Wilde Passions of Dorian Gray, which I read a while back when I was into a bunch of literary monster mash-ups and continuations. Most of the continuations I read were kind of ok to fucking bad, but Szereto’s take on Oscar Wilde’s only novel was actually inspired. Wilde Passions is a catalog of the literary erotic, running from the Belle Epoch’s class warfare to Thomas Mann’s monastery to Anne Rice’s New Orleans, and while I don’t think it works, entirely, it’s definitely some of the most thoughtful sex writing I’ve seen in the genre.

Now, I’ve said this more than a couple times, but: my sister’s quip about vampire fiction is that “vampires are high-functioning zombies.” Which, if you read any vampire romance, feels accurate. There’s a lot of breathless description of cold, white flesh out there in vampire romance, about the intractability and immutability of the body of the immortal lover. On some level, I think this invokes deep-structure cultural ideas about the incorruptibility of sainthood. Flesh and spirit are one, and both flesh and spirit are perfectly and eternally static. Or to put it crudely, these vampiric love stories are literally about banging Jesus, the original risen dead man. Drink of my blood, eat of my flesh, &c.

After the success of Twilight and roughly one million iterations, it wasn’t a huge surprise when urban fantasy and paranormal romance trained its libido on angels and devils, beings who make this theological passion explicit. (Lest we not forget, the word passion can refer to the suffering and death of Jesus, not only sexual passion.) Since then, paranormal romance has taken on all manner of unsexy beasts, everything from ghosts to orcs to dinosaurs, but largely writers stay away from the humble zombie as a source of pants feelings. I think this is a notable lacuna — the lack of sex writing about zombies even in the gleeful perversity of monsterotica — and indicates something intractably unsexy about the walking dead, both metaphorically and physically.

I can think of two novels which attempt a romance between a living person and a zombie: Warm Bodies and Dearly, Departed. Warm Bodies ended up setting my back with its incorrect reading of Romeo & Juliet –and look I know I’m supposed to pretend that there aren’t incorrect readings, but I have something of A Thing about R&J, and I cannot listen to reason — but it’s decent, if a little dippy. Dearly, Departed is messy — it’s clearly a first novel — but it’s energetic and exuberant, which counts for a lot in my book. Obviously this worked for other people, but I could not get over the thought of these heroines making out with a decaying or desiccated corpse. And, to be fair, the courtship between the living girl and undead soldier in Dearly, Departed takes place through a wall, Paramus and Thisbe style, and is honestly emotionally affecting. Ultimately, neither novel really addresses sex anyway, maybe because of their YA designation, maybe because it’s too gross to contemplate. Which is why Love, Lust and Zombies is so fascinating: it’s dealing with sex and zombies head on.

While I joked earlier about vampires just being high-functioning zombies, that’s not actually the case, either metaphorically or practically. A zombie is characterized by its degradation, by its lack of personality and agency. By contrast, vampires are defined by the very opposite. They may both be undead, but the vampire is incorruptible, while the zombie corrupts everything it can get its teeth into. And while the rotting flesh angle may be a hard bar to clear when sex writing about zombies, the lack of agency makes actual zombie romance doubly difficult to pull off. Appetite is appetite, sure, but its tough to build sexual tension when at least one of the lovers is mindless carrion. I can think of a couple movies which feature the living fucking the dead, and it’s never the good guys wetting their wicks.

So. I checked out Love, Lust and Zombies with a swiftness, because all of this is in my wheelhouse, and hard. I’m not going to get up and ride my hobby horse about zombies, violence and domesticity just yet, but let it be read into the record that an anthology of short fiction which involves conflating the little death with the big one is right up my godamn alley. I read through the forward by Mark Onspaugh, which is good, trotting around both art history and psychology which manages a breezy profundity — no mean feat — and Szereto’s introduction, which is less good, more cringe-y Boomer joking than anything.

Without further ado, to the individual stories.

“Vanilla” by Janice Eidus

My first reaction was that I hated this fucking story, which seems to enact a bunch of stupid romance tropes in a way I find distasteful. But with some thought, it might actually be subverting said stupid romance tropes, so maybe I don’t hate its guts. A young woman who works as a librarian and characterizes herself as “vanilla” sexually falls into a relationship with a man who is surely the walking dead. He comes into the library and orders her around like an alphole, which makes her wet and compliant. By the end he announces “Vanilla is my favorite flavor” and she understands “that once he licks my vanilla clean, I will be a librarian no more”.

The librarian is a cliché romance profession, and our heroine’s protestations of vanillaness are entirely a doth protest too much situation. While it may be culturally common, I think the sexualization of dead flesh which one finds all over vampire romance is pretty freaking kinky. “Vanilla” taking that one step further and making the love interest a straight up zombie might be a cool commentary, but then it might just be an accident. Just structurally, this fetishization of dead flesh is almost inevitable when zombies and sex writing collide, and it’ll show up in a number of other stories in this anthology. Honestly, I can’t tell from the prose, which seems kinda weak, tbh. Shrug emoticon.

“In the Red Light” by A. M. Hartnett

The set-up is kind of like Romero’s third zombie movie, Day of the Dead, in which mad scientists and military personnel ‘speriment on some zombies to try to reawaken their humanity or whatever. There’s a mad scientist, a lady soldier, and a zombie called Bub. Being Romero, the zombie called Bud is basically the only character with identifiable human emotions in the whole mess; humans are the real monsters, &c. The zombie in this story is more fully cognizant than Bub, and considerably less decayed: He was a death row inmate bitten when the prison warden released the undead into the prison. There’s some kind of chip in his head to keep him from zombiing out. The lady scientist (this time a shrink) is tasked with seeing to his mental state when they’re not hacking him open to see how his guts work.

There is potentially a lot here to unpack in this scenario about the treatment of institutionalized people, how they are dehumanized by systems which see them as resources, not persons. Alas, I don’t think any of that was more than cursorily touched on. I doubly don’t think the writer fully considered the consent issues involving a therapist sleeping with someone who is both her incarcerated patient and an experimental subject. The writer avoids the usual consent problems with zombies by making the zombie fully cognizant of himself, then screws that all up by having a therapist bang her patient. Like, I get that in the zombie apocalypse, probably there’s no board to revoke her license and/or bring her up on charges, but that crosses alllll kinds of ethical lines. Not great, Bob.

“Smile” by Laura Huntley

Honestly, I don’t even get it. A young woman in the zombie apocalypse goes rambling around outside every day instead of staying holed up with other survivors. She thinks they’re a bunch of emotionally stunted losers. She’s sad she lost a sister, finds a hot zombie dude at the park who lost a daughter. They bang it out. He smiles. I think I’m supposed to take home some message about how living isn’t just surviving or somesuch, but it’s not particularly well drawn. I also have serious questions about zombie physiology, specifically how they get boners and ejaculate. It’s fine though, just a situation and not really a story. That can be ok too.

“Dead from the Waist Down” by August Kent

This one does address the boner issue! Thank the Lord. This story is kind of goofy and cute, set in a sort of monster high school attended by ghosts, zombies, vampires, harpies, and whatnot. Our zombie protagonist, Nicholas, has been pining for a vamp girl called Dani. Vamps appear to be the top of the heap, socially speaking, so Nicholas is dragged by other vamps for even looking her way. Dani is a MPDG though, so they get together at a party sort of. He’s not actually capable of getting it up, but she’s unfazed, and eventually announces to the party that they’re dating. Pretty cute little scenario, and I laughed every time the zombie narrator slagged harpies for no apparent reason. Good stuff.

“Sweeter Than to Wake” by Thana Niveau

Another strangely sweet one. A man takes his bitten, frozen wife and removes all of her internal organs, sews her mouth shut, and embalms her. Zombies (or the Woken, as they are styled here) break down just like any dead body, and he’s trying to draw out their last days together as long as he can. I’m not going to spoil the ending, but this is easily the most heartfelt, poetic, and romantic conclusion to any story in this collection. This is one of a number of stories in this collection which deal with couples where one is a zombie and one isn’t, which is probably the most emotionally fruitful scenario involving Romero-style or post-Romero zombies.

“The Wild Ones” by Erin O’Riordan

Oddball little story about a love triangle of sorts playing out in an enclave of living humans protected from the undead by a bunch of ghosts. The main pair is the community leader and her wife. The community leader wants the wife to have a baby with another survivor called Steven, so they can give hope to a demoralized and dejected community. This one felt like the kind of situation where the world-building took a back seat to the interpersonal scenario, because I have close to zero understanding of how anything works in this world, especially i/r/t ghosts. Maybe there was something there about living for the memory of the dead or something, but it wasn’t clear.

“So You Want to Date a Zombie” by Shane Vaughn

Repellent story about an unlikable asshole who goes on a dating show, and ends up getting paired with an old girlfriend, only she’s undead this time. Either misogynist or so jaundiced that I’m misreading a hatred for humanity for a hatred of women.

“Still” by Delilah Devlin

Another husband and wife trying to navigate what happens when one becomes a zombie and the other doesn’t. Felt like real emotional stakes and a legitimate dilemma. The way the couple had to evade the authorities because the husband was zombifying also felt like maybe you could read the couple as LGBT or other identities who can sometimes “pass”, but I admit it’s something of a stretch.

“The Dying Time” by E.C. Myers

Probably the stand out of the collection, as it is utterly unlike any of the other stories, its own little sealed world of strange magic. A loner blows into town just as they are are battening down for a kind of winter. He develops a tendre for the town sex worker, which she numbly thinks is naïve, sweet, and stupid as hell. This might sound bitcher than I mean it, but: This is maybe the only story in this collection which fully uses the stiletto sharpness of a short story. We are given just enough to think we understand both the world and characters: insular town, drifter, town whore. Then the very end of the story rearranges how we understand everything: world, plot, and character. It’s deftly done, almost like a fairy tale, the Grimm kind, where folk die and live on a whim, and the moral of the story is survival.

“My Zombie, My Lover” by Mitzi Szereto

I’ve generally found it to be true that if an editor contributes fiction to a collection they are editing, the story is going to be not great, and that’s the case here. The narrator lives a solitary existence in the Appalachian hills. She has a distasteful tendency to sneer at the community around her. Someone starts breaking into her house and eating her leftovers; it’s a zombie; they bang. It’s a situation, not a story, which is fine, but it’s not an interesting situation, which is not.

“Come Back to Me” by Chantal Noordeloos

Another real standout, just deeply alarming. This story deals with your old school zombie reanimated and directed by Vodoun magic, not the Romero kind which is a member of a mindless mob. A young woman whose grandmother is a Bokor (which the internet informs me is a practitioner of dark sorcery) has her heart broken by a feckless summer person (or whatever seasonal tourists are called in Louisiana.) Her grandmother gives her the means to compel his death and reanimation, with the admonishment to release him from her magic once specific conditions occur. (This is what we call in folklore a “narrative lack”, when the writer introduces conditions which will precipitate action. “Don’t feed them after midnight,” the man says, which, narratively speaking, means they will inevitably be fed after midnight.) Inevitably, she does not release her lover, and some super bad shit happens.

Like “The Dying Time, “Come Back to Me” absolutely gets right into the viscera of what animates the zombie, culturally and metaphorically speaking. I feel like a number of these stories try to tart up zombies so much they’re not even zombies anymore — there’s no guts — while these two revel in paradox of the zombie’s curious detachment and their voraciousness. Fucking great.

“Not Ready to Let Go” by Deanna K. Deavers

Another story about a couple, this time from the point of view of the dying partner spending her last moments with the man she loves, and then into her reanimation and the hungers that provokes. There was something unsettling to me about this scenario, something deeper than the obvious fucked-upedness of the situation. Maybe it was that the story was told from the zombie’s point of view? A common theme of zombie stories is the horror of the loved ones transformation from lover to killer. This can work well as a metaphor for how traumatizing it is to watch a loved one waste and die, and how our bodies ultimately betray us unto death. Death reaching out from the death bed to consume the living freaks me out, apparently. Nice.

“Night of the Lovin’ Dead” by Ashley Lister

A young woman goes with the elders of her village to perform a ritual which will conjure an undead army to protect them from a living one. She’s not sure what the ritual will be, but she’s been told it will be pleasurable, so she’s all in. Both the living and the undead end up pulling a train on her, which she’s super into. Honestly, while I was reading, I kept thinking of Men Write Women, which details the worst examples of dudes writing how women boob breastily. Like this line: “From the periphery of her vision she could see the rigid thrust of her erect nipples.” I think I speak for most breast-havers that I only notice my nips when I’m specifically checking to make sure I’m presentable. I sure as shit don’t see them from the periphery of my vision — however that’s supposed to work — while I’m walking in forest so dark I can barely see the ground I’m walking on. The entire situation was priapic male gaze nonsense, and the girl’s characterization ridiculous. No.

“Under a Perfect Sun” by Zander Vyne

“Under a Perfect Sun” concerns a group of people riding out the zombie apocalypse in the biosphere in Arizona. Before the inhabitants of the biodome figured out what was going on, one of the men is bitten. Before he turns, he locks himself in a closet and writes out detailed instructions on how to stretch food and power within the dome for as long as possible. Later, his wife has to decide whether to sleep with her zombified husband to get pregnant — apparently he’s technically still alive; it’s more of a rage virus — and if she’ll allow the other women to do the same, repopulating the planet-style. This one is the most stylistically interesting of the bunch — it skips through time and characters’ perspectives, including some epistolary passages.

This is one of two stories in this collection which deals with survivor communities grappling with questions of procreation. (“The Dying Time” also deals with pregnancy, but that is in a very different scenario.) On some level, I think this goes back to the fact that we’re kind of living through a slow-moving apocalypse right now, so an isolated community deciding whether to continue existing is going to resonate. I mean, have you seen millennial birth rates? But I think the thing to note about these stories is that both place the question of procreation solidly on the woman. Zombie stories often trade in questions of how to build and defend domesticity, but mostly it’s about how men are supposed to use violence to keep their families “safe”. (Rick Grimes is the absolute avatar of this.) So it was pretty dope to see a less 2A approach to society’s survival.

Anyway! So this was a fun little read because I have some feelings about zombies and domesticity, but this collection didn’t knock my socks off or anything. Mostly I’m glad it exists, because it’s cool to see that other people have the same dumb obsessions I do, even if we do our dumb obsessions in different ways.

Story Problems

In the evening, I work story problems with my daughter
If a teacher has 25 students, and 312 raffle tickets
How would she divide them evenly between them?
And what will be left over?
(So much will be left over)
 
I don’t even hassle my kid about how raffle tickets are bought, not given
(So much has been bought not given)
Not like the one story problem where alligators ate blueberry pie
Alligators don’t eat pie, I said, not vegetarian pie
That’s ridiculous
 
She laughed at me, and got the salt, and shook it all over the page
You’re salty
 
She’s a product of her age
(So much is, even me)
 
This is her age:
17 die in Florida
28 in Sandy Hook
13 in Colorado
 
I don’t even think she remembers Sandy Hook
I remember
I stood outside the back door of the elementary school with other parents, and we were red-rimmed and leaking
We talked about how it felt like Columbine, and 9/11, and the Challenger explosion
How those 20 dead children hit air and fluoresced
And we were left with hard blue streaks just behind our eyelids that could not be got out with rubbing
(Could not be got out with anything)
We caught up our children and hugged them so hard they told us we were weird.
 
You’re weird, mom, let me go.
 
Here’s a story problem:
Two students walk into a school with guns and bags of explosives
One man kills his mom and then walks into a school with a gun
One man walks into a school with a gun
One teacher uses himself as a shield
One student stands in a doorway to usher others to safety
One student sits on the floor and cries
One student calls her mom
One student runs with his hands up
One student jumps out the window
One student didn't go to school that day, because she had strep, and her inbox fills with horror
 
Here’s the answer:
Children die
Children die
Children die
 
All story problems are exponential and something like infinite
Because no parent can resolve their data set to one
When that one is dead on a school hallway floor
That dead child is neither anecdote nor data, but something worse:
It is a dead child.
 
Dead children are no answer
They are the beginning of a logarithm that curves up
Into the reckoning of our brutal calculus


(Originally written Feb 22, 2018, after the Stoneman Douglas high school shooting.) 

Book Review: Composite Creatures by Caroline Hardaker

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.

————

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 count 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 (or more specifically, Shane) 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 her. 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 shoe 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. There’s a way in which this hanged family is also a manifestation of the dangers of getting too hard, too self-interested. There’s something gruesomely ethereal about the way Virgil’s family wheels and sways above the ground, like Dante’s Forest of Suicides. Recall that Dante uses the Roman poet Virgil as his guide through hell in Inferno. Here, another Virgil guides Michonne through horrors.

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.