Coronavirus Diary: Supernatural Episodes 1-3

I, like a lot of wordy people out there, have been wondering what to do to document America in the Time of Quarantine as it happens. I am still working full time, so I don’t have tons of time to devote to such a project, even if I weren’t riding the edge of anxiety and depression all the time. Plus, just about everything is shit: It was my birthday yesterday; today my beloved guinea pig died; I haven’t seen my mom closer than ten feet away in a month. I have no bandwidth for reading anything that offers less than an unequivocal happy ending, so I don’t feel up to going back through my to-read pile of Nebula winners and other thoughtful stuff I have on deck. It’s just not going to happen.

So, you know, I started watching Supernatural. Obvi.

I probably won’t have anything new to say about a show that’s gone 15 seasons and has spawned roughly 8 gajillion reaction gifs. I’m not even watching that closely. But this here may or may not become my shelter-in-place exercise. It’s entirely possible I’ll give it up or try something else next week. That’s fine too. So, without much further ado, here are my scattered thoughts about epis one through three of the first season of Supernatural.

Season 1, Episode 1: “Pilot”

Like many, or even most pilots — especially on network television — the pilot episode arm-wheels its way through both character development and exposition. It’s chock full of “As you know, Bob” style dialogue, and character conflict that feels not just manufactured, but fake. There’s a genuinely scary opening with a nuclear family that ends with mama on fire and a young child taking his infant brother out of a burning building. Flash forward twenty something years: Younger brother Sam is visited by older brother Dean in such a way as to make Dean seem like a creeper. Dean is gross about Sam’s girlfriend, insulting about Sam’s field of study, and generally passive-aggressive. Hey dad is missing, you should come with me, etc. Sam reluctantly sets off with Dean to find their dad, and, like fight some demons or whatever. They bumble into a vanishing hitchhiker situation that’s equal parts exploitation film and freaking creepy. They vanquish the ghost, and when they return to Sam’s apartment, he finds his girlfriend on fire, magically, the same way his mother was, fade to black.

This was a good pilot in many ways. I thought the supernatural stuff (ahem) was well done in terms of stagecraft (or whatever this is called in television) though a little overdone in terms of exposition and explanation of the occult occurrences. You could see the writers reaching for that twist, which is fine, if a little obvious. Frankly, we cut the cord so many years ago (indeed, about the time Supernatural began airing) that I’m sometimes surprised by network television’s storytelling styles. Everything is so bald and open, and so much of the run-time feels like filler. A network season has 20-ish hour-long episodes to fill with neat narratives of rising action and denouement, which definitely affects how an evolving narrative is told. Supernatural, even just in its opening episode, feels X-Files old school, like I can predict that there will be several episodes that are monster-of-the-week, cut with one that’s more mythology heavy. Maybe that will change in later seasons, but that’ s what I’m going to expect from season one.

When you put the pilot of Supernatural up against, say, the first episode of Killing Eve (which is probably not a fair comparison, but I watched it real recently), it’s notable how much text is subtext and the other way around in their requisite storytelling styles. Episode one of Killing Eve has this running joke about a birthday party from which Eve and some of her co-workers are suffering hangovers. The party wasn’t planned! It was impromptu! all the party-goers keep exclaiming. Eventually it clicks that one dude in the office — an officious dickish manager type — wasn’t invited to the birthday party, is salty about that, and everyone who was at the party is trying to pretend they didn’t plan and participate in a party without him, on purpose. This is never spelled out explicitly; you just have to figure it out for yourself.

Supernatural, but contrast, enacts the most drearily obvious dialogue, where one character announces his motivations, and then the other one does, on and on, in addition to explaining both internal and external states explicitly. Every single physical object and clue is carefully laid out; all motivations made clear in dialogue. The supernatural is completely legible, it just takes a Buffy-ish search of the public library microfiche to divine its motivations. As bad as this was, the parts of the opening episode that detail the supernatural — most of which are without dialogue — are scary and effective. So far, this is the stuff to keep watching for.

Season 1, Episode 2: “Wendigo”

I’ve said this before, but I think it’s generally true: having more than a little knowledge about a specific subject means you’re not going to accept sloppy, half-assed bullshit about said subject, even if it’s “just fiction”. (Which, don’t get me started about that one.) I am not going to pretend to have any real expertise in the folklore of Native America, but I do know, as a lifelong resident of Minnesota and a student of folklore, that literally everything about the monster of the week in this episode, the Wendigo, is completely hot garbage. They lampshade this a little in the episode when Dean announces that he’s never seen a wendigo outside of the upper Midwest, but they’re in Colorado so shrug emoticon. I do not understand why this episode wasn’t set anywhere from northern Minnesota to upstate New York — that’s the range for the source material. A cursory google will turn this up.

That Native American folklore and culture is treated shabbily ends up becoming a theme of the first season, if the first half dozen episodes are any indication. It’s all completely confused if not blatantly racist, treating the hundreds of cultures on the north American continent as interchangeable, throwing language, customs, and beliefs of wildly different native peoples together in an insulting mishmash. Imagine a story about a creature called a rusulka who lived on Mt Olympus and could be vanquished with a stake through the heart. Now imagine that story was being told by a member of culture which committed genocide upon the entire continent where those stories originate.

The Wendigo is understood to have been born in hunger. It is a human transformed by cannibalism into a monster that preys on humanity. That the Winchester brothers bumble in, and work to protect bunch of stupid, ill-prepared white people from its vengeance feels tone deaf if not cruel. Especially because the Winchester brothers are the absolute worst godamn hikers of all time. Look, I’m not even especially outdoorsy, but I grew up in an outdoorsy family so I know some stuff about not freaking dying on a hike in a state park. You need water, a liter per day per person at minimum. If you’re going on a more rugged hike, off the marked and groomed trails, you need the bare minimum of gear to pitch some horrible lean-to if the weather goes south and you have to bunker down for the night. The hike the brothers are going on is described as challenging — the sister of the lost hikers has gone so far as to hire a guide — so it feels nuts that they show up with a duffel bag full of guns, and nothing else: no water, no food (except for some half eaten bag of snacks), bad shoes, leather jacket.

So, this episode is dumb, but at least I got all excited about seeing not one but two! Canadian actors I know from DaVinci’s Inquest, a police procedural set in Vancouver which I was obsessed with some some reason in the early 00s.

Season 1, Episode 3: “Dead in the Water”

While there were some aspects of this episode I did not enjoy — I loathe the trope of the traumatized slash autistic child who learns to communicate through the self-serving ministrations of some rando — “Dead in the Water” began to make the folkloric source material work for it, and not the other way around. There was a legitimate plot twist concerning the motivations of the monster of the week, one that looks at first to be some version of the Loch Ness or Lake Champlain Monster.

“Dead in the Water” also features a fresh-faced Amy Acker, presumably in the interregnum between Angel and Person of Interest. She manages to take a stock “mama’s worried about her boy”- style character (which we will encounter a lot in later episodes) and complicate her feelings and motivations. Largely, those worried mama character serve as light romantic possibilities for one of the brothers, and that holds true here. (This time it’s Dean.) But she lends a moroseness and almost resignation to the character which I liked, even if it was impossible fully to transcend the self-serious and overly expository dialogue. Complaints aside, “Dead in the Water” was still the best episode to date.

Three is a magic number for a lot of series: the third season is often the best, or, conversely, where the show goes completely bonkers and just starts doing whatever. Sometimes this is one and the same. I feel like the writers only start getting comfortable with the Winchester brothers at the very end of the season, but episode three is where that begins to coalesce. Sure, fine, I’ll keep watching.

I Hope the Smoking Man’s in This One: Every Sigh, The End

Do you remember, back in the day, when the X Files was young and not stupid, and the absolute thrill you would get out of the paranoid conspiracy and narrative sleight of hand? The clock was ticking, loudly, on the end of the millennium, the Y2K bug was creating hysterics in op-ed pieces everywhere, and the dot-com bubble was foaming its way to Bethlehem to burst. (Sorry, I know it’s cheap to mis-quote Yeats here, but I can’t help it.) The actual turn of the millennium was something of a collective sigh, when the planes didn’t fall out of the sky or the reactors didn’t melt down.

I remember lolling in a hotel room on the afternoon of Dec 31, 1999, watching footage of the celebrations in Australia and Myanmar, having the non-chemically induced sense of vertigo when you realize that the date as we have constructed it, globally, begins in a specific place, and then sweeps inexorably over the earth. If, for some ridiculous reason, something did go wrong on the Date Line, the rest of us would just have to sit and watch as the day crawled toward us. (Before you freak out: yes, I know that stuff like international airlines are oriented to GMT, but I’m on the other side of that, and the world revolves around me, ‘kay?)

So the millennium came and went, and we swept up the confetti, folded up our cargo pants – seriously, I have wacky theory about how all of the late-90s paramilitary fashion was some sort of collective sartorial acting out of our apocalyptic anxieties – and then went back to work. (See also: Hummers.) Then came 9/11, and the other shoe dropped hard and indisputably. It was the end of the world as we knew it. I remember watching a shitty made-for-tv movie called Y2K in November of 1999, and howling with laughter while Ken Olin, in the world’s longest sweater, raced to, I don’t know, find his kid and stop a nuclear melt-down, intercut with the worst CGI in the world of planes dropping like stones once the date caught up with them. Fly, pilot, fly! But you can’t outrun time! Muhahahaha! But then the planes did fall out of the sky. Worse still, they didn’t fall, but were flown out, with malevolent agency.

In many ways, Every Sigh, The End by Jason Hornsby is a period piece about the turn of the millennium, but one that could only be written after the hard historical fact of 9/11. I think I’m about the age of the author, so all of the post-college melt-down, the Xer almost-resignation towards generational uselessness, the keg-stands, band t-shirts & cheerless stoner depravity rang true. The plot has a wigged-out, origami-like feel that evokes the best of the late 90s paranoid fantasies (again, before they got stupid): X-Files, Matrix, Dark Skies. Only this time without the sweet outfits, sense of purpose, meaning, or human affection.

Zombie stories, are on some level, about the way narcissism veers uncomfortably to nihilism, and this doesn’t veer so much as drive headlong, with motherfucking agency. I don’t mean to imply that Hornsby on the side of the terrorists – hi FBI – but there’s some smart commentary in here about tragedy and voyeurism; the ways in which death & degradation are used as a spectacle solely for the purpose of personal catharsis of the protagonist/viewer-by-proxy.

This sucks, of course, compromised by the dangerous vanity that the suffering of others is an extension of personal ego, and therefore other people are unreal. The idea of conspiracy is so satisfying precisely because it confirms that we are so important that it takes an entire shadowy government agency to thwart our inherent awesomeness. (Hi FBI!) Hornsby charts these uneasy themes with an understanding towards the genre conventions that goes deeper than the usual fast v. slow, space rays v. viruses, bothersome physics of the worst of the genre.

BUT there are some things I didn’t dig, like the fact that every instance of the word end is in bold, or when anyone sighs it’s accompanied by some variation of the phrase “a horribly unoriginal gesture”. Okay, I get it, put the mallet away. The opening section is tedious, with way too much banter, floundering, and essays about genre. There are good reasons for the way this plays out, really, better than most: We’re meant to submerge ourselves in the douchebag ennui of the protag – called Holden by his girlfriend, natch – but I felt kind of pruny and overheated by the time I got out of the hot tub and into the blood bath.

And my most shallow complaint: this has the most vomitous cover, truly awful. The publishers should be ashamed of themselves for putting a book this good in a cover that crappy.

The Big Bite: Raising Stony Mayhall by Daryl Gregory

This was originally written in July 2011

I was talking with my husband the other day about Ragnarok, the Norse Armageddon, and kind of jokingly saying it was the first alt-history. Ragnarok is this really specific telling of the last days of the Norse Gods, a catalog of who will kill whom and how. It’s understood to be told in the future tense, something that hasn’t happened yet, but will, with exactness and finality. He was like, but isn’t that prophesy, like Revelations? I admit my knowledge of Revelations is a little crappy, but I don’t think that Ragnarok is quite the same. It’s less a story of what we humans should watch out for, so we can head to the underground bunker or whatever we’re supposed to do when the End Times are upon us. It’s not a manual, or a guide. It’s just a story about the inevitability of when certain kinds of personalities – large, inhuman or metahuman personalities – come into conflict with one another. It’s a chess game, not a chess guide. History, even history of the future, isn’t so much not to be repeated as embraced as the stories are told.

So, when I was in high school, I had this great assignment where I had to do a research paper about some public happening that went down in the year I was born. I was born in 1974, so I duly went to the microfiche and scrolled through the local headlines. Those older than me will shake their heads, but I was like, OMFG I CAN’T HANDLE ANY MORE WATERGATE. It was too much, too complicated, even though it was the thing that defined the year, and years on either side: the growing scandal, the series of indictments and resignations, the pardon – oh, the pardon. Fodder for a thousand research papers, a thousand books and movies. Certainly more than I could handle in 5-7 double-spaced pages.

So, I found Patty Hearst. Patty was an heiress of the Hearst newspaper empire – William Randolph Hearst being the subject (mostly, though the protagonist was an aggregate of several personalities) of Citizen Kane. She was abducted out of her apartment by a post-Helter Skelter cult called the SLA – the Symbionese Liberation Army. (I still have no idea why that name, and I can’t really remember their goals, which were a stew of 70s revolutionary cliches and “free love”, which was code for cult leader gets to bang whomever he wants.) (Also, she was at home that night with her upper class douchebag fiancée, a guy whose name was Stephen Weed, I shit you not. Pynchon couldn’t have named him better.)

Anyway, after a several months of rape, imprisonment, and a good dose of Stockholm Syndrome, Patty helped rob a Hearst bank with the SLA. Oh, the pregnant symbolism! I don’t remember all the details, but press releases were issued proclaiming her new cult name of Tania – still with the Pynchonian names. Public opinion was wildly against her. How dare she turn against her robber baron family money? Being raped and terrorized was not really credited in understanding her motivations. Again, I don’t remember all the details, but it turned into months – maybe years? – of the SLA playing cat-and-mouse with law enforcement, ending in a Waco-style shoot-out with fire and the death of most of the cult. Not Patty though. Somehow she survived.

So Patty is a fascinating American character. She later renounced all her SLA stuff, but it wasn’t enough to keep her from getting convicted of armed robbery. Her sentence was later commuted by Carter, who probably found the defense’s argument compelling about how she had no live ammo, and that most of the SLA guns in the robbery were trained on her, not the bank officials, and the fact that she’d been abducted, brutalized and raped into these actions. (Like me; I admit my bias.) She’s later been a regular fixture in John Waters films — including one where a woman is abducted into a film cult bent on bringing down the military-entertainment complex — seriously, Pynchon is like the patron saint of American history.

So, point being — and seriously, I have one — even history is an alternate history. There’s the stuff that screams from the headlines day after day, then there’s the stuff that goes down on the sidelines, which is no less meaningful, in terms of national identity and symbolism. I talked with my folks a lot about this project – in fact, I’m pretty sure one of them pointed me toward the Hearst story in the first place – and it was fascinating to hear them talk about the paranoia of the time, the sense of the end of it all. Night of the Living Dead premiered in 1969, and it was this perfect encapsulation of the times, written in horror. Kennedy may have been shot down in ’63, but it wasn’t until the murder and assassinations of the late 60s — Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X, Dr. King — that we understood that our post-War dream of enforced middle class domesticity was tearing at the seams, letting out blood into a colonial conflict that, strangely, only Nixon could end, even while he shat all over executive privilege and the Presidency. (And, I have no patience with all of the mealy-mouthed talk of him being “controversial” when he died a few years back. Only if you find treason controversial, and not criminal.)

So. Alternate history. Here we are again in America, at the end of it all. Maybe we’re always at the end of it all. Maybe the millenarian instinct is in our DNA, in our constitution, and I totally mean that as a double entente. The 2nd Amendment is a hedge against the [zombie] apocalypse, something I always think about when I consider my neighbors from two doors down, who are avowed gun nuts with a racist caricature of Obama hanging in their window. I’d be over their begging for guns in heartbeat if zombies descended on my city, and it’s amusing as all get out to me that I’ve even considered the possibility. Cuz I have, American that I am.

At the opening of Saving Stony Mayhall by Daryl Gregory. John is found at the side of the road by an Iowan family. His mother is dead, and he is an undead, bubbling infant. It’s the late 60s, and in this mildly alternate beginning, the zombie uprising in Pennsylvania that is chronicled in Romero’s “documentary” is fact. Though this is a slightly histrionic comparison, the terror of the Twin Towers had been located 50 years earlier, so America was building its Gauntanimos and security state apparatuses 50 years earlier, to work against the undead threat. (Though we’re always building against a threat. We’ve always seen our threats as twinned — coming from within and without — fear of the Soviets and the Red Scare; Al Qaeda as well as that home-grown shoe-bombing idiot. Heck, lots of Americans think the Twin Towers was the result of the CIA, not Bin Laden, as we work against ourselves or something. I’m not really interested in getting into a big thing about this, I just want to point out that we have this headline narrative, and then a whispered narrative, whatever the truth may be.) John, or Stony as he comes to be known, is a zombie anomaly — zomnomaly? see, I am shit for portmanteau, unlike Mike who coined the term ‘zombildugsroman’ for this book — he grows from zombie infant into zombie boy, and then, as most of the story is concerned with, into zombie man.

The rest of the undead are bitten breathers, who, after a nasty, murderous incubation period of 48 hours or so, wherein they bite and kill like we have all seen on tv, they resolve into people who are not dissimilar from the ones the were when they were breathing. Some forget themselves, having their memories wiped by death. Some don’t. Stony moves from his claustrophobic but largely idyllic childhood on the plains of the Midwest into a graduation of the larger, undead community. The undead play cat-and-mouse with the Feds, reluctantly, not so much a cult as a folk group of the damaged, with their own folk myths and legends, political factions, schismatic religions, and personalities. As their numbers dwindle through attrition and active attacks, they ponder the Big Bite, a Ragnarök of starting the zombie apocalypse so that their number will replenish, and they can stop living in fear of the living. As the living live in fear of the dead.

I don’t even know how not to be all spoiler about this, but certain things are inevitable. You can’t write a zombie story without that sense of the End Times, it just matters whether you think the End Times are about warning or historical understanding. This story is about Patty Hearst, not Watergate, even though those things are twinned, bubbling out of the same cultural stew. Like Patty, Stony’s story is personal, personal enough that I can remember her stupid fiancé’s name when I have no idea the name of Spiro Agnew’s wife. (Hell, even Nixon’s. What was it? Francine? Imelda?) Patty’s story is fascinating because of all the familial symbolism, even while it intersects with Presidents and filmmakers, Patty an abducted lighting rod for a bunch of symbolism about class, privilege, politics, religion and on and on. Stony is a bit of the same, sorta, a simple Midwestern boy but for the fact that he doesn’t breathe, caught up in the times. Stony is a reluctant protagonist, like we all are reluctant protagonists, and the mythology, the explanations he lays out in this novel have the exciting frission of a good retcon. Not the kind that sucks, and restarts everything wiping out the past, but the kind that takes the past into account, and writes its exegesis. There’s a lot here for a zombie nerd to love, a catalog of genre ticks made sensible. And sensibility is this book’s heart.

Zombies are irrational, unscientific. Dead is dead. My husband always tries to placate my zombie freak-outs with the utterance, “But…physics,” but which he means that zombies violate the rules of physics and can’t exist. This book takes but…physics seriously, building an alt-history predicated on the impossible, relying on an alt-physics of will and psychology, coming down to a End Times of inevitability which is or is not inevitable, but happen[s/ed] anyway, based on the rules of the future tense, the future tense of all national stories. I don’t want to make this story sound mythic, though there is discussion of how the personal narrative transmutes into folk legend. It’s complicated and personal, much more so than the headlines might suggest, so much sadder than Revelations, so much quieter than Ragnarok. Damn fine.

P.S. I often write myself out of saying stuff like this, because it doesn’t fit in the standard 5-paragraph essay, but there’s a lot here that’s funny as shit, but slyly, like an undead character based on Col. Sanders, and a random aside about the undead mascots who schill for various products, like the Sinclair dinosaur. Charlie the Tuna wants you to eat his dead flesh ahahahahaha. Gross. Clever.

The Art of Losing: Charlotte’s Web

I liked sad things when I was a child. I probably still do like sad things, the lovely feeling of loss and connection one gets when unfortunate things happen to imaginary people in books. I would beg my Grandma Dory to read me The Little Match Girl over and over, and I would weep giant crocodile tears of pain and empathy at the girl’s frozen body, the grandmother and the candles, the matches all struck and burnt down to a flash of pain and then the letting go…

Charlotte is something of this for me, but it’s worse, her little spider body grown stiff and brittle and almost silly. I don’t know why I think about the corpses these ladies leave, but there’s something incredibly sad about how Charlotte diminishes from this great spinning speaking voice into a dead bug. Sad, so so sad.


I’ve tried to write this review a couple of hundred times, but it keeps falling apart. This story is so light, so airy, that it resists too much pressure, or goes squishing out the other end. I’ve half-written a dozen childhood reveries; I’ve cracked some jokes about how well punctuated this book is; I’ve talked about Charlotte-as-writer. None of this worked, and I promise it was all fumbling garbage. The following story comes closer to capturing how this book makes me feel than any other thing I’ve written for this review. I’m not satisfied with it, but it’s what I’ve got.


My Grandma Fran was dying, and I was a thousand miles from home. The hospital was like a hospital. My two-year-old-girl did the very best a 2-year-old could do with the beeping boredom of sitting for hours at a hospital bedside, but often we would have to go rambling around just to see what we could see. The hospital had no grounds to speak of, very little grass, but it did have a square pool of water that we considered every time we walked in from the parking lot. I think it may have been a fountain at some point, but it had been turned off or broken so it was just water in the ground.

We walked up to the edge. We took off our shoes and put in our feet. She splashed with her hands held so tight that her fingers curled up, a funny, baby-like gesture from a someone who was tending towards girlishness more and more at the time. Even though the air and the water were the same temperature, the air felt warm and the water cool. We rolled up our pants and walked around. She fell onto her butt and I laughed. She splashed me and I splashed her back. We found cars in my purse and drove them around the edges and fished them off the bottom. Then a security guard came and told us that the pool was only for decoration and we had to get out. We did, and went back to the hospital room, dripping. We told Grandma about swimming in the forbidden fountain, and she laughed. Grandma was still dying.


Here’s something you should read:


“Let’s swing in the swing!” said Avery.

The children ran to the barn.

Mr. Zuckerman had the best swing in the county. It was a single long piece of heavy rope tied to the beam over the north doorway. At the bottom end of the rope was a fat knot to sit on. It was arranged so that you could swing without being pushed. You climbed a ladder to the hayloft. Then, holding the rope, you stood at the edge and looked down, and were scared and dizzy. Then you straddled the knot, so that it acted as a seat. Then you got up all your nerve, took a deep breath, and jumped. For a second you seemed to be falling to the barn floor far below, but then suddenly the rope would begin to catch you, and you would sail through the barn door going a mile a minute, with the wind whistling in your eyes and ears and hair. Then you would zoom upward into the sky, and look up at the clouds, and the rope would twist and you would twist and turn with the rope. Then you would drop down, down, down out of the sky and come sailing back into the barn almost into the hayloft, then sail out again (not quite so far this time), then in again (not quite so high), then out again, then in again, then out, then in; and then you’d jump off and fall down and let somebody else try it.

Mothers for miles around worried about Zuckerman’s swing. They feared some child would fall off. But no child ever did. Children almost always hang onto things tighter than their parents think they will.

Avery put the frog in his pocket and climbed to the hayloft. “The last time I swang in this swing, I almost crashed into a barn swallow,” he yelled.

“Take that frog out!” ordered Fern.

Avery straddled the rope and jumped. He sailed out through the door, frog and all, and into the sky, frog and all. Then he sailed back into the barn.

“Your tongue is purple! ” screamed Fern.

“So is yours!” cried Avery, sailing out again with the frog.

“I have hay inside my dress! It itches!” called Fern.

“Scratch it!” yelled Avery, as he sailed back.

“It’s my turn,” said Fern. “Jump off!”

“Fern’s got the itch!” sang Avery.

When he jumped off, he threw the swing up to his sister. She shut her eyes tight and jumped. She felt the dizzy drop, then the supporting lift of the swing. When she opened her eyes she was looking up into the blue sky and was about to fly back through the door.

They took turns for an hour.

When the children grew tired of swinging, they went down toward the pasture and picked wild raspberries and ate them. Their tongues turned from purple to red. Fern bit into a raspberry that had a bad-tasting bug inside it, and got discouraged. Avery found an empty candy box and put his frog in it. The frog seemed tired after his morning in the swing. The children walked slowly up toward the barn. They, too, were tired and hardly had energy enough to walk.

“Let’s build a tree house,” suggested Avery. “I want to live in a tree, with my frog.”

Just Regular Terrible: Red Hill by Jamie McGuire

So, I’m going to admit right off the bat that I only read Red Hill because I hate Jamie McGuire’s writing. When I was researching zombie novels for this other thing, I discovered she had written a zombie novel. So, seriously, how can I be expected to stay away? I just had to see how bad she failed at something I love. Turns out, her zombie novel is just the regular kind of terrible, not the fancy kind with raisins. I’d honestly hoped for more schadenfreude. Alas.

Red Hill is purportedly a zombie romance (in the sense that there is romance amongst humans during the zombie apocalypse, not zombies fucking, to be clear.) The first 60% is taken up with three point of view characters — Nathan, Scarlet, and Miranda — as they bop around through the zombie apocalypse. The last 40% is where the “romance” takes place, with an entirely unconvincing love triangle. The other couple has third act turn that is such a drearily pedestrian romance trope that it was actually alarming to see it deployed during the zombie apocalypse. Don’t you fuckers have priorities? 

No, is the answer. The answer is always no.

Scarlet is a pretty typical McGuire heroine, in that she’s a malignant narcissist, self-involved in such a way to be dangerous to any and all empathetic characters around her. She’s going the throw you under the bus whether it’s necessary or not — she just likes to watch the tires roll over skulls. From the very very beginning of the zombie apocalypse — which starts while she’s working as a nurse, I might add — she helps absolutely no one. She watches dispassionately as someone she knows dies, and then takes his keys. Whelp, I guess he won’t be needing these anymore! She’s the worst.

Miranda is also the worst, but I actually feel a little bad for her. McGuire has set Miranda up to be the fall guy in a morality tale about sluts and how they get what’s coming to them. Felt downright Victorian, honestly, but with well fewer classical allusions. (Indeed, none at all.) 

The third point of view character is Nathan, a man who plays weary parent because his bitch wife spends all her time on the internet. Weirdly, there were points when I honestly and truly liked Nathan and how he was characterized. His daughter Zoe has some kind of sensory integration disorder (I recognized it because my son was like this as a toddler), and the ways he worries and managed her felt real. Too bad about all the hateful shit he said about his wife, who even he admitted was suffering from depression. I guess people with clinical depression should just walk it off? Whatever. I might almost argue that McGuire should stick to stories only with dudes in them, because the weird hatred expressed for women just taints everything. But then for sure even a dudes-only narrative written by McGuire would be choked with toxic masculinity and hateful gender essentialism, so that’s not a real fix. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph do McGuire’s characters hate women though, even (and maybe especially) the ones who are women.

Just as an aside, my favorite moment in the novel is when Nathan gets a letter from his wife and then complains she could never get your/you’re right. Immediately, there was a grammar error in the text. I’m completely ok with certain errors, like the kind that were invented by 19th C language assholes. Split infinitives, sentences ending in prepositions: that’s all fine. What’s not fine is using someone’s grammar as a measure of their worth. One of my besties from middle school cannot be relied on to use the correct iteration of their/they’re/there, but this makes her neither stupid nor unworthy as a person. I cannot spell for shit, and this doesn’t meaningfully detract from my criticism of this here mean-spirited, uncharitable novel. So when I go to slag some typos in the text, I don’t intend it as an ad hominem attack, to whit: this novel is bad because a proofreader didn’t catch x error. Instead, I’m slagging Nathan’s grammar fascism in a text riddled with errors. He’s supposed to read as righteous, but considering the context, he just comes off as a dick.

Anyway, alas, mostly this book was just boring, not scary, and not convincing. I said this before in a review about zombie romance, but it’s true here too: love is just another word for no one left to kill. It’s honestly frightening, but not the way the writer intends. 

An Incomplete List of Oddball Zombie Movies I’ve Enjoyed

I finally caught the companion film to South Korea’s Train to Busan, the animated Seoul Station. It wasn’t nearly as affecting as its live action antecedent, but I completely appreciated how Seoul Station went in unexpected directions, and focused on relationships not normally detailed in either zombie movies or, like, regular cinema. This got me thinking about more obscure zombie movies I have known and loved, stuff that either goes straight to video, or only hits a theater or two in LA or New York. Many of these movies hail from other countries and cultures, which lends grist to my pet theory about zombie movies being largely about national character, much more so than other monsters.

The vast majority of zombie movies, high or low budget (but mostly low budget), are produced in the United States. There’s a lot of reasons for this: the US produces many more films, in general, than the rest of the West. Also, the United States (and Pennsylvania more specifically) is where the modern zombie was created in Romero’s game-changer, The Night of the Living Dead. I know there were zombie films before this, but Romero so utterly changed the landscape that they’re as different as chalk and cheese. In the same tradition, yes, but it’s like comparing the ghouls in the 1932 film Vampyr to modern vampires: similar in name only.

The ways zombie fictions ruminate on class, race, consumerism, and the nuclear family was set within an American film tradition, and not always or often in a good way. So much of the long tail of American zombie movies — the sort of thing found in deep dives into “if you like this, then” on your streaming platform of choice — is fucking trash. Americans can’t help but America, cinematically speaking, so the instinct to fascism, spectacle as unearned catharsis, and violence as morality pervades a lot of American zombie movies, regardless of budget. TL;DR: many American zombie movies are Libertarian (if not outright fascist) garbage fires, with a sideline in diseased gender roles. (This is somewhat ironic, given how Romero’s zombie films were always brutal social commentary against exactly that.)

Apocalypses in general are local affairs, once the lights dim and the communication systems blink out. The world narrows to the distance you can travel on foot — at least once the gas runs out, and you leave the car behind — the skyline streaked with the smudges of burning urbanity. But zombie narratives go a step further, reanimating strangers, neighbors, family, and friends in the subtle tweaks and twists of national character gone feral: slow or fast, cunning or mindless, diurnal or nocturnal, contagious or endemic. These monsters show what we become in the 24 hours and three meals from the end of it all.

Warning: possible spoilers in the film descriptions.

USA:

Maggie

What makes Maggie notable in the context of American zombie movies, a film that collects together Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, and Joely Richardson, is its taunt, Gothic rumination on the parent-child bond. It opens with Arnold traveling into a disease-ravaged LA to collect his daughter, Maggie. She’s infected with a zombie-ish plague, half-dying and half-alive in some overrun city hospital. All the small cues tell you she left because they were estranged — hard to say whether it was the normal estrangement that finds children growing into adults, or a deeper one. When they return home to the family farm, it’s clear it’s both: she’s a normal teenager fed up with her Boomer father, and then also he’s got a new wife and small children who have supplanted her in some ways. I have some autobiographical reasons for why this resonated hard. Anyway. 

Maggie muses in a sometimes overly self-serious way about coming home. Maggie, the character, does a retrospective of her adolescent relationships — complete with teen party with a bonfire on the beach — just short years, or long months, after she leaves home. When her step-mom leaves with her half-siblings, it leaves her alone in the house with a dad who can’t even begin to understand, but is turning himself inside out trying. The ways they never quite connect, right up to the bitter end, are shattering, the kind of thing that set me sobbing, an outsized emotional response to what is largely an understated and grayed out emotional landscape. This the best, most finely detailed work Schwarzenegger has put to film in his latter day career. 

UK:

The Girl with All the Gifts

When I first learned they changed the race of Miss Justineau, the living teacher of an undead classroom in The Girl with All the Gifts, from black to white, I was worried. In the novel by M.R. Carey (aka Mike Carey, for all you Hellblazer heads), Miss Justineau was black, and the undead child who cleaves to her white. The film reverses this, and it actually works really well, almost better in places. Making Helen Justineau a non-malignant version of the Nice White Lady ministering to children whose humanity is completely denied, and who are black [same/same] says something very different from the reverse, especially with how it shakes out in the end. (And unrelated aside: it’s notable to me how many of the films on this list started life — or undeath muahaha — on the page, and how successful their adaptation. Not everything is World War Z: The Less Said the Better.)

The Girl With All the Gifts is one of a teeny tiny trend of fungalpunk horror, of which maybe the most successful was the Area X trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. Carey’s story found inspiration in the nightmarish real world story of zombie ants infected by a fungus which drove them to uncharacteristic behavior, after which the fungus would fruit out of their ant heads. The images of ants with fungi protruding from their head carapaces legitimately freaks me out, and I don’t necessarily empathize with insects all that often. The film hews closely to the plot of the novel, a road trippy rumination on a ruined Britain. The girl who plays Melanie is wonderful, playing her smitten child with a sense of resigned sobriety that gives her an out-sized presence. Glenn Close delivers a quietly seething version of the amoral scientist, which is an interesting twist on a trope that tends to oily bombast (e.g. Stanley Tucci in The Core, which is hands down the best version of this ever put to film.) I love both iterations.

Canada:

Ravenous (or Les Affamés)

Sometimes I find the cultural context of specific foreign films so baffling as to render the “meaning” — insofar as that’s a thing — quite opaque. The French-Canadian Les Affamés falls into this category for me, but in a still strangely satisfying kind of way. Much of Ravenous falls into the mode of the zombie road trip, stopping occasionally to eavesdrop on the dead and their inscrutable machinations, or to enact the living’s more visceral conflicts. (And the dead in Les Affamés are truly strange, piling up teetering obelisks of domestic stuff in a clearing in the woods, or here, or there.) There’s this old saw for writers that “dialogue is action” and that almost reductive aphorism maps onto zombie narratives in this weird way. The drama in Ravenous is all in its dialogue and tense standoffs between survivors; the zombie attacks are almost a relief.

Pontypool

The source material for the film Pontypool, Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess, is both typical and an exemplar of his work. Burgess excels at either elevating pulp to high art, or elevating high art to pulp — because he somehow manages to write deeply philosophical works using absolutely sick imagery, while not prioritizing either. (See also: The Life and Death of Schneider Wrack by Nate Crowley.) This is not an easy thing to do! In fact, I can only think of a couple writers who successfully use the vernacular of both highfalutin literature and pulp styling without denigrating either.

Anyway! Point being: Pontypool is somewhat loosely adapted from the source novel, and in the very best ways. I can’t imagine a film version that somehow cut that impossible middle distance between high and low art that the book does; this will not translate to the screen. Instead the film is a taunt, almost stagy locked-room drama which focuses tight on a couple few characters. Some aspects of the film have become quaint — the whole concept of a “shock jock” has been superseded by media twisted into propaganda by authoritarianism — which takes a little sting out of the proceedings. It’s still an excellent film.

Denmark:

What We Become (or Sorgenfri)

Many of these movies — at least before they are translated into English — have locations in their titles, like the aforementioned Train to Busan. The Danish zombie film Sorgenfri — named after a Copenhagen suburb — was retitled in English What We Become. Sorgenfri means “free of sorrow”, in an almost obnoxious irony, but we will give writers some latitude to be obnoxious when place names are this on-the-nose. I fully expect places like Minneapolis suburb Eden Prairie to become hellish pit stops on the way to apocalypse because come on.

Anyway, What We Become makes full use of its suburban locale, which I don’t necessarily see all that often, Dawn of the Dead notwithstanding. There’s some hot-neighbor-next-door, community-cookout action before the infection locks the suburb down. Each McMansion is swathed with plastic, (almost like in the quick-and-dirty Spanish film series [rec] — more on this later), and if they try to push back against the impersonal authorities in their gas masks and machine guns, quick and brutal violence ensues. If this was an American film, I’d accuse it of 2A essentialism: we need guns to fight teh gumment!!!! But … it’s Danish, so that can’t be what it’s about. Or … not entirely anyway.

Much as Americans like to paint Denmark as some sort of socialist utopia (and don’t get me wrong: America’s fucked), there’s the same cultural, social, and economic stresses like any other part of the EU. I have Danish cousins, and the amount of chauvinism I’ve seen expressed about, say, Turkish immigrants is notable. And that’s not even getting into what they say about straight up Muslims, Turks or no. What We Become taps into a very (white) middle class, very (white) suburban fear of intrusion by the other, and also the fear that the other is already there, hidden within. These kind of insular communities are always predicated on fear: on the other, on themselves — what have you got, I’m afraid of it. In Night of the Living Dead, Romero murdered what should be the romantic survivors, in addition to the nuclear family. What We Become lets some of its characters survive, but only after putting you through some brutal familial self-annihilation.

France:

The Horde (or La Horde)

When I first saw The Horde not much after its 2010 release date, I thought to myself, there is going to be a real and bloody reckoning in France about how the treatment of France’s immigrant population. I knew just a very little about the French attempts to legislate the bodies of Muslim women — for their own good, natch — and it was years before the Charlie Hebdo shootings. But the bloody spectacle on display in The Horde was enough to make me prognosticate doom. Pulp fiction tends to tap into the societal hindbrain, and The Horde was doing that in the goriest, most bloody way possible.

The Horde follows a group of corrupt French police on a vendetta into what reads to me like the projects — low income housing that warehouses the poor and undesirable (same/same). There’s some back story about some drug dealer or whatever killing a cop, but none of this really matters. The fight is between two rival gangs, one of which wears badges and speaks “good French”, and the other have accents and dark skin. There’s a racist old codger (I think maybe even a veteran, but it’s been a while) and a couple other residents to round out the group. The combatants end up trapped in a old apartment building while the horde presses against doors and windows. And of course, several end up bitten, turning at the worst possible moment.

The Horde‘s zombies are faster than Romero zombies, and often a lot fresher, the blood still red and the zombie vigorously intact. As we approach the endgame, one of the cops is given a lovingly detailed last stand, and even more intimate horrific death: standing on the top of a car in a basement parking lot, he shoots and hacks until he’s overwhelmed by hundreds of zombies, and boy howdy do they not pan away. I know this was shot later, but the framing of this sequence reminds me of the season three ender of Game of Thrones, which found Daenerys Targaryen crowd-surfing a horde of anonymous browns. It’s notable to me that the image of a white lady receiving adoration for liberating brown people and a white guy heroically hacking at a mob until he’s overwhelmed are shot virtually identically. I’m sure something like The Pedagogy of the Oppressed has something to say about this, but it’s been some years since my theory-reading days.

The Night Eats the World (or La nuit a dévoré le monde)

The Night Eats the World begins with a musician dude, Sam, coming to his ex-girlfriend’s flat to retrieve some cassette tapes he left after the breakup. The sequence at the party with its byplay and character development between the people marked as protagonist and the inevitably disposable partygoers reminds me of the opening to Cloverfield (and, weirdly, the Netflix series Russian Doll.) Sam crashes out; when he awakes, there’s blood on the walls and everyone is either gone or a zombie.

The Night Eats the World is light on zombie kill thrills, if you’re into that sort of thing, much more focused on Sam’s solitary existence and worsening metal state as he holes up in his ex-girlfriend’s for months. The film manages to find some unexplored corners in the zombie apocalypse: this portrait of fearful loneliness in a teeming city. When I first saw The Night Eats the World, I have to say it didn’t affect me much. My enjoyment was largely intellectual: oh, huh, this is almost a silent film; who even does that? But almost two weeks into my family deciding to shelter in place, the detailing of Sam’s mental state as he rattles around the same couple hundred square feet and considers the death just outside the door: well, this is suddenly, horribly relevant.

Germany:

Rammbock: Berlin Undead

Like The Night Eats the World, Rammbock opens with a dude going to his ex’s apartment to transfer some stuff, and also maybe sorta to rekindle their relationship. She’s not there, but two plumbers are; when a zombie outbreak overtakes the neighborhood, ex-boyfriend and the plumber’s apprentice ride out the zombie apocalypse in the apartment. With other monsters, writers can get a little schematic. This is especially true with vampires. You often see complex list of rules about what a vampire can and cannot do, and then, of course, inevitably how to break those rules. (The most recent Dracula limited series, first from the BBC and now on Netflix, exemplifies this sort of thing.)

Zombies, though, they don’t tend to go this way. The rules are simple: a person dies, they reanimate, then they hunger for the flesh of the living. Oh, I suppose there are some other conditions that may or may not come to bear: does killing the brain kill the zombie? are we all infected or is it contagious through a bite? fast or slow? But these are more set-dressing than, like, necessary for the storytelling. Rammbock‘s zombies, by contrast, are photosensitive, a detail it takes the principles some time to work out. Then when they do, they work towards exploiting this detail in order to save their own lives. Rammock is, again, maybe not the most exciting zombie film ever made, but the location, relationships, and the weird taxonomy of zombies make it worthwhile.

Spain:

[REC]

This scrappy Spanish found footage horror film was so successful it spawned a movie series and an English language remake (which was retitled as Quarantine.) (The Spanish series has diminishing returns: the second relocates to an airport, which is fine, while the third goes eschatological in a way I did not appreciate at all. Oh, and there’s apparently a fourth I never saw, REC 3: Apocalypse which is by the filmmaker of the first two, but not the third, which is promising. ) REC follows a Bridget Jonesy reporter on a ridealong with some firefighters. They head out to a call in an old apartment building with six or eight units. One of the residents has gone murderously feral; they contain her, but not before one of their number is bit; when they panic-run to the exit it turns out the building’s on some sort of horrible lockdown.

The film ends up being a locked room horror show as various people get infected and infect others. There’s also apparently a plot where it turns out the authorities are evil, but who even cares. It’s obvious they were evil when they locked an entire apartment in to die. Again, this film had certain meanings back when I watched it whenever, but in the middle of a global pandemic, things read a little differently. The willingness to sacrifice first responders stands out, as does the bickering in the doomed apartment building about the motives of those that locked them in. That the outbreak is legible, with known origins and therefore, potentially, a cure is another fun aspect of fiction. It turns out that real life is much more bleak, which is saying something, given the end of REC.

Japan:

One Cut of the Dead

Frankly, One Cut of the Dead is the best godamn zombedy produced since Shaun of the Dead, and in some ways it exceeds Edgar Wright’s most excellent film. Filmed on a budget of $25,000 (JFC), the film relies on what could be a gimmick, but ends up being just a beautifully written script. The first half hour or so of the movie is one continuous take, telling the story of a low budget zombie movie lorded over by a tyrannical director which is then attacked by real zombies. (Not dissimilar in setup to Romero’s 5th outing into his formative zombieverse, Diary of the Dead, but that reads pretty Boomer-y these days.) After this impressive feat of film-making is a crazy bananas twist that had me all-capsing to my viewing partner, the indomitable sj, for at least the next half hour. It’s just … the whole thing is so well done it makes me tear up a little.

The trouble with talking about One Cut of the Dead is the several spoilers in serial that happen in the second act. All that aside, I can say that the shifts in tone in One Cut are masterful, running from comedy to terror and back again without even a blink.

Go Large or Go Home: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness was a real oddity to me, because it felt like that class of Gothic fiction that attempts to take things seriously — like, the scholarship was spot on, as was the description of academic research, historical detail, and just general academic jockeying — but then the serious tone slips to the soporific and everyone falls asleep. This book is crazy boring. Gothic fiction tends to have a lot of blood and violence in it — both metaphoric and literal. Wuthering Heights is a fucking bloodbath, an absolute hatecast where very few make it out alive. I mean, sure, Cathy and Heathcliff are terrible people, but hot damn are they fun to watch. If they weren’t terrible people there wouldn’t be any heat and there wouldn’t be a story. High passions are the bloody engine; this is Romanticism run feral.

So when the writers of modern Gothics try to make everyone sensible and reasonable, I wonder what the point it. People have to be a little touched just to get the juices flowing. Stephenie Meyer, in New Moon, tried to make everyone a good person, which would have been boring, but it turns out her sense of what makes a person worthy is so completely bonkers that the book still kind of works as a Gothic. Edward, Bella, and Jacob are all terrible people, so the hatecast can work its Gothic magic. The Demon Lover by Juliet Dark strives for a sensible, measured tone and its characters mostly don’t act like twats, but two things keep The Demon Lover from being a snoozer like A Discovery of Witches: There is a real current of high emotions, even if the prose is measured, and the metafictional elements make the narrative satisfying on a different register. A monster yoga class is most bananas thing in A Discovery of Witches, but it mostly reads as silly and incongruous, not the Gothic kind of bonkers. Mostly people sit around, read, and drink absolutely prodigious amounts of wine.

But A Discovery of Witches? Yawn. The lead, Diana is the scion of two seriously important magical families, but she won’t use her magic because reasons that make almost no sense. I can see, given her childhood, why she might reject her witchy powers. Her parents died young under cloudy/tragic circumstances, and she was raised by fun witchy aunts after their deaths. I can imagine a psychological mechanism by which she rejects her parents’ origins because she believes that this got them killed or some other pop psych nonsense. But that is not her professed motivation. Instead, she wants to succeed in academia on her “own merits,” question mark? Which, isn’t magical ability one of her own merits? She’d regularly prissy and condescending to her aunties about their magic. I grew right tired of how helpless she was, and how she was simultaneously a big deal Chosen One type. Her love interest is a fancy vampire tosser, and their courtship is spent talking about antiques. When they confessed their love for one another, I was like, did I miss something? You’re in love with each other after having a not very interesting sounding dinner? Which is not something I should ever be saying reading a Gothic; go large or go home.

I’ve seen a lot of people dismiss this novel as “like Twilight” or “just a romance”, but I think that might be both wrong and kinda sexist. Twilight, for all its stabs towards real world resonance, is absolutely fucking bonkers. You may have trouble getting through the prose, but the book fairly teems with Bella’s anxieties and passions and emotions. While Diana shares Bella’s almost sneering condescension to everyone around her — Bella doesn’t like anyone — she doesn’t share Bella’s high emotions, or, dare I say it, clumsiness? Meyer’s over-reliance on Bella’s propensity to the faceplant as a meaningful character trait is sloppy and ridiculous, of course, but it does gesture to the ways her relationship with Edward disorders her world. Diana is prim and priggish through the entirely of her interactions with the supernatural. There is precious little fascination; mostly magic is a pain in her ass. And as I’ve said before, her relationship with vamp dude is based on so much Tory smugness that it completely lacks juice. Most romance novels I’ve read, even the boring ones, do a better job of stoking the heat. If someone slags A Discovery of Witches as “just a romance”, that pretty much tells me all I need to know about their understanding of both Gothic and romance novels.

Anyway, I don’t want to put the knives in too hard. I think the exercise of trying to make rational grownup type characters plot their way through genres that tend to fall more on the Romance end (by which I mean in the Nathanial Hawthorne sense, not like modern romance novels, exactly) is an interesting one, but this outing is not a success. I don’t particularly like Diana — she’s a unappealing mixture of conceited and useless — but I get the distinct impression I’m supposed to. Frankly, if this were written in such a manner that we were expected to laugh at her self-satisfied bullshit instead of cheering it on, A Discovery of Witches would be aces.

Review: The Chemist by Stephenie Meyer

Recently, a friend brought to my attention an article about Chris Paolini’s upcoming foray into science fiction space opera — which is code-named “TSiaSoS” ( or “The Something in a Something of Something”) — so that we could be assholes about it. I’ve said this before, but: I actively enjoyed Eragon as a sort of gleeful homage slash Frankenstein’s monster of formative fantasy literature. There’s lots of Tolkien, some Dragonflight by McCaffrey, even some elements of Star Wars (which is totally science fantasy; don’t @ me.) But the later books in the series just get worse and worse as he begins to believe his own hype. I couldn’t even make it to book four because three was such an interminable Mordorian slog. Anyway, one of my friends pointed out that it’s been nine long years since Paolini last published a novel — though there was a collection of short fiction — and that historically writers known for one thing trying to cross over into another genre after a long publishing lacuna tend to fare poorly. “Remember Stephenie Meyer’s spy thriller?” He asked.

I was like, record scratch what the fuck, no I hadn’t.

Turns out, in 2016, Meyer published a novel called The Chemist. It had been eight years since both The Host and Breaking Dawn were published. I can only speculate about how well The Chemist did: The article about a screen adaption says it sold 1 million copies, which is a whole fucktonne of books. But the article also mentions that the Twilight Saga sold 100 million copies, which is literally two orders of magnitude more (pop pop!). The Host, published concurrent with Breaking Dawn, which includes an alien parasite love triangle (square, really) sold something like 6.5 million copies. So The Chemist is no kind of dismal failure, but it also hasn’t enjoyed anything like the sales of either Twilight or Twilight‘s not as successful followup. And it’s being worked for a screen adaption.

Long story short: I had to read it.

Juliana/Alex used to work for an evil government agency which is so evil it doesn’t even have a name, but which is CIA-adjacent. She worked as a torturer, wringing confessions and information out of people using pharmaceuticals: inject something to cause agonizing pain, and then question them after the effects wear off. Something like three years before the start of the novel, the department decided to liquidate Alex and her mentor, and she’s been on the run ever since. The department catches up with her; they say they want her to come in from the cold; due to a series of bad choices she ends up kidnapping and torturing a DC school teacher. Mid-torture session, his twin brother literally parachutes in with his attack dog. After a squabble which gives Alex the upper hand, she and the twin brother come to the realization that they have been set up to kill each other, because they are both loose ends.

On a sentence level, Meyer has decidedly improved as a writer. There isn’t the same embarrassment of adverbs or awkward phrasings. Her writing has smoothed into the kind of prose that you don’t notice while you’re reading, which I think is appropriate for this sort of hacky popular fiction. (I know I’m treading dangerously close to the aphorism “If you like this sort of thing, then this will be the sort of thing you like”, but I don’t mean this observation about prose style to be some sort of snide aside. One thing I appreciate about Meyer is that she seems earnestly dedicated to the craft.) Meyer has always been better at detailing the interpersonal than she has been at action sequences, and that still holds in The Chemist. As a spy thriller, which lives and dies by its action sequences, this is something of a problem. The only action sequence I thought worked was the one with the dogs at the ranch house, and then only in places. Otherwise, the pacing is almost always off, as Meyer lingers on details that aren’t important, while hand-waving things that, on a tactile, physical level make no sense.

For example: While Alex is busy torturing the schoolteacher, she hears a plane buzz overhead and then crash in the distance. This is after a truly interminable sequence wherein she roofies and then abducts said schoolteacher from DC out into, like, the Pennsylvania wilderness or somesuch. I can’t stress enough how long the abduction sequence was, even though it was probably only pages. When evil twin brother appears, he has a preternaturally trained attack dog with him. He explains that he had to bail out of the plane and let it crash because there was no nearby landing strip, and he needed to get to his bro toot sweet. So, real talk, how did the dog get out of the plane with him? Did the dog have a dog parachute, with a ripcord it pulled like one of the Golden Plump chickens in those weird commercials in the 80s? Or did he have a Dog Bjorn so that a 80 lb German shepherd was somehow affixed to his body? How much weight can the average parachute handle? Given that evil twin is an absolute unit of a guy, over 6 feet tall, add a bigass dog, just, is this even physically possible? Even the most plausible answers are silly as hell. This is bad writing.

But I really want to go back and examine Alex’s background as a torturer. She does a tiny little bit of hand-wringing about her torture talents when she discovers that she’s tortured an innocent man. Like, that has never happened before zomg? Heretofore, all of the subjects she’s tortured (for a shadowy government agency that has spent three years trying to murder her after successfully liquidating her mentor while at work) have been absolute, easily discernible bad guys. (Sure, Jan.) Moreover, she has a 100% success rate in getting them to divulge meaningful intel through her pharmaceutical torture. She regularly leans in to the fact that her torture methods — which are pharmacological — do not leave marks, which is so much more civilized that lopping off toes or whatever. Apparently it doesn’t count as torture if you don’t leave marks.

Absolutely all of this grade A red state hogwash. Torture is torture is torture.

Subjecting detained people to pain is immoral, whether you leave marks or not. It is evil to torture people. Torture violates both domestic law and the Geneva Convention. Waterboarding doesn’t leave a mark. The mob knew ages ago how not to leave bruises — a phone book or a bag or oranges will do the trick. And it’s been absolutely fastidiously documented that torture doesn’t result in meaningful intelligence: people will literally say anything to make the pain stop. That Alex uses chemicals to perpetrate pain on her subjects does not absolve her of this evil. I feel like I do when I encounter anti-vaxxers: not only do vaccines not cause autism, but even if they did, there is nothing fucking wrong with autistic people; stop acting like autism is worse than death. Torture will not give you meaningful intel, but even if it did, it’s still a grave and mortal sin; stop acting like torture can be excused.

It’s completely wild to read a book with a main character who engages in actual, legit war crimes, doesn’t feel bad about this, and is treated like a sympathetic character. She even has a stilted, embarrassing romance with the innocent man she tortured, because why the fuck not? He begins excusing her treatment of him while still tied naked to a steel slab, mid-rescue by his brother. She didn’t mean to torture me lol, it was just an honest mistake! What a meet-cute! Just, blah, I don’t even know how to deal with this.

So. I’m here at the wrapping up stage of this here book report, and I’m not sure where to go with this. I’ve often felt fondly toward Stephenie Meyer because I can appreciate the way she writes from her hind-brain in the Twilight Saga: Yes, of course, all of that imprinting business is bananas and the religious overlay completely twisted, but it felt honestly, individually fucked up in a way that occasionally resonated. I’ve said this before, but the birthing sequence in Breaking Dawn is the most horrifically bonkers thing I’ve read about childbirth, and I have a stunned admiration for what it must have taken to put that to paper. Sweet Jesus, woman, yikes. Meyer, in The Chemist, is writing in a genre she has real affection for, but it doesn’t tap her subcutaneous instincts, which are, for better or for worse, her greatest strengths as a writer.

The Chemist doesn’t feel like a hind-brain fiction; it feels calculated and planned. It is ultimately a bloodless iteration of bloody events. Meyer even lampshades this in the beginning, when Alex goes to the library to check out slash steal pop fiction spy thriller books. Yes, it’s all fictional, the torturer heroine thinks, but maybe there’s something clever I can learn. This is clumsy metafiction: hey I’m writing a book that acknowledges the books used as antecedent. But ultimately Meyer doesn’t have any skin in the game — not like she did in the Twilight Saga anyway — and it shows. She may have improved her prose, but she hasn’t improved her writing.

Review: Roar of Sky by Beth Cato

Beth Cato’s Blood of Earth trilogy – which began with Breath of Earth, continued with Call of Fire, and now completes with Roar of Sky – has been an incredibly active and peripatetic series. While Roar of Sky does cover at least as much ground as its predecessors – our heroine Ingrid, her lover Cy, and their friend and pilot Fenris move from Hawaii to California to Arizona and several points between – there’s something almost internal about the movement, contemplative and personal. After the pyrotechnics (almost literally) of the climax of Call of Fire, Ingrid is bruised and hurt, seeking answers to deeper questions of who she is and where she came from. Even as she seeks answers to her origins, she struggles with limited mobility and persistent pain from her last encounter with the antagonist, Ambassador Blum, physical disabilities that may likely be permanent. She is coming to terms with her origins, even as she learns – painstakingly, painfully – how to go forward.

We first met Ingrid Carmichael in the weeks leading up to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which leveled 80% of the city and still ranks as the largest loss of life from a natural disaster in California’s history (in both our timeline and hers). But while the earthquake may the same, the California it takes place in is profoundly different. The United States and Japan have merged into a larger empire called the United Pacific, and have since waged war on China. As a nation at war, the Unified Pacific is in the grips of dangerous xenophobia against anyone who isn’t Japanese or white American (but especially against Chinese-Americans). As the dark-skinned daughter of a prominent geomancer, Ingrid is both insulated from public animus, and deep in the heart of a system that devalues and judges her. Because Ingrid has a secret: she is a geomancer too.

Which brings me to another key difference between Ingrid’s world and our own history: geomancy, Reiki, kitsune, qilin, sylphs, and all manner of mythical powers and strange creatures exist in world of the Unified Pacific. Ingrid’s closest relationship is with geomancy, a sensitivity and mastery over the seismic power of the earth. This power can be siphoned off by geomancers and locked into crystals, which are then used like batteries to power everything from lightbulbs to dirigibles. This is not just an alternate history, but an alternate reality. Women are not supposed to be able to work geomancy, so when Ingrid’s powers of geomancy manifest during the earthquake, it thrusts her into dangerous geopolitics (pun absolutely intended.)

Roar of Sky begins in Hawaii, where Ingrid, Cy, and Fenris have fled after their confrontation with the kitsune (a fox deity, of sorts) who is living as a high-ranking official in the United Pacific, and absolutely dedicated to the destruction of all Chinese people – both in America and Asia. Ingrid was told by her father that she has a familial relationship with the Hawaiian goddess Pele, so she braves the active geology of the Hawaiian islands (as a geomancer, this kind of seismic activity can be deadly) in order to find out more about her kin. Ingrid is wheelchair bound at times, her nervous system burned out by the overflow of magic she used to protect herself from the kitsune previously. Ingrid’s visit to the crater of Kilauea is tactile and detailed, with the kind of description that feels lived in. She thrills at her feelings of connection with the landscape, even while acknowledging she will never quite be Hawaiian, even if it is her family’s heritage.

Her interactions with Madame Pele are even more interesting. I’ve seen a lot of characters damaged by magic, like Ingrid, who then drag around for a while until they are magically healed. Magic takes, then it gives back. But that is not what happens for Ingrid, even while she treats with goddesses, qilin, and other forces of nature. Ingrid’s legs are permanently damaged, and no amount of narrative convenience or wishful thinking will heal them. Cy and Fenris work tirelessly to fit her with braces and other helpful apparatuses, but even those that work force Ingrid to adjust to her new physical limitations. Never have stockings been more annoying. In a real way, Ingrid is learning to walk again, even as she’s in a flight, and then fight, for her life and those she loves.

As Ingrid, Cy, and Fenris move through the United Pacific, they encounter and re-encounter people who are pivotal to both their pasts and their futures – everyone from Theodore Roosevelt (recast as ambassador in this reality) to Ingrid and Cy’s fathers, mentors, sisters, and friends. Ingrid has always been a likable character, though her naivete occasionally rankled. That naivete has been dampened by the real limitations she’s encountered, though it never quite goes away entirely. (Ingrid, after all, has been somewhat sheltered.) That naivete – which some would call optimism – is her weakness and her strength, and both are put on full display in Roar of Sky. Roar of Sky is as much the story of empire as it is of one woman, and her journey both within and without.

Review: Novice Dragoneer by E.E. Knight

E. E. Knight returns with Novice Dragoneer, which promises to be the beginning of a rich fantasy series. We first meet Ileth on the doorstop of the Serpentine Academy, where people train to become the companions of dragons. She’s arrived just moments after the gate was barred, but before the end of the day when anyone can apply to the academy. Due to a childhood interaction with a dragoneer, Ileth has been working toward admission to the Serpentine for years, going so far as to run away from her precarious situation in the north. She has nowhere to return to; she has bet everything on admission. And they still don’t let her in. She waits for long days on that doorstop, watching with anticipation as those better connected and more noble than she pass through the gate. At long last, and due to her indefatigable mettle, she’s admitted into the Serpentine Academy.

The focus of the novel is tight on Ileth and her concerns, so we only begin to understand the larger politics at play though glancing and offhand interactions. She’s given the unenviable job of fishmonger at first, under the thumb of a failed novice who has built something of a fiefdom out of cruel treatment. He’s largely the regular kind of self-important jerk, but he’s also glad to heap misogynist punishment on any woman who has the bad fortune to fall under his aegis. Due to a sequence of bad events, Ileth and this fishmonger manager end up in a duel. She wins not due to native or acquired skill, but because he’s bad faith personified, breaking rules that he feels justified breaking because he’s never been taken to task heretofore.

He’s run off in a manner that promises his return eventually, and Ileth is shuffled off to a group of dancer novices. This section of the novel was itchy to me just on principles, even while I enjoyed the intimate nature of Ileth’s relationships during this period. Ileth moves from the girls’ dorm, which is ruled over by an Aunt Lydia sort of person, to a group who dances both for the dragons and for politically important people in the Vale Republic. It’s the kind of group who is, impossibly, both treated like a bunch of whores, and feted everywhere they go. I think the idea of sweaty, dancing women acting as a kind of soporific for dragons is ultimately weird, positioning dragons as a sort of male gaze, even while there is much exclamation to the fact that that’s not the case. This isn’t lingered on too much, which is good, because I could rapidly become both bored and angry with this idea.

But despite this shaky world-building, Ileth’s time in the dancer corps is the most intimately rendered part of the novel. Up until Ileth’s placement with the dancers, dragons were largely theoretical. They are always pulling on the fortunes of those in the academy, even as they remain largely off-screen; here we meet one face to face. They are like gravitational bodies mostly inferred through effect. But when Ileth is assigned a duty way down in the bottom of the keep to dance for an ailing dragon, that’s when the real magic of the novel starts.

Her relationship with the ailing dragon is like her relationship with the Serpentine in miniature. Her great strength is in watchful waiting, which she then turns into resourceful action. She spends much time simply observing the somnolent dragon, then carefully, carefully, begins to work on his behalf. She equally carefully observes the indifferent guards who round out the slim cadre of people on that level, and, like in her work as a fishmonger, divines a corrupt purpose to those who are supposed to care for the ailing dragon. Her conversations with the dragon are some of the more heartfelt of any in Novice Dragoneer, the sly imparting of wisdom from one just about run down but nonetheless full of history, to an ambitious, dedicated, but ultimately naive child on her way to matriculation.

Novice Dragoneer doesn’t so much end as middle. It decidedly has the feel of a novel that is to be a first in a series, laying out the world in a deft but sometimes withholding hand. The tight focus on Ileth’s concerns both gives and takes away, though ultimately I think it’s a good choice. The concept of world-building is one of those contested things, but I find myself much more drawn to fictions that hew to a character’s specific point of view over some scatterdash high level “As you know, Bob” way of building a universe. So not everything worked for me in Novice Dragoneer, but its main character did, completely and emphatically. She was a still and moving point in a complicated world, embodying the paradox of a young person on the edge of matriculation.

I received my copy from Netgalley.com