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.) 

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.

How to Find a Princess by Alyssa Cole

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

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

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

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

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

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

I received my copy from Netgalley.

Review: Wild Sign by Patricia Briggs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strange Nostalgia: The Queening of Ceridwen

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


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

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

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

And my all time favorite:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Big Bad Wolf by Suleikha Snyder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Spec Ops Z by Gavin G. Smith

I feel like every time I turn around, some nickel-plated idiot announces that the zombie genre is dead, har har. And while I don’t have a lot of time for this notion, I will grudgingly admit that we’re definitely out of the flurry of excellent zombie narratives that were published about a decade ago. Every time has its monster, and I think the zombie in the Obama years largely stood in for some pretty nasty undemocratic and racist stuff seething under the surface. I want to be clear that when I say this, I am not smearing all zombie narratives of this time period as right wing agitprop or whatever — that would be stupid and reductive.

But there are also certain inescapable through-lines to this era of zombie narrative. So many zombie narratives of the early 21st century position a white dude, often with a military or police background, and his capacity for targeted violence as the savior of domesticity and the world. World War Z (movie version), Walking Dead (both versions), Zombieland, etc. (Zombieland especially hasn’t held up so great: the character Cleveland, played by Mark Zuckerberg, ends up reading as an incel, and his murder of his hot neighbor after describing what a bitch she is for not noticing him is, as the saying goes, problematic.) It’s the old line: “You’ll be begging me to use my guns when the mob comes,” where the mob is generally coded as not-white, not-us, the ultimate dehumanized them.

Obviously, there are a lot of zombie narratives from this period which invert or subvert this trope. Take something like 28 Days Later, which turns the white military savior into anything but, the Mister Kurtz of his own sterile fiefdom. But 28 Days Later, no matter what it does with the trope, is still in dialogue with it. It’s just kind of baked into the premise: a small group end up having to organize their society balancing individual autonomy with group safety, in the most extreme environment possible. This era of the zombie narrative tended to pit the Spartan encampment against the Athenian mob, and violent expedience was the name of the game.

Since Trump’s election, Brexit, and most certainly since the Time of Covid, these tropes have become confused and messy, the coherence of the metaphor rotten. It’s just not mapping right anymore. Observe this, from a viral photo of Covid-deniers storming the Michigan capitol:

[Image description: A photo taken from inside a building looking out through windows. Several people press against the glass, most with their mouths open mid-shout. American flags, a red Trump hat, and the Guy Fawkes mask are visible. The image is captioned “World War Q”.]

Here we have a mob ostensibly fighting for personal freedom. The party of law and order tacitly condones the attack on the capitol and the murder of a policeman, if not explicitly. Authoritarianism rides to power on populism. This is ultimately what many zombie novels were presaging, but we’ve lost our taste for the fictional meat of it. I don’t know what the next monster will be, but zombies aren’t quite the zeitgeist anymore.

Which brings me rather long-windedly to Spec Ops Z by Gavin G. Smith. When I came across it in the Netgalley catalog, it struck me how long it’s been since I read a zombie novel. I think probably the last was Last Ones Left Alive, a musing, elegiac novel set in Ireland. (Oh, I also reread World War Z at the beginning of the pandemic, and that book was so accurate in its depiction of the societal and governmental responses to a global pandemic it ended up kind of hurting my feelings. ‘Sure didn’t get a laugh out of it like when I re-watched Contagion, boy howdy. ) I’ve been watching tons of zombie movies still — their low budgets all but ensure zombie movies will be cranked out forever — but the publication of zombie novels seems to be thinning.

It’s clear from the description that Spec Ops Z is more on the hardware nerd side, a kind of military sf that’s constructed like WW2 band of brothers movies starring John Wayne. In the interests of full disclosure, this isn’t particularly my bag, but I can be up for a bit of rowdy. True to form, Spec Ops Z is fast paced — except for a beginning which drags — and includes the kind of mayhem and gore I prefer in my zombie smash and grabs. The action isn’t always clearly blocked, but mostly it’s credible. Maybe most importantly, Smith doesn’t slip into pretentious philosophizing about the Nature of Man and Probably Evil Too, something I tend to find in these soldierly stories.

Spec Ops Z follows a group of Soviet Spetsnaz commandos from their posting in Afghanistan to a secret mission in NYC. It’s set in 1989 (if I remember correctly), when the Soviets were in the Afghani quagmire, not the US. (The Soviet-Afghan conflict is often called the Soviet Union’s Vietnam War, fwiw.) The members of the team all have pilot-style nicknames — Gulag, Mongol, Princess, etc — which I found somewhat precious: they were all walking around labeled with their single character trait. I couldn’t decide if this was lazy or brilliant, because it’s not like I’m reading this sort of thing for the articles, and I didn’t have to try to keep straight a dozen people with similar-sounding Russian names and patronymics. I’m leaning toward brilliant.

I was perked up at this beginning part because I actually was in the USSR in 1991, just a few months before the August coup attempt which lead to Yeltsin’s rise. Spec Ops Z appears to be a mild alt-history, in that a hard line KGB guy has deposed the reformist Gorbachev in the very recent past of the novel. As a consequence, relations are much shittier with the rest of the world. (Like, I kind of can’t imagine what might have happened if they had a hard-liner in when Reagan delivered his evil empire Star Wars nonsense. They were apparently pretty close to first striking us at that point as it was.)

The Spetsnaz team are pulled from combat in Afghanistan and sent on a secret-even-to-them mission to NY, where they set off a bioagent in Grand Central Station, one that turns everyone into zombies. Most of the team are killed, but miraculously reanimate with their reasoning intact, though the gnawing hunger to savage the living is always present. The pov character theorizes that this is because they’re all so hardened and have such great discipline and iron will from being Spetznaz soldiers. This I thought was the kind of self-aggrandizing BS a commando unit would tell themselves, so didn’t credit it overmuch. Unfortunately, later, when another character reanimates, it’s made clear this is the actual in-world reason, which, whoo boy.

The Spetsnaz are pretty pissed they ended up unwittingly bringing about the end of the world — the US retaliated with nukes, so there’s that to worry about too — and decide to go back to the USSR and revenge murder all the people involved, if they are not already shambling corpses. From then on it’s set pieces — through NY, onto a ship, etc — and largely what one expects from this sort of thing. What I really want to talk about happens in the last quarter of the novel, and therefore constitutes a spoiler according to most people. Fair warned.

SPOILERS BELOW

Like seriously I’m not kidding.

Not even a little.

When the Spetsnaz arrive in England, they come across a bunch of people dressed in Nazi uniforms. This is seriously fucking upsetting for most of the team — the leader grew up in Stalingrad during the Siege (which was fucking horrible), and others had their brushes with Nazis. It’s sometimes hard to remember now, but the USSR, the UK, and the US were all on the same side of WWII; what the hell are Nazis doing on British soil?

Turns out, these Nazis are a bunch of reenactors who started cosplaying a little too hard once the zombie apocalypse happened. They’ve set up their own little Reich in Zombieton-on-Wye, complete with a Joy Division (not just a band name) and cage matches between brown people and zombies. (I am completely tired by the zombie cage match trope, but it’s not lingered on overmuch, more’s the better.) (Also, I was fully expecting to have to grit my way through some sadistically detailed description of sexual assault, but Smith doesn’t go there, to his credit.)

I don’t think such a thing could happen in England in 1989, the scars of the War being what they were. Maybe in the States where we didn’t have to deal with the Blitz and … all the rest of it. But I legitimately don’t mean to nitpick plausibility here. For one, it’s a book about physics-defying cannibal corpses; I think I can allow a little latitude in the British national character. (Which, also, I’m not British, so.) This book was not written by someone living in 1989, and it is not being read by people in 1989 (barring time travel or whatnot.) Not even a month ago, Americans wearing the signs and emblems of both Nazis and Confederates stormed the capitol of the United States of America. Seeing Nazi cosplayers pop up in zombie fiction is pretty relevant to our times, considerably moreso when you consider that the Russians unleashed the zombie plague in both the US and UK in the book. What is zombiism but the ultimate DDOS attack?

I have occasionally been accused of overthinking pulp fiction, and it’s possible that’s what I’m doing here. However, I get the impression that Smith is really not messing around with his historical research. Much of it was spent being a total nerd about 1980s era Soviet & American weaponry — the firearms and armaments all lovingly described and detailed — but for sure he also has a detailed alt-history of the USSR. He goes so far as to name the hard-liner in charge of the country, and I suspect if my Soviet history were better, I could point to when exactly the timeline diverges. So I’ll assume Smith isn’t just writing pulp nonsense with no meaning, themes, or goals. It’s set when it is, with these specific people as protagonist, for a reason.

Given that this is a retitled reprint of a novel first published in 2017, there’s no way it’s directly addressing the Capitol Insurrection, but the rise of militant white supremacy has very much been a thing in this here age of Trumpism. But because of its placement at the very end of the novel, and the relative ease by which the ersatz Nazis are dispatched, I do kind of wonder what that sequence is trying to say. The Soviets riding in to save the British (and their America captives) from both the zombie plague they themselves unleashed AND white supremacy is also a little odd, and I’m not sure what to make of it.

I started this essay blathering about how zombies fit into a certain Obama-era ethos — before Brexit, before Trump — both anticipating and, in some cases, justifying both Trumpism and the Brexiteers. Just cut the bridges and retreat to your island in order to keep the shambling horde from overrunning those who really matter. I think Spec Ops Z ends up kinda perfectly encapsulating the ambivalent and shifting sense of meaning in zombie tropes in an America where violent white supremacy is ascendant. I’m not sure what exactly to take out of Spec Ops Z, but that could be said about every single aspect of my life at the moment: we’re all groping our ways forward.

So. An enjoyable novel with enough gory set pieces to keep me reading, and also deliberate enough to allow me to sharpen some of my favorite pet theories on it. Класс.

I got my copy from Netgalley. Spec Ops Z goes on sale February 2.

An Incomplete List of Zombie Television Series I Have Enjoyed.

8 Zombie Series Worth a Looksee

Note: I wrote and published this a while ago — September to be exact — but due to some shenanigans involving backups or something, several posts were lost, in addition to all pictures on the site. So that’s a bummer. But that’s why this might seem familiar.

A couple few months back I wrote a thing about the oddball zombie movies I have have enjoyed, which got me thinking about zombie television series. There were a bunch of things I wanted to include, but they weren’t movies, and I didn’t want the list to burgeon too much. So here I am now with all the zombie series that I half-wanted to include but couldn’t!

Like the movie list, the series included hail from all over the globe. I’ve deliberately excluded well known network/cable stuff like iZombie or The Walking Dead. This is my rodeo and I will do what I want, but more importantly, I’m talking about the oddballs that maybe the average non-zombie-obsessed freak might be interested in.

Canada

Black Summer

I went back and forth about this one, because as a spin-off of sorts, maybe I should include its source material, Z-Nation. Z-Nation is an avowedly z-punk take on the zombie apocalypse, both pulpy and melodramatic in turns. Its old school Dr Who-style micro-budget forced its writers and designers into bottle episodes and off-camera horrors in ways I thought enhanced the series, but then its whole aesthetic was so deliberately goofy that who even knows. Black Summer has a similar low-budget shitty-digital-video feel, but it’s not really campy at all. You wouldn’t find, say, a z-nado, a zom-baby, or zombie strippers like you do in Z-Nation. This is hardcore First Night storytelling, staged in those first weeks when the dead begin to rise.

Z-Nation never exactly stressed me out because its environment was too fictional, if you’ll excuse my vagueness, but Black Summer did, and often. The series opens with a nuclear family packing up to run. There are sirens in the distance, and as they make their way through suburbia, people pour out of their tick-tack McMansions into the street like a river. They come to a military checkpoint, the daughter is loaded onto a transport vehicle, and the father is discovered to be bitten and ejected. The mother follows the father back into the neighborhood as her child is removed, screaming, in the custody of the military. There are other plotlines too — a Black man in the custody of the police; a deaf man and a Korean woman; even a zombie who reanimates in the street.

The thing that makes Black Summer so arresting is how suburban everything is, how normal, in the pejorative sense of the word. The world Black Summer inhabits hasn’t been broken down and overrun. The lights still work and the windows are unbroken. The automatic doors at the grocery slide open when you walk towards them. The opening episodes have Roshoman-style overlapping narratives which I thought were a cut above ur usual zombie fare, but could read as precious in the wrong mood. I enjoyed how different Black Summer was from the series it spun off from, but I can entirely see how partisans of one wouldn’t like the other. They’re very different kinds of pulp: one leans into the silly and melodramatic, while the other relies on a gritty shitty digital video aesthetic.

Freakish

I fully admit that Freakish isn’t great — maybe isn’t even good — but it definitely hit some sort of sweet spot for me involving teen melodrama and the zombie apocalypse. (I <3 teen drama 4evah.) I really loved the YA novel This is Not a Test because of its use of the tropes of teen fiction in the extremity of the end of the world. I love how it makes manifest how dire everything is in adolescence. It makes the emotional landscape manifest.

Anyway, Freakish follows something like a half dozen teens trapped in the school when the local chemical plant melts down (or whatever), filling the town with a cloud of chemicals that turns them into something like zombies. One of the kids seems to know more about the spill than he should. Several have secrets both banal and deadly, and there’s a love triangle or two. They while away their time playing grownup and failing just as horribly as actual grownups. In short, it’s the Breakfast Club with teeth. And Canadian accents.

England

Dead Set

I watched Dead Set ages ago, after it premiered in England, but well before it was easily available in the States. I got a bootleg copy from a much cooler friend, and then mailed (like literally through the Post Office mailed) the DVDs around to a list of people. This I’m sure dates the fuck out of this. Dead Set is a limited series — only five episodes — about the zombie apocalypse taking place around the set of the British reality tv show Big Brother, a place which at first blush seems like the perfect place to ride out the end of the world. It starts, like all Last Night stories do, with the usual melodrama and personality conflicts of both the crew and the staff of Big Brother. (This is made even more verisimilitude with the inclusion of several Big Brother “personalities” in the series: everything from former Big Brother house residents to a marquee host.) (It also features a tiny baby Riz Ahmed.)

The following paragraph is riddled with spoilers, so beware, spoiler averse.

I was just absolutely floored by the end of Dead Set, which saw basically the entire cast zombified or otherwise dead, up to and including the ostensible heroine. I kind of can’t think of another series like this, that’s just like, fuck it, kill everyone, let’s just wholeheartedly embrace the nihilism inherent in any zombie narrative. Usually someone survives to make you feel good about the human race or whatever. The way Dead Set uses spectacle and violence to deny the viewer catharsis is pretty freaking cool, all told.

In the Flesh

In the Flesh takes place after the zombie menace has been contained, and everything is slowly grudgingly returning to a new normal that is anything but. The series follows one of the those afflicted with Partially Deceased Syndrome (PDS) — oh how I love the penchant for zombie neologism — in his reintroduction to his small, mean, Northern English town. The zombies in this alt-history were beaten back and rounded up. Government scientists found a cocktail of drugs, to be injected daily, which would keep the feral zombie-state at bay. Kieran is sent home with makeup to cover his pallid skin, contact lenses for his dead eyes, and scheduled injections to keep him from murdering everyone around him.

Complicating Kieran’s reentry into society — I mean, in addition to his guilt over the killings, which he remembers with perfect clarity, and his clearly undead state — is that his small town was a locus for the living’s mile by mile reclamation of a landscape teeming with the feral dead. So he’s coming home to a populace who are something like bigots — if not outright bigots — with something like an acquired disability or communicable disease. It’s … not great.

The thinking and reasoning zombie is very much a thing, in literature at least, and occasionally the films made of those books: The Girl with All the Gifts, Warm Bodies, even the execrable Patient Zero with a wasted Stanley Tucci. But I can’t think of an example (short of The Returned, a French series I’ll address down-list that is a serious edge case even for inclusion on a zombie list) that shows the living and the dead interacting this intimately on a day to day basis. The traumas of zombie narratives tend to be ongoing, at least for the living. In the Flesh plays with this, showcasing social recovery which relies on re-traumatizing an entire class of people. Like you do.

Brazil

Reality Z

Reality Z is weird, and I’m including it not because I thought it was great or anything, but more because of its oddball nature. It’s wholeheartedly and avowedly a remake of the British Dead Set, which I raved about previously. Dead Set was five episodes; Reality Z is ten. The first five episodes of Reality Z are almost shot-for-shot recreations of the source material, from antagonistic normality to nihilistic finality, with just enough new establishing source material to connect the next plot arc. The next five episodes follow another group of survivors to their doom, complete with a similar-but-different rationale for the group’s inevitable breakdown.

I suspect there’s a lot of this series I’m not getting because I’m not Brazilian, and not particularly up on Brazilian politics and culture. Many of the characters feel trope-y, but I can’t quite read the tropes and what Reality Z might be doing with them. (And when I say they feel trope-y: this is not meant as a slag. Genre fiction deals in tropes, and the myriad ways writers animate and reanimate those tropes drives the genre.) There’s a corrupt politician and his corrupt policeman and handler, a political dissident, a cast off corporate drone and her beleaguered son. They reclaim the reality tv house depopulated at the end of the Dead Set arc, and are in turn joined by a whole new set of randos and types.

It’s … pretty messy, and probably not in a good way. Dead Set was stiletto-thin, in and out before you noticed the cut and then damn. Remaking Dead Set and then appending a whole other Dead Set inspired arc onto it seems like a weird choice. Why not just go with the final five episodes as its own rumination slash exploration of the whole decadent consumerist spectacle of reality television and its attendant cruelties? Which is not to say that the new characters and character arcs are bad or uninteresting, just that maybe the creators should have had more faith in their story, and let it stand on its own. And while I’m bitching just a little, I did have a good time watching this, and it’s definitely worth a watch as a companion to Dead Set if nothing else.

France

The Returned

It’s somewhere between disingenuous and faux-naïve to put this series on a zombie list, yet still I do it! The undead in The Returned are fully alive, turning up months, years, decades completely unchanged from the moment of their deaths in a small French town on the Swiss border. Their returns are small, explosive events, detonating whole families, but quietly and secretly: A teenager, unknowing of her death, and now several years younger than her once identical twin; the husband of a woman now remarried after raising up their child alone; a preternatural child with no living family taken in by a self-contained and scarred woman. These people all deal with the resurrections of loved ones with the quiet hissing conversation of the totally freaked out, reintegrating imperfectly into lives that have, as they say, moved on.

The Returned reminds me strongly of early Twin Peaks: moody and Gothic, claustrophobic and blue-lit. (The Returned isn’t as grotesque as Twin Peaks, nor as funny, which is probably related.) The fundamental relationship between the two is grief, both public and private. The way The Returned deals with the grief caused by the loss is opposed to the average zombie narrative. There’s no expedient violence, no frenetic action as death drives the living to their inevitable fates. Instead it stews, uncomfortably, in the small moments of lived lives. It makes no pronouncements. Even the clergy demurs as to the advisability of the resurrection of the body — “I’m not sure it would be a good thing”

India

Betaal

I fully admit that Betaal is something of a mess. It starts with such promise — something like mercenaries (maybe police, maybe military, maybe Blackwater) are tasked with relocating a native population “for their own good”, and accidentally awake the literal hungry ghosts of colonialism. Which is a completely awesome set-up for a series, and I loved all the metaphorics by 2 by 4 that they hammered home. Police are a colonial force; imperial forces use rule of law to exploit both resources and people. The first couple episodes use their zombies as a metaphor for colonialism, and I am 100% here for it. But then the story diffuses into subplots and confusing machinations pretty hard, its metaphors stuck in the mud and spinning.

I did enjoy much of the staging and scares. The zombies aren’t full-on K- or J-horror chitinous nightmares — they can still talk and reason in certain limited circumstances, making them all the worse — and the directors take full advantage of the filmed-in-dark-o-vision aesthetic of the series. It is a often effective way to cover for a microbudget and I did jump and squeal at multiple points. At others it was just like, what even is going on here? Obfuscation by dark (or just off camera) relies on the eventual reveal, and that was sometimes not so great.

That said, the series ultimately misses the mark, getting too bound up in personal bullshit to be really effective. Like, it’s neat they started out with zombie-as-colonialism as the central metaphor, but then someone flinched as to actually committing to that as the spine of the series. By the end, I was like, how can I possibly make meaning out of this mess? Which is totally fine, if disappointing: not everything has to have meaning, it’s just real nice when it does. I understand how my expectations are unreasonable.

South Korea

Kingdom

I feel like one of the reasons I ultimately stuck with A Song of Ice and Fire for four and a half books was its opening, which allows the reader to catch a glimpse of the zombie menace just beyond the Wall. Ned Stark executes a man for desertion because that man nearly got killed by some zombies and then ran the fuck away from that, boy howdy. It’s been an age since I read Game of Thrones, but I’m pretty sure the zombies don’t appear meaningfully again until maybe book two? And even then? Again, that is fine! Not everything has to be about zombies.

However, if you’re jonesing for a medievalish court intrigue saga but this time with zombies, look no further than The Kingdom! Set in Korea’s Joseon period, the series follows the grown son of the king’s concubine and presumptive heir to the throne who is beset by his father’s much younger pregnant wife (who will ostensibly deliver the true heir, should the issue be male), her powerful burgher family, and zombies, not necessarily in that order.

We learn right quick that the king has zombified, but the queen’s powerful family is covering that up so they can get that baby born and cement their power through the throne. (Which I thought was kinda interesting because that’s not precisely how primogeniture works in the West. The queen would deliver a monarch irrespective of gender, and even after the king died. But then there’s also no official recognition of the children of concubines, and Westerners don’t use the term the same way anyway, so.)

The crown prince is well out of his depth, on the run with a good naturedly corrupt courtier-type as they picaresque their way through the Korean countryside. Bae Doona (who I really enjoy) does a turn as a beleaguered nurse who puts the pieces together as to how the zombie plague works and largely single-handedly saves the bacon of, like, everyone. Unfortunately, she’s mostly carried along the narrative like luggage, and isn’t given enough actual story work. But the hats alone are worth the price of admission, so don’t credit my grousing overmuch.

Honorable Mentions

There are a number of series I’ve only had the time to catch a few episodes of, for one reason or another, so’is I can’t say if they’re worth or watch or not.

New ZealandThe Dead Lands. The opening of The Dead Lands is both jarring and comfortable. It takes place in the “long ago and far away” space of the fairy tale, but with what are recognizably modern zombies. The situation in Maori myth set in a lush New Zealand setting doesn’t hurt either. But at only one episode, I kind of can’t say what was going on? A demi-god pisses off actual gods and … zombies? Maybe? I did very much dig the mythic setting, which stands in sharp contrast with most zombie narratives which feature the decay of modernity, if not outright ruin porn.

CaliforniaThe Santa Clarita Diet. Only caught the first two or three, and I have no idea why I never continued. Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant have a snappy, wholesome chemistry, which is tested when Barrymore’s character wakes up one day hungering for human flesh. It’s the kind of comedy where early lightness promises to deepen, especially given the sometimes bleak-yet-technicolor jokes of the earliest episodes.

Daybreak: On paper, this series seemed like it was tailor-made for my proclivities: kinda Gen-X self-aware and self-referential, with a teen movie aesthetic which I usually eat up with a spoon. (I mean, Matthew Broderick plays the high school principal in flashbacks, come on.) I adore the completely bullshit “groups one finds in a lunchroom” cataloguing sequence that takes place in teen movies (see the one in 10 Things I Hate About You for example), and Daybreak takes this all a step further, turning them into post-apocalyptical gangs reminiscent of The Warriors.

Reader, I hated it. I couldn’t make it more than 3 episodes in. Maybe it was the mean-spiritedness, maybe the sub-Broderick douchebag-cum-hero, maybe it was just a bad potato. I fully think it might work for others though! A weird way of ending a roundup of zombie series I enjoyed, but there you are.

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.