The Last of Us: Infected

The trouble with being a week (or more) behind on my self-assigned reviewing project is that I was happily doing some thinking about “Infected”, the second episode of The Last of Us, when I got hit with episode three, “Long Long Time”, which is serious gut-punch. The latter is the kind of story that post-apocalyptic narratives are uniquely suited to tell — strip out society and focus hard on fragile, beautiful human connection — but, for whatever reason, doesn’t. So. I’m going to do my best to muddle through some thoughts about “Infected”, but know that my heart isn’t quite in it because Frank and Bill broke it.

One thing I didn’t mention when talking about the pilot episode was the cold open. The entire series opens on a 1960s talk show panel discussing one of the panelist’s new book, something apparently about the dangers of infectious disease in the age of air travel, and the prospect of a pandemic. I was rueful when one scientist talked about how a disease could move from one side of the globe to the other “in a matter of weeks” — surely it’s faster than that now — but then I realized that Covid-19 did indeed take weeks, sometimes months, to get all around the globe, infection rates and incubation periods being what they are. I was just talking to a family member about the beginning of the pandemic, and Minneapolis shut down on the Ides of March — March 15. We weren’t locked down here, at the top of Lake Superior 200 miles away, until the day after St Patrick’s Day — March 19. Four days, 200 miles. This is all a jillion times faster than when the Black Plague landed in Europe, in Italy, in 1347, and took almost five years to travel to northern Russia.

Then the other epidemiologist (played by the charming John Hannah) chimes in: I’m not scared of viruses or bacteria, he says, what really worries me is fungus. He then goes on to describe in loving and terrifying detail what the cordyceps fungus does to ants. The whole vibe of the room changes. The audience goes from laughing at the moderator’s stupid jokes to watching in stony silence as he talks about the annihilation of the entire human race. It’s a pretty great opening, because while obviously it’s there to infodump how the zombie pathogen works in this story, it also seeks to disarm an audience which is weary of pandemics in general, and zombies in specific. I did it myself while watching: yes, yes, we all know how air travel will change the way diseases move through the population; you sweet summer children have no idea. Hannah’s little monologue really gets into the terror of the fungal infection — being piloted and replaced by an alien while you remain locked in your own body — while explaining to a pandemic-weary modern audience why we should sit up and take notice.

The cold open in the second episode doesn’t so much explain as illustrate, profoundly and horribly, how this fungal zombie infection is Not Your Daddy’s Zombie Virus. We open in Jakarta two days before the opening of the first episode. An older woman — a mycologist — is having lunch at a café when some cop-types escort her to … well, it’s not entirely clear. A government facility? There is a split second showing a sign giving advice about how to deal with SARS, which definitely dates the proceedings. She’s shown a slide of something which they claim came from a human, but she pushes back: cordyceps cannot infect people. She’s then sent into a pressure-negative clean room to inspect a body. She cuts near a bite mark on the body’s ankle, which reveals fibrous strands, not the usual blood and muscle. When she opens the cadaver’s mouth, fungal spores reach out, straining in the air towards her. She reels out of the room, clearly horrified almost to the point of panic.

This actress did such an amazing job. Like most of the audience for The Last of Us, I don’t speak Indonesian, so she had to convey her emotional state through body language and her carefully expressive face. You can see it all: her confusion and fear when she’s picked up, which segues to a casual professional confidence when she snaps into scientist mode. So when we see her shakily drinking tea and quietly, calmly suggesting they should firebomb Jakarta, you know exactly how fucked up everything is. Like the 1960s talk show, this isn’t really telling us anything new, except in the minutia. We’ve seen the clickers at work in the pilot, and we’ve already gotten the scientific rundown. There was some mention of flour mills in Jakarta in the first episode, so this is a confirmation of that location as ground zero for the infection. But this sequence put a face on what could be dry facts: This pathogen is so terrifying an expert in mycology suggested firebombing her hometown. Even then, she knows it’s not going to work, and asks to be returned home, so she can spend what little time she has left with her family. Oof.

After the cold open of second episode, the narrative continues with Tess, Joel, and Ellie outside of the Boston QZ, moving towards a meeting with the Fireflies so Joel and Tess can pass off Ellie, and move onto whatever bullshit they have going on. This part of the episode definitely had the feel of a video game. Encounter an impediment; work around the impediment. Tess and Joel discuss going the long way or the short way. The long is, of course, the safer. There’s a fair amount of crawling over things and working around obstacles, like the kind of thing you’d find in a video game. They inevitably end up going the short way after the long way proves blocked; the short way is through the Bostonian Museum, a (fictional) museum which appears to be about colonial Boston. We get our first up-close look at a clicker who’s been overtaken by the fungus for years, and these zombies are definitely residents of the Uncanny Valley, their faces covered with mushroom frills, blind, and smelling. Their blindness makes them seem less worrisome than your usual Romero-style zombie — stay silent and out of the way — but once they hone in on your location, they are significantly harder to kill. We also get some important exposition about the clickers. Apparently those fungal fucks are connected underground, so that if you disturb the wrong thing, it’ll pluck the unseen network like a spider’s web, and draw clickers from miles around down on your location. (Surely this won’t be necessary information later.)

Ellie is alive with wonder and curiosity about the world outside the QZ, and fascinated by the remnants of a modern world she has never lived in. Sometimes recklessly so: She tells them she was infected with cordyceps when she broke into a mall which had been declared off limits. (She also claims she was alone, and that is surely a lie. As I mentioned in my first post, I don’t have knowledge of the game to fall back on, but seriously. No one underlines how alone they were in fiction unless they weren’t.) Ellie’s delight with the world, even the ravaged, decaying parts, is in contrast with Joel & Tess’s world-weariness and trauma. I find this is a common tension in zombie narratives (and post-apocalyptic stories more in general): the new generation, the one born after the death of the modern world, has very different instincts than that one who watched that world die. Boston isn’t a cenotaph for Ellie, not a marker for the death of modernity, and modernity itself is something between a tall tale and a myth.

So. A totally decent episode which was more about setting up necessary exposition than hard-core interpersonal interactions. I mentioned Colson Whitehead’s Zone One last week, how he builds a taxonomy of survivor recollection. The Silhouette is for people who you don’t intend to be with very long, just a simple sketch of where and when. The Anecdote is for more long-term of one’s short-term companions; this recounting will get deeper into details. The Obituary is the real story, with blood, snot, and tears. The last episode was Joel’s Obituary. It showed us who he lost and how utterly devastating that was. In this episode, he barely, barely, gives Ellie a Silhouette. She asks him not very intrusive questions — the kind of thing you’d ask someone in a waiting room — and he answers “pass” to more than a couple. Given his resolve to stick with her at the end, it’ll be interesting to see him thaw towards the more intimate modes of recollection — and she him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Year in Reading: 2022

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

Stuff I read for class:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zombies!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seanan McGuire

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

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

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

Ann Aguirre

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

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

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

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

Jessie Mihalik

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

Various Series I Continued Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Various One-Offs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Book Review: Composite Creatures by Caroline Hardaker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zombie Children in The Walking Dead

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

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

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

NB: I have excluded teenagers from this list (which would bring the 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.

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.

Stormsong by C.L. Polk

I’m going to date the hell out of myself with this anecdote, but it can’t be helped. It comes as likely no surprise that my family can get a little ranty, my mother’s side anyway. Just to rely on some specious ethnic stereotype: Mum’s side is Welsh, who tend to be known for their voluminousness (and for their drinking, alas.) That was certainly true for the Welsh ancestor who emigrated to the States, likely because he’d knocked up the neighbor’s daughter. Late in his life, my grandfather would get calls to come pick up his grandfather at the bar where he was singing Welsh hymns at the top of his voice. As a consequence, Grandpa was a lifelong teetotaler.

Anyway, before I get too far down the rabbit hole of Depressing Tales of Victorian Drunks, let me get to my point. Grandpa had a tendency to go on about various topics, often to the great irritation of my mother and grandmother: they’d heard every single one of his disquisitions before. (Somewhat tragically, he wrote two volumes of memoirs filled with this stuff, and not one of us has read them. We heard it all when he was alive.) Mum took to calling them his “cassette tapes”: simply load up the tape, and let the bullshit flow.

I tell this story because I, myself, have a number of cassette tapes, rants I can just load up and spool out like a magnetic strip. One of them has to do with hereditary magical systems, and how they are inevitably racist, eugenicist, and gross as hell. So many writers just gloss over the inexorable disgusting consequences of having magic be something in the blood. I mean, that I’m using language like “in the blood” just illustrates how nasty this all is. This is the language of tiki-torched racists. It turns the divine right of kings into “good blood”, a semi-scientific justification for social injustice.

So I pretty much freaked when I read Witchmark, which addresses the nastiness of heritable magical systems straight on. (It’s also steampunky as hell and also seems to invoke the Crimean War, which always gets me hot and bothered, because it’s like WWI but way, way less legible and more about how incomprehensible war is.) The lead, Miles, was a member of a magical family, one of a discrete number who have been indefinitely detaining & using other magical people, forcing their children into political marriages, and using their surplus number as magical batteries. It seemed better to him to run off to an unwinnable war than live in the pampered yet obscene comforts of his family of origin.

So I was well excited to read Stormsong, C.L. Polk’s follow up to Witchmark. Stormsong follows Grace, Miles’s sister. She was the heir apparent, the one who would wield the power of both herself and her brother. She was instrumental in bringing the whole rotten system down, but the way it played out, not even a large minority of Aelanders know the particulars of how the magical system worked and its human cost. She’s still in government, trying to “change the system from within”, which is going about as well as one would expect. Which is to say: not well.

Stormsong ended up giving me serious Amberlough Dossier vibes, which I count as a very good thing. Lara Elana Donnelly’s trilogy (the latter two books anyway) deal with that indefinite period after the old regime falls but before the new one has entrenched. It deals with the people who, when the fit hit the shan, had motivations that were murky, conflicted, or self-serving. This is a tricky as hell period to write about successfully, which is why pretty much no one bothers to try. It’s so much easier to write the period where everyone knows, down to the reader, who is righteous and who is a godamn fascist.

Stormsong ended up feeling not as strong as its predecessor, but then, as my anecdote of the cassette tape illustrates, I do have my predilections. That said, I was completely able to start, middle, and finish reading this novel during the coronavirus times, something that I cannot say for much literature that has even slightly dark themes. Polk has this incredibly light touch with what can be unapproachably intense subjects. It’s not that she’s treating them lightly — not at all — but that she can slide them into a story with a conflicted prime minister and the girl reporter she can’t stop thinking about. I’m 100% there for Sapphic yearning, maybe especially because it’s the bait for deeper meaning. I’m decidedly on the hook for book 3.

I received my copy from Netgalley.

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.

Some Nattering about I Am a Hero

I Am a Hero is based on the manga of the same name about a manga artist’s assistant and all around schlub, Hideo. I only really caught the first couple installments of the manga (there’s more than a dozen collected volumes, and at least three spin-offs), but it seemed that there were diminishing returns on the series. The opening, which takes place in the slowly gathering beginning of the outbreak, has a real intimate view of the zombie apocalypse. Hideo is just some jerk with no special knowledge, and his disaffection and depression keep him from really noticing the unsettling events occurring all around him. He delivers some nice sermonettes about how manga is the pinnacle of Japanese society and its greatest cultural export, which, in addition to being clumsily meta, might even be true.

These early sections were pretty enjoyable, but as the manga ranged out of whatever town Hideo was in (maybe Hiroshima?), I got more and more irritated with Hideo and his bullshit girl problems. I mean, it’s fine to have girl problems in the zombie apocalypse, it’s just the gender stuff in I Am a Hero that started really making me twitchy. Not that any of that is surprising in a certain kind of manga! Or comics in general! Or, come to think of it, zombie narratives in the first place! I have a huge hobby horse I like to get up and ride about the role of male violence in creating and maintaining domesticity in zombie fictions, but that is not the topic for today.

The film adaptation of I Am a Hero has the same episodic nature, but definitely smooths over some of the more pulp-sensible parts of the manga. The teen half-zombie girl Hideo befriends doesn’t end up part of a wtf zombie hive mind, more’s the better. The community he and the girl find is pretty messed up, but not openly practicing sexual slavery, like it is in the manga — thank god, because I fucking hate that trope. All in all, the movie improves on some aspects of manga, and there’s some fun scenes in there (like an absolutely harrowing one with Hideo’s zombified girlfriend, my God.)

The real reason to check it out (if you’re an American) is how weirdly it deals with its solitary firearm, Hideo’s shotgun. Japan and the United States have polar opposite attitudes about firearms of any kind: heavy regulation in Japan, plus no marked martial tradition involving firearms; virtual ubiquity in America, plus firearms are irrevocably bound to the national identity. Hideo gets real twitchy when his girlfriend throws him and his shotgun out of the house, but she doesn’t throw out the licence. He has these flights of fancy about using the weapon (and other things, often to very comedic ends) but the shotgun is largely talismanic, a term Hideo uses himself. He resists ever firing it for the entire film, even when beset by zombies or people.

It is literally a Chekhovian gun, so it is finally used, at utmost need, in a completely silly end sequence. He’s got like a hundred shells, and kills roughly one million zombies. Moreover, that shotgun was handled by someone who had no idea how one works, and no one around him could direct him correctly. And look, I know that the zombie fictions do not thrive on true realism, even in the more drama-y outings: Rick Grimes simply cannot make that many head shots, etc etc. I’m not suggesting this makes the sequence bad, or not worth watching. It’s actually one of the funnest in the movie.

But something about this sequence is fetishistic, but not fetishistic the way an American do it. In transporting zombie pulp (which originates in the States) to another culture, certain common motifs of the genre inevitably hitch a ride. Gun violence is bog standard in American zombie fiction, but not often found, in either art or life, in Japan. I Am a Hero addresses this trope in a typically Japanese manner. I think it’s really cool to see that sort of localization, to borrow a phrase from translation, a window into another culture.