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.

An Incomplete List of Oddball Zombie Movies I’ve Enjoyed

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

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

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

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

Warning: possible spoilers in the film descriptions.

USA:

Maggie

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

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

UK:

The Girl with All the Gifts

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

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

Canada:

Ravenous (or Les Affamés)

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

Pontypool

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

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

Denmark:

What We Become (or Sorgenfri)

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

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

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

France:

The Horde (or La Horde)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Germany:

Rammbock: Berlin Undead

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

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

Spain:

[REC]

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

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

Japan:

One Cut of the Dead

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

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

The Troop by Nick Cutter: Hungry Man Games of the Flies

I’m going to make one of those specious and ultimately rhetorical dichotomies just so I can start with a bang. There are two kinds of horror story: the one one that puts you off your lunch, and the one that makes you sleep with the lights on. This is one of the former. Oh, baby, is it one of the former.

The Troop by Nick Cutter begins with a vignette of a hungry man eating himself to bursting, and then vanishing into the underbrush. Our monster, then, or the monster is within him. The setting is Prince Edward Island in Canada, which has in Cutter’s hands a similar grubby small town feel as Stephen King’s Maine: multiple generations of gossip and expectations, a social stratification where the difference between the haves and the have nots is thin. We cut to the titular Boy Scout troop landing on Falstaff Island off the coast of PEI, a small island wilderness with no particular infrastructure beyond a cabin and a shed. The hungry man stumbles into camp, smashes the radio, sickens and then dies. We are then off and running.

A lot of blurbcraft about The Troop focuses on its similarity with Lord of the Flies, and certainly I’m not going to say that that comparison isn’t apt on some level. But sometimes I think the Lord of the Flies comparison gets used knee-jerkily. One could just as easily compare this with The Hunger Games – har har – and the comparison would be as accurate and as specious. Maybe it’s just that I encountered Lord of the Flies late, not as a kiddo nodding though A Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace and similar novels with young protagonists that are often foisted on the students before they can handle them. My young self mostly noted that Holden was a douche, for example, and the one scene I remember was him trying to scratch out the word fuck in graffiti so his sister Phoebe wouldn’t see. “Fuck you,” I thought. “Phoebe isn’t some delicate flower.”

I hit Lord of the Flies in a college Brit lit class that focused on the Angry Young Men, a (contested, like all literary movements) movement that originates in working- and middle-class British writers in the 1950s that focuses on class and violence and class violence, with a sideline in misogynist bullshit. The writers, reductively, tended to be bright boys who’d been plucked from their class neighborhoods and dumped into the less-charming Hogwarts of the British public school system on scholarship, with predictably brutal results. (If you are a Yank playing along at home, “public school” in British means the exact opposite it does in American.) (Also, my prof was more or less one of these, making his lectures fairly pyrotechnic. Teach what you know, oh baby.)

Golding’s novel has nothing of the “kitchen sink realism” of writers more closely associated with the Angry Young Men, but Lord of the Flies does certainly situate in the aesthetic philosophically, and philosophy is more or less the operative word there. Lord of the Flies is a pretty serious kick in the balls of the Robinsonade novel and all of the colonial and class garbage that goes along with imagining Tom Hanks and his beach ball Friday conquering the wilderness and the natives by dint of their superior skin color and technology. The characters are more or less tropes intentionally, with whole categories of persons like the younger boys functioning as a Greek chorus, Athenian mob style this time. Lord of the Flies isn’t about people, but People; not about a society but Society.

Which circles me back to The Troop. There’s much about The Troop that is predictable or stock, from the situation – cut off from the mainland with a threat! – to the cast of characters – the nerd, the jock, the spaz, the mad scientist. But the concern isn’t philosophical, which is not meant to be a dismissal but a description. Cutter’s got the sensibility of a short story writer, crafting brutal little vignettes in serial, end to end until the end that isn’t. His characterizations are deliberate, careful, the sort of non-sequential and almost tangentially important moments that are only important to an individual. An individual who interconnects with a society, lower case s, one that might be emblematic but isn’t – and this term makes my ass twitch – universal. There’s no predictable character-as-destiny – except as the most mordant joke – nor are the most horrifying things you find in The Troop the most horrible objectively. All I’m saying is that the death of a turtle can be way freaking worse than you’d expect in a narrative that includes the deliberate murder of a kitten.

I’ve been half-invoking gender in this review so far: my kinship with unseen sister Phoebe over monologuing Holden, my quick bristle about the casual chauvinism of the Angry Young Men. I realized recently that since the start of the year I’ve been alternating between horror and romance, novel by novel; squelching dread against ecstatic expectation and its fulfillment. Horror tends to be written by men for a male audience; romance by women for women. Alternating the two is a trip, especially because both tend to focus strongly on the body and its functions and fractures, but in extremely gendered ways. What I tend to like or dislike in either genre is incredibly personal, but often can be boiled down to my feelings of the author’s deliberation or care. (Sidebar: discuss why women tend to subsume their domestic panic into the HEA, while dudes go for bloodbath without cauterization. I know what Camille Paglia would say, but the semiotics of spurting makes this late model feminist tired.)

The all-boy horror novel is pretty common. A quick calculation on the back of a napkin shows that four of the last six horror novels I read fail the Bechdel test, with another one right on the edge. (Usual caveats about Bechdel: no, it’s not an indicator of poor quality; yes, it’s a hideously low bar.) As I was reading, I watched The Descent again, which has a similar set up: a group of single-gender characters – this time all-women – are confined with a lethal threat, and the thrills escalate. And I love both of these narratives for the care they take with their prêt-à-porter structures, wringing out some very deliberate observations about the ways single-gender groups interact, both in times of crisis and without. In The Troop, I felt the all-boy environment wasn’t an accident – a thoughtless reiteration of tropes, or the tendency of the genre to focus on the concerns of masculinity, or its capital letter version, Society – but a deliberate choice that focuses carefully on the social life of boys. Hoorah.

I started reading horror late. I can trace it right back to the birth of my first child and the severe body trauma of that event, one that had me overcoming my girlish squeamishness about viscera, one that reworked my sense of what is scary. I’m not afraid of being torn open from the inside anymore; that’s a done deal. But I’m terrified of that call from the behavior specialist from the school, my 11-year-old son in a paroxysm of pre-adolescent pain. He’s on a godamn island of sometimes terrified boys, and there is little I can do at this point to help, short of momishly unhelpful stuff. That I didn’t recognize him exactly in the cast of The Troop is an ugly comfort; these are other mother’s sons. Not that it makes it any better, in the end. Good job, Nick, if that is your real name.

 

Thank you to Netgalley for providing me an ARC.

The n-Body Problem: Oh, the Humanity

In the end, the zombie apocalypse was nothing more than a waste disposal problem. Burn them in giant ovens? Bad optics. Bury them in landfill sites? The first attempt created acres of twitching, roiling mud. The acceptable answer is to jettison the millions of immortal automatons into orbit.

Horror can seem a little rule-bound at times. There’s a monster, say a zombie. You work out how it’s defined – it’s a living person infected with a rage virus, or a dead person who is reanimated. It can run, or it can’t. It can climb, or it can’t. It doesn’t like sunlight or it doesn’t care. You figure how to kill it, or immobilize it, or cure it, or you die and join it. You figure out if everyone is infected, or if it’s transmissible, or how long it’s been since the first outbreak, the last outbreak. You set up communities that function according to rules that dovetail into the rules for the monster. In this way, you make the point that the true monster is human. Ba dump tss.

The opening of The n-Body Problem by Tony Burgess, despite a seriously questionable level of sanity from the first person protagonist, seems to start with rules in mind. It’s been 20 something years since the first dead person didn’t stay dead. It’s not so much that they became flesh-eating corpses, but that the dead just never stop moving. After the initial panic died down, they had millions of wriggling undead bodies to be disposed of. End result: they start shooting them into space. Our protagonist – who I would like to note is off his nut – is spending his time plying some serious hypochondria and chasing a man called Dixon. Dixon is a traveling horror show who rolls into town and convinces the entire town to kill itself, presumably so they can go to space because it’s so pretty and peaceful up there. Then he plays in their corpses.

You can kinda see how this set up might unfold: the requisite show down between Dixon and Bob (which is not the protagonist’s name, but I think the only one he ever gives); the boy Bob picks up serving as a generational example of What Has Changed; some pyrotechnics with WasteCorp, which is the multinational company that has shot a billion wriggling corpses into space; maybe even a sequence in the cold airlessness of space, the sun rising over the black orb of the planet in wavering stabs of light. Burgess occasionally gives you glimpses of these narrative possibilities – like a searing fever dream that takes place in space, the corpses turning sunward like flowers – but mostly he just laughs inscrutably and delivers some of the sickest shit and stomach-dropping plot turns I’ve ever seen.

The n-body problem is a mathematical problem going back to antiquity for predicting the motions of celestial objects in gravitational relationship with one another. This is certainly a problem if you don’t understand that, say, the stars and planets are not in a fixed orb rotating around the earth, but it’s apparently also difficult to solve using general relativity. Frankly, there’s a lot of wonky maths that I don’t get in the explanation. Obviously, this book is named The n-Body Problem because of one billion corpses in space and all that, but I think there might be another reason too: Burgess is taking a big, gory dump on post-apocalyptic conventions, just absolutely hazing you and your expectations. Solve for x, bitch.

Another possible title for this novel: Trigger Warning for All Things.

So you want to see some marauding cannibals and rape gangs? Boom, only he turns the rape gangs into a mordant joke, and denies you the prurient thrills that so much apocalit delivers in the form of sexual assault. How about a blood bath? Boom, only this time it’s a swimming pool, and the blood is still shimmering in that uncanny way of the undead here. The sickness is so sick it’s downright funny at times, these horrible laundry lists of horrors that numb until, wait, what the holy hell was that? The whole thing is completely bonkers, transgressive in a way that goes beyond the usual transgression of body horror, of which there is plenty. Nobody’s going to yell, “Oh, the humanity!” when the zombies start falling from the sky in some half-assed coda.

“They look like cherry blossoms. Opening and then falling apart in the wind.”

I guess I could go on, but I’d probably get into spoiler territory. I just want to note, quickly, that there’s something here that reminds me of Ice by Anna Kavin. Ice is a strange, mid-century post-apocalyptic novel written by a functioning heroin addict which is about, insofar it is about anything so easily spoken, two men fighting over girl. The landscapes rear up in the same ways, the connectives cut with a box-cutter, the identities fragile and mutable. And the iceIce made me incredibly uncomfortable – often in ways The n-Body Problem does not, owing to certain perversions I have about mid-century novels – but there’s still a central discomfort that feels the same to me. This discomfort doesn’t necessarily come from content – though, I did mention this was sick, non?- but some deeper, more chthonic level which implicates me in the proceedings. If I were still rating things – I’m trying not to – I’d leave this similarly unrated, because no metric as childish as stars – their motions cannot be solved for anyway – can get at my response.

So yeah, thanks to sj for turning me onto this, but then also what the fuck did I just read? 

 

David Gilmour is a Bad Canadian

I’m not interested in reading books by David Gilmour. In an interview with Random House two days ago, Gilmour stated:

“I’m not interested in teaching books by women,” he says, making an exception for one female writer.

“Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories,” he says. “But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love.”

Instead, Gilmour says, “[w]hat I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.”

CBC

Now I know what you’re thinking: here goes another one of them Feminazi queer-loving bra-burners trying to impinge on this man’s free speech. So he doesn’t like the squawk-talk and jibber-jabber of female writers, gay writers, or Chinese writers? What’s it to you? Fair enough, imaginary Internet commenter.

But he’s said something much worse. You might want to sit down for this. David Gilmour, Canadian author, doesn’t like other Canadian authors.

Now, I’m not Canadian, but I’ve played one on tv, and some of my best friends are Canadian. My accent is in the ballpark, and if I drop in a couple “ehs” and “take off, hosers,” I can pass for one. From my intimate knowledge of the Canadas, I know that it is Canadianly constitutionally mandated that every time you have a conversation about any subject, you are required to note which famous people are from Canada. Talking to nerds? You know, Shatner is Canadian. Doing the chicken dance from Arrested Development? Michael Cera is Canadian. People with huge boobs? Boom: Pamela Anderson.

But that’s not all. The Canadian constitution requires that you don’t ever shittalk whole classes of Canadian citizens in front of Americans. You just can’t even do that, or Mounties will triangulate your location and force you to eat a bowl of moose cock and a case of Molson for your reeducation. I presume that right now, Gilmour is being very politely set upon by men in really hot red outfits while they prize his mouth open to accept the ungulate tumescence. (Oops, I started slipping into some of my Due South fanfiction. Is it hot in here?)

Promo photo for the tv show Due South: a Mountie stands net to a guy in a trechcoat with a white Siberian husky sitting at their feet

So there you have it: David Gilmour has committed treason. Now, I know that I’m not allowed to write reviews based on author behavior anymore, but I think maybe Goodreads should make an exception in this case. I’m not dismissing Gilmour because he dismissed all writers who have a vagina, or are homos, or them Chinese. Obviously, that’s his right as a professor of literature who has been entrusted with educating Canada’s tender youth. That’s just table stakes for the Western Canon. But when you mess with the Queen, you get the horns, David. Who’s that knocking on your door?

The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Tango in 29 Essays

“Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irrestistably real and attractive to us – for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to be seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy? To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.”

Walter Pater

I’m not too embarrassed to admit I’ve written just pages of garbage about The Beauty of the Husbandthat I will not be posting, now or ever. Anne Carson absolutely fries my circuits; she makes me synesthetic and incoherent. I keep trying to explain why I quoted the much neglected and almost ridiculous Walter Pater, a quote that came to my mind like driftwood dredged by a storm and then bobbed, insistent.

I went to visit my aunt and grandmother once. They both live on the south shore of Lake Superior. I took my kids to the lake, to the municipal park with creosote-soaked railroad ties as playground equipment, cordoning rusting swings and concrete habitrails. It was half-spring, that odd interstitial season where the ice had broken to finger-shaped bits and then rubbed themselves warm on the surface of the lake. When the wind blew, the floating ice tingled on each other in this quiet bell noise that could be missed but for listening. 

There were heaps of this black stuff, like a soft, black wet sand, running in ribbons up and down the shore. There was an old guy spading it into a used five gallon plastic bucket. What is that? I asked Kristen. Oh, that’s sawdust from the sawmills what were on the lake at the turn of the last century. It blows up onto the shore in the spring, and people work it into their gardens. The land there is peat and clay. She might even have had a name for this anaerobic sawdust, but I can’t remember it anymore. That’s this book: a disinterring and re-interring of the forest duff of the emotional history of marriage. 

Duff? Another word I learned on the shores of Lake Superior. The New World had no earthworms before the Europeans came, and those wriggling creatures are an infection. Duff is the crust of decomposing matter on the forest floor, and invasive worms change this composition at its fundement. The outside wiggles in, and it can’t be spaded out. The litter should build, not be eaten away like fingernails. 

I think I was reminded of Pater for two reasons. First: Pater is such a poet of the moment, the hyper-Romanticism of that one shining event caught and crushed like a firefly so that it leaves its luminescent ichor on your hands. This is the opposite of a marriage. Not that marriage is a drudge, or a slog, but it is not a moment. Carson always invokes the weirdest muses for her works – here she keeps cutting snippets of the boy Keats, whose consumptive unconsummation of his romantic life made his Romanticism burn. I could speak of speaking urns if I could go off to Italy and die, taking my hard and gem-like flame with me. I can’t though. I’ve got obligations. 

Second, I feel like poetry is often argument. The three-part sonnet, with its terminating couplet like the prestige in a magic trick. Ta da! The morals of the epic, however sloppy, spent like rage. This poem is a series of arguments, undertaken in the kitchen, that never rightly resolve to the prestigious coda. Pater’s moment’s aren’t argumentative – they just are – but they reside on a spectrum of the emotional like a teeter-totter. An argument enacted a thousand times is a habit, in black or white like nuns. It is worn like shoes. A moment casts those shoes off, or steals them. So Pater is my wrong muse, like Keats is Carson’s.

I don’t know. The thing about The Beauty of the Husband, the thing I think makes me impossible, is the Woolfian argument, the quantum leap that dances from q to r through a lot of impossible, everyday connectives that only make sense in the black body radiation of my heart. I can’t even argue it right. I’ve only lit one end, and the light is both lovely and small. I’ll dance it to the end. 

The Animal Family

I am not going to do The Animal Familyby Randall Jarrell justice, I know. This is incredibly beautiful, powerful, sad, wonderful stuff. My brilliant friend Georgeanna (and next door neighbor – Lyndale neighborhood represent!) pushed this into my hands when I freaked out about how wonderful The Last Unicornwas. She’s right – this is just as amazing, heartbreaking, literate, and poetic as Beagle’s stuff. Add in art from Maurice Sendak, and I am in hook, line and sinker.*

I am a land-locked soul, which is funny, because if I have a soul, it resides somewhere on a rocky beach on the north shore of Lake Superior. My soul watches the water, but it can’t swim, and spends its time trying skip rocks over the glass of the lake. Maybe this is why I freak out all day about selkie stories – freak out completely beyond the bounds. This isn’t necessarily a selkie story – she, who has no name, is referred to as a mermaid – but there’s something selkie-ish about the way the hunter and the mermaid find their connection on the spit of land between meadow and sea. Selkie stories** are about miscommunication and alienation and how they can be the basis of love, and how that is the most profound paradox to ever blow my mind.

But she is a mermaid, not a selkie, and that works because selkie stories are usually massive bummers and this is not. I know from reading that if I am ever caught in an undertow, I am to swim at ninety degree angles against the pull, so that I may find myself in still waters. I’m not sure I would remember this if I were caught and drowning, but I know this now on land. I’m not a sea creature, and I can learn through telling, but that knowledge is incomplete and it always will be. I don’t know much about Randall Jarrell. I had this boyfriend once who loved him, and I hair-tossingly did not understand that love. (I was young. Shut up.) I associate him strongly with the WWII poetry that he is best known for:

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

 From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

I guess he was also a critic, but criticism has a faster expiration date than poetry even. (Sorry, no offense all of Goodreads. We’ve lit our candles at both ends.)

So a mermaid and a hunter find their strange love on a beach, and then they adopt a family of animals over the years: a bear, a lynx, a human boy. I can’t put my finger on why, but I found myself near tears at the oddest of points. And that’s weird. This isn’t the kind of tale that is determined to work your tear ducts – in fact, it is sweet and comic in its tone – but there’s this sorrow to it, an affectionate sorrow, an everyday sorrow, but a sorrow nonetheless. I don’t even know how to describe it. Here’s a passage, where the lynx is scratching the hunter accidentally in play:

 “Velvet paws! velvet paws!” The hunter would cry warningly.

 The mermaid had got used to his saying it, but the first time she’d asked perplexedly: “What’s velvet?”

 “I don’t know,” the hunter said. “But it’s what you say to a cat to get him to keep his claws in. My mother used to say it on the boat.”

So the hunter said it and the mermaid and the lynx understood it, each in his own way – a little scrap of velvet between the forest and the sea.

Omigod, do you see it? Do you see how this is everyday, happy and sad all in the same smooth movement? I think I may be done reviewing for now. I go to freak out.

*So I can’t decide whether I want to use the Oxford comma or not. Sue me.

**I recently saw the movie Ondine, which is a selkie story set in modern Ireland. I loved it like crazy.

Review: Sailor Twain: Or: The Mermaid in the Hudson

I took the kids to the zoo on Friday because sometime late Thursday, I discovered they had the day off and we were suddenly at loose ends. The Como Park Zoo and Conservatory in St Paul is an old school, Victorian zoo, a municipal pasture that was fenced in to hold three deer gifted to the city in 1897. Various attractions were added over the years, such as the ominous sounding “Monkey Island” which must be where the flamingos live now in the summer, or Archie Brand’s Seal Show featuring a succession of sea lions named Sparky. There’s a statue of the original Sparky, as well as one of the first resident lowland gorillas, a male named Don, who lived out his days at Como Zoo. He’s currently stuffed and in a case at the Science Museum of Minnesota across town.

a woman in what looks like 1920's garb with a huge fur wrap around her shoulders feeds a black bear
Watch your fingers.

The zoo has changed a lot since I was a kid. Mum used to joke that you more or less pulled open a fridge to see the penguins, which continues to be true, but the polar bears recently got a multi-million dollar upgrade on their previous, frankly appalling enclosure. Two black bears and a grizzly were visiting from someplace upstate that had been washed out by flooding. But I like how the Victorian bones of the zoological garden are still showing at Como, all this post-Civil War Age of Industry and Expansion, that drops a fence over a pasture and then calls it tame.

an undated black and white photograph that shows three large metal enclosures in a grove with lots of people milling around and looking. It's not possible to tell what's in the cages.
(The two above photos are from the Como Zoo website, and do not have dates.)

My kids and I stood out in the weak November sun and watched sea lions circle their rocky tank. They were the only seasonal animals still out; the single desultory ostrich and his warm climate peers disappeared into basements or wherever they go when not on display – and the flash of the dark body, knifing silently through the water to nose up with the sound of breaking surface tension (not a splash) and then disappear again moves me in that enclosed way of all zoos. They remind me more of dogs than anything, with their big brown eyes and doggy snouts, but I can feel the fur just under my skin, like I could strip off my hairlessness and dive in. Lord, but do selkies do it for me.

stamp from the Faro islands which features a woman transforming into a seal

Mermaids are a little different. They aren’t layers of wildness and domesticity, but a bifurcation of the two, an uneasy stitch between scale and skin. Sailor Twain: Or: The Mermaid in the Hudsonby Mark Siegel takes place slightly earlier than the founding of this zoo, 1887, on the Hudson river. Sailor Twain (“Don’t call me captain”) plies the river in his steamer in the employ of a drunken Frenchman named Lafayette. The story starts with layers though – a broken Twain sought out for his story by an enigmatic woman, all shadows and cloaks, and then tells the tale lappingly, incidents building, reversing so that you apply new information to old assumptions, reimagine as you imagine. The Hudson, like the Thames, is a tidal river, and it flows both ways depending on the moods of the tides. Twain’s recountings start with his offhand observation of a stag in the river, and then the discovery of mermaid on his boat.

My husband called the art here “sophomoric” because he’s a jackass, but I do see his point. Twain is rendered almost naively, his big round eyes and unruly hair under his captain’s hat offset by his almost Puritanically dark figure. The mermaid – her name is unpronounceable, but translates to South – is both fishily sticky and voluptuously sexy. They enact their doom on the charcoal canvass of Industrial Revolution America, all smog and late evening. It took me a while to cotton to Twain’s rendering – why so cartoonish, so simple? – but I eventually dug it for its childlike lack of wonder, its earnest simplicity.

[Image removed]

I’m waiting for someone to flag this image, because Goodreads has a no nudity clause (something which I generally agree with – the pornbots are bad enough without encouragement) and I’m pretty sure that’s a nipple slip there. But it gets really tricky with creatures like mermaids. Their strange unconsummated sexuality is the seam of their existence – it’s what holds them together. The mermaid in Sailor Twainis bare-breasted in most of the panels she occurs, and it is frustrating me no end that I can’t replicate them here. I went and dug around the history of the Starbucks mermaid for a while this morning – I knew she had run into trouble in places like Saudi Arabia and with Christian groups for doing things like having breasts and being a woman-ish creature.

black and white etching of a split tale mermaid with German text
Now I’m just being a scofflaw.

Like the strange Starbucks mermaid with her fishy “legs”, there are a lot of doubled storylines and doppelgangers – Twain’s wife convalescing from some unnamed illness that has her legs tucked unworking into a blanketed wheelchair, her church solo like the siren song of the mermaid, but pious and tamed. Siegel makes use of all the metaphorical possibilities of a steamer captain named Twain – so much so, that I occasionally laughed at how they were deployed. But I think I was supposed to in these little odd moments of levity. Mark Twain himself wasn’t afraid of the narrative wink – although his tended to be whole body gestures.

I pretty much loved this story because I love inevitable tragedy – mermaid stories never end well – and doppelgangers, and Industrial Revolution America, and strange sublimated sexuality and doom. I love it like watching sea lions in an enclosure thousands of miles from the sea.

Wuthering Heights: Lock up Your Dogs!

A quick disclaimer: I betcha there are some spoilers in here, but it’s tough to properly mark spoilers on books this old. Fair warning.

——

My sister and I recently got into one of those stupid cage matches about which was better: Jane Eyreor Wuthering Heights. Before everyone starts popping their monocles and baying about how this is a stupid comparison & as meaningless as comparing chalk and cheese, I know. I totally know. But five hours in a car will send conversations to really weird places.

Anyway, I spent some time defending Jane, because I’ve read it three times. I’ve only listened to a shitty books-on-tape version of Wuthering Heights when I was 19, which was *cough* a while ago. While I may read really hard, I listen badly, and even though I wasn’t that distracted – I was on another road trip – I spent a good deal of time spacing out during my listen. Add into this the fact that the guy doing the reading used Dog Voice on all of the women, I don’t remember boo about the book.

A note on Dog Voice: my family may be cracked, but all of the dogs we had growing up had voices. Tessie, who was from Appalachia and was part-hound and part-werewolf, sounded like she had rocks in her mouth. She also sang opera. Kip has gravelly voice and a New York accent. For some weird reason, all of the border collie girl-dogs – I know the correct term is bitches, but I just can’t – have high-pitched girly voices. Nant, who has one blue-eye and one brown, and is crazy as a loon, is almost inaudible. So, Catherine sounded like a border collie dog, and then my brain kept trying to wake up from itself, and the spacing out turned into full on WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?

So now I’m 75 pages in. This is just the funniest thing I’ve ever read. All the growling and slap-fights! By the 50th page two people had been attacked by dogs! I’m assured it gets even better. I don’t even know how.

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Ir’s not that animals get it worse than people. Whoo boy, not by a stretch. There’s violence everywhere: masters boxing servants, parents beating children, drunks threatening everyone with guns, wife-beating, dog-fights, fist-fights, death-threats, kidnapping, coyly hinted-at marital rape, book-burning – I could go on, but I’ll stop there. The violence also has the ring of real experience – what a mouth looks like filling with blood, how the bruises change over days, how a sucker punch robs you of breath and leaves you gasping like a fish. I wonder how quiet the Brontës home life was, really. The somewhat crappy introduction to my edition, written by Alice Hoffman, indicates that the Brontës’ brother was a gambler and an addict, and then rather sloppily connects the real brother with the character of Catherine’s older brother who gambles away Wuthering Heights. This is too literal a reading by half. This is the story of addicts and abusers all, a shockingly intimate and muscular portrait of vice and obsession, and it’s only because there aren’t needles cast about on the moors that we don’t quickly recognize it as early Romantic Trainspotting. Okay, so I was goofing off when I started this review talking about dogs, but dogs are all over this story. Bitches nurse their whelps in the kitchen; dogs are set on strangers in the yard; people enact the most vigorous cruelties on dogs as a manifestation of their black, black hearts. Mid-way through this novel, I had a conversation with one of my brilliant friends, and she said to watch how characters treat animals, which was smart advice. The scene where Heathcliff absconds/elopes with Isabella and hangs her dog from the neck to be rescued later by Nelly; the scene where Isabella escapes from Wuthering Heights, running past Hareton while he strangles a litter of unwanted pups: these cruelties bracket a larger brutality enacted between husbands and wives, lovers and friends, parents and children.

The heart is a muscle. It looks like a fist flayed of skin, stripped of all sensation but pain and bleeding and the need to clench and clench and clench. I don’t know what I expected, pretending as I had to have read this before, but I didn’t expect this series of reprisals and revenge and revenge. I’ve been thinking about Romeo and Julieta bunch recently, because a whole bunch of excellent reviews have gone past on the feed, and I’m struck by all the violence and recriminations that characterize the great romances. (I’m working hard to come up with a witty Shakespearean “die for love” play on words equating sexual climax with death, but I’ve got nothing.) Anyway, as usual, I may be a total whack-job, but for me, the pivotal moment in R&J is when Mercutio gets killed. Up until that point, R&J is a wacky lark of meeting cute and stolen kisses and having the first words a pair of lovers speak to one another resolve into a sonnet. (Squee! So awesome!) But then, oh holy hell, sometimes a sword is just a sword, and then the only person who isn’t a self-involved child gets stabbed, and at this point, just for a flash, I want everyone dead: the lovers, their confidants, their parents, everyone. You wanna see die for love, kids? I’ve got your die for love right here.

That flash is the plot of Wuthering Heights. Solder the principles of R&J into a lead ball comprised of two houses, some moors, and a visiting goofball and you’ve got it. Oh, our unreliable narrators! Let me freak about them for a moment. Walton from Frankensteinand Lockwood from Wuthering Heightsshould have a battle to determine who is the most in love with the stories unfolding under their noses. I’m going to give Lockwood extra points for being a more comedic fellow; all of his sighing and bitching about being such a misanthrope rings hilariously hollow when he’s confronted by The Prince of Darkness Heathcliff and his sick side-show. He stumbles back to the grange after the first meetings with Heathcliff and begs Nelly to give him the goods, which she does in just the most beatific of self-serving forms.

New Twilight-esque covers:
You totally wish, Smeyer.

And Nelly. Ah, Nelly. Walton, in Frankensteinwrites to his sister who sits dumb and mum throughout the whole tale. Here there’s no epistolary nightmare, but the outflowing of kitchen gossip: domestic, unlettered, invested, damaged as all get out. Narrators like Nelly make me freak out, because I spend waaaay too much time thinking about what really happened, and then I remember that it’s all fiction, and then I freak out some more. Then there’s the tantalizing parts that Lockwood reads in Catherine’s own words – he spends a night spooking at his shadow at Wuthering Heights, and finds a collection of Catherine’s books, where she has used every unprinted space as a diary. This makes me hyperventilate. I have a whole thing about gothic novels – hell, just novels in general – and the way they reference the form, mostly negatively, a hall of mirrors reflecting influence and anxiety. The governess in The Turn Of The Screw, Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey(Catherine’s literary ancestor?) both of these ladies read too much and it made them mad, I tell you, mad. (Well, okay, not exactly mad in Northanger, but v. v. silly.) I love that Catherine writes herself into a novel, limning her words over other stories. I think in some ways the whole latter plot, once Catherine decides to marry the noodle Linton and play at the domestic, could be seen as a revenge fantasy imagined by Catherine herself, written over the more likely scenario of her having her youthful identity ground out of her by a succession of children, drudging women’s work, and the inevitable betrayal of age.

Let’s just take a moment and think about Heathcliff and Catherine. Let’s just take it on faith that they are the same person, as Catherine most swooningly declares while she dithers about whether to marry someone else, sitcom-like, while Heathcliff feigns sleep in the next room and Nelly prods her on. Heathcliff is Catherine; he’s her wildness and anger and passion. This isn’t some Jekyll/Hyde deal because Catherine, at the start, is as wild as they come, feral, naughty & only partially housebroken. I think it’s important that Heathcliff is a foundling, born out of no one and nothing, his name the compound of two natural places, the heath and the cliff. When Catherine meets the Lintons, she’s attacked by their dog, and spends several weeks convalescing and domesticating. This troubles her relationship with Heathcliff, finally coming to a crisis when she decides to marry Linton.

Heathcliff storms off – literally! har har – as she forsakes wildness for a certain kind of comfort, choosing the way women had to between love and money. (Of course there’s always secret options b, c, & d: impoverished marriage, servitude or death in childbirth. You can probably come up with an equally unpleasant but likely e, f & g without much trouble too.) But still these are the options more often laid before women in novels: marry for love, marry for money, or not at all. This dramatized simplicity is why I think Pride and Prejudicegets mistaken for a romance novel: finding a rich husband that Lizzie (and Jane too!) also loves smacks of wish-fulfillment. How many times has that actually happened in the history of the world? Like, twice?

So maybe I’ve been watching too much Star Trek with its transporter accidents and multiverse theory, but this is where the plot spins off on Track B for me. In some more prosaic world, Cathy marries, gets pregnant, has a baby, and in some real way this kills her younger self. Heathcliff, her rage and freedom, transports into an emotional reality and exacts vengeance for his loss, for her loss, sucking up inheritances, property, lives, decorum, and anything else he can get his mitts on. As each person dies, he swells with life, living by punishment and annihilation. There aren’t many people in this world, and as the plot unfolds, they become fewer and more inbred, with an almost confusing doubling and trebling of names, children, marriages and blood and blood and blood. Lockwood, in the very beginning, notes a series of names carved in the window sill: Catherine Earnshaw, Catherine Heathcliff and Catherine Linton. Read forwards, these names are the trajectory of Catherine’s life; read backwards, they are her daughter’s. After all the death and wreckage, the story comes to a kind of peace, the younger Cathy giggling in a window as she plays slap-and-tickle with her husband. (And those of you who’ve read this: I know they keep referring to Hareton as her cousin, which is gross enough, but isn’t he her uncle? Eww.)

I have this bad feeling I’ve made this sound like a total drag, and like I didn’t like it at all. No! I’m all for this, and this is funny as hell – literally! har har – I have simply got to stop making that joke. Again, I don’t know what I thought, but I didn’t expect how robust and lusty this book was, how muscled the prose, how unflinching and violent. I don’t often go in for romantic – degraded as that term has become – because so often it’s all soft-focus douche-ad that relies on euphemism over viscera. I don’t know what to say about the Jane v. Catherine thunderdome battle, other than this: I want some academic to write a paper about phrenology and the Brontës. Okay, maybe that’s a weird thing to think, but all the descriptions of foreheads and bumps on the skull – did they have some phrenological text in the house or something? Several brilliant friends have recommended I read the third Brontë to throw a folding chair into the ring. I think I will, after I read a bunch of trash, of course.

Review: Glass Houses

I suffer from intermittent insomnia. I go to bed at the usual hour, no problem, and then awake and squint at the clock which reads something between 2 and 4 and think, “Damn.” After I find my glasses, things are clearer, but I’m still awake. The television is no good at this time of night, although I do play a game where I try to count how many stations are running “Girls Gone Wild” infomercials. The record stands at four. (Not that this has anything to do with the review, but this is the thing I don’t get about Joe Francis’s titty empire: if you want to buy porn, then why not just buy porn?)

So I read Glass Housesby Laura J. Mixon in the strange hours between too late and too early, and I was happy for it’s company: not overly taxing, stylish, and driving toward some smaller human truth. My step-mom uses the term “little movies” when she refers to films that set out to accomplish some narrow thing and then succeed; in this way, this book is a “little book.” (And to be clear, this term is not a dig; success on any scale is success, and sometimes art fails because its reach exceeds its grasp.) It was written in the early 90s, and its cyberpunk sensibilities feel worn and frayed, too indebted to its sources to really make the genre new and vital. Mostly, I didn’t mind, but then I like cyberpunk. My real complaint is that the stylishness of the setting, the window-dressing of global warming as global apocalypse, the sense of technology driving the breach between haves and have-nots had little to do with the actual emotional heart of the book. Why dress it as cyberpunk at all?

Our protagonist, an agoraphobic scavenger using a proxy-device, almost rescues a very important man from his rather gruesome death. She steals his newly-written will off of his body, and then decides, due to the assholery of his family, to deliver the will to the rightful heir. Well and good; this will serve as plot. The real story is about her coming to terms with her roommate and sometimes lover Melissa. Her relationship with Melissa is the soul of the book, and the thing I responded to the most, even if the revelations felt forced at times, and the protagonist’s changes incomplete or untrue. I have fallen in love with users. At some point you realize that thee concept of unconditional love is something of a trick designed by people who have been keeping score. It’s not unfair to count the points yourself. 

I say that this is a little book, but I wonder if these things are little at all. It’s hard to say. I read this as my twilight self, companioned by the audible silence of the house and my frustrations with my continued awakeness. This is the odd thing I felt when I finished this book: I might have liked this better had it been billed as young adult, not that I disliked it. It’s fun to complain about marketing; I do it all the time. And I don’t want to fall into the the trap of thinking fiction written for the younger set is somehow smaller and less important. But there is something fundamentally young in the awakenings found within its pages, a young that isn’t naive exactly, but a young that keeps trusting the prostitute she loves despite the obvious metaphorics of her profession. It’s a good first book, worthy of a look at Mixon’s later work. And a good book for the edgy hours before dawn.