Review: Big Bad Wolf by Suleikha Snyder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coronavirus Diary: Supernatural Episodes 1-3

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

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

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

Season 1, Episode 1: “Pilot”

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

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

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

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

Season 1, Episode 2: “Wendigo”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Review: The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher

I first stumbled upon T. Kingfisher not quite knowing what to expect. Or, that’s not precisely true: I stumbled on The Seventh Bride thinking I was going to get one thing — dumb, light romance-adjacent fairy tale retelling — and then what I got was decidedly not that — smart, twisty, disturbing iteration of an already disturbing tale. I mean, most of this misapprehension was on me, because who is going to write a romance-adjacent version of Bluebeard with a straight face, at least that I’m going to run across and then think is a good idea to read. The Seventh Bride was really top shelf stuff, the kind of thing that made me make note of the author’s name. (I’m fairly disastrous with names, so this is a much bigger deal than it might appear.) So I picked up The Twisted Ones on the strength of The Seventh Bride, and I was oh so richly rewarded.The Twisted Ones is the sort of novel that infected my dreams, my evil, eldritch subconscious redressing my nightmares with imagery from the novel because so much of it is horror-adjacent to my own subconscious terrors. Yeesh.

A thirty something woman called Mouse returns to her grandmother’s home in one of the Carolinas to clean it out after her death. Her father, her grandmother’s son, is wasting from one of those unspoken tangle of diseases — maybe cancer with some dementia thrown in — so he doesn’t feel up to emptying his childhood home. Mouse’s grandmother was a hateful old hoarder, and no one much mourns her passing. Nothing about this set up seems a good idea, even to Mouse, who is our rueful, retrospective narrator. She’s constantly breaking in to say: yes, I know how bad this looks, and you’re reading this thinking I should have just cut bait, but that’s not exactly how people work when hip deep in a situation. It might seem a little like meta-textual fuckery, but she’s not wrong. Which is exactly the worst thing about it.

When I was a house painter, I spent a lot of time in people’s homes. Mostly, they were in habitation while I was working, the family mostly off set during the day as they worked or went to school. The house would have a kind of ringing emptiness, so when I was there changing the skin of the house, there was the impression of visitation. Working for hoarders is like this, but also somehow more full. They tend to keep themselves in residence while you work — lest we disrupt the fragile teetering equilibrium — but there’s another presence of the stuff itself. For hoarders, their house and its contents are a memory hoard, and you can feel the weight of that memory as you work in the house.

An anecdote: Due to a tangle of friendships and professional obligations, we worked once for a hoarder in a post-war expansion suburb. We went to pull a permit before we began work, and — I swear this is true — no less than three inspectors manifested, their faces full of thunderous disapproval. She had been in arrears to the city for so long, and so egregiously, that they were about to throw her in jail. My business partner and I did a little softshoe — we’re here to help, not hinder — but they were right sick of her shit, and had little to no faith we could fix anything. You really really have to be fucking up, as a land owner, for the civic system to escalate to that level. Mostly you can do what you want if you own land outright, America being what it is.

We would push into rooms and start the process of beating back mold and powdered plaster. In the afternoon we’d clean up, leaving things empty and drying. When you work in the average person’s home, they don’t want tools and drop cloths set down mid-work, to be picked up in the morning. Something about it is unsettling to homeowners, so we tried to keep a light footprint from the end of one workday and the start of the next. But at the hoarder’s house, we’d return in the morning to find a truly prodigious amount of activity in our absence, as the homeowner busied herself moving the mass of her hoard right into our workspace, trying to cover our disruptive rehabilitation with whatever her shit represented. This did not go well; there was yelling; we eventually cleared it back out.

So Mouse’s project of clearing out a hoarder’s house felt very accurate, to my experience, full up with not just the ghosts of the dead, but the strange fullness of memory and the indefinable tenor of any given person’s stuff. (I’ve also emptied houses after a person’s death or incarceration, and you get this weird sense of a person through their stuff. I have dozens of strange anecdotes that go nowhere about how people live.) Mouse finds a journal, which tries to recreate another journal, which details the supernatural experiences of both journal writers. Again, this could be just preciously meta-textual — a wry commentary on the Gothic novel and its bracketed and embedded narratives — but Mouse’s voice is so authentic, so perfectly pitched, that any literary assholery by me was well and truly disarmed.

Mouse’s voice is so forcefully written — and with such a ringing trueness — that I never questioned why she was staying in this horrific home full up with doll bones and the lingering hatefulness of an old hateful woman — not more than she did. The Twisted Ones reveals the horror slowly, a lapping reveal of the uncanny and the unearthly. The slow reveal is excruciating, the kind of storytelling that reveals the sinister behind the everyday, like the tok tok of what must be woodpeckers, or the almost-not-quite figures in stone. Kingfisher beautifully captures the itchy discomfort that city dwellers feel in the woods — even, and maybe especially, woods we encountered in our muzzy childhoods. She does a nice job with the sort of nosy and judgy experience of being in small towns, but then how such communities will fiercely claim people with even tenuous, distaff relationships in the right circumstances. She draws excellent portraiture of a long-eared dog, whose unflappable dumbassery was an odd comfort in the most horrible moments. All told, an excellent novel, and for sure I’ll be seeking out more of her work.

I received my copy from Netgalley.com

Written in Red by Anne Bishop: Speshal Snowflake Powers Activate

This review slash rumination was written five years ago, before the term “snowflake” took on specific political meaning. Which is to say: now, it’s a slur from conservatives about liberals, slagging them for being thin-skinned or whatever. Back before the current political shitshow, the term “speshal snowflake” had some limited currency out there in the book-o-sphere. It referred to a character who kept mowing down narrative impediments by virtue of inherent awesomeness, a Mary Sue in terms of plot expediency if not eye color. Pretty much all of these terms are now twisted and/or problematic. So, you know, you’re welcome to my anachronistic musings about urban fantasy novels, half a decade too late.

I’m here today, friends, to talk about the Speshal Snowflake. She’s one of those creatures both more ubiquitous and more soul-wearying than vampires, starring in melodramas in multiple subgenres, both fantastic and literary. Like the Mary Sue, who can be either close cousin or indistinguishable doppelganger, the Snowflake can scythe down impediments through sheer narrative invincibility, the hand of the author cradling her against the slings and arrows. She’s the only person that matters; everyone will love her; all will look on her and despair, etc. The Speshal Snowflake is special precisely because we have been told she is so, and anything she does (or does not do, often tellingly) is special on the dint of this telling, both regardless and irrespective of actual, measurable, ethical worth. 

And like the Mary Sue, reactions to the Speshal Snowflake are decidedly gendered. Very rarely, and only in the most egregious of cases, is a male character understood to be either a Mary Sue or a Snowflake. I can’t think of an instance where anyone seriously called Rick Grimes from The Walking Dead a Speshal Snowflake, but it’s all there: complete lack of narrative danger (for Rick), others dying to prove Rick right slash lend gravitas to Rick’s ethical struggles, an almost preternatural ability to fall upwards into leadership roles. I barked out a laugh when Rick was questioned by some nameless Alexandrian in a recent episode, who then got eaten by walkers just moments later. Rick is right because he is right, and the narrative will bend itself around his rightness. Nevermind if it would be well more interesting to see a world where his ethical choices weren’t immediately upheld by the narrative. If the walking dead are like weather, an implacable force that carries no inherent moral force, they they should be ultimately uncaring of any choices anyone makes. No man should be exempt from winds that blow.

But we’re more inclined to call Katniss Everdeen a Snowflake than Rick, even though I feel like their situations and ethical struggles are roughly commensurate in terms of silliness of premise and direness of consequence.The walking dead violate the very laws of physics, and it makes no sense that a teenage girl would be the center of a struggle for empire. Which is I think my point: the walking dead are not weather, they are a narrative device, just as surely as Panem’s ludicrous and impossible political system is a device. Those things aren’t important because story, narrative, is not reality, it is something heightened and purified and concentrated. Let me tell you a tale of people in extremis, and the choices they made. Let us wind up this automaton and let it go. 

These nerds once made relationship maps for things like the Icelandic Sagas and Beowulf, charting how often various characters are in relationship with one another. Beowulf looks like spikes radiating from Beowulf himself, while the Sagas were a complex web of relationship, with no one person in the middle. The Sagas, of course, are based largely in fact, and there is not one particular protagonist of this here world. That a story is about anyone at all, in particular, makes them special.

We are, all of us, the leading role in the story of our lives, and when we slip into the narrative skin of these our avatars, we bring our native self-importance into the mix. We bend to the “I”, because we are the protagonist in our stories unfolding. Which is to say, there isn’t especially anything wrong with the Speshal Snowflake. Every protagonist is going to have more or less Snowflakiness in their crusts because that is how fiction works: this person or persons is more important than all the rest, which is why you’re bothering reading at all. It’s like asking why no one shows people going to the bathroom in movies: because that’s dumb, and it’s not in service to the story. 

Which is not to say that the Speshal Snowflake can’t get irritating. I found Bella Swan cringingly, horrifyingly accurate to my adolescent sense of self-importance and self-involvement — the way she treats her friends is shabby indeed, just as a start — even though the narrative rewarded her constantly for this awful behavior (insofar as anything in Twilight can be understood as a reward). I just fucking squirmed through most of her interactions with her peers, how every single uncharitable instinct of hers was credited, how everyone else’s interior life was that much more legible compared to how complex and inscrutable she is. 

Edward cottons to her precisely because he can’t read her mind, even though we can, and we know. I found this reason for his ardor just hilarious, btw, because literally every boy on earth cannot read my mind, and I certainly didn’t have anyone tripping over themselves to stalk me (more’s the better). There’s something clever about how Meyer sets this up: putting us right in the mind of a boring B+ student of no particular talent, and then making her desirable for something we can all relate to. You know, no one can read my mind either?! And I just got a B+ in English?? We know what she thinks because on some level we thought it as Speshal Snowflakes ourselves, before the world intruded with its elegant and inevitable smackdowns that come in like a thunderstorm as the years tick on. The Speshal Snowflake is someone who has never been confronted with weather, the rain lashing the windows and the electrical wire down on the ground, hissing. 

So. The reason I bring up the Speshal Snowflake is that 100% the protagonist of Written in Red is one. She rolls into town with naught but the clothes on her back, on the run from dangerous figures who are unaccountable to the usual societal systems, and in short order finds herself a job, a place to live, and the protection of otherworldly forces. She heals a boy who was irreparably damaged by the loss of his mother, makes friends with implacable and deadly forces, and almost accidentally works a political system to her favor. She is, in short, everything I should hate in urban fantasy. But I don’t. 

I fairly love her, and her world. The world of Written in Red is something like the one in Charles DeLint’s Newford books, where crows and coyotes and bears shed skins to walk with us humans; or Robin McKinley’s Sunshine, with its profound alt-history of magic and death. We are on another Earth, where humans exist at the largess of creatures terrible in their needs and powers, and as we humans tend to be, we have to be reminded of that fact over and over. I found the perspective of the non-human characters, who think of us a meat, just terrifying, the kind of thing that slipped into my dreams and conjured up nightmares of being hunted and torn. 

Meg Corbyn is a cassandra sangue, a blood prophet, who has been raised as an asset, as a useful source of prophesy for men rich enough to pay for such a thing, and either enrich themselves or feed their predilections. She escapes somehow — no doubt a tale for later books — and ends up in a mid-sized town in the north. Maybe Buffalo, maybe Milwaukee, maybe Minneapolis; big enough to feel more important than farming communities, but too small to really matter (though its residents would never admit it). Another newcomer (and point of view character) is the police officer Monty, who reads like an old school constable, his work more politics and subtle maneuvering than gun handling and force. 

Meg follows a prophesy she had to the inner-city citadel of the Others, where human law does not apply. She’s hoping she can dodge the people who have very real incentive to control her prophesies by hiding behind inhuman monsters. It’s not really much of a plan, admittedly, but she’s been very sheltered. She gets a job as the liaison between the Others and the humans of the city, and most of the plot bops around watching her steps and missteps as she navigates her new life. And it’s here where her Snowflake powers really activate, almost effortless making friends and allies among the Others.

But here’s the thing: I resent Snowflakes that are only so because I have been told they are, characters who are demonstrably terrible people who win only because the author deems it so. (Jamie McGuire writes a ton of these heroines, boy howdy.) I have some reservations about late-period Harry Potter, for example, who gets told over and over that he is good, when a lot of the stuff he does, like the shit with Gringotts and Griphook, is completely indefensible. Completely indefensible, and I will not entertain arguments that say that because Harry is good, nothing he can do is bad.

That is the problem with the Speshal Snowflake: when authors lose sight of moral agency. I would have accepted the sequence with Griphook if there had been any narrative stank on it, an acknowledgement that that was a shite thing to do, but maybe the ethical landscape is more complex than good or bad, that growing up might mean getting dirty. That a lot of evil in the world is done by people acting on what they believe to be the right reasons. That’s not what happens. We are sung a chorus of Harry’s goodness. We will not linger on the sizable number of deaths perpetrated on a poorly understood and sometimes persecuted minority who look a lot like a Jewish stereotype, if you get right down to it. Their lives and deaths do not matter

Phew, I apologize for the freak out; I’ve been saving that one up. That’s not what’s going on here: Meg has very real reasons for why she’s so innocent, why she doesn’t react like normal people to scary, dangerous predators. As a blood prophet, she was kept secluded and helpless. Everything she knows about the real world was through disconnected images and sounds she was taught. If she doesn’t know what a car is, then she can’t describe her visions to the people who control her. At the same token, she can know what a microwave is, but she should not be taught to use one.

Denying her self-sufficiency was a form of social control. That she takes very real delight in learning the simplest of things, like listening to pop music, ischarming, and reminds us readers of the wonder of our everyday lives. I exclaim this quite regularly, but did you know I carry around in my pocket a tiny computer capable of getting me just about any book, movie, or musical recording; it can connect me to others across the globe and on another floor of the house; it can furnish me with information about just about anything. Good god, you guys, it’s like a goddamn science fiction novel. That Meg is fresh and delighted by all the wondrous things we take for granted is no strike against her. 

Her existence as a blood prophet is also very subtly done. She’s been told a lot of things about what that means and how she is, and she only slowly starts to question that received wisdom. It’s not even lingered on, but that Meg very deliberately chooses to live in a place where she has seen a prophesy of her own death, that she doesn’t run from the prophesy, is a very cool detail. This is how a prophet would behave, trusting her own visions, letting them play in the hopes that she could turn the knife, instead of avoiding it altogether,

That the prophesy is accessed through cutting, and that all of the blood prophets are girls, is another fraught detail. The other point of view characters condescend to feel bad for her, assign her the blame for the scars tracing her body, but it’s not as simple as they made me do it or she’s pathological. Especially when we begin to understand the true violence perpetrated on her in the home for girls, when her skin was sold out for the scars it could bear. The potential violence of the Others, which is still often terrifying, has got nothing on the violence she’s already endured. She’s a Speshal Snowflake precisely because she understands weather, and the things worse than weather. 

I’ll admit there were moments when I was like, aw jeez, that’s a little too much. A young woman who plays as clumsy antagonist, working for the people who would get Meg back for her prophetic skin, has baldly stupid motivations that are lingered on far too long. Meg herself mentions another girl in the place she came from, an openly defiant girl, and I wanted to hear way more about her. Reminded me, in a way, of Moira from The Handmaid’s Tale, this bright, angry, dynamic personality who lays in harsh contrast with the almost passive protagonists, the special ones.

(I don’t really have this thunk completely out, but there’s something about those minor characters, the throwaways and half-remembered, who have so much life in them compared to the drear details of the average protagonist, special or not. I have a number of fictions I love precisely because of the minor characters, and though this isn’t exactly that, it’s interesting to me that people can often write the incidental more strongly than the important. Maybe their lack of importance makes them easier to write true.)

Anyway, Written in Red was just delightful to me, the kind of thing gulped down in all the space I could make for it, running to its prophetic conclusion. I thought it dealt beautifully with the trope of the Speshal Snowflake, grounded her right in the background she needed to exist, in the parameters she was given. No, of course, magic doesn’t work, but if it did, this is what it would look like. It would look like the storm on the horizon, the one we can never exactly escape, right up until we batten down, and do.

The Wizard’s Promise by Cassandra Rose Clarke

It kills me to say this, but The Wizard’s Promise didn’t work for me. I think I can see what the book was attempting to do, but I don’t think it did it. The reason I’m so sad I didn’t love this is that Cassandra Rose Clarke absolutely slayed me with The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, killed me so hard I was willing to follow her into young adult fantasy with her duology The Assassin’s Curse/The Pirate’s Wish. I was a rut of being sick of young adult fantasy — all the Chosen Ones and half-assed magical systems, the violet eyes and virgins. The Assassin’s Curse duology ended up rewarding my lovesick mooning over Clarke. While it wasn’t on the gut-punching level of Mad Scientist’s Daughter, the story was active and emotional, with just enough subversion of the tropes to feel fresh in a sometimes moldering genre.

The Wizard’s Promise takes place in the same world as the Assassin’s Curse books do, a generation later, long enough for the exploits of the pirate Ananna to become something between tall tales and legend. Our main character here is even named after Ananna — her mother knew her, apparently — but she goes by Hanna. She lives on one of the northern islands, a spare, insular place. She’s at that itchy cusp of adulthood, still living with the ‘rents, but struggling with what she wants to do with her life in that gauzy, dreamy way of the inexperienced. Maybe I’ll become a famous witch after stunning everyone at school!

Hanna is apprenticing with a fisherman of no particular talent named Kolur at the behest of her mom, and the action of the novel begins when what should be an everyday fishing expedition goes pear-shaped. Hanna and Kolur end up well off course, with a mysterious old friend of Kolur’s — a witch of some talent — along for the ride. Kolur and his witch friend are just obnoxiously withholding about what is going on, and Hanna responds with an equally obnoxious foot-stomping petulance. In the dreary sailing that occurs after they find themselves in the wrong place on the map, Hanna meets a not-quite-human boy named Isolfr, who also is withholding about the shape of things, but less so than the grown ups.

Here is where I want to talk about magic. I generally like the magic in this world, which is both concrete and not over-explained. Hanna’s magical talent is wind-magic, the sort of useful calling up the of the elements for fishermen and boats. There’s also earth-magic — something Hanna’s mother practices — and sea-magic. The rules of magic aren’t gotten into too closely, which I can appreciate, because practice and theory are well two different things. I had a blacksmith once explain to me that “all the goodness” goes out of iron when its been reheated too often and too hotly, and it doesn’t make me a good blacksmith to be able to explain what he means on a molecular level (which I can, but it requires some hand waving and a napkin to write on.)

That doesn’t mean that some of the spell-casting didn’t frustrate me. Isolfr — the not-quite-human boy — casts a spell on Hanna such that the fisherman and the witch she shares a boat with cannot hear anything Hanna says about the boy. This isn’t magic so much as narrative convenience, a football-hiding maneuver that serves the storyteller more than the story. And even though we get some reveals about the purposes of the boy and the fisherman, I couldn’t even tell you why that information was withheld from the reader or from Hanna. Much of the action is inert, without discernible reason for most of the novel. I felt like luggage, carried along by hands unattached to a more vital body of purpose, and this is no place to be as a reader. Magic shouldn’t be convenient; it should be structural.

Which is not to say there weren’t things I enjoyed about The Wizard’s Promise. The couple who befriends Hanna when she’s stuck on some godforsaken rock in the north are wonderfully domestic, with the kind of easy, kindly relationship that’s both kinda obtuse and profoundly enviable. I like how Hanna is forced at a point to work diligently towards amassing enough money to buy her way home, and how that really just doesn’t work, or doesn’t work quickly. She eyes a small jar full of coinage, which fills slowly and then drops as she has to do things like make rent and eat. Not many young adult books — fantastic or not — address the hard economic realities of life at a grinding job that doesn’t reward one’s talents or youth. Like one gets at this age.

It’s possible my trouble is the split-novel format — The Wizard’s Promise is the first of another duology — and maybe this pair is to be back-loaded with all the action and promise not exactly come to fruition in the first. Not even come to the middle, really. I can’t really assess this novel on books that haven’t been written yet (much as I’d like to, loving Clarke the way I do) so I have to say this is not a success as a standalone novel. I’m on the hook for the next, because my heart, but that’s more nostalgia than sensibility. And y’all really should read The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, kthxbai.

 

I received an ARC through NetGalley and Strange Chemistry, and thank them kindly.

Sharcano!!!1!

There’s this dismissive, tautological quote that goes something like, “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.” I can’t find a reputable source for this line — it’s been attributed to Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, or a tumblr image of some cats — but it has the kind of epigrammatic pithiness that makes for great ad copy. I think you can fairly easily tell by the title whether you are in the audience of this book. Sharcano = shark + volcano!!!1! You know if this math is for you.

I guess I expected Sharcano to be a nod to pulp horror like anything by Guy N Smith, a journeyman writer who churned out well over a hundred novels, and, given that he isn’t dead yet, likely is churning them out still. (His wiki page notes that he is an “active pro-smoking campaigner”, which I find inordinately charming. I even smoke, and I know that shit ain’t good for anyone, mostly because I smoke.) I was expecting shoddy continuity, uproarious misogyny, and lurid bloodbath, the kind of thing banged out in two non-consecutive weekends with a lot of uppers in the mix.

But no, Sharcano is more a nod to big budget action disaster films, movies like Armageddon and The Day After Tomorrow. This is not a criticism; more an observation. There’s an estranged couple — one of whom is a massive television personality slash dillhole — so you’ve got your remarriage plot; a couple of moppets of various ethnicity; a priest at the focus of a shady Vatican conspiracy; some bubbas; sasquatch &c. There’s a lot of destruction that would work well better on the screen with Michael Bay-ish craptacular jump cuts, but then there’s a wry comedy aspect that would never be evident in a Michael Bay film.

What Sharcano reminds me most of is The Core, which is a silly disaster film complete with unobtainium and Stanley Tucci. The scene where Tucci is in a train car thing, about to die, bloviating into a tape recorder in his showboat way, and then starts laughing at the ridiculousness of such an act is one of my legit favorites. Almost as good as Samuel L in Deep Blue Sea starting into a monologue about how we’re not going to fight anymore! right before the supershark fucking drops the knowledge. Drop the knowledge, sharks made out of lava. We’ll catch up.

Here’s the thing: I’m not sure this book needs to be 400+ pages, and I’m seriously unsure that it should be the first in a trilogy. Sharcano is well better than it should be, a quality which gives with one hand and takes with another. Pulp’s got a certain energy to it, a rough, unedited pulse. Sharcano has a more arms-reach approach to the material, a half-ironic tone that tries to split the difference between straight up satire and gleeful homage. That’s a hard line to walk, very hard, and that Sharcano manages it at all should be seen as a win. If you like this sort of thing, as the cats of tumblr tell me, then this is the sort of thing you’ll like.

 

I received my copy from Netgalley. Thanks, dudes.

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? 

 

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

Original review January 2012

As a reading experience, I loved Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey. I was sick when I started, looking for the literary equivalent to a Law & Order marathon. Space opera is the police procedural of the science fiction world, and this one has an actual police procedural embedded within. It’s a galactic billiards game, the ordinary made extraordinary through the right place, right time, a bunch of forensics/technology, a lot of fragility of life just on this side of the hard vacuum of space. I mean, gee whiz.

There’s a Jim Anchower article, Jim being one of the “columnists” for the Onion, that describes Star Wars: Attack of the Clowns as “like watching C-SPAN on some other planet” – a bunch of boring imaginary politics playing out in the most expository way possible. Space opera can fall into this so, so easily. The ships embody the engines of society, and authors get caught up in the schematics, reading out the blueprints. Look at this nifty pinball game I made! It’s cheering when books like Leviathan Wakes avoid this trap. The characters here are more types than actual people, but the cultures they inhabit, they were well sketched. This is an alien-less environment (for the most part) – so the conflicts are between people, in social terms: the Belters, several generations out living in low-g on Saturnine moons or asteroids, stretched by weightlessness, grousing about tariffs and taxes imposed by the colonizing Earthers or Martians; the freedom-fighters/terrorists; the subtle pull of cultural gravities in different places.

As befits a dual-author novel, this pings back and forth between two pov characters: a space ship captain cut from the same cloth as Malcolm Reynolds, with more high-handedness and less Han Solo, and a noir-ish cop who getting to old for this shit. The individual sections tend to be beautifully arced, little vignettes which build from one of those “he didn’t know that his day could get any worse” and then ramping up furiously until you hit the next commercial break section totally leaned in, freaking out. Maybe it sounds like I’m making fun of this, and I am just a little, but affectionately so. There is something to be said for this kind of masterful genre writing, the guns laid onto the table in deliberate, methodical gestures, and fired one at a time, hitting their targets with a casualness that belies study, and lots of it. Bew bew! The book is masterfully plotted, and absolutely joyful to read.

But, two things stuck in my craw starting at about half-way point. Miller, our exhausted, alcoholic Belter cop who is in over his head, leaves the culture which props up his personality – types, as I said, more than people – and at this point his character falls apart for me. His motivations become laughable, his psychology almost literally unreal. You cannot take a type like Miller out of his world, because he is his world or the lens on it, the situated observer, the commentary though moving mouthpiece. And his relationship with Julie is squicky in a way I can’t put my finger on, but in a way that dovetails into my next complaint.

At about 3/4 through, two women have a conversation about going to the bar and playing a game together, and then have some teasing fun. This is (I’m pretty sure) the only conversation that keeps this entire 600ish page novel from failing the second two parameters of the Bechdel Test – and that just barely, because this was not a necessary or meaningful exchange. Now, yes, the Bechdel Test was developed for movies, and failing the test does not mean the book sucks. There’s all kinds of situations that fail the Bechdel test because they are small, personal stories that take place with limited characters, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But a tumbling active story taking place all over an entire freaking solar system? It is incredibly discouraging to me to find yet another fictional solar system in which women are only love interests or ball-busting superior officers, vague individuals in a universe peopled by men almost exclusively. Miller’s relationship with Julie, in this context, seems like that shitty thing where a girl becomes an emblem, a chit in a psychological game that moves a man, because a man is what moves. I don’t think I’m supposed to heart Miller and the way this plays out, but it doesn’t feel good to read.

I don’t want to come down on this too hard or act like this book is somehow anti-feminist or anti-woman. It just feels like in riffing on these traditionally boys-only genres – the police procedural, the space opera, the cop show – no one bothered to notice the boys-onlyness. And there are, to make up for this lack, a pretty subtle sense of politics and societal tendencies, and vomit zombies. Vomit zombies! I’m not going to explain, because explanations is spoilers, yo, but the vomit zombies were part of a general inventiveness and genre-specific yee-haw! that I really enjoy reading. This is a first in a series, I am given to understand, and although this one ties off in a way that doesn’t dot-dot-dot to the sequel, I would totally read the next one. Gee whiz!

 

Edit: I’m feeling a little defensive for bringing up the Bechdel test, for no good reason, because it’s not like anyone has called me on it or something. I went and looked at the books on my space opera shelf, and at least half of them fail this test, as far as I can recall. It’s a pretty common thing. The names thing is little easier to pass in books, because it isn’t hard to name a female character on the page, even if she is throwaway and tangential. The rest though – that happens much less frequently. I would just like us all to image a boy version of the Bechdel test, where we look for a book that fails that, a book where there are not two male characters who have names, they don’t talk to each other, and when they do, they only talk about women. Can you think of even one book or movie that fails this test? I don’t think so. And sure as shit, you can’t think of a hundred.

Unsafe on Any Screen by Scott Phillips

I’m really trying here to come up with a Walter Benjamin quote about media studies and engagement with popular culture, and I’m totally failing, which is about right. Obviously, I spend waaaay too much time reading all of y’alls lovely, personal reviews of all kinds of books. Books I would never read; books I have been warned away from; books I’ve been ordered to read; books I have on the long and growing list that I will never complete because some day I’m going to die.
Even though I have less engagement with movies, as an art form, I compulsively read movie reviews as well. I have the reviewers I trust, and the reviewers I know that I can take anything they say and turn it inside out, so that a bad review becomes a recommendation. I have a passing interest in trash movies, but not a full-blown love affair. Mostly my affection for bad movies leads back to Mystery Science Theater 3000, and the times I spent with my family watching MST3K. My immediate family, growing up, was all-female, and I still have the warmest of memories of watching bad movies on Thanksgiving, with my mother & sister, in lieu of the football that was de rigueur in most co-ed households.

Scott Phillips doesn’t just have nostalgia to warm him when he watches grindhouse trash, he has a full-blown and well articulated love. This is awesome, and makes for a fine collection of movie reviews. Leonard Maltin, you may fu*k yourself. Many of the movies reviewed in this slender volume cannot be found on Netflix or even in your local video store, should you have such antiquated things in your location. You have to seek these movies out. They are made by people on no budget, with a group of friends, and a maniacal laugh. Or they were made on a budget and then disappeared. Phillips has an encyclopedic knowledge of the pedigree and taxonomy of trash cinema, so that he can draw lines between this director and that, this actor, this imprint, etc. Awesome.

I get the impression that Unsafe on Any Screen started life as a blog, so some of the reviews are annoyingly short. Kind of like my – and many people’s – early reviews. But once he starts cooking, man, what a joy to behold. He has really weird grading scales: one about how many greased gorillas he’d fight to watch the film in question, and one about how many scotches, or whiskeys? it takes to get through the film. I endorse this. The scotch metric in particular, not because I especially love scotch, but because it can be either a bad or a good thing that a particular film is awarded the high scotch metric. I feel this way about a thousand things: that they are awesome, but they make me drink, or that they are terrible, and they make me drink. Or they are nothing at all and I remain sober. It gets at the whole deep ambivalence I feel towards so much stuff, even the stuff I love, in an intensely satisfying way. My only real complaint is that there is no index. At least the reviews are alphabetical.

What it comes down to is that I’m as fascinated by the critical process as I am with the art/trash in question, and this book is as much a love letter to the silly fun we have while watching bad movies as it is to the movies themselves. His exuberance is infectious, like an alien pathogen beamed down to a small Italian village that infects a scantily clad babe. It’s going to eat someone’s brains, but it might just take its top off before it does so.

Keep circulating the tapes.

Also, P.S., Scott is a friend of mine, which is how come I read this, in interests of full disclosure. I never know where to put these disclosures: at the front, like I’m defensive, or at the close, like I’m sneaking? I guess I’m going with sneaking this time. The thing is, there’s no such thing as objectivity, so I’m not even going to pretend that the fact I think Scott, personally, is awesome didn’t have an effect on my read. It did. But in this case, his balls-out love of his subject, his total commitment to  the barrel-bottom of sleaze and cheese movies resonated for me. I know love when I see it, and he loves this shit. Amen.