The Cold Commands by Richard K. Morgan

I reviewed this ages ago, but have just gotten around to re-posting.

If what you feel has been missing from your average Tolkien-clone is hot, gay sex, then this is the book for you.

No, j/k, I’m being immature, and I’ve never been one to let a one-liner lie. What I have been missing from your average Tolkien-clone is hot, gay sex. While I love Tolkien, his far-reaching over-shadowing influence on later fantasists results in an awful lot of heraldic bullshit and courtly fol-de-rol, with wide-eyed teenage boys who are Ken-like from the waist down pining for perfect gfs and bloodlessly questing for the Sparkly McGuffin. Oh, the Sparkly McGuffin! Forged in the fires of Mount Plot by the Great Evil Tautology!

Richard K. Morgan strides in with his great swinging dick – I mean dirk – and knocks all this stuff over. Smash! Smash! Wheee! This sounds like it could be a lot of fun – and there certainly is fun to be had – but as Morgan’s first foray into fantasy, he seems to fall into some common fantasy traps. The world building is painfully slow, clearly designed to be nuanced enough to cover another couple of books, but I wonder how much of this could have been contracted or excised completely. (I can’t believe I’m bitching about nuance.) The names are all annoyingly polysyllabic and oddly similar, meaning lazy readers such as myself are often confused and lost. I get why people in fantasy can’t be named “Steve” and “Bob,” but the names seemed tin-earish. (Also, why does everything have to start with a G or a K? What is it about these letters that says “sword and sorcery” to English speakers? C’mon, linguists, I need to know.)

At about halfway, I was ready to give up, so I came on bookface and got a little pep-talk from Mike’s review — unfortunately no longer extant —  which reminded me why I tend to dig Morgan’s stuff: the snarling misanthropy, the unbelievably brutal violence that is neither precious nor glorified, the biting political invective. The later half of the book rapidly picks up steam; the almost tedious details of the earlier half of the novel coalescing into textured history – and one that doesn’t feel the need to name every damn rock and twig in remembrance of some heroic act a millennium ago, but one that has a dirty, lived-in feel. All the f-bombs, drug use, whores – and believe me, I’m sick to death of authors using whores to make their fantasy worlds seem “real” – mesh convincingly into a world that values character over genre conventions. I actually lol’d when, late in the novel, one of the principles meets with what is functionally an elf princess, the sister of his new lover, and they have one of those standard heraldic-I-can’t-really-speak-your-language meet-cutes full of ye gads forthwith forsooths, at the end of which she says, “Fuck with my brother, and I’ll kill you” in roughly that phrasing. Ha! Good times.

And did I mention the gay sex? Mostly, I think sex scenes in non-romance novels fail because they do not do work to push the narrative along. (Romance novels tend to understand the importance of the physical mirroring the emotional.) Like Morgan’s fight scenes, the sex is embodied and explicit, and discomforting to read. The protagonist’s homosexuality isn’t something pasted on, theoretical, but a fledged desire. Morgan’s got himself some running themes about how the powers that be build an artifice of morality that they hide behind, using your “sins” – the ones they created for you – as a lever to make you perpetrate real crimes, institutional crimes like war, the kind of crimes you never really come back from. There’s a running gag where characters ask one another “Have you ever killed a child?” Invariably, the answer was, “I was in the war, wasn’t I?” It would almost be funny, if it weren’t so damn sad, that a lot of reviews I’ve read (here and elsewhere) spill more ink about the man-on-man-elf action than they do about the explicit horror of the violence – the thing with the heads in the third act I’m not going to be able to scrub out for a while – and I think this is Morgan’s point. An institutional morality that justifies war while squealing like a bunch of faux-prissy voyeurs over a private, consensual act creates institutions, and moralities, that I find distasteful, to say the least.

Burn it, burn it all, might be Morgan’s take-home message, one that I’m not comfortable with either, but one for which I have no easy retort. Morgan explicitly takes on the “consider the children” argument and tears it to shreds. I’ve often joked about finding nihilism sexy, but it’s mostly because I’m afraid of it, and desire and danger like to hold hands and skip together. I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue reading this trilogy – and Morgan earns my respect for tying this one off in a way that I could end it here – but in writing my review, I’ve talked myself into it. The dark lord is rising. Let’s see what he does next.

The Year in Reading: 2022

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

Stuff I read for class:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zombies!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seanan McGuire

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

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

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

Ann Aguirre

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

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

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

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

Jessie Mihalik

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

Various Series I Continued Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Various One-Offs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cozy Catastrophes: A Very British Invasion in The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham deliberately invokes The War of the Worlds to repudiate the concept of social Darwinism, but in such a way to be legible to a post-war audience. The Midwich Cuckoos, a novel about a group of otherworldly children born to a quiet English village, doesn’t look much like an alien invasion story, let alone Wells’s Martian invasion. A flying saucer is photographed on the town green during an event called the Dayout, in which the entire town is rendered unconscious, and all the women of childbearing age become pregnant. This photo and some impressions in the grass are the extent of the direct evidence that the Children – as they come to be known – are alien in nature.[1] Indeed, the sometime authorial mouthpiece, Dr. Zellaby, posits that the Children aren’t alien so much as the next iteration of human (Wyndham, 197). Like the strangeness of describing the birth of sixty-odd children as an alien invasion, it seems odd that the events in The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells are described as a war at all. Technologically superior Martians do, indeed, invade Surrey, but the Edwardian British military is so outmatched there is only the most cursory resistance. The invasion continues unchecked, until the Martians are felled, ironically, by the “transient creatures”[2] of bacteria. The war alluded to in the title is one of evolutionary struggle: because humans have been locked in “an incessant struggle for survival” with microorganisms, we have developed a resistance to their ill effects (Wells, 168). The Midwich Cuckoos is in dialogue with The War of the Worlds throughout, updating and localizing the Wellsian position against social Darwinism in what is best understood as a post-Holocaust novel.[3]

Several times in the novel, Wells invokes the contemporary debate between T. H. Huxley and Herbert Spenser. Huxley was vigorously opposed to Spenser’s concept of “evolutionary ethics:” that societies are subject to the same evolutionary forces as individual biota, and that this evolution always tends toward higher forms. Spencer saw the competition apparent in nature as an appropriate model for human ethical conduct. To wit: society should be constructed to allow maximum competition between individuals, with the accumulation of wealth as the indicator of “fitness.”[4] To Huxley, fitness in biological terms didn’t equate to moral rightness, and evolution was a biological process that didn’t require our intervention. Put another way: society is not natural process like evolution, a process which is morally neutral precisely because it is outside of our control.[5] That being said, the Darwinism in The War of the Worlds does perform a moral function, and the themes of the novel are overtly about the conflict between science and religion, and the brutality of colonialism. Wells uses the Martian invasion to illustrate to his Imperial British audience what it might feel like to be colonized by a technologically superior force.[6] Sarcastically invoking the language of social Darwinism, the unnamed narrator lays bare the cruelty of colonialism:

And before we judge of [the Martians] too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought. […] The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit? (Wells, 9)

The extermination of the Tasmanians is attributed to “our own species,” not the British Empire. The Tasmanians themselves have a “human likeness,” but ultimately aren’t human. Blaming rote biology and Darwinian competition for the destruction caused by colonialism both justifies and excuses that violence. It is all to the good of the species, in the end.

Another reason The War of the Worlds reads so strangely to a modern audience is because it was written before both world wars. This leads to odd little moments, like when one of the rubberneckers at the site where the Martians’ cylindrical craft has landed suggests building a trench around the craft, and his friend responds, “You always want trenches” (Wells, 39). Given the British experience in World War I, the mention of trenches becomes ruefully comic, an accident of history Wells certainly couldn’t have anticipated. Though Wyndham’s experience of the World Wars was almost exactly as he describes Gordon Zellaby’s – “Too young for one war, tethered to a desk in the Ministry of Information in the next” (Wyndham, 15) – the cultural, and, in some cases, literal landscape had profoundly changed in the time between the two novels’ publication. The man christened John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris wrote under a half a dozen pen names during his life, all of them variations and permutations of his given name.[7] His works in the 1930s, when writing for largely American pulp science fiction magazines, are in line with their contemporaries: often occurring on spaceships peopled with Venusians or Martians, occasionally with lurid, sexualized covers.[8] But the outset of World War II put an end to the era of pulp serials of the 1930s, and the Beynon and Harris personae. While a couple short stories written before the War were published during, he wrote no fiction during the war years. During the Blitz, he lived and worked in London as a censor for Military Intelligence,[9] and eventually joined the war effort directly, including taking part in the Normandy Invasion. It isn’t until 1951 that he publishes a novel under the Wyndham name. While the John Wyndham novels in some ways have the ornament of earlier pulp serials – ambulatory carnivorous plants![10] abyssal aliens![11] – they work by “submerging his fantastic element”[12] into the everyday in the tradition of H. G. Wells. In The Midwich Cuckoos, John Wyndham reaches back before both World Wars, and updates The War of the Worlds, the original British Invasion narrative.

Wyndham manipulates the reader into identifying with the concentration camp guard, whose moral imperative is to commit genocide, paradoxically to save civilization.[13] As Zellaby, the man who detonates the bomb, says days before the end: “It is our duty to our race and our culture to liquidate the Children” (Wyndham, 201). Not kill, not defeat – liquidate the Children. Just after this stunning utterance by a man who has acted as father figure and teacher to the Children – in addition to functioning as the expository mouthpiece – Zellaby yet again invokes Wells, bemoaning how Wells didn’t anticipate a moment in history when governments contemplated – then perpetrated – the systematic eradication of their citizens.

Take H. G. Wells’s Martians, for instance. As the original exponents of the death-ray they were formidable, but their behavior was quite conventional: they simply conducted a straightforward campaign with a weapon which outclassed anything that could be brought against it. […] Yet, over-all, what do we have? Just another war. The motivations are simplified, the armaments complicated, but the pattern is the same and, as a result, not one of the prognostications, speculations, or extrapolations turns out to be of the least use to us when the thing actually happens (Wyndham, 180-81).

The invasion of Midwich by its own children and their eventual destruction is not “just another war:” it is something decidedly worse. Zellaby uses the language of Darwinism to conceptualize and situate the Children of Midwich, invoking the social Darwinism used to justify some of the most horrific atrocities of the 20th Century. Social Darwinism recasts a fight for “our way of life” into an existential struggle, and ultimately, a zero-sum game.

Welcome to Midwich

From the very beginning there are several similarities between The War of the Worlds and The Midwich Cuckoos, the most foundational being the sense of place. The events in the Wells novel are so perfectly mapped to turn of the 19th century Surrey and London that a contemporary reader would feel deep familiarity with the landscape.[14] For a reader at a remove of place and time, this can be alienating in and of itself, so the most successful of adaptions – such as Orson Welles’s 1938 radio play – retain the original novel’s almost documentary feel. In his radio play, Orson Welles relocates the invasion to Grover’s Mill, New Jersey,[15]and the action moves through similarly legible locales towards New York City. This verisimilitude famously resulted in more than a few listeners taking the story of invasion as fact.[16] Situating alien horror in carefully recreated local spaces both imbues the alien with a sense of reality and heightens the effects of the horror.[17] Wyndham also details the locale of Midwich, site of his alien invasion, with cartographic clarity; the first chapter is given almost completely over to description of the town and the second its inhabitants. Like The War of the Worlds, the portrait of the mundane detail of Midwich foregrounds the uncanniness of the Children once they arrive on the scene. The key difference in these portraits is two-fold: first, the town of Midwich doesn’t exist, and second, the portrait is satirical.

Midwich is positioned as a sort of everywhere and nowhere, embodying an “Arcadian undistinction” of composite and consummate Englishness. “The vicarage is Georgian; The Grange Victorian; Kyle Manor has Tudor roots with numerous later graftings. The cottages show most of the styles which have existed between the two Elizabeths” (Wyndham, 6). The town’s minor claims to fame are so minor they would only ever be known to locals, and the narrator’s description pokes some gentle fun at various English luminaries. “Other events include the stabling of Cromwell’s horses in the church, and a visit by William Wordsworth, who was inspired by the Abbey ruins to the production of one of his more routine commendatory sonnets.” When the narrator, Richard Gayford, returns to Midwich to find the road into the town blocked, it is made all the stranger due to the “simple ordinariness of the place” (Wyndham, 5). Consequently, the events of the Dayout – the 24-hour period in which the inhabitants of Midwich lose consciousness and 61 women become pregnant – has all the elements of a farce. People, cows, cars, buses, ambulances, and any other creature that strays into the influence of the invisible dome over the town fall unconscious in visible but unapproachable heaps. On the other side of the line, a corresponding collection of rubberneckers, firemen, constables, and a not insignificant number of military men collect, trying to ascertain the scope and radius of the affected area. This culminates in two ferrets being dangled over Midwich in a helicopter, at about which time the people of Midwich revivify, presumably to the ferrets’ relief (Wyndham, 22-34).

Unlike the locations in The War of the Worlds, Midwich can feel generally familiar to anyone because it is not precisely familiar, but the satirical nature of the portraiture cues us into the fact that not everything that occurs in the novel is to be taken at face value. Midwich is encased in a dome and scrutinized by an increasing military presence in the beginning, and ultimately, that dome never comes off, and the military presence never relents. Starting with the Dayout and continuing through to the Children’s psychic compulsion which entraps the locals in roughly the same space, the town of Midwich is effectively isolated from their neighbors, and from larger British life. Even before the pregnancies are discovered or the Children born, military intelligence endeavors to hush up the Dayout. The diegetic reason for suppressing information about the Dayout, at first, is the presence of The Grange, a scientific research installation run by the military within the affected area. This furtiveness seems to be a reflexive act by a society still on a military footing after the end of World War II, because even the Colonel in charge of “Operation Midwich” doesn’t know what the Grange does. “Trouble is, for all we know it may be some little trick of our own gone wrong. So much damned secrecy nowadays that nobody knows anything” (Wyndham, 28).

Given the publication date and the internal timeline, the Children must have been born in the two years after VE Day. Many of the major characters are former (or current) soldiers – including the narrator, Richard Gayford, his war buddy now in military intelligence, Bernard Westcott, and Gordon Zellaby. The events of the Dayout are put under “the intimidating muzzle of the Offical Secrets Act” (Wyndham, 40). All through the novel, the relationship between the Children and the larger world is discussed in military terms: the impending birth of the Children is referred to as “D-Day” and a “battle” for which they’ve booked a “commando of midwives” (Wyndham, 78-79), and after their birth the vicar, Mr. Leebody, observes: “It has been a battle, […] but battles, after all, are just the highlights of a campaign. There are more to come” (Wyndham, 86). A militarized society has turned its gaze inward, towards the next generation.[18]

The Narrator

The narrative style in The Midwich Cuckoos leans hard on what Damon Knight calls “Wellsian retrospective clarity”[19] – subjective narration with the imprimatur of an objective perspective. Like in The War of the Worlds, the events in Midwich are related at a comfortable remove in time, a “narrative focalization which invests the text with the aura of authenticity.”[20] The reader never questions the information provided by the narrator in The War of the Worlds, despite the narrator being untrustworthy in several key regards.[21] In the rhetorically masterful opening, the narrator details the motivations and preparations of the Martians. The Martians “scrutinized and studied humanity,” and “slowly and surely drew their plans against us” (Wells, 7). At no point does the narrator mention humans and Martians meaningfully communicating, even in the six years following the invasion; he simply cannot know this about the Martians’ intent. His assertion is instead designed to shock Wells’s contemporaries out of their “infinite complacency” (Wells, 7). Because these assertions are made at the very beginning, the narrator’s suppositions are presented as fact in a way the audience won’t question, even if they are never corroborated.

In The Midwich Cuckoos, the narrator, Richard Gayford, and his wife Janet are new members of the Midwich community. Despite their year spent living in Midwich, transplants are rarely considered a local after the passage of several years (and, indeed, often not even after the passage of several decades.) He’s further at a remove in that he and his wife were absent for the Dayout, and therefore avoided gestating one of the Children themselves. The opening of the novel, wherein he details the events of the Dayout and its direct aftermath, are within his lived experience – a first-hand account. But it doesn’t take long for the narrative to spread beyond what our narrator himself experiences. Richard himself addresses this: 

And now I come to a technical difficulty, for this, as I have explained, is not my story; it is Midwich’s story. If I were to set down my information in the order it came to me I should be flitting back and forth in the account, producing an almost incomprehensible hotchpotch of incidents out of order, and effects preceding causes. Therefore it is necessary that I rearrange my information, disregarding entirely the dates and times when I acquired it, and put it into chronological order. If this method of approach should result in the suggestion of uncanny perception, or disquieting multiscience, in the writer, the reader must bear with it the assurance that it is entirely the product of hindsight (Wyndham, 46).

At this point, the narrative assumes almost a third person impartiality for the second act, only occasionally broken by Richard’s often milquetoast interjections or his wife Janet’s more pointed barbs. Like the Wellsian narrator, Richard is part of the action, but often peripherally. For instance, several chapters of The War of the Worlds are given over to an account of the Martian invasion told from the perspective of the narrator’s brother.

Wyndham makes several important changes to the Wellsian storytelling style which subtly undercut the overt message and its messengers. Many of the biographical details from Wells’s narrator are relocated into the character of Dr. Gordon Zellaby. Zellaby and the narrator from The War of the Worlds are writers of cultural criticism, of the type that largely exists to be ironic considering subsequent events in the novel. (Richard is also a writer, but there is one allusion to his publisher on the first page, and it is never mentioned again.) Zellaby’s son-in-law says about While We Last, one of two of Zellaby’s Works named in the text: “It had been an interesting, but, he thought, gloomy book; the author had not seemed to him to give proper weight to the fact that the new generation was more dynamic, and rather more-clearsighted than those that preceded it…” (Wyndham, 12). The other named text is, fittingly, The British Twilight (Wyndham, 75). The unnamed narrator in The War of the Worlds, at the time of invasion, is “busy upon a series of papers discussing the probable developments of moral ideals as civilization progressed” (Wells, 12). When he returns home after the novel’s cataclysmic events, he finds his work in progress interrupted at the moment of (no doubt now thoroughly wrong) prognostication: “’In about two hundred years,’ I had written, ‘we may expect–‘” (Wells, 176).

Wyndham relocates the expository authority to Dr. Zellaby, while the voice of credibility – scientific or otherwise – resides in the unnamed narrator in The War of the Worlds. Largely Richard serves to ask prompting questions when Zellaby is holding forth; Wells’s narrator can more than hold forth on his own. In The War of the Worlds, because the narrator can control how his expository scientific speculations are perceived, we tend not to question some very questionable things. The narrator only tells us in the epilogue that his “knowledge of comparative physiology is confined to a book or two” and that the operating theory in the narrative for the Martians’ sudden, collective demise – that they have no natural resistance to earthly bacteria – is an assumption “so probable as to be regarded almost as a proven conclusion” (Wells, 175). Because he’s the one telling the story, he can present his subjective experience as objective fact. He boasts: “Now no surviving human being saw so much of the Martians in action as I did” (Wells, 128), but we have no way of knowing if that is true.[22]

By splitting the functions of the narrator in two, Wyndham ends up undercutting both Richard and Zellaby. This split creates the opportunity for the depiction of contrary reactions to Zellaby’s Darwinian speculation. In one humorous instance, Richard glances over at his wife, Janet, which shows him she’s not listening anymore. “When she has decided that someone is talking nonsense she makes a quick decision to waste no more effort upon it, and pulls down an impervious mental curtain” (Wyndham, 117). Richard, who is narrator but not mouthpiece, can subtly impact how that mouthpiece is perceived by showing reactions other than his own. While there is occasionally pushback against the narrator in The War of the Worlds, he can frame those objections as meritless or specious. The narrator at one point falls in with a curate, and the curate’s reaction is like Janet Gayford’s reaction to Zellaby. “I began to explain my view of our position. He listened at first, but as I went on the dawning interest in his eyes gave place to their former stare, and his regard wandered from me” (Wells, 71). At this point, the curate interrupts, ranting in biblical terms. The narrator responds by questioning the curate’s manhood and derisively dismissing his theology. “Do you think God had exempted Weybridge? He is not an insurance agent, man” (Wells, 72). The curate’s inattention to the narrator’s exposition says something about the curate – that he is hysterical and irrational – while Janet Gayford’s inattention to says something about Zellaby’s theorizing – that it’s nonsense.

While Zellaby’s disquisitions don’t have the imprint of a true narrator’s authority, Richard is a much more damaged narrator than the one in The War of the Worlds. Once past his own (slight) involvement with the Dayout, everything that Richard Gayford records must be an aggregate of information told to him by the people of Midwich, and subject to the same embellishments and distortions of any collected folklore. This becomes most apparent when Richard recounts events for which not only was he not present but were not attended by any other men. After the powers that be – the vicar, the doctor, and Zellaby, critically – figure out that all the pregnancy-capable people of Midwich are capably pregnant, they set up a town meeting to be managed by the brusquely efficient Angela Zellaby, Dr. Zellaby’s wife. This is after the men decide not to inform the women of the likely alien nature of their pregnancies, something Zellaby blithely refers to as “benign censorship” (Wyndham, 58). During the meeting, it becomes clear that the women already know this. Angela’s opening statement alludes to this directly: “If any married woman here is tempted to consider herself more virtuous than her unmarried neighbor, she might do well to consider how, if she were challenged, she could prove that the child she now carries is her husband’s child” (Wyndham, 64).

The meeting itself is precipitated by the attempted suicide of a pregnant 17-year-old, information which is relayed to the reader after a long list of abortion attempts. 

One not-so-young woman suddenly bought a bicycle, and pedaled it madly for astonishing distances, with fierce determination. 

Two young women collapsed in over-hot baths. 

Three inexplicably tripped, and fell downstairs. 

A number suffered from unusual gastric upsets (Wyndham, 52).

The words “pregnancy” and “abortion” do not occur in the text. Instead, information is conveyed stating plain facts, with a twist of wryness or mild sarcasm: the bike ride is laden with superlatives, marking the act with strangeness, and the falls down the stairs are “inexplicable,” a feigned ignorance which gestures to a reason that can be explained but not articulated. The satirical nature of the proceedings puts a spin on everything we hear. Everything that happens in that single-sex meeting is by needs relayed to Richard, and while they might accurately describe events, much will be encoded in gendered language and lacuna, the gaps as well as the utterances. Like the Children, the people of Midwich exist in two gendered collectives, and the social conventions are so strong that a lot of information can be conveyed with very little actually said.

The Treatment of Religion

Wyndham uses the characters of Reverend Hubert Leebody and his wife, Dora, to illustrate religious responses to the Children. Mrs. Leebody most easily maps to the curate character in The War of the Worlds, with whom, in one of the stranger interludes in the novel, the unnamed narrator finds himself trapped in a partially collapsed house. While the narrator witnesses the Martians doing truly terrible things from his hidden vantage – the image of the alien sucking the blood of a captured human through a pipette, like a straw, horrifies – he saves much of his fury for his fellow human. The stress of the invasion has driven the curate into a kind of catatonia, alternating between gibbering inaction and hyper-mania. He refers to the Martians as “God’s ministers” (Wells, 71), and understands the attack as a form of divine retribution.[23] This infuriates the narrator – “What good is religion if it collapses under calamity?” (Wells, 71) – and expresses Wells’s own hostility towards organized religion, which he felt deliberately impeded the improvement of humanity under rational and scientific principles.[24]

Similarly, Mrs. Leebody sees her unnatural pregnancy as a form of divine punishment, though she expresses feelings of godly persecution with considerably more restraint. “When things – unusual things like this – suddenly happen to a community there is a reason. I mean, look at the plagues of Egypt, and Sodom and Gomorrah, and that kind of thing.” Immediately in the text, there are three immediate responses: by Zellaby, Zellaby’s pragmatic wife, Angela, and Dora Leebody’s husband, the Vicar.

“For my part,” [Zellaby] observed, “I regard the plagues of Egypt as an unedifying example of celestial bullying; a technique now known as power-politics. As for Sodom” He broke off and subsided as he caught his wife’s eye.

“Er—” said the Vicar, since something seemed to be expected of him. “Er—”

Angela came to his rescue.

“I really don’t think you need worry about that, Mrs. Leebody. Barrenness is, of course, a classical form of curse; but I really can’t remember any instance where retribution took the form of fruitfulness. After all, it scarcely seems reasonable, does it?”

“That would depend on the fruit,” Mrs. Leebody said, darkly (Wyndham, 69).

In addition to being typical of Wyndham’s low-key satirical humor, the three responses to Mrs. Leebody’s feelings of collective punishment are illuminating. Zellaby, as usual, while feeling “impelled to relieve the awkwardness,” only contributes to it by walking right up to talking openly about homosexuality in mixed company. He conceives of religion as a sort of political theater, which he discards as “unedifying.” Her husband, the vicar – much like the curate in The War of the Worlds – ends up sputtering: he has no coherent response to his wife’s feelings of spiritual retribution. It is Angela Zellaby, yet again, who delivers a brusquely reasonable response, one that Dora Leebody dismisses. “I am a sinner, you see. If I had had my child twelve years ago, none of this would have happened. Now I must pay for my sin by bearing a child that is not my husband” (Wyndham, 70). I’m not sure if this circumlocution refers to an abortion, a miscarriage, or simply a desire not to have children, but Dora Leebody nonetheless occupies the position that events are divinely ordained.

Rev. Leebody, while nonetheless tirelessly ministering to the people of Midwich, doesn’t express theological consideration of the Children until near the very end, after the Children have impelled the Pawle brothers to commit suicide. (Honestly, this is a little surprising, given that Leebody is introduced listening to a program on “pre-Sophoclean Conception of the Oedipus Complex,” a title which evinces an obtuse intellectualism more closely aligned with Zellaby’s rhetorical style (Wyndham, 17)). He posits that because the Children are not made in God’s image – God is, apparently, singular, and the Children exist as gendered collective-individuals, to use Zallaby’s term (Wyndham, 117) – they cannot be considered using the same moral yardstick. Despite this theological argument, Leebody nevertheless uses the language of Darwinism. “They have the look of the genus homo, but not the nature. And since they are of another kind, and murder is, by definition, the killing of one of one’s own kind, can the killing of one of them by us be, in fact, murder? It would appear not” (Wyndham, 151). Zellaby sees the implications of this argument straight away: if it is morally permissible for the villagers to kill the Children, then the converse is true. Notably, given his actions in the end, Zellaby rejects this reasoning as “ethically unsatisfactory.” He sees Leebody’s version of God’s likeness as too parochial. “But, as I understand it, your God is a universal God; He is God on all suns and all planets” (Wyndham, 152). Tellingly, Zellaby distances himself from viewing the Children in theological terms – it is “your God”, not his – even when it comes wrapped up in scientific jargon.  

By contrast, while the narrator in The War of the Worlds finds the anxious, vituperative morality of the curate infuriating, he ultimately sees the death of the Martians in religious terms. When the Martians are felled by simple bacteria, which he describes as “the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put up on the earth” (Wells, 168), he finds their deaths “incomprehensible.” He only begins to understand their destruction through biblical analogy. “For a moment I believed that the destruction of Sennacherib[25] had been repeated, that God had repented, that the Angel of Death had slain them in the night” (Wells, 169). He ends this epiphany with his hands reaching for the sky, thanking God (Wells, 170). He does downplay this religious exultation later in the epilogue, in a passage which eloquently captures the lingering effect of trauma.

I must confess the stress and danger of the time have left an abiding sense of doubt and insecurity in my mind. I sit in my study writing by lamplight, and suddenly I see again the healing valley below set with writhing flames, and feel the house behind and about me empty and desolate (Wells, 179).

It is in the heat of the crisis that the Wellsian narrator turns to the religion of his childhood. The Martians chose Surrey according to some providential scheme – despite his heated dismissal to the curate earlier – and therefore his suffering has meaningful purpose.[26] Zellaby evinces no such religious framing. While he jokes after the Dayout – during which he and his wife were chilled to the point of hypothermia – about the “underlying soundness of fire-worship” (Wyndham, 57), this isn’t a meaningful religious statement. In the end, Zellaby’s justifications for murdering the Children arise from the brutal logic of evolutionary struggle interpolated into polite society. The threat the Children pose is existential, not rhetorical, or moral. Wyndham very carefully strips out any religious justification for Zellaby’s actions, implicitly or explicitly. There will be no Darwin ex machina.

Welcome to the Jungle

The War of the Worlds ends with more whimper than bang, something that seems to trouble later adaptions. Having the Martian antagonist simply fall over dead serves the point Wells is making about Edwardian colonial complacency or the applicability of Darwinian evolutionary struggle in society, but it isn’t particularly satisfying on a narrative level. The Orson Welles radio play from 1938 – when the world was on the brink of the defining global conflict of the 20th century – punches up the call to arms by the artilleryman, a character the narrator meets in the ruined, empty streets of London. In the novel, the narrator is initially taken by the artilleryman’s rhetoric, which is a fever dream of Darwinian descent, where the survivors will have to “invent a sort of life where men can live and breed, and be sufficiently secure to bring children up” (Wells, 156). They’ll live in the underground and “degenerate into a sort of big, savage rat” (Wells, 157).[27] In the radio play, the artilleryman’s speech is a rousing call to arms; in the novel, the narrator is chagrined to have been susceptible to the man’s “imaginative daring” which, in the cold light of day, seem unhinged (Wells, 158). For Wells, evolution was a force greater than his Martian invaders. While his characters may conceptualize the war between the worlds as a religious, moral, or ethical struggle, the simple unalterable fact is that the true struggle occurs outside of conscious thought, on a biological level. “With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter” (Wells, 7).

Wyndham’s take on the alien invasion neatly reverses the action of Wells’s novel. While it may end on a literal bang, the invasion itself is submerged under – to quote a snarling contemporary review – “layers of polite restraint, sentimentality, lethargy and women’s-magazine masochism.”[28] There are no heat rays or chaotic retreats, no monstrous antagonists. The invasion occurs within the confines of the domestic, and its focus is a group of children who are, from the very first, defined in military terms and as a racially constructed other.[29] If indeed the Children are the next iteration of humanity, as Zellaby posits (Wyndham, 197), then there is no rational reason not to step aside and let nature take its course. In Wells’s narrative, the Darwinian struggle is both inexorable and outside of conscious control. In The Midwich Cuckoos, by defining the Children as evolutionary antagonists, Zellaby positions himself as an agent of evolution. The Children must die so his children can live.

Zellaby describes his final act as a “heroic sacrifice” (Wyndham, 212), and Wyndham is careful remove any moral objections but the most glaringly obvious one: the premeditated murder of children by a suicide bomber.[30]  None of these children are either his own or his grandchildren – his own wife was already pregnant during the Dayout, and his daughter’s cuckoo child one of three who died of influenza (Wyndham, 110). He himself has “a matter of a few weeks to live” (Wyndham, 212), and he takes pains to ensure only he and the Children will be killed in the blast. In a purely intellectual way, this is an elegant (final) solution to the Gordian knot the novel has twisted itself into. The Children themselves (assuming, for the moment, the usual role of Dr. Zellaby), while talking to Bernard, describe the political gridlock which will ensue should the perceived threat of the Children become more widely known. Even if parliament could be roused to contemplate annihilating the Children, “what government in this country could survive such a massacre of innocents on the grounds of expediency?” (Wyndham, 193). Immediately preceding their destruction, Wyndham takes a moment to remind you forcefully that these are still children. The narrator observes, as the Children remove AV equipment from Zellaby’s car:

There was nothing odd or mysterious about the Children now unless it was the suggestion of musical-comedy chorus work given by their similarity. For the first time since my return I was able to appreciate that the Children had ‘a small ‘c,’ too’” (Wyndham, 208).

The chapter heading here is “Zellaby of Macedon.” The most famous leader from Macedonia was, of course, Alexander the Great, who amassed one of the largest empires in antiquity during his short reign. He is also known for cutting the Gordian knot – or solving an intractable problem by bypassing the perceived constraints of the problem. Zellaby solves the problem posed by the Children by personally acting against them, thus bypassing all the thorny issues of societal or governmental ethics. Yet again, Wyndham is using his subtle satire to undercut Zellaby. Aligning Zellaby with Alexander the Great seems highfalutin and shows off one’s classical education, but when you get right down to it, the appellation “Zellaby of Macedon” is ridiculous. A sick old man is not comparable to one of the greatest generals of antiquity. This is in line with the treatment of Zellaby throughout the text: Zellaby looks like the authorial mouthpiece, but there’s a twist to his portrayal. 

The final epigraph – Si fueris Romae, Romani vivito more – which is typically translated as “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” is instead parsed as “If you want to keep alive in the jungle, you must live as the jungle does….” Zellaby neatly inverts the meaning of the phrase, which is originally about operating within spaces of different cultural rules and expectations by those rules and expectations. Peeling back the artifact of society reveals the more “fundamental expression,” to use Zellaby’s phrasing: brute, biological survival (Wyndham, 213). That the ending invokes the jungle after the events of a novel which could comfortably be described as a comedy of manners feels jarring, just as jarring as a verbally circumambulatory philosopher calculatingly suicide-bombing a classroom full of children. The Children are strange and often uncanny, but not obviously so. They are gestated and born to human mothers; they can be carried off by flu or killed in car accidents; they like sweets and movies like other children. They have what Wells called the “human likeness” when ironically discussing the British destruction of indigenous people (Wells, 9). The acts of violence attributable to them are exclusively reflexive: they respond to attack with an aggressive defense. When one of the girls discusses how they will supersede humanity in the end, it is in terms of biological superiority, not wholesale annihilation. When their destruction by the British seems imminent, their response is to try to flee. Their danger to humanity is only inferred or imagined in the context of Darwinian struggle. As Zellaby says, “[The Children’s] immediate concern is to survive, in order, eventually, to dominate” (Wyndham, 199). If one’s simple existence is couched in terms of existential struggle, the final, genocidal act in The Midwich Cuckoos, perpetrated by an avuncular figure against a classroom full of children, becomes inevitable.


[1] John Wyndham, The Midwich Cuckoos (New York: Modern Library, 2022), 29-30, 40. All subsequent references are to this edition and are noted parenthetically in the text.

[2] H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds, ed. Patrick Parrinder (New York, NY: Penguin, 2005), 7. All subsequent references are to this edition and are noted parenthetically in the text.

[3] Adam Roberts, The History of Science Fiction (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 310-312.

[4] McLean details how Wells dismantles Spenser’s Darwinism. See Steven McLean, “The Descent of Mars: Evolution and Ethics in The War of the Worlds,” in The Early Fiction of H. G. Wells: Fantasies of Science (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp. 89-113, 98.

[5] Their philosophical disagreement is, of course, considerably more complicated than what is written here. See Klára Netíková, “T. H. Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics: Struggle for Survival and Society,” E-LOGOS 26, no. 1 (2019): pp. 4-18, https://doi.org/10.18267/j.e-logos.460, 4-7.

[6] Paul K. Alkon, Science Fiction Before 1900: Imagination Discovers Technology (New York, NY: Twayne Publishers, 1994), 48.

[7] In one bizarre instance, one of his novels, The Outward Urge, is attributed to not one but two pen names: John Wyndham and Lucas Parkes. For description of the publishing history see Amy Binns, Hidden Wyndham: Life, Love, Letters (Hebden Bridge, UK: Grace Judson Press, 2019), 220.

[8] Brian W. Aldiss, Billion Year Spree (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1973). 290.

[9] Amy Binns, Hidden Wyndham: Life, Love, Letters (Hebden Bridge, UK: Grace Judson Press, 2019), 108-111.

[10] The titular triffids are exactly this. John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids (New York, NY: The Modern Library, 2022).

[11] The alien antagonists of The Kraken Wakes are deep sea creatures who wage war literally on earth. John Wyndham, The Kraken Wakes (New York, NY: Modern Library, 2022).

[12] Damon Knight, In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction (Chicago, IL: Advent Publishers, 1974), 178.

[13] Adam Roberts, The History of Science Fiction (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 310-312.

[14] The appendix to the Penguin edition includes several maps where you can follow the action of the novel, in addition to annotation of the locales mentioned. H. G. Wells and Andy Sawyer, “Appendix: Note on Places in the Novel,” in The War of the Worlds (London, UK: Penguin Classics, 2018), pp. 181-185.

[15] Howard Koch, Orson Welles, and H. G. Wells, “Mercury Theatre on the Air: War of the Worlds,” Indiana University Bloomington (Indiana University, 2017), https://orsonwelles.indiana.edu/items/show/1972.

[16] My grandfather, G. Edward Busch, was 31 at the time of the broadcast, unmarried, and still living with his parents in Pennsylvania, which wasn’t that far from the invasion site in New Jersey. He returned home from work to find his parents very upset by the broadcast. As both a scientist and a dramatist, Ed was a keen fan of Orson Welles, and assured them the broadcast was during the Mercury Theatre hour, and that the country was not being invaded. There is dispute about how many people took this broadcast seriously, but family lore, at least, suggests it was, albeit provisionally. For a discussion of the panic from the man who wrote the script for the radio play, see Howard Koch, The Panic Broadcast: Portrait of an Event (New York, NY: Avon, 1970).

[17] Károly Pintér, “The Analogical Alien: Constructing and Construing Extraterrestrial Invasion in Wells’s ‘The War of the Worlds.’ ,” Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies (HJEAS) 18, no. 1/2 (2012): pp. 133-149, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43488465, 137.

[18] For in depth psychoanalytic analysis of the Children of Midwich, see Steven Bruhm, “The Global Village of the Damned: A Counter-Narrative for the Post-War Child,” Narrative 24, no. 2 (May 2016): pp. 156-173, https://doi.org/10.1353/nar.2016.0013.

[19] Damon Knight, In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction (Chicago, IL: Advent Publishers, 1974), 253.

[20] Károly Pintér, “The Analogical Alien: Constructing and Construing Extraterrestrial Invasion in Wells’s ‘The War of the Worlds,’” Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies (HJEAS) 18, no. 1/2 (2012): pp. 133-149, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43488465, 137.

[21] Wells scholar Patrick Parrinder addresses the many ways the narrator of The War of the Worlds is ultimately untrustworthy, especially about the Martians. Patrick Parrinder, “How Far Can We Trust the Narrator of ‘The War of the Worlds,’” Foundation 28 (1999): pp. 15-24, https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/how-far-can-we-trust-narrator-war-worlds/docview/1312028428/se-2.

[22] Patrick Parrinder, “How Far Can We Trust the Narrator of ‘The War of the Worlds,’” Foundation 28 (1999): pp. 15-24, https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/how-far-can-we-trust-narrator-war-worlds/docview/1312028428/se-2, 16-18.

[23] Denis Gailor, “‘Wells’s War of the Worlds’, the ‘Invasion Story’ and Victorian Moralism,” Critical Survey 8, no. 3 (1996): pp. 270-276, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41556021, 273.

[24] S. J. James, “Witnessing the End of the World: H.G. Wells’ Educational Apocalypses,” Literature and Theology 26, no. 4 (December 21, 2012): pp. 459-473, https://doi.org/10.1093/litthe/frs052, 461-462.

[25] This refers to the biblical account of the historical Assyrian siege of Jerusalem in 701 BC by Assyrian king Sennacherib described in 2 Kings 18–19 and Isaiah 36–37

[26] Patrick Parrinder, “How Far Can We Trust the Narrator of ‘The War of the Worlds,’” Foundation 28 (1999): pp. 15-24, https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/how-far-can-we-trust-narrator-war-worlds/docview/1312028428/se-2, 23.

[27] This scenario is what more or less plays out in Wells’s The Time Machine, which was published two years previous to The War of the Worlds. H. G. Wells, The Time Machine, ed. Patrick Parrinder (New York, NY: Penguin, 2005).

[28] Damon Knight, In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction (Chicago, IL: Advent Publishers, 1974), 254.

[29] Adam Roberts, The History of Science Fiction (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 311.

[30] David Ketterer, “‘A Part of the … Family [?]’: John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos as Estranged Autobiography,” in Learning from Other Worlds: Estrangement, Cognition, and the Politics of Science Fiction and Utopia, ed. Patrick Parrinder (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), pp. 146-177, 165.

Review: His Lordship’s Last Wager by Miranda Davis

A million years ago, I picked up The Duke’s Tattoo by Miranda Davis because I read some sniggering reviews about it: get a load of this. And it’s true, and funny, that the opening action is one of the heroine sedating and then permanently inking a certain peer’s unmentionables, and then how their rivalry and his revenge turns into love, &c &c. Oh, and all of this takes place in a Regency romance, I believe in Bath. It’s pretty much the best. Sure, whatever, none of that is likely, but neither is getting lucky in a barouche, and that happens in Regency romances all the freaking time. 

a four wheeled horse drawn carriage which seats two, open, but with a sort of umbrella over the passengers

Seriously, you’re not getting laid in this comfortably even in modern clothing, let alone the yards of fabric those poor assholes had to wear in the Regency. 

Anyway, Davis’s almost overblown prose — she has an excellent vocabulary and isn’t afraid to use it — and sideways sense of humor completely won me over.

But then came the The Baron’s Betrothal, which, while written in the same winsome prose, was a tiresome will-they-won’t-they that I didn’t appreciate. Admittedly, I almost never appreciate a will-they-won’t-they, but then The Baron’s Betrothal also was thin with the humor that so radiated from The Duke’s Tattoo, so I don’t think it wasn’t just my predilections talking. Fast forward several years, and Davis’s newest book, His Lordship’s Last Wager, pops up on one of my if-you’ve-read-this-then situations, and I figured I’d give her another go. I mean, even the book I didn’t like wasn’t bad, just not to my tastes.

Boy, but I found His Lordship’s Last Wager charming. The set up is ludicrous, again: a zesty young woman gulls a lord-type into helping her transport a trained bear to Ireland. Look, I’m not going to explain how such a situation comes to be, partially because I can’t remember exactly. Like the lord-type, the reader finds herself wondering what the hell happened to result in a trip through the aqueducts and canals of England of yore. I was super into it, because, wait, lemme tell you a story. 

My great-grandmother, the one I’m named after, was born in the US just months after her parents stepped off the boat. (I think assholes would call her an anchor baby.) Though we don’t know for sure, my family suspects that great-great-grandpa knocked up the neighbor girl in a small town in Wales, and due to the fact that he was an inveterate alcoholic (ah, the Welsh), the families sent them on their way to America. She managed to have another child, a boy, before she succumbed to Industrial Revolution Pittsburgh. Great-grandma and her brother were settled into an orphanage — her father being too drunk to care for them — but not after the family in Wales entreated her and her brother to “come home”. The trans-Atlantic voyage was too scary for a young girl, so they stayed.

Fast forward many moons, and my mother took that faded correspondence, and tried to find our living relatives in Wales. Several things hampered this: the family names were Jones and Edwards, which are about as common as you can get; the family wasn’t Church of Wales, which would be the establishment church, but Baptist; and the Baptist church in the area burned down in the early 70s, so all the records were ash. We found the house on a trip to Froncysyllte when I was a teenager, and the current owners were kind enough to let us look at the deeds (which corroborated pretty much all of the family lore), but it was a dead end.

But we were in the area, so we touristed around for a while. One of our more memorable visits was to the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, which is still functional, a crazy waterway strung between high Welsh hills. Observe: 

a black and white photo of a large aqueduct being drained

Though I don’t think our intrepid Regency lovers plied this waterway, much of the action of the novel takes place on the canals that crisscrossed Britain, moving goods and people just like the railroads. Davis notes that there is little contemporary description of the canals in their heyday in the 1800s, as they were largely commercial. Who writes stories about truck stops or container ships? So too, back then. But they’re fascinating places, and it was entirely enjoyable to read a Recency romance that took place on the rough waterfront instead of the cultivated lawn.

Obviously, this is still a romance, so it’s not going to get too icky or realz. And that’s fine. I’m not usually reading Regency romance for the articles, and I don’t need some big bummer to prove the situation serious. That said, this novel was charming and lively, funny and unusual, and totally worth it for the reverie about my lost family alone. 

Review: Beauty and the Clockwork Beast by Nancy Campbell Allen

This was written a while ago, after our move, but I only got around to posting it in its edited and spellchecked form like half a year ago. Then there was some catastrophe and I lost a bunch of posts. So this is it again!

I’ve been listening to a lot of audiobooks recently. We recently moved, so I’ve been working on the various paint and plaster projects necessary to make this house not be the godforsaken beige that the previous owners thought was a good idea. Which means I have hours and hours of monotonous work that is perfect for audio. I listened to an urban fantasy trilogy I’ve read before, hit some China Miéville because rwrrr, and then moved on to midlist steampunk.

Beauty and the Clockwork Beast by Nancy Campbell Allen is one of those titles that promises some stupid stuff. I am sometimes in the mood for stupid stuff, and I felt reasonably sure I knew what I was going to get, given my experience with steampunk on the romance end. There would be an inventor’s daughter, one of those irrepressibly zesty daughters of the upper class who be impressed upon to find her father’s killer / continue his work / fall in love with the staff / automaton / vampire / werewolf. I once read a short story collection of steampunk stories where two thirds of the entries went this way. Two thirds.

But that is not what I found in Beauty and the Clockwork Beast! Or it is, just a very little, but the bulk of the novel is character study, riffs on Gothic fiction, and well written prose. Jeez, who even does that?

The plot follows one Lucy Pickett as she goes to stay with a cousin who is more like a sister to her. The cousin, Kate, was recently married to the younger brother of an earl, but has been ailing since she took up residence as the lady of Blackwell Manor. The earl himself, Miles, has a pall upon him, after his wife and sister died within a day of each other half a year ago. The wife died in a manner befitting the Blackwell curse, and the sister was torn apart by wild animals. It’s all pretty sketchy.

Lucy is a botanist herself, and a member of a society that is working towards the usual medicinal uses, but also pharmacology that is useful against vampires. This is a world with magic and animal shifters (of which Miles is one) and vampires. But it’s not a world with ghosts, so it troubles Lucy some to encounter the ghost of the earl’s sister for several nights running. She and Miles end up playing detective in the earlier deaths, Lucy’s sister’s illness, and Miles’ blackmail.

While there are many things about the detective plot that make me want to tear out my hair — there are ONLY TWO OR THREE VIABLE SUSPECTS JFC — I was so in love with Lucy. She’s no inventor’s daughter, an appendage on a Great Man, but a scientist in her own right. I do want to acknowledge that in the world this fantasy is based on, women really didn’t have many opportunities to education short of what they could filch from their fathers and brothers. That often steampunk girls have mad scientist or inventor fathers is not my issue. It’s that most often the father is a Great Man, and the daughter-protagonist a mere shadow of his genius or keeper of his legacy, without a lot of agency in her own vocations or avocations.

This might be a little harder to explain, but hear me out: she’s also not gadding about in trousers because she’s so transgressive zomg, but a careful woman of her class and station. Look, I love me a firebrand, a character who smashes shit and gets stuff done. But I weary of 1) characters who haven’t earned it and are just middle class fantasies of rebellion dressed up in pantaloons 2) Strong Female Characters ™ who do everything in their power to shit on girlishness, the trappings of femininity, and any woman who might still live under its aegis. Lucy is often well and truly frustrated by how she as treated as a scientist and a woman, but she’s got good table manners, and knows how perform a perfect curtsy. She has good relationships with other women — not just one, but several — and even treats unlikable female characters with kindness and empathy. In short, she is a good person.

Aspects of her prescribed gender roles chaff, absolutely, but some don’t, which make Lucy an altogether more believable and nuanced character than someone wearing a leather corset on the outside of her clothes shooting out the lights all the time or whatever. She’s not someone’s bondage fantasy of a Strong Woman. Moreover, her worth isn’t predicated on her father, or her magical powers (she has none other than education and experience) or her anachronistic badassery. It comes from her diligent work ethic, loyalty to those she loves, and innate kindness. Which, whoa. I was well pleased to encounter someone of Lucy’s mettle in this sort of steampunkery.

There are things to complain about, for sure. The detective plot is almost offensively stupid, even while the technical details of this specific steampunk world are careful and considered. Miles holds onto his secrets 80 pages past when he should. People almost never ask the obvious questions when confronted with a mystery, and blithely go about their business like idiots. At a couple crucial points, characters forget important details like wow. Oh, and the most childish complaint: dude is not a clockwork beast, whatever that means, just the regular kind. (Of course I know writers rarely have control over titles; chill.)

That said! I feel like this was ahead of the curve. Lucy is such a practical, well drawn character, and she acquits herself with grace. May we all, etc.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

History and Historical Romance: It Started With a Scandal by Julie Anne Long

I tend to get all breathless and twitterpated when I discover a new historical romance writer I enjoy, sending out profligate hold requests at the library. That was the case with Julie Anne Long, whose Lady Derring Takes a Lover was so beautifully choleric on the ingrained sexism of the time, and features a found family plot and exquisitely rendered female relationships. I maybe don’t need to say this, but I will anyway: as much I enjoy a historical, the baked in acceptance of social norms which are, to put mildly, antique, and to put more specifically, fucked beyond the telling of it, makes me often quite itchy while I read. Lady Derring was a salve.

This is figleafed in ur average historical romance: industrialists are all, to a man, fair minded and generous, having acquired their fortunes without being the rapacious monsters they all, to a man, were. The aristocrats — the dukes and earls and the like — may have daddy issues, struggling under the injurious regard of their Old Testament fathers, but these paternal and paternalistic dinosaurs are emblematic of an outdated mode of lording over great swaths of land and hundreds, maybe thousands of people. These new sons are embodiments of a New Aristocracy, one that views its marriages as meritocracies, the perfect embodiment of noblesse oblige. 

I was just reading one recently where the industrialist romantic lead mentioned offhand his ownership of cotton mills, and my mind leapt right to tour of Lowell, MA I took some years ago. Lowell is a locus of both early American industrialization, and the inevitable labor movements that follow once people grow weary of being ground down by engines, spitted by the spearpoint of progress. (It is also the hometown of Jack Kerouac.) That’s the problem with historicals: they are inescapably based on history, which features a boot on a throat in one permutation or another for as far back as one can manage.  

So, the endgame of this little sermonette was some dissatisfaction with It Started With a Scandal. On every objective metric, this is a fine novel, with excellent characterization, smooth pacing, and well drawn sexual tension. Long is a smart, interesting writer, and I will continue to read the shit out of her back catalog. However, I was never quite able to get over the fact that our romantic lead was a prince of Burgundy or Bourbon or somesuch, a French aristocrat who fled France during the Revolution. He’s very put out by the fact that his ancestral lands are not in his family’s possession anymore, and spends much time glowering and throwing vases in fits of pique. The leading lady, his housekeeper, vouchsafes to feel bad for him quite enormously. She is herself just weeks from penury — she and her child — so she knows what it is to lose things. 

To which I say: bah. The French aristocracy deserved to have their heads separated from their necks. They were indolent, greedy, dissolute shits whose venality resulted in the abject poverty and misery of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people. So boo fucking hoo about getting run out of the country where our hero was born into incredible wealth and privilege. (I may have my back up after seeing some billionaire — there are only 600 or so in America, a listable group of people — literally crying on television because someone might tax him commensurate with his wealth. Meanwhile millions of Americans go bankrupt or just fucking die due to a medical insurance system designed to maximize profits at a brutal human cost. Fuck, and I can’t stress this enough, every single billionaire.) 

I am aware of, and engage in quite happily, the sort of historical blindness required to enjoy a historical romance. I am not going to nitpick inconsistencies unless they are egregious and/or not in service of the final resolution. But sometimes I’m in my own place in history, where I cannot unsee the parallels to current, ongoing, often fatal injustices in the world. I am not going to waste time feeling bad for people who have had everything and then some given to them by accident of birth who, just occasionally, feel thwarted in their every impulse. Our heroine’s soft-heartedness looks soft-headed.

I’ve said this before, but I’m going to repeat it: every romance has the echoes of a less satisfactory conclusion embedded within it. Without the invisible authorial hand, our housekeeper’s life would end in brutal poverty, discarded by a “polite” society predicated on systematic exploitation. Mostly I’m satisfied with these romantic revisions — that is the point of a historical romance novel, n’est-ce pas? I can and do acknowledge this freakout is largely on me — I do not want to enbussen Long, who seems a very fine writer, because of a personal convergence of things. But sometimes I just can’t. The romantic conclusion ends up seeming such a petty, priapic thing, the tumescence of love blotting out all impediments to our lovers, even the important, necessary, and structural ones. 

Probably I should just back way from historical romance for the time being, library holds notwithstanding, until some improbable time when our brutal history is less brutal. I’ll be busy holding my breath. 

I Knight Thee Good Fun: Alyssa Cole’s Reluctant Royals Series

I started reading Alyssa Cole a few years ago. I think I saw her name on a list of women of color writing contemporary romance, and given how tragically white much romance is, I thought I should give her a shot. I read her Off the Grid series, which, in addition to being both science fictional and post-apocalyptic (these things are not necessarily the same things, a distinction I’m happy to fight about), also include a gay romance and one with an Asian dude as the hottie, neither of which are necessarily standard in contemporary romance. Additionally, the apocalypse in those novels is a Carrington Event, which is one of my favorite apocalypses. (Yes, I have favorite apocalypses.) Oh, and Cole is clearly a nerd and a geek, and she is not afraid of some pop cultural jokes or meticulous research. Really good stuff.

I didn’t read more, at the time, because I’m, like, not as interested in modern day princess stories, and Reluctant Royals was what was popping up as read-next. (Cole also has a historical romance series, but I’m not sure the first had been published when I picked up Duke by Default.) I tend to get all pissy about the whole rubber-necking industry that has grown up around the English royal family. Some of this is undoubtedly due to the fact that I grew up in the Anglican Church, which is peopled, unsurprisingly, with a fucktonne of anglophiles. Like, commemorative plate style anglophiles, so simultaneously snotty and trashy, which is a neat trick.

But also: I once went regularly to this open mic at an Irish bar run by a Welshman, and there was this woman who showed up regularly in full on tartan explosion. (Yes, I recognize that’s all very Celticly confused, but this is America; none of this stuff has any meaning). She tended to sit in the booth behind mine, and we were nodding acquaintances. She drove me absolutely fucking bananas with her bullshit.

See, she claimed to be some sort of Scottish royalty, like maybe not a duchess, exactly, but more like a countess? Honestly, I find it hard to give a fig about titles so none of that stuff is going to track for me. (This isn’t really getting into the retconning of the Scottish royalty, especially after the Battle of Colloden which put down the Jacobite rebellion and lead to the Highland Clearances. After the English depopulated Scotland of anyone who might complain, they went in and prettied up the Scottish clan system, which heretofore had been families of cattle thieves who tended to dress alike, but otherwise wasn’t codified. All that tartan stuff is nonsense.) Anyway, she had this younger dude who liked to do sweeping bows and a bunch of hand-kissing, probably because he spent too much time at the Ren Fest. Once, he tried to drag me into it, and I was like, sorry, I live in a representational democracy* which threw over a monarchy for a reason.** I have zero interest in kowtowing to someone because of who their grandparents are.

There was a record scratch noise and some people got pissed at me for being a buzzkill, which I admit I was being. But also fuck royalty. Some of my people were hapless drunks, others were fleeing various wars, some just hated their hometowns. I feel neither pride nor shame about my ancestors; they were just people: good, bad, and indifferent.

Point being, I have something of a chip when it comes to the concept of hereditary monarchy. Sure, fine, if they’re figureheads like in Denmark (though I’m still not bowing and scraping), but actual ruling dynasties like the al Saud family are monsters, as one recently brutally murdered journalist could attest if he hadn’t been dismembered and murdered, not exactly in that order. Which is to say, I’m a fucking crank about a little subgenre of romance novels with lighthearted wish fulfillment about being a princess.

I recognize I have issues.

So, it came as something of a surprise when I actually earnestly enjoyed Duke by Default. Cole dives right into the class issues of the peerage, and doesn’t cut those assholes any slack. Her Duke character is actually the child of a Scottish Duke and a refugee, raised by a step-father and with half siblings who are straight up black. He’s not some ponce, and more’s the better. Oh, and his love interest is coming to terms with an ADHD diagnosis, which was sensitively written. All told, well done. 

Princess in Theory, I was less enamored of, but it’s still a good read. (Note: I read these books out of order.) The main character, who has aged out of the American foster care system and is struggling to make it in the STEM field as a black woman of no means, was a fucking great character. Prince what’s his face from an imaginary African country, him I did not like as much. (Sure, some of this is intentional: he’s to have a redemption arc from being a rich dickhead to monarch with a heart of gold. But I just couldn’t get fully on board, though of course some of this is my aforementioned issues. And Princess in Theory is still a well written novel with an admirable heroine, so do not credit my bitching too much.

Anyway! So, one which didn’t work so great for me (due mostly to me), and one which knocked it out the park. I would totally read number three, A Prince on Paper, once I’m back in the mood for smart contemporary romance. Alyssa Cole is pretty great.

*Snort; as if.

**Actually a lot of those reasons were shitty and self-serving, George III notwithstanding.