Review: Storm Echo by Nalini Singh

Just recently, I learned there was a Psy-Changeling book by Nalini Singh — and another one coming this summer — that I hadn’t read. I tell you, I checked that shit out of the library with a swiftness. Coming off the high of Last Guard — which addressed some of my key criticisms of this series, on a meta level — I was hoping Storm Echo would sustain that peak. And while Singh does address some of my issues in this novel, the whole situation felt somewhat tired, like she was just going through the motions a bit. Singh has made use of this exact situation — uptight character, often Psy, faces inevitable death, until someone with a zest for life fucks them out of it — in more than a couple books in this series, e.g. Shield of Winter, Ocean Light. Also, the main characters met at some point in the past, forged an instant connection in some horrific trauma, and then lost each other again, e.g. Heart of Obsidian, Last Guard.

And look, I get it. Even with opening another island, so to speak, when Singh branched out to the Mercant family and the wolf and bear clans in Moscow, she’s written 20-odd full ass novels and myriad novellas, short stories, and epilogues set in this world. Recycling is inevitable, especially with the sort of themes Singh seems drawn to over and again, such as recovery from horrific trauma, both physical and psychic, and acceptance of the imperfectly healed self as worthy of both love and acceptance. Themes which are the reason I keep coming back, I might add, especially when paired with her focus on simple, physical pleasures like the heat of a cup of tea, or the soft fit of clothes that make you feel good to wear. Maybe that’s a weird thing to say, but I just love that beautiful life philosophy mixed with an unflinching acknowledgement that shit’s sometimes fucked.

We’ve seen Ivan Mercant before, most notably in Silver Silence and Last Guard, which both focus on members of the Mercant family, all of whom are the grandchildren of Ena Mercant. Silver is the heir apparent; Arwen is the clothes-horsey gay; Canto is the grouchy disabled guy; and Ivan is the assassin, question mark? Sometime just before the fall of Silence — notably, when the Psy were going nutso and murder-spreeing due to rot in the PsyNet — Ivan was training at some lunatic survivalist center run by wolf Changelings, when he ran across a woman called Leilei (a nickname for Soleil) in the woods. He’s all messed up from the insane training, and because she is a Changeling healer, she orders him to sit down and let her patch him up. He’s clearly smitten from the first, but doesn’t exactly understand what motivates him to keep seeking her out. They enact a quietly adorable courtship until some massively bad shit goes down, and he loses track of her. Most of the novel then catches up to them seven or so years later. Also some bullshit with the Scarabs is happening, but I’ll address that later.

Now, usually, I am not that into characters who fall into insta-love, but don’t know they’ve fallen into insta-love; what are these feelings I’m feeling; what agony; &c. But somehow it worked for me here. It’s funny to think of those early Psy-Changeling books and how clumsy and bizarre some of those courtships were — Lucas Hunter was a straight up stalker, for example — and compare it to the fragile, tenuous connection Ivan and Soleil forge in Storm Echo. Singh doesn’t put too much weight on their connection at first, but lets it build slowly as they circle closer and closer to one another. It’s aching. Frankly, I haven’t ever thought of Singh as adept at pining before — there’s usually at least one of a pairing who’s a big dumb dominant who’s going to big dumb dominate the other — but Storm Echo shows she’s added it to her repertoire. (Or maybe expanded it? You could probably argue that Aden and Zaira from Shards of Hope have some successful pining too.) After their meet-cute and nascent courtship, Soleil is grievously and almost mortally injured in one of those Psy attacks that were happening when the PsyNet was rotting. Because of some football-hiding, Ivan didn’t know her legal name, and assumed she didn’t come to meet him because she just wasn’t that into him. When he learns about the attack, he tries to track her down, but in the ensuing chaos, a lot of records were incomplete or lost.

Which brings me to something I love to see in Psy-Changeling novels: a shitty predatory Changeling pack. Soleil is part of the SkyElm pack, which was originally run by her asshole of a grandfather. He was mad her mom ran off with a human, and only accepted Soleil back into SkyElm when her parents were killed in a car accident. Despite Soleil being a healer — which is a structurally important part of the pack — her grandfather was a huge dick to her, a cruelty which is continued by Monroe, the pack alpha after her grandfather. After the Psy massacre — which only Monroe, Soleil, and a handful of other pack members survive — Monroe throws her out of the pack. Not long after this, Monroe makes the strategically fatal blunder of fucking around with Lucas Hunter, leader of DarkRiver and all around badass, after which he fatally finds out. The remaining SkyElm members are folded into DarkRiver, but because Soleil was packless and drifting, she doesn’t know that they’re still alive. She thinks Hunter has killed them all.

I’ve said this before, but I’m going to hum a few bars because I believe it: Both mate-bonding and pack-bonding are emotional mechanisms which often cast Changelings as incapable of hurting children or bullying others, which can make them hard to relate to and more than a little high-handed. One could argue — and I have — the duality of the Psy and Changelings coming together is the ultimate thrust of the series: the Psy, who are all too capable of horrific abuse and sociopathy must learn from the Changelings, who are almost constitutionally incapable of it. Packs like SkyElm show us Changelings can be just a venal, small-minded, and racist as the rest of us fumblers. For instance, Soleil’s grandfather limited the pack to ocelot Changelings only, something Monroe continued, which lead to structural insufficiency, i.e. not enough dominants. I think this explanation is kind of garbage, but this is explicitly the in-world argument for why SkyElm sucked and got itself wiped out of existence: there weren’t enough cop-types around when shit went down, so everyone got murdered.

I have some trouble with this, a little because it allows DarkRiver to get up on a high horse and ride around on it foreverrrr, and a lot because ultimately SkyElm didn’t get all murdered because of bad leadership, but because a bunch of Psy randomly started killing folk. The outbreak of Psy violence and its horrific effects were not natural consequences of SkyElm’s bad leadership, except obliquely. Be that as it may, I still appreciate examples of the benevolent Changelings not being so benevolent. The trajectory of much of the book is about both Soleil and Ivan — who have been loners either by choice or circumstance for much of their adult lives — coming to accept the love and affection of their families — found or otherwise. I continue to enjoy how the Mercants kept an emotional core to their family, even under Silence, and I completely loved how Ivan was folded into the Mercant family after the death of his mother. (There’s a spoiler here involving his mother’s parentage, so I’m not going to get into it, but suffice it to say: Ena Mercant is a GOAT.)

I found Ivan’s backstory particularly moving, partially because I don’t feel like Singh has been especially kind to addicts in this series. I recently reread Caressed by Ice, which is only the third in the series, and the sneering dismissal of addicts as “weak” really stood out for me. Ivan’s mother was a hot mess and did unforgivable things — such as taking the Psy drug Jax why she was pregnant — but she is afforded a little compassion and understanding, even if it goes almost completely unsaid. Many, many of the Psy protagonists in this series are subject to just horrific abuse, either by parents or people acting in loco parentis. Ivan certainly suffered under his mother’s indifferent care. I even think the way Singh shows how the good times — when Ivan’s mom is on a good high and telling tales about how they’re going to live in a nice apartment and she’s going to have a job, etc — are sometimes worse than the hungry, dark moments, because it’s the hope that gets you.

Eventually, we learn who Ivan’s mother’s mother is, and, while it’s never dramatized, that had to have been a truly traumatic childhood. I think we can understand why she decided to check out, even if obviously that’s not a great thing to do, and with a child, worse. I’m not entirely sanguine about Ivan deciding not to extra-judicially murder dealers because it makes Soleil have a sad, because he shouldn’t have been extra-judicially murdering dealers in the first place, but baby steps on accepting that addiction is an illness, and literally, by definition, outside of someone’s control. So. The things I enjoyed about Storm Echo ended up being more meta than specific, more about the texture of the world than this specific pairing. Both Ivan and Soleil are a little basic, with basic problems. And you know what? I’m mostly fine with it. With a series this long, I’m ok with installments that just edge the mythology forward.

Which reminds me! I was going to talk about the Scarabs. The Scarabs, and the Scarab Queen (or Architect) have been the antagonist for most, if not all, of the Psy-Changeling Trinity books (which is kind of Psy-Changeling, Season 2, starting at the fall of Silence.) Tbh, none of the Scarab mythology has interested me at all, so I have only the most tenuous grasp on what even is going on. Maybe some Psy have their powers go nuts and then their heads explode? I have zero idea why they’re even called Scarabs. This evolving mythology gets a lot of page time in Storm Echo, enough that it made me want to either wiki wtf is happening, or figure out the last book with a major mythology dump and reread. I’m definitely going to reread Last Guard, because I know I freaking loved that one, and I never wrote about it at all. If I measured success solely by how engaged I am with a series, all other considerations be damned, Psy-Changeling is crazy successful. It’s a decent metric in the end, because I love how into this series I am, and I love how Singh just keeps sinking the hook, again and again.

Zombie Children

Zombie children are very rare in both films and television, and when you do encounter them, they tend to have (had) names, i.e. we met them when alive, and watched them turn. Maybe it’s because dead children are singularly upsetting, or maybe it’s because working with child actors is a pain in the ass. Kids can only be on set so many hours, then throw in however many hours in make-up, and they become an even bigger pain in the ass to shoot around. Either way, if a zombie child appears in a narrative, they tend to be freighted with meaning. You’re just not going to squander the shock value of young lives snuffed out and murderously reanimated. So I’m going to go through and document the zombie children I can think of, and see if we can’t say anything about death, childhood, and the nuclear family.

Before that, lemme get all wonky for a bit. I don’t particularly like getting into the weeds arguing about the taxonomy of a zombie. They’re made up creatures; the criteria aren’t going to be hard and fast. However, I think I should probably make some broad stabs at it, given how often I end up arguing with dudes on the Internet. Whether a zombie is technically alive or undead is less important for me than if that creature violently attacks people in mobs. So a blood-borne rage virus which renders a living person violently feral, like the one found in 28 Days Later, counts as a form of zombiism. By contrast, Claudia from Interview with a Vampire, while technically an undead child, is a calculating killer, and she has an emotional life beyond just killing. Just to make this complicated: sometimes there are zombies whose emotional states are the same as breathing humans, like Liv in iZombie or Murphy on Z Nation. They are always undead, not technically alive like a rage-zombie, and, unlike vampires, their bodies putrefy and decay. Often, technically alive zombies will be fully dead in a relatively short matter of time, as whatever fuels their murderous behavior renders them incapable of caring for themselves. The corruption of both appetite and flesh, a degradation of form and purpose, is ultimately what typifies a zombie, and that animating idea is more important than fast/slow, alive/dead, magic/science, or other nitpicky details.

An interesting edge case is the creatures in the Will Smith version of I Am Legend, which are zombie-like in their swarming murderous mobs, but then appear to be technically living, capable of emotional bonds, and can care for themselves (and others) in at least a rudimentary way. In the source material, the same-named novel by Richard Matheson, these creatures were referred to as vampires, which might be a better fit. They do look an awful lot like the vampires in The Strain or The Passage. I would argue that the arc of the film is uncovering the creatures’ true nature, from being seen as members of a mindless mob to creatures driven by more complex motivations than braaaaaains. Because of this, the film opens with all the earmarks of a zombie film: decaying urban landscapes, the living under siege, a nostalgia for the present. As Smith learns the people he’s been experimenting on are at least partially cognizant of themselves as people, the real horror sets in: he’s the real monster. Anyway, long story short: I’d include I Am Legend in a list of zombie movies, even if I think the creatures are bad zombies, because the film purposely invokes so many tropes of zombie narratives. Genre isn’t just defined by the actors in the story, but by the construction of the narrative itself.

Couple few caveats:

I think zombie babies are in a different category, narratively speaking, so I wouldn’t include them in this list. They are even rarer in film than zombie children. I can only think of three in film, two of which are in Zach Snyder movies: Dawn of the Dead, which is included in this list, and Army of the Dead, which is not. The third is in this dreadful rip-off of 28 Days Later called Solar Impact. (There’s also a zombie baby in the first episode of Z Nation, and the whole sequence is incredibly silly.) I am also excluding adolescents — which are much more common — because when I say children, I mean pre-pubescent, not under the age of 18. Additionally, in the process of researching this post, I discovered at least four instances of zombified classrooms so I’ll round them up separately. Though I’m focusing on movies so they wouldn’t be included anyway, I’ve detailed all the child zombies in The Walking Dead here. Maybe that’s a lot of caveats, but it’s my list so I make the rules.

Night of the Living Dead (1969)

Karen Cooper

The very first OG undead child, the one who had chased me through my nightmares since I encountered her in my adolescence, is the one in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Harry and Helen Cooper, along with their daughter, Karen, take refuge in the same farmhouse in which the lead Ben, the catatonic Barbra, and a pair of young lovers are sheltering. The girl has been bitten, and her parents take her down to the basement to care for her. Ben and the girl’s dad are at loggerheads from the first: Ben is convinced the basement is a death-trap; Harry wants to hole up down there for the duration. 

I’d kind of forgotten the specifics of this whole sequence, so I recently watched it again. I was bolted by the scene where the zombie child overpowers her mother — not because she’s stronger than her, but because the mother can’t defend herself against her own flesh and blood. I also had forgotten that Romero’s zombies are tool-users: the girl stabs her mother over and over and over again, in a scene reminiscent of the shower scene in Psycho, before she settles in to feast on her corpse. After her father betrays Ben, he’s shot by him, and stumbles down to the basement. There, he encounters his zombie daughter, who finishes him off. Ben ends up having to dispatch the whole zombie family, one after the other, when he, against his better judgement, retreats to the basement.

I’ve said this a number of times, but I think it’s true: You can almost read the farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead as a Freudian psychological structure: attic as superego, main floor as ego, and basement as id. It’s also a microcosm of the American body politic, as all of these archetypes bounce off each other and as their inevitable destruction bangs against the flimsy, permeable glass. That this family annihilation plays out, twice, in the id-based basement of the American subconscious is something indeed. Night of the Living Dead was written in the flux of the Vietnam war and the first American Civil Rights movement, and Karen’s reanimation is definitely a bellwether and a harbinger for the stressors that will bring down the myth of the American nuclear family.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Unnamed children

This follow-up to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead includes a couple unnamed zombie children who try to attack one of the characters in an airport charthouse. They are played by the niece and nephew of Tom Savini, the man behind the special effects, and appear to be in the film more because of that relationship than because the narrative specified zombie children. Which is to say: the kids are extras, not characters. They’re also not actors: imbd trivia claims they are the only zombies in Romero’s whole oeuvre who spontaneously run. Apparently the kids couldn’t be bothered with the undead shuffle. These kids are somewhat notable because they are extras. Other than a brief glimpse of a zombie child on The Walking Dead while Alexandria is being overrun, I can’t think of many other zombie children who are part of the background cast exclusively.

Night of the Comet (1984)

Unnamed boy

Honestly, I don’t really get why the zombie in this delightful 80s apocalypse is a zombie child. A comet passes over the earth, desiccating most of the population to red dust. If you’re shielded by steel, you’re fine, but if you’re only partially shielded, you will eventually desiccate. Before that, you’ll move from huge asshole to zombie. A pair of sisters and a trucker called Hector are the only people at first in the film who survive the comet un-zombified. The girls know their family is gone, but Hector was on the road when the comet came. So he goes home to see if anyone made it. While there, a zombie child semi-knocks on the door, and then chases Hector all over the house when Hector opens the door. It’s an odd sequence because it’s mostly played for comedy. Hector keeps making quips — stuff like “there goes the neighborhood!” or “you’re lucky I like kids!” — as the kid chases him around. Eventually Hector slams enough doors behind him, makes it out of the house, and escapes back to the overt plot, and the zombie kid is never mentioned again. Paradoxically, maybe it’s because Night of the Comet is closer to a comedy that they use a zombie kid here, because usually zombie kids are super upsetting. Hector isn’t in any serious physical danger due to the zombie kid, and can dispense with any anxiety about his immediate family without overtaxing the viewer with worry. Strange.

28 Days Later (2002)

Unnamed boy

Bike messenger Jim comes out of a coma alone in a trashed hospital and an empty London. He soon learns that a rage virus has swept through the population. Eventually, he and three other survivors strike out for the countryside, following a repeating broadcast promising a cure for infection. They stop at a diner outside of Manchester to refuel, and Jim’s traveling companions tell him not to go inside the diner. He does anyway, and encounters an infected boy, the only living person in a building heaped with corpses. We don’t see Jim kill the child, but he leaves the diner wiping off his baseball bat. As far as I’m aware, this is the only person — infected or not — which Jim kills before they reach the source of the broadcast, a manor house fortified by a rogue army unit.

That Jim has killed a child comes up in his confrontation with the leader of the soldiers, Major West. Rhetorically, West tries to morally equate Jim’s act of self-defense with West’s plan to force the women into sexual slavery. (I should really say girl and woman; Hannah is just a child herself.) Both are necessary for survival, in West’s schema: the killing of the boy because of his immediate threat, and the rape of a woman and girl for the perpetuation of the species. Narratively speaking, I believe it is important that Jim has gotten his hands dirty in this new rage-filled world. He could have easily made it to West’s grotesque fiefdom having left the violence to the others in his group. That the rage-zombie Jim killed was a child adds freight to the guilt he must feel, and somewhat short-circuits his ability to respond to West’s monstrous equation. I can easily see a stupider version of 28 Days Later, one without Jim’s encounter with the infected child, in which a righteous Jim delivers a Rick Grimes-style homily about maintaining one’s humanity in the wake of violent inhumanity or whatever, but that is thankfully not what happens.

Dawn of the Dead (2004)

Vivian

Now, in this Zack Snyder remake of Romero’s original movie — which was itself a sequel — there is a full on zombie child who, like in The Walking Dead, is the first zombie we see on screen. (For context: The Walking Dead’s first episode, which also features a zombie child as the first zombie we meet, was six years later in 2010.) We first meet Vivian, yet another pretty blonde white girl, when nurse Ana comes home after a long shift at the hospital, where there was a lot of weirdness going on in the background. Vivian shows off her rollerblading skills, and Ana praises her. We see Vivian again once Ana and her husband have gone to bed. Vivian creeps up the dark hallway, which wakes up the husband. When she steps into the light, her face is torn and you can see her teeth exposed (again, almost exactly like the first zombie on The Walking Dead.) The husband goes to help the girl, she tears his throat out, and Ana intervenes, throwing the girl into the hallway and slamming the door shut.

I think Snyder uses a child here for two reasons. First, I think the shock value of having a pretty blonde girl be the bloody introduction to the zombie apocalypse is pretty high. (And something The Walking Dead exploits further by having said child zombie summarily shot.) But then also, by having an undead child annihilate Ana’s husband, we are well and truly shoved out of the domestic sphere. Snyder is telling us this movie isn’t about the nuclear family, something he’ll underline again, gruesomely, when Luda and her baby zombify. I wouldn’t say Snyder’s remake captures much of the social commentary about consumerism of Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead, but there are still flashes of social commentary in moments like this. I don’t think, generally, Snyder is in control of his material, semiotically speaking, but he’s still capable of putting his grubby, pulpy fingers on the pulse of the moment.

Wicked Little Things (2006)

Mary, others

Look, I said I didn’t want to get into a big thing about the taxonomy of zombies, but the little undead shits in this film are really, really bad zombies. I think a dead giveaway is that they are referred to in-text as zombies, which actual zombies almost never are, paradoxically. Anyway, the set-up isn’t dissimilar from Ghostbusters: Afterlife, the most recent largely forgettable outing in the Ghostbusters franchise. A mom and her two kids — one in high school, the other younger — inherit a creepy-ass house in the middle of nowhere; supernatural tomfoolery ensues. In Wicked Little Things, it’s that a bunch of kids killed in a local mine during ye olde robber baron times come out at night to kill people and eat them. Turns out, the kids’ now deceased dad was related to a mining family, so the zombie kids won’t chomp the family, except maybe the mom because she’s not blood-related. The minor miners have been all stirred up because the descendant of the dick who ran the mine (and a dick himself) is trying to buy up all the land to build a ski lodge or whatever, and furthermore there’s some weird lease on the property that expires if all the descendants die or something, and … honestly, you can see where all of these Scooby Doings are going, down to the land-owning asshole getting chomped by some Victorian children.

Horror is a rule-bound genre. These kids are something like hungry ghosts crossed with zombies, and the film is never clear which which rule-set they operate under, other than what is narratively convenient. The younger kid in the family befriends one of the minor miners, a girl called Mary, in a trope found in ghost stories: Mary is dismissed as an “imaginary friend” until the grown-ups admit weird shit is happening, whereupon she imparts important exposition. The ghost kids are corporeal enough to eat guts occasionally — like a zombie — but then seem to blip in and out of existence because of the sun or the necessity of a jump scare. They are also able to be vanquished by the usual ghostbusting method of completing unfinished business, not by headshots. I found this film both incredibly frustrating and frustratingly predictable.

[REC] (2007)

Jennifer Carmen, Tristana Medeiros, & an unnamed boy

Spanish film [REC] and its sequels actually have scads of zombie children — and, indeed, a zombie child antagonist — which makes it something of an outlier. There’s two in the first film, which is a found-footage affair with an after-hours camera crew following a group of firefighters on a midnight call. The first we encounter, a girl called Jennifer, before she turns. In the initial interview by the late night tv crew, Jennifer’s mother explains she’s got tonsillitis, and that the family dog is at the vet with an undiagnosed illness. Eventually a health inspector explains the dog has an illness “like rabies” — which is why the building has been quarantined — just in time for Jennifer to turn and bite her mother’s face. (Zombie children attacking their mothers is something of a theme.)

The backstory is hella confusing, and it only gets more complicated, opaque, and unsatisfying as the series progresses, but: The source of the rabies-like illness is a girl named Tristana Medeiros, a Portuguese girl identified by the Vatican as being demon-possessed, and also maybe there’s an enzyme some Vatican agent identifies? She’s the last child zombie we encounter in the narrative, when the last two survivors make it up to the attic, where the priest has been keeping Tristana prisoner so he can experiment on her or something. There the survivors turn into not-survivors when they’re attacked by first a zombie boy and Tristana, who has turned into a massive monster. All of this is shot in night-vision and very upsetting. The science/religion cross doesn’t make a lot of sense, and the overtly batshit Catholic iconography of the latter installments — especially [•REC]³: Génesis — gets hard to follow and stupid. I think there’s probably something in these films which, for Catholics and people in Catholic-majority communities, speaks to the ongoing child sexual abuse scandals perpetrated by the church. The abused child reanimates and destroys everything she can get her hands on in enclosed, domestic spaces, pitting families and neighbors against each other. The authorities are worse than unhelpful, and simultaneously abet the outbreak and cover it up. Nasty stuff.

Pontypool (2008)

Maureen & Colleen

The zombiism in Pontypool is a rage virus transmitted by language, and not the more classic Romero shambler. The events in this excellent film occur almost completely in the confines of a small town radio station. Disgraced shock jock Grant Mazzy and his beleaguered producer, Sidney Briar, field reports of escalating violence as it spreads, mouth to mouth, through the Ontario countryside. At one point early, a local music group called “Lawrence and the Arabians” — in full on brown face — shows up to sing a song or somesuch, which is the exact kind of folksy local color which Mazzy considers himself way too good for. (The Lawrence of the Arabians is none other than Tony Burgess, who wrote both the screenplay and the novel the film is based on.) The group also includes two children, who are identified in imdb as Maureen and Colleen, though I’m not certain their names are ever used in the film. Either way, they appear later in the film having succumbed to the language virus, and Mazzy and Sidney have to push past them to lock themselves in the relative safety of the utility closet slash break room.

I don’t think these zombie kids perform a specific narrative function — not like a lot of the other named undead children in this list — but I do think they are purposefully in the narrative. I’ve read a fair amount of Burgess’s novels, and many of them deal with outbreaks of civic violence and “people suddenly being absolutely not what you think they are.” These stories are largely set in the tiny towns in rural Ontario where he lives, and this convulsive violence often occurs in those liminal spaces we pass through in our rote and somnambulant interactions with the quote-unquote community: a gas station at a crossroads, a parking lot outside a big box store, a diner. Kids are just there, because kids are always just there: in the back seat while mom pumps gas, hanging onto the cart while mom distractedly shops, or, in Pontypool, going along with dad’s dog-and-pony show to get on the local radio. Violence inevitably affects children, and that violence doesn’t necessarily have meaning; it just is. There are zombie kids in Pontypool because there are kids in the town of Pontypool; as above, so below.

Quarantine (2008)

Briana

Probably a little bit of a cheat, because Quarantine is the American remake of [REC], so I’ll just note the differences. Quarantine only has one zombie child, Briana (played by a tiny baby Joey King), who is basically the same character as Jennifer Carmen, down to attacking her own mother. The source of the illness is no longer Vatican demon possession, but a doomsday cult member (played by none other than Doug Jones!) stealing a genetically modified rabies virus and releasing it in the apartment building. This localization makes perfect sense to me, as Americans are much more millenarian and paranoid about the gumment and have a different relationship with the Catholic church than the Spanish.

Zombieland (2009)

An entire birthday party

We only see child zombies in Zombieland during Cincinnati’s enumeration of his rules, specifically number 4: seatbelts. They end up being a visual punchline more than anything (and, weirdly, the same visual punchlines as in a The Walking Dead webisode called “Torn Apart”): they’re children zombified during a child’s birthday party. A somewhat dowdy woman with bad hair jumps into her van and frantically rolls up the window while while zombies in party dresses bang on the windows. She peels out of this suburban subdivision overrun with child zombies while Jesse Eisenberg intones that one must repress all humanity to survive zombieland. (The bouncy house in the background is a nice touch, tbh.) When she’s clear of the child zombies, her attention is drawn to one of the dozens of beanie babies all over the dash, at which point she t-bones a truck and is launched through the window, which presumably kills her. It would probably be easy to overthink this because I don’t think there’s much to this other than the macabre humor of girls in princess dresses trying to kill you. I do think the woman’s characterization — such as it is, as it’s limited to dowdy clothes, a bad haircut, and a weird relationship with plushies — evinces a sort of mean-spiritedness which has made Zombieland not age all that well. Cincinnati’s incel vibes are impossible to ignore now, for example.

The Girl with All the Gifts (2014)

Melanie

This is one of the four movies that have classrooms full of zombies — the others being Resident Evil: Apocalypse, Little Monsters, and Cooties. I said I wasn’t going to include them here, but Melanie is such a distinct character that I’m making an exception for her. The film (based on the same-named novel by M. R. Carey) takes place 10-ish years after the zombie apocalypse has overtaken Britain. Like The Last of Us, the zombie pathogen is fungal in nature. In an installation outside of the main human settlement, the military is experimenting on a dozen or so zombie children they have captured out in the wild. Unlike children turned in the initial outbreak, these children are capable of instruction, and don’t pose a threat to regular people as long as the living remain slathered in a scent-blocker. These children are strapped down and wheeled into a classroom every day, presided over by the empathetic Miss Justineau.

The film largely focuses on the relationship between Miss Justineau and her zombie student, Melanie. (The film also reverses the racial dynamic that was in the book: Melanie is Black and Miss Justineau white, which I think is a more interesting dynamic, Pedagogy of the Oppressed-style.) After the installation is inevitably breached, Melanie, Justineau and a collection of soldierly types end up road tripping through a zombified Britain. They encounter even more zombie children who have clearly self-organized into a sort of community, but they lack language & anything but the most rudimentary culture. Melanie ends up annihilating the human race by making the zombie plague airborne, while preserving it through Miss Justineau, who ends up the instructor of an entirely new race of people.

When zombie stories include children, they can potentially comment on generational conflict — and zombie classrooms, doubly so. Looking at this film post-Brexit and Britain’s continuing self-sabotage, you can see all of that coming. Glenn Close’s character, the military general in charge of the installation, is absolutely furious that people like Melanie exist, and prioritizes destroying her over even self-preservation. Humanity is dead. Long live humanity.

What We Become (Original Danish title: Sorgenfri) (2015)

Maj

Unlike many zombie movies, What We Become focuses on a nuclear family, not a found family, and it largely takes place in the family home. The zombie apocalypse itself is a pretty slow burn: The dynamics between the family members and the larger community (most specifically, their neighbors) are very carefully detailed. (The nuclear family consists of parents Dino and Pernille, and their kids are Gustaf, who seems like he’s 17-18, and Maj, who’s probably around 10.) During this extended prelude, there are constant background events, which, for someone paying attention, presage the zombie apocalypse. An elderly neighbor disappears; the radio mentions a virus centered in their suburb. Interestingly, I’m not sure the family even sees a zombie before the military rolls in and forces everyone to quarantine in their homes. (The plastic sheeting reminded me strongly of [REC], with people trapped in their homes and subject to escalating civic violence.)

The beginning of What We Become is also its ending. The very first scene is a distraught Pernille whispering platitudes to someone offscreen: Everything is going to be alright; it’s all a dream, etc. She reacts to banging, “Dino, is that you?” We see this scene again with much more context at the very end of the film. Pernille has retreated to an attic bedroom. Her daughter, Maj, is dead; this is who she is cradling in her arms. Her husband Dino is indeed the one banging on the door, which he breaks down. He shoulders a rifle with a scope and tells her to move away from the girl. She refuses. Looking down, she sees Maj open her eyes. A moment of hope flashes on Pernille’s face before she’s bitten and killed by her daughter. Dino points the gun first at Maj, and then at himself, but he’s out of bullets. Maj attacks and kills him as well.

In the particulars, the demise of the child, her reanimation, and then deaths of the parents isn’t dissimilar from Karen Cooper and her parents in Night of the Living Dead. The key difference is that the focus of the film has been on this nuclear family though the whole film. The Coopers are emblematic of the American nuclear family on the rotten end of the 60s; Maj and her family are less emblems and more distinct characters.

Blood Quantum (2019)

Unnamed girl

As far as I know, Blood Quantum is the first and only First Nations zombie film. The action of the film takes place in and around the fictional Mi’kmaq reserve of Red Crow. In a telling metaphor, Native people are immune to the virus which causes zombiism, but they can still be torn apart by their white zombie neighbors. As graffiti scrawled on the doors of the refuge says: If they’re red, they’re dead. If they’re white, they bite. After an extended prologue which takes place in the days just as the outbreak is beginning, we skip forward to 6 months into the zombie apocalypse. The reserve is one of the very few places not overrun with the undead.

The film follows brothers — the fuckup Lysol and his earnest much younger brother Joseph. Joseph and his pregnant white girlfriend have been bringing people from the outside into the reserve, and in the scene establishing the new normal, they return with a middle-aged white guy carrying his daughter in a blanket. Lysol and Joseph get into it: Lysol doesn’t want any more mouths to feed, and points out the daughter is obviously infected. The father denies this, but Lysol pulls down the blanket she’s wrapped in to reveal a bite. Joseph and his girlfriend get high and mighty about helping people, and tensions run over into a scuffle, just in time for their father, Traylor (played by the wonderful Michael Greyeyes) to wade in and bust up the fight. Tribal members discuss what to do about the infected girl in their native language, which increasingly upsets the father, who begins shouting, “Speak English!” Meanwhile, the girl dies. The father is ushered into the reserve, but his daughter cannot be taken inside. Just as she begins to stir, Traylor spits her skull with an axe.

Blood Quantum is so very much about the colonial relationship, and the confrontation at the gates of the reserve throw a lot of complicated interrelations together. Lysol is increasingly violently retaliatory as the movie goes on, but in this situation, he’s absolutely not wrong about the need to be cautious about letting people in. Joseph’s white girlfriend huffs at him, “We’re supposed to be helping people!” which feels whiney and entitled in the moment. Interestingly, it’s the level-headed Traylor who shoots back, “We’re not supposed to be doing anything. We’re supposed to survive.” White refugees trying to get into a First Nation — which typically were placed in land unwanted by white people — is an ironic reversal. Building on that central irony, this scene layers irony on irony — everything from the white father demanding they speak English while requesting asylum in their nation, to the white refugees being referred to as “boat people.” Most zombie movies end on bummers, but Blood Quantum is much more open-ended bummer than most.

Zombi Child (2019)

There is not actually a zombie child in Zombi Child. I suspect it may be a translation problem, as this francophone film deals with the legacy of colonialism in France through the story of a Haitian man turned zombie in the 1960s intercut with a contemporary story of a Haitian girl going to a boarding school in France. Haiti is, of course, the source for the original zombie lore, a creature which functions more like a golem under the control of a sorcerer than the undead cannibalistic mobs we see from Romero on. Thought I should address the film, given the name and all.

Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City (2021)

Girl in the road, neighbor boy

I know that no one saw this reboot of films based on the Resident Evil video games — which heretofore have been closely associated with Milla Jovovich and Paul W. S. Anderson — but I thought it was ok. Too reliant on dark-o-vision which made most of the action muddy, but with way more fidelity to the video games, if that’s your bag. (I know some of the game fans were unhappy with the previous series because those movies take a lot of liberties.) Anyway, Welcome to Raccoon City follows the initial outbreak in the titular city due to Umbrella Corp’s fuckery. Claire Redfield returns home to Raccoon City to warn her rookie RCPD brother, Chris, about the Umbrella Corp’s evil experiments.

When the trucker she’s hitching a ride with decides to make a gross pass at her, his attention wanders and he hits a girl in the road with his truck. (I couldn’t quite clock her age; it’s possible this is a teenager.) While he and Claire are arguing about what to do about the body, the girl gets up and wanders into the forest, where she stands, just out of sight, being a creeper. On her way to her brother’s house, Claire has several weird encounters with townspeople doing stuff like bleeding from the eyes. This culminates in Claire seeing a mother and son next door to her brother’s who appear to be bleeding and loosing clumps of hair. Chris is like, whatever, I’m not interested in your conspiracy facts, and leaves her to go to work. Claire hears a noise, and discovers the boy looking real rough and hiding under Chris’s table. “Do you need help?” She asks. “You need help,” he responds, as his mother, in full on zombie mode, crashes through the glass door and attacks Claire.

When I rewatched, I was surprised how little screen time the second zombie child had — in my mind he was the one who attacked Claire, not his mom. It’s possible I got this sequence messed up with the one in Night of Comet, which has similar blocking. I admit this kid isn’t completely zombified yet, though he’s clearly well on his way. Both the child zombies in Raccoon City seem to be children for their uncanny creepy factor mostly. But the children are also emblematic of the moral depravity of Umbrella, and by extension, the entire town. The population of the orphanage where the Redfields were raised was a convenient source for disposable test subjects, and the unnaturalness of preying upon your own young comes to full concrete metaphor with the death and reanimation of the town.


So that’s what I’ve got! Judging from this list, the most common child zombie is a white girl who will kill her mother in the story. I don’t really have a theory as to why that is the case, though it may just be as simple as children are often with their mothers, and a white girl is the avatar for imperiled innocence. And hey, if you can think of other zombie children I missed, I’d be happy to add them.

Book Review: Composite Creatures by Caroline Hardaker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Review: The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I received my copy from Netgalley.com

Octavia E. Butler’s The Parable of the Sower: The Opera

Maybe two months ago, I became aware of a musical version of Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower which was being staged at the O’Shaughnessy theater on the St. Kate’s campus in St. Paul. I pretty much blacked out and bought tickets on the spot, figuring I’d find a way to the Twin Cities for the show somehow. That show was last night. What an altogether moving staging.

I feel like Parable of the Sower has been popping up again and again for me. I write a series for B&N SciFi and Fantasy about the Nebula awards, reading through the nominated books and trying to handicap who’s going to win. A book I read for that series recently reminded me of Parable — reminded me that Butler took home the Nebula for both Parable of the Sower AND its sequel Parable of the Talents. I wrote a listicle about religiously motivated missions to the stars, and included Parable of the Talents, because of Lauren’s Earthseed. (The never-published third in that series, Parable of the Trickster, which takes place on the alien planet, would have been a better fit … but of course it was never published.)

I read both books years ago. Reading through the plot summaries to jog my memory bolted me down, ran a wire up my nerves: the camps for reeducation, the separation of families from their children (often permanently), President Jarret’s Make America Great Again rhetoric as he perpetrates the most inhuman cruelties. Butler was a godamn prophet, and it’s a cold feeling to read her warning while the dystopia is in full swing.

The opera version is fully aware of the icy inevitability of Butler’s classic, but wraps up the narrative in a warm call-and-response, in a call to arms. The staging was less like a traditional stage play — I’m fairly sure if I had no familiarity with the text, I would have been at sea. Instead, the character beats of the novel are jumping off points to explore the various ideas — and characters — in song.

This didn’t really register for me when I read the novel because it isn’t my lived experience (an altogether precious way of saying I’m white), but the opera centers the religious dialogue between Lauren and her father — which of course is centered in the church in Black America. Much of the first section — in the walled neighborhood before the walls are breached — is staged like a pulpit and pews. Her father preaches, and then Lauren responds. From him: “God don’t never change.” From her: “God is change.” The music touches gospel, the rhetorical style of Black preachers, old spirituals.

Oh, but another thing: the chorus. I don’t necessarily see this that often in either film or theater, because it is weird and old school, but: Parable of the Sower kinda had a Greek chorus. The chorus in Greek theater kinda functioned as a social superego, like an intrusive narrator who interjected on the events of the play, or ran the gloss, or gave you whatfor.

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

Romeo and Juliet

You can find choruses in Shakespeare, real minimally, but that was almost half a millennium ago, which, even factoring his long shadow, was a long ass time ago. In Parable of the Sower, there are three people noted in the liner notes called “The Talents”: two singers, Helga Davis and Kenita Miller, and one of the writers, Toshi Reagon. I’m going to go ahead and presume that “talents” refers to the sequel — The Parable of the Talents. (There’s a pause here where I go to brush up on Jesus’ parable, and find that it’s one of the messy contested ones where different gospels have different takes, which is altogether perfect.)

The talents in the play are a modern take on the chorus, especially when Toshi Reagon — folksinger, writer, singer, musician — cut in. Near the end of the first act she broke through the music just to talk to us, to tell us about her vision of Butler’s vision and her place in the world. At the end she called us to action. It takes as voice as strong as Octavia’s own to sing her story, and Toshi Reagon has it.

Back in the Saddle

I quit updating the ole blog more than four years ago. There was some real world shit that was more important, so I was, as they say in corporate, in a contraction phase. I’d wobbled for about a year after my Grandma’s death and then subsequent deletion of my Goodreads account. Her death kicked me deeper into depression, and then the withdrawal from my main outlet on social media laid me down deep in the hole. (Also, the loss of a few friends due to my being insensate to other people’s needs and feelings didn’t help anything, especially when I realized what an ass I’d been.) So I quit writing, pretty much full stop.

I’m not going to get into four years of the ins and outs of my mental health, but suffice it to say, I feel like it’s time to get back out there and start saying stuff out loud again. Partially because I’m this godsdamned close to finishing the first draft of the zombie housewife novel, and it would be good to keep myself accountable in some semi-public way. I haven’t figured out what that will look like — I’m not the hugest fan of daily word counts or other objective metrics — but I also know how bad I am at sticktoitiveness. Partially because I just miss rattling on about what I read and what I’m thinking about. A little-trafficked blog with absolute shite design seems the perfect place for that! Also maybe I can get Mr. Ceridwen to help with the design.

I spent some time last week going through the several thousand comments this blog had accrued in my absence. Out of the thousands, there was exactly one comment from a real person: the rest were for v1agra, pr0n, other mixes of letters and numbers, and stuff written in Cyrillic. I also looked through the several hundred photos I had in various posts and took down anything that might ding me for copyright violations. I thought I knew what fair use was until I saw this infringement case in the news, and realized it was way more restrictive than I thought. Total drag.

So, anyway. I guess I’m back! I’ll probably post some back-catalog stuff in addition to new posts, at least for the first couple months before I get back in the swing of regular posting.