Review: Spec Ops Z by Gavin G. Smith

I feel like every time I turn around, some nickel-plated idiot announces that the zombie genre is dead, har har. And while I don’t have a lot of time for this notion, I will grudgingly admit that we’re definitely out of the flurry of excellent zombie narratives that were published about a decade ago. Every time has its monster, and I think the zombie in the Obama years largely stood in for some pretty nasty undemocratic and racist stuff seething under the surface. I want to be clear that when I say this, I am not smearing all zombie narratives of this time period as right wing agitprop or whatever — that would be stupid and reductive.

But there are also certain inescapable through-lines to this era of zombie narrative. So many zombie narratives of the early 21st century position a white dude, often with a military or police background, and his capacity for targeted violence as the savior of domesticity and the world. World War Z (movie version), Walking Dead (both versions), Zombieland, etc. (Zombieland especially hasn’t held up so great: the character Cleveland, played by Mark Zuckerberg, ends up reading as an incel, and his murder of his hot neighbor after describing what a bitch she is for not noticing him is, as the saying goes, problematic.) It’s the old line: “You’ll be begging me to use my guns when the mob comes,” where the mob is generally coded as not-white, not-us, the ultimate dehumanized them.

Obviously, there are a lot of zombie narratives from this period which invert or subvert this trope. Take something like 28 Days Later, which turns the white military savior into anything but, the Mister Kurtz of his own sterile fiefdom. But 28 Days Later, no matter what it does with the trope, is still in dialogue with it. It’s just kind of baked into the premise: a small group end up having to organize their society balancing individual autonomy with group safety, in the most extreme environment possible. This era of the zombie narrative tended to pit the Spartan encampment against the Athenian mob, and violent expedience was the name of the game.

Since Trump’s election, Brexit, and most certainly since the Time of Covid, these tropes have become confused and messy, the coherence of the metaphor rotten. It’s just not mapping right anymore. Observe this, from a viral photo of Covid-deniers storming the Michigan capitol:

[Image description: A photo taken from inside a building looking out through windows. Several people press against the glass, most with their mouths open mid-shout. American flags, a red Trump hat, and the Guy Fawkes mask are visible. The image is captioned “World War Q”.]

Here we have a mob ostensibly fighting for personal freedom. The party of law and order tacitly condones the attack on the capitol and the murder of a policeman, if not explicitly. Authoritarianism rides to power on populism. This is ultimately what many zombie novels were presaging, but we’ve lost our taste for the fictional meat of it. I don’t know what the next monster will be, but zombies aren’t quite the zeitgeist anymore.

Which brings me rather long-windedly to Spec Ops Z by Gavin G. Smith. When I came across it in the Netgalley catalog, it struck me how long it’s been since I read a zombie novel. I think probably the last was Last Ones Left Alive, a musing, elegiac novel set in Ireland. (Oh, I also reread World War Z at the beginning of the pandemic, and that book was so accurate in its depiction of the societal and governmental responses to a global pandemic it ended up kind of hurting my feelings. ‘Sure didn’t get a laugh out of it like when I re-watched Contagion, boy howdy. ) I’ve been watching tons of zombie movies still — their low budgets all but ensure zombie movies will be cranked out forever — but the publication of zombie novels seems to be thinning.

It’s clear from the description that Spec Ops Z is more on the hardware nerd side, a kind of military sf that’s constructed like WW2 band of brothers movies starring John Wayne. In the interests of full disclosure, this isn’t particularly my bag, but I can be up for a bit of rowdy. True to form, Spec Ops Z is fast paced — except for a beginning which drags — and includes the kind of mayhem and gore I prefer in my zombie smash and grabs. The action isn’t always clearly blocked, but mostly it’s credible. Maybe most importantly, Smith doesn’t slip into pretentious philosophizing about the Nature of Man and Probably Evil Too, something I tend to find in these soldierly stories.

Spec Ops Z follows a group of Soviet Spetsnaz commandos from their posting in Afghanistan to a secret mission in NYC. It’s set in 1989 (if I remember correctly), when the Soviets were in the Afghani quagmire, not the US. (The Soviet-Afghan conflict is often called the Soviet Union’s Vietnam War, fwiw.) The members of the team all have pilot-style nicknames — Gulag, Mongol, Princess, etc — which I found somewhat precious: they were all walking around labeled with their single character trait. I couldn’t decide if this was lazy or brilliant, because it’s not like I’m reading this sort of thing for the articles, and I didn’t have to try to keep straight a dozen people with similar-sounding Russian names and patronymics. I’m leaning toward brilliant.

I was perked up at this beginning part because I actually was in the USSR in 1991, just a few months before the August coup attempt which lead to Yeltsin’s rise. Spec Ops Z appears to be a mild alt-history, in that a hard line KGB guy has deposed the reformist Gorbachev in the very recent past of the novel. As a consequence, relations are much shittier with the rest of the world. (Like, I kind of can’t imagine what might have happened if they had a hard-liner in when Reagan delivered his evil empire Star Wars nonsense. They were apparently pretty close to first striking us at that point as it was.)

The Spetsnaz team are pulled from combat in Afghanistan and sent on a secret-even-to-them mission to NY, where they set off a bioagent in Grand Central Station, one that turns everyone into zombies. Most of the team are killed, but miraculously reanimate with their reasoning intact, though the gnawing hunger to savage the living is always present. The pov character theorizes that this is because they’re all so hardened and have such great discipline and iron will from being Spetznaz soldiers. This I thought was the kind of self-aggrandizing BS a commando unit would tell themselves, so didn’t credit it overmuch. Unfortunately, later, when another character reanimates, it’s made clear this is the actual in-world reason, which, whoo boy.

The Spetsnaz are pretty pissed they ended up unwittingly bringing about the end of the world — the US retaliated with nukes, so there’s that to worry about too — and decide to go back to the USSR and revenge murder all the people involved, if they are not already shambling corpses. From then on it’s set pieces — through NY, onto a ship, etc — and largely what one expects from this sort of thing. What I really want to talk about happens in the last quarter of the novel, and therefore constitutes a spoiler according to most people. Fair warned.

SPOILERS BELOW

Like seriously I’m not kidding.

Not even a little.

When the Spetsnaz arrive in England, they come across a bunch of people dressed in Nazi uniforms. This is seriously fucking upsetting for most of the team — the leader grew up in Stalingrad during the Siege (which was fucking horrible), and others had their brushes with Nazis. It’s sometimes hard to remember now, but the USSR, the UK, and the US were all on the same side of WWII; what the hell are Nazis doing on British soil?

Turns out, these Nazis are a bunch of reenactors who started cosplaying a little too hard once the zombie apocalypse happened. They’ve set up their own little Reich in Zombieton-on-Wye, complete with a Joy Division (not just a band name) and cage matches between brown people and zombies. (I am completely tired by the zombie cage match trope, but it’s not lingered on overmuch, more’s the better.) (Also, I was fully expecting to have to grit my way through some sadistically detailed description of sexual assault, but Smith doesn’t go there, to his credit.)

I don’t think such a thing could happen in England in 1989, the scars of the War being what they were. Maybe in the States where we didn’t have to deal with the Blitz and … all the rest of it. But I legitimately don’t mean to nitpick plausibility here. For one, it’s a book about physics-defying cannibal corpses; I think I can allow a little latitude in the British national character. (Which, also, I’m not British, so.) This book was not written by someone living in 1989, and it is not being read by people in 1989 (barring time travel or whatnot.) Not even a month ago, Americans wearing the signs and emblems of both Nazis and Confederates stormed the capitol of the United States of America. Seeing Nazi cosplayers pop up in zombie fiction is pretty relevant to our times, considerably moreso when you consider that the Russians unleashed the zombie plague in both the US and UK in the book. What is zombiism but the ultimate DDOS attack?

I have occasionally been accused of overthinking pulp fiction, and it’s possible that’s what I’m doing here. However, I get the impression that Smith is really not messing around with his historical research. Much of it was spent being a total nerd about 1980s era Soviet & American weaponry — the firearms and armaments all lovingly described and detailed — but for sure he also has a detailed alt-history of the USSR. He goes so far as to name the hard-liner in charge of the country, and I suspect if my Soviet history were better, I could point to when exactly the timeline diverges. So I’ll assume Smith isn’t just writing pulp nonsense with no meaning, themes, or goals. It’s set when it is, with these specific people as protagonist, for a reason.

Given that this is a retitled reprint of a novel first published in 2017, there’s no way it’s directly addressing the Capitol Insurrection, but the rise of militant white supremacy has very much been a thing in this here age of Trumpism. But because of its placement at the very end of the novel, and the relative ease by which the ersatz Nazis are dispatched, I do kind of wonder what that sequence is trying to say. The Soviets riding in to save the British (and their America captives) from both the zombie plague they themselves unleashed AND white supremacy is also a little odd, and I’m not sure what to make of it.

I started this essay blathering about how zombies fit into a certain Obama-era ethos — before Brexit, before Trump — both anticipating and, in some cases, justifying both Trumpism and the Brexiteers. Just cut the bridges and retreat to your island in order to keep the shambling horde from overrunning those who really matter. I think Spec Ops Z ends up kinda perfectly encapsulating the ambivalent and shifting sense of meaning in zombie tropes in an America where violent white supremacy is ascendant. I’m not sure what exactly to take out of Spec Ops Z, but that could be said about every single aspect of my life at the moment: we’re all groping our ways forward.

So. An enjoyable novel with enough gory set pieces to keep me reading, and also deliberate enough to allow me to sharpen some of my favorite pet theories on it. Класс.

I got my copy from Netgalley. Spec Ops Z goes on sale February 2.

The Year in Reading: 2020

I’ve historically done one of those “My Year in Reading” round-ups, and this year has been weirder than most. I read almost zero straight science fiction, precious little horror, and not much in the way of anything serious. Last Jan and Feb I was working my way through Robin McKinley’s catalogue. I made it through:

  • Shadows — flawed but just ringing with her unique voice,
  • Pegasus — pretty dull, but your inner horse girl will love it, and
  • Dragonhaven — about a reserve for dragons in Utah or thereabouts, and a boy who was raised there. It ended up being one of my favorites of hers, and I don’t get all the negative reviews. Maybe it was the audio was so good; idk. I listened to this in the car, and my oldest (who is about the age of the protagonist) really liked it as well, fwiw.


I also tackled Peter S Beagle’s A Fine and Private Place, which that dude wrote at the tender and snot-nosed age of 19, jerk. It’s hella dated at this point, but in such an achingly nostalgic way: the invocation of 1950s Jewish neighborhoods in NYC is really affectionate. There are roughly 8 million literary allusions — such a young writer thing to do — and I found the whole project charming as hell. Also he kind of casually rips your heart out, as will become usual in his writing, jerk.

Then Covid basically ruined everything, and I was incapable of reading anything much more stressing than light fantasy or Regency romance for the foreseeable. I would have continued with McKinley, but the next book up was Deerskin, which is based on a folk tale that involves both sexual assault and incest, and therefore no. Being myself, I couldn’t switch gears, so I just ended the project.

Instead I read just about everything Julie Anne Long wrote — the Pennyroyal Green, Holt Sisters, and Palace of Rogues series …es — but excluding her contemporary romances because I basically hate small town romances, and that’s what those are. I tried to reread Marjorie M Liu’s Dirk & Steele series, but I forgot how stressful those can be, and only made it like 5 books in. (Stupid series name notwithstanding, those are some of the weirdest PNR/UF books out there, and I highly recommend them to folk who have tired of vampire detectives or werewolf academies or whatever.)

I also discovered T. Kingfisher (which is a pen name for Ursula Vernon) and read everything in the Clocktaur universe: Swordheart, Paladin’s Grace, Clockwork Boys, and The Wonder Engine. Those books are a delightful mix of macabre and cheerful, often utterly terrifying and hilarious at the same time. I was not able to undertake her newest horror outing, The Hollow Places, because the one before that, The Twisted Ones, kind of took a strip off me, and I don’t think I can handle that right now.

I picked up books 2 (or deeper) in fantasy series …es I had dropped off of for whatever reason, because finding comfort in the familiar was the name of the game.

  • Stormsong by C.L. Polk, which is book 2 in the Kingston Cycle. The Kingston Cycle quite beautifully details what’s so horrific about hereditary magical systems. Stormsong wasn’t as compelling to me as the previous novel, but was a fun read anyway. Gaslamp fantasy in a Victorian England-ish world.
  • The Mortal Word by Genevieve Cogman, book 5 in The Invisible Library series. This one really took me a while to hack through. I’m not sure why it failed to hold my attention, because there wasn’t anything wrong with it: similar to previous books, lots of murder, hijinks, and dragons. I think it’s because this is the book I realized I’m not enamored of Irene, and given how she’s the series protagonist, is kind of a problem. Another gaslamp fantasy in a multiverse.
  • The Ippos King and Dragon Unleashed by Grace Draven, which are book 4 of the Wraith Kings series and book 2 of the Fallen Empire series. I was a little adrift with Ippos King because I read the previous novel, Eidolon, so long ago and kind of forgot everything about it. I do remember its protagonists, Anhuset and Serevek really well from Radiance, because that book is def a comfort read for me, and I’m sure I read it again this year. Dragon Unleashed I had to constantly ignore the premise because it didn’t make any sense to me, but the main characters were so likeable that wasn’t a hard task. Also, the heroine has a developmentally disabled mother, and she is written so beautifully, neither fetishizing nor infantilizing.
  • Trapped by Kevin Hearne, book 5 of the Iron Druid Chronicles. These make very good books to listen to on road trips. Not much to say about this in comparison to other Iron Druid books: Atticus can be kind of a brick, but there’s always something happening, and his talking dog is the best. Contemporary UF with a druid protag and lots of American Gods-style shenanigans.
  • A Touch of Stone & Snow by Milla Vane (which is another pen name for Meljean Brook), book 2 in A Gathering of Dragons series. This I was a little trepidatious to read: the previous novel, A Heart of Blood & Ashes, was pretty bloody and grim. ToS&S ended up being much less dire than HoB&A, though she’s still pretty adept at ripping your feels out. Barbarians in a world a generation past a brutal warlord crushing everyone.

I did start in on a couple fantasy series I hadn’t read before, just to include a little danger in my reading. Maybe it’ll get too dark and I’ll have to throw it over for rereading Radiance!

  • Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh. Charming amalgam of Victorian British folklore and folklorists. (Also, I just discovered this is the first in a duology, and now I know what I’m reading tonight.)
  • Lord of the Last Heartbeat by May Peterson. Man, I was so enraptured with this when I read it, just perfectly Gothic as fuck and gloriously overwritten. Honestly, I don’t even know what was going on half the time, and I don’t even care. There’s like, tragic murderous ghosts of dead wives mooning about in diaphanous clothing, crumbling ancestral manses, and curses, so many curses. I started the next one, The Immortal City, and even though it’s similarly dreamy and emo, I don’t deal well with amnesia plots, and therefore haven’t finished it.
  • The Charm of Magpies Series by KJ Charles. This one also touches on how gross hereditary magical systems can be, and is also often hella Gothic. There’s also a lot of sex in this series, but it’s actually awesome how directly related to the magical system it is. Anyway, gaslamp fantasy about a sorcerer policeman solving a murder, amongst other things.
  • Binding Shadows and Death’s Dancer by Jasmine Silvera. Read these out of order — Binding Shadows in in the same universe as Death’s Dancer, but like 4 books later. Different series completely, so no big. Anyway, I just really loved these books, with their Prague locale and non-white protagonists who nonetheless have deep roots in Europe.
  • Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire. Just, why didn’t I read this earlier? It’s a boarding school fantasy where are the children have gone to and returned from pocket universes, all different — everything from fairylands to underworlds. These kids all want to find their doors back, but they’re stuck in the real world trying to made do. Really great meta-fiction.

I did read just the tiniest amount of horror and science fiction, but way less than I usually do. A grab bag of various books:

  • Rebecca by Daphne du Marier. I’d never read Rebecca, which seems like a pretty phenomenal oversight given my mild obsessions with the housewife in literature, Gothic novels, etc. At turns absolutely, howlingly funny and morbidly creepifying. The recent Netflix version was SO BAD; I had such a great time watching it.
  • Battle of the Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley. Military sf that makes for a very good audio, with the added bonus of being completely anti-corporate. So much goes the other way.
  • Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre by Max Brooks. Pretty stupid! I reread World War Z when the pandemic got going, and it ended up being oddly prescient about how people reacted to the pandemic both before and during the initial outbreak, down to the snake oil and the deniers. Devolution showcases all of Brooks’s strengths turned into weaknesses. WWZ made it clear he was a huge military history wonk, and he brings all of that to bear in Devolution in this junky evopsych way. His main first person voice is a housewife, which he cannot pull off at all convincingly. But! It’s also fast and bloody, and I appreciate his action sequences when he’s not lecturing me about Sun Tzu or whatever.
  • Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake. My brother-in-law mailed the whole Gormenghast trilogy to me after a grudging hate-read through all eleventy million pages. It’s like he couldn’t understand why Gormenghast is so compelling, because it’s also 100% repellant. Everyone is a grotesque — everyone — if not downright evil. The plot, insofar as there is one, follows an ambitious servant climbing his way through the Groan family ranks, often bloodily. It is just delightfully fucked up, and I have never read anything like it.
  • Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots. This might be my favorite thing I read last year? Certainly the one I kept talking about the longest. It’s got a premise not dissimilar from The Boys, but like, not as boy-centric, which maybe isn’t a huge surprise.

The trouble with never reviewing anything anymore is that this roundup is getting out of hand, and I’m sure there are another couple dozen books I read last year but just haven’t thought of them. Ah well.

So, not my finest year of reading, but then it’s not like it’s a competition or something, and there are no prizes for reading fancier or grittier fiction. I have been tentatively dipping my toes back into darker fiction — like I keep hacking at Nick Cutter’s The Deep even though it kind of makes me wig out every 20 pages and switch to something else. We’ll see.

Stormsong by C.L. Polk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I received my copy from Netgalley.

An Incomplete List of Zombie Television Series I Have Enjoyed.

8 Zombie Series Worth a Looksee

Note: I wrote and published this a while ago — September to be exact — but due to some shenanigans involving backups or something, several posts were lost, in addition to all pictures on the site. So that’s a bummer. But that’s why this might seem familiar.

A couple few months back I wrote a thing about the oddball zombie movies I have have enjoyed, which got me thinking about zombie television series. There were a bunch of things I wanted to include, but they weren’t movies, and I didn’t want the list to burgeon too much. So here I am now with all the zombie series that I half-wanted to include but couldn’t!

Like the movie list, the series included hail from all over the globe. I’ve deliberately excluded well known network/cable stuff like iZombie or The Walking Dead. This is my rodeo and I will do what I want, but more importantly, I’m talking about the oddballs that maybe the average non-zombie-obsessed freak might be interested in.

Canada

Black Summer

I went back and forth about this one, because as a spin-off of sorts, maybe I should include its source material, Z-Nation. Z-Nation is an avowedly z-punk take on the zombie apocalypse, both pulpy and melodramatic in turns. Its old school Dr Who-style micro-budget forced its writers and designers into bottle episodes and off-camera horrors in ways I thought enhanced the series, but then its whole aesthetic was so deliberately goofy that who even knows. Black Summer has a similar low-budget shitty-digital-video feel, but it’s not really campy at all. You wouldn’t find, say, a z-nado, a zom-baby, or zombie strippers like you do in Z-Nation. This is hardcore First Night storytelling, staged in those first weeks when the dead begin to rise.

Z-Nation never exactly stressed me out because its environment was too fictional, if you’ll excuse my vagueness, but Black Summer did, and often. The series opens with a nuclear family packing up to run. There are sirens in the distance, and as they make their way through suburbia, people pour out of their tick-tack McMansions into the street like a river. They come to a military checkpoint, the daughter is loaded onto a transport vehicle, and the father is discovered to be bitten and ejected. The mother follows the father back into the neighborhood as her child is removed, screaming, in the custody of the military. There are other plotlines too — a Black man in the custody of the police; a deaf man and a Korean woman; even a zombie who reanimates in the street.

The thing that makes Black Summer so arresting is how suburban everything is, how normal, in the pejorative sense of the word. The world Black Summer inhabits hasn’t been broken down and overrun. The lights still work and the windows are unbroken. The automatic doors at the grocery slide open when you walk towards them. The opening episodes have Roshoman-style overlapping narratives which I thought were a cut above ur usual zombie fare, but could read as precious in the wrong mood. I enjoyed how different Black Summer was from the series it spun off from, but I can entirely see how partisans of one wouldn’t like the other. They’re very different kinds of pulp: one leans into the silly and melodramatic, while the other relies on a gritty shitty digital video aesthetic.

Freakish

I fully admit that Freakish isn’t great — maybe isn’t even good — but it definitely hit some sort of sweet spot for me involving teen melodrama and the zombie apocalypse. (I <3 teen drama 4evah.) I really loved the YA novel This is Not a Test because of its use of the tropes of teen fiction in the extremity of the end of the world. I love how it makes manifest how dire everything is in adolescence. It makes the emotional landscape manifest.

Anyway, Freakish follows something like a half dozen teens trapped in the school when the local chemical plant melts down (or whatever), filling the town with a cloud of chemicals that turns them into something like zombies. One of the kids seems to know more about the spill than he should. Several have secrets both banal and deadly, and there’s a love triangle or two. They while away their time playing grownup and failing just as horribly as actual grownups. In short, it’s the Breakfast Club with teeth. And Canadian accents.

England

Dead Set

I watched Dead Set ages ago, after it premiered in England, but well before it was easily available in the States. I got a bootleg copy from a much cooler friend, and then mailed (like literally through the Post Office mailed) the DVDs around to a list of people. This I’m sure dates the fuck out of this. Dead Set is a limited series — only five episodes — about the zombie apocalypse taking place around the set of the British reality tv show Big Brother, a place which at first blush seems like the perfect place to ride out the end of the world. It starts, like all Last Night stories do, with the usual melodrama and personality conflicts of both the crew and the staff of Big Brother. (This is made even more verisimilitude with the inclusion of several Big Brother “personalities” in the series: everything from former Big Brother house residents to a marquee host.) (It also features a tiny baby Riz Ahmed.)

The following paragraph is riddled with spoilers, so beware, spoiler averse.

I was just absolutely floored by the end of Dead Set, which saw basically the entire cast zombified or otherwise dead, up to and including the ostensible heroine. I kind of can’t think of another series like this, that’s just like, fuck it, kill everyone, let’s just wholeheartedly embrace the nihilism inherent in any zombie narrative. Usually someone survives to make you feel good about the human race or whatever. The way Dead Set uses spectacle and violence to deny the viewer catharsis is pretty freaking cool, all told.

In the Flesh

In the Flesh takes place after the zombie menace has been contained, and everything is slowly grudgingly returning to a new normal that is anything but. The series follows one of the those afflicted with Partially Deceased Syndrome (PDS) — oh how I love the penchant for zombie neologism — in his reintroduction to his small, mean, Northern English town. The zombies in this alt-history were beaten back and rounded up. Government scientists found a cocktail of drugs, to be injected daily, which would keep the feral zombie-state at bay. Kieran is sent home with makeup to cover his pallid skin, contact lenses for his dead eyes, and scheduled injections to keep him from murdering everyone around him.

Complicating Kieran’s reentry into society — I mean, in addition to his guilt over the killings, which he remembers with perfect clarity, and his clearly undead state — is that his small town was a locus for the living’s mile by mile reclamation of a landscape teeming with the feral dead. So he’s coming home to a populace who are something like bigots — if not outright bigots — with something like an acquired disability or communicable disease. It’s … not great.

The thinking and reasoning zombie is very much a thing, in literature at least, and occasionally the films made of those books: The Girl with All the Gifts, Warm Bodies, even the execrable Patient Zero with a wasted Stanley Tucci. But I can’t think of an example (short of The Returned, a French series I’ll address down-list that is a serious edge case even for inclusion on a zombie list) that shows the living and the dead interacting this intimately on a day to day basis. The traumas of zombie narratives tend to be ongoing, at least for the living. In the Flesh plays with this, showcasing social recovery which relies on re-traumatizing an entire class of people. Like you do.

Brazil

Reality Z

Reality Z is weird, and I’m including it not because I thought it was great or anything, but more because of its oddball nature. It’s wholeheartedly and avowedly a remake of the British Dead Set, which I raved about previously. Dead Set was five episodes; Reality Z is ten. The first five episodes of Reality Z are almost shot-for-shot recreations of the source material, from antagonistic normality to nihilistic finality, with just enough new establishing source material to connect the next plot arc. The next five episodes follow another group of survivors to their doom, complete with a similar-but-different rationale for the group’s inevitable breakdown.

I suspect there’s a lot of this series I’m not getting because I’m not Brazilian, and not particularly up on Brazilian politics and culture. Many of the characters feel trope-y, but I can’t quite read the tropes and what Reality Z might be doing with them. (And when I say they feel trope-y: this is not meant as a slag. Genre fiction deals in tropes, and the myriad ways writers animate and reanimate those tropes drives the genre.) There’s a corrupt politician and his corrupt policeman and handler, a political dissident, a cast off corporate drone and her beleaguered son. They reclaim the reality tv house depopulated at the end of the Dead Set arc, and are in turn joined by a whole new set of randos and types.

It’s … pretty messy, and probably not in a good way. Dead Set was stiletto-thin, in and out before you noticed the cut and then damn. Remaking Dead Set and then appending a whole other Dead Set inspired arc onto it seems like a weird choice. Why not just go with the final five episodes as its own rumination slash exploration of the whole decadent consumerist spectacle of reality television and its attendant cruelties? Which is not to say that the new characters and character arcs are bad or uninteresting, just that maybe the creators should have had more faith in their story, and let it stand on its own. And while I’m bitching just a little, I did have a good time watching this, and it’s definitely worth a watch as a companion to Dead Set if nothing else.

France

The Returned

It’s somewhere between disingenuous and faux-naïve to put this series on a zombie list, yet still I do it! The undead in The Returned are fully alive, turning up months, years, decades completely unchanged from the moment of their deaths in a small French town on the Swiss border. Their returns are small, explosive events, detonating whole families, but quietly and secretly: A teenager, unknowing of her death, and now several years younger than her once identical twin; the husband of a woman now remarried after raising up their child alone; a preternatural child with no living family taken in by a self-contained and scarred woman. These people all deal with the resurrections of loved ones with the quiet hissing conversation of the totally freaked out, reintegrating imperfectly into lives that have, as they say, moved on.

The Returned reminds me strongly of early Twin Peaks: moody and Gothic, claustrophobic and blue-lit. (The Returned isn’t as grotesque as Twin Peaks, nor as funny, which is probably related.) The fundamental relationship between the two is grief, both public and private. The way The Returned deals with the grief caused by the loss is opposed to the average zombie narrative. There’s no expedient violence, no frenetic action as death drives the living to their inevitable fates. Instead it stews, uncomfortably, in the small moments of lived lives. It makes no pronouncements. Even the clergy demurs as to the advisability of the resurrection of the body — “I’m not sure it would be a good thing”

India

Betaal

I fully admit that Betaal is something of a mess. It starts with such promise — something like mercenaries (maybe police, maybe military, maybe Blackwater) are tasked with relocating a native population “for their own good”, and accidentally awake the literal hungry ghosts of colonialism. Which is a completely awesome set-up for a series, and I loved all the metaphorics by 2 by 4 that they hammered home. Police are a colonial force; imperial forces use rule of law to exploit both resources and people. The first couple episodes use their zombies as a metaphor for colonialism, and I am 100% here for it. But then the story diffuses into subplots and confusing machinations pretty hard, its metaphors stuck in the mud and spinning.

I did enjoy much of the staging and scares. The zombies aren’t full-on K- or J-horror chitinous nightmares — they can still talk and reason in certain limited circumstances, making them all the worse — and the directors take full advantage of the filmed-in-dark-o-vision aesthetic of the series. It is a often effective way to cover for a microbudget and I did jump and squeal at multiple points. At others it was just like, what even is going on here? Obfuscation by dark (or just off camera) relies on the eventual reveal, and that was sometimes not so great.

That said, the series ultimately misses the mark, getting too bound up in personal bullshit to be really effective. Like, it’s neat they started out with zombie-as-colonialism as the central metaphor, but then someone flinched as to actually committing to that as the spine of the series. By the end, I was like, how can I possibly make meaning out of this mess? Which is totally fine, if disappointing: not everything has to have meaning, it’s just real nice when it does. I understand how my expectations are unreasonable.

South Korea

Kingdom

I feel like one of the reasons I ultimately stuck with A Song of Ice and Fire for four and a half books was its opening, which allows the reader to catch a glimpse of the zombie menace just beyond the Wall. Ned Stark executes a man for desertion because that man nearly got killed by some zombies and then ran the fuck away from that, boy howdy. It’s been an age since I read Game of Thrones, but I’m pretty sure the zombies don’t appear meaningfully again until maybe book two? And even then? Again, that is fine! Not everything has to be about zombies.

However, if you’re jonesing for a medievalish court intrigue saga but this time with zombies, look no further than The Kingdom! Set in Korea’s Joseon period, the series follows the grown son of the king’s concubine and presumptive heir to the throne who is beset by his father’s much younger pregnant wife (who will ostensibly deliver the true heir, should the issue be male), her powerful burgher family, and zombies, not necessarily in that order.

We learn right quick that the king has zombified, but the queen’s powerful family is covering that up so they can get that baby born and cement their power through the throne. (Which I thought was kinda interesting because that’s not precisely how primogeniture works in the West. The queen would deliver a monarch irrespective of gender, and even after the king died. But then there’s also no official recognition of the children of concubines, and Westerners don’t use the term the same way anyway, so.)

The crown prince is well out of his depth, on the run with a good naturedly corrupt courtier-type as they picaresque their way through the Korean countryside. Bae Doona (who I really enjoy) does a turn as a beleaguered nurse who puts the pieces together as to how the zombie plague works and largely single-handedly saves the bacon of, like, everyone. Unfortunately, she’s mostly carried along the narrative like luggage, and isn’t given enough actual story work. But the hats alone are worth the price of admission, so don’t credit my grousing overmuch.

Honorable Mentions

There are a number of series I’ve only had the time to catch a few episodes of, for one reason or another, so’is I can’t say if they’re worth or watch or not.

New ZealandThe Dead Lands. The opening of The Dead Lands is both jarring and comfortable. It takes place in the “long ago and far away” space of the fairy tale, but with what are recognizably modern zombies. The situation in Maori myth set in a lush New Zealand setting doesn’t hurt either. But at only one episode, I kind of can’t say what was going on? A demi-god pisses off actual gods and … zombies? Maybe? I did very much dig the mythic setting, which stands in sharp contrast with most zombie narratives which feature the decay of modernity, if not outright ruin porn.

CaliforniaThe Santa Clarita Diet. Only caught the first two or three, and I have no idea why I never continued. Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant have a snappy, wholesome chemistry, which is tested when Barrymore’s character wakes up one day hungering for human flesh. It’s the kind of comedy where early lightness promises to deepen, especially given the sometimes bleak-yet-technicolor jokes of the earliest episodes.

Daybreak: On paper, this series seemed like it was tailor-made for my proclivities: kinda Gen-X self-aware and self-referential, with a teen movie aesthetic which I usually eat up with a spoon. (I mean, Matthew Broderick plays the high school principal in flashbacks, come on.) I adore the completely bullshit “groups one finds in a lunchroom” cataloguing sequence that takes place in teen movies (see the one in 10 Things I Hate About You for example), and Daybreak takes this all a step further, turning them into post-apocalyptical gangs reminiscent of The Warriors.

Reader, I hated it. I couldn’t make it more than 3 episodes in. Maybe it was the mean-spiritedness, maybe the sub-Broderick douchebag-cum-hero, maybe it was just a bad potato. I fully think it might work for others though! A weird way of ending a roundup of zombie series I enjoyed, but there you are.

Some Nattering about I Am a Hero

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coronavirus Diary: Supernatural Episodes 1-3

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

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

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

Season 1, Episode 1: “Pilot”

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

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

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

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

Season 1, Episode 2: “Wendigo”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Hope the Smoking Man’s in This One: Every Sigh, The End

Do you remember, back in the day, when the X Files was young and not stupid, and the absolute thrill you would get out of the paranoid conspiracy and narrative sleight of hand? The clock was ticking, loudly, on the end of the millennium, the Y2K bug was creating hysterics in op-ed pieces everywhere, and the dot-com bubble was foaming its way to Bethlehem to burst. (Sorry, I know it’s cheap to mis-quote Yeats here, but I can’t help it.) The actual turn of the millennium was something of a collective sigh, when the planes didn’t fall out of the sky or the reactors didn’t melt down.

I remember lolling in a hotel room on the afternoon of Dec 31, 1999, watching footage of the celebrations in Australia and Myanmar, having the non-chemically induced sense of vertigo when you realize that the date as we have constructed it, globally, begins in a specific place, and then sweeps inexorably over the earth. If, for some ridiculous reason, something did go wrong on the Date Line, the rest of us would just have to sit and watch as the day crawled toward us. (Before you freak out: yes, I know that stuff like international airlines are oriented to GMT, but I’m on the other side of that, and the world revolves around me, ‘kay?)

So the millennium came and went, and we swept up the confetti, folded up our cargo pants – seriously, I have wacky theory about how all of the late-90s paramilitary fashion was some sort of collective sartorial acting out of our apocalyptic anxieties – and then went back to work. (See also: Hummers.) Then came 9/11, and the other shoe dropped hard and indisputably. It was the end of the world as we knew it. I remember watching a shitty made-for-tv movie called Y2K in November of 1999, and howling with laughter while Ken Olin, in the world’s longest sweater, raced to, I don’t know, find his kid and stop a nuclear melt-down, intercut with the worst CGI in the world of planes dropping like stones once the date caught up with them. Fly, pilot, fly! But you can’t outrun time! Muhahahaha! But then the planes did fall out of the sky. Worse still, they didn’t fall, but were flown out, with malevolent agency.

In many ways, Every Sigh, The End by Jason Hornsby is a period piece about the turn of the millennium, but one that could only be written after the hard historical fact of 9/11. I think I’m about the age of the author, so all of the post-college melt-down, the Xer almost-resignation towards generational uselessness, the keg-stands, band t-shirts & cheerless stoner depravity rang true. The plot has a wigged-out, origami-like feel that evokes the best of the late 90s paranoid fantasies (again, before they got stupid): X-Files, Matrix, Dark Skies. Only this time without the sweet outfits, sense of purpose, meaning, or human affection.

Zombie stories, are on some level, about the way narcissism veers uncomfortably to nihilism, and this doesn’t veer so much as drive headlong, with motherfucking agency. I don’t mean to imply that Hornsby on the side of the terrorists – hi FBI – but there’s some smart commentary in here about tragedy and voyeurism; the ways in which death & degradation are used as a spectacle solely for the purpose of personal catharsis of the protagonist/viewer-by-proxy.

This sucks, of course, compromised by the dangerous vanity that the suffering of others is an extension of personal ego, and therefore other people are unreal. The idea of conspiracy is so satisfying precisely because it confirms that we are so important that it takes an entire shadowy government agency to thwart our inherent awesomeness. (Hi FBI!) Hornsby charts these uneasy themes with an understanding towards the genre conventions that goes deeper than the usual fast v. slow, space rays v. viruses, bothersome physics of the worst of the genre.

BUT there are some things I didn’t dig, like the fact that every instance of the word end is in bold, or when anyone sighs it’s accompanied by some variation of the phrase “a horribly unoriginal gesture”. Okay, I get it, put the mallet away. The opening section is tedious, with way too much banter, floundering, and essays about genre. There are good reasons for the way this plays out, really, better than most: We’re meant to submerge ourselves in the douchebag ennui of the protag – called Holden by his girlfriend, natch – but I felt kind of pruny and overheated by the time I got out of the hot tub and into the blood bath.

And my most shallow complaint: this has the most vomitous cover, truly awful. The publishers should be ashamed of themselves for putting a book this good in a cover that crappy.

The Big Bite: Raising Stony Mayhall by Daryl Gregory

This was originally written in July 2011

I was talking with my husband the other day about Ragnarok, the Norse Armageddon, and kind of jokingly saying it was the first alt-history. Ragnarok is this really specific telling of the last days of the Norse Gods, a catalog of who will kill whom and how. It’s understood to be told in the future tense, something that hasn’t happened yet, but will, with exactness and finality. He was like, but isn’t that prophesy, like Revelations? I admit my knowledge of Revelations is a little crappy, but I don’t think that Ragnarok is quite the same. It’s less a story of what we humans should watch out for, so we can head to the underground bunker or whatever we’re supposed to do when the End Times are upon us. It’s not a manual, or a guide. It’s just a story about the inevitability of when certain kinds of personalities – large, inhuman or metahuman personalities – come into conflict with one another. It’s a chess game, not a chess guide. History, even history of the future, isn’t so much not to be repeated as embraced as the stories are told.

So, when I was in high school, I had this great assignment where I had to do a research paper about some public happening that went down in the year I was born. I was born in 1974, so I duly went to the microfiche and scrolled through the local headlines. Those older than me will shake their heads, but I was like, OMFG I CAN’T HANDLE ANY MORE WATERGATE. It was too much, too complicated, even though it was the thing that defined the year, and years on either side: the growing scandal, the series of indictments and resignations, the pardon – oh, the pardon. Fodder for a thousand research papers, a thousand books and movies. Certainly more than I could handle in 5-7 double-spaced pages.

So, I found Patty Hearst. Patty was an heiress of the Hearst newspaper empire – William Randolph Hearst being the subject (mostly, though the protagonist was an aggregate of several personalities) of Citizen Kane. She was abducted out of her apartment by a post-Helter Skelter cult called the SLA – the Symbionese Liberation Army. (I still have no idea why that name, and I can’t really remember their goals, which were a stew of 70s revolutionary cliches and “free love”, which was code for cult leader gets to bang whomever he wants.) (Also, she was at home that night with her upper class douchebag fiancée, a guy whose name was Stephen Weed, I shit you not. Pynchon couldn’t have named him better.)

Anyway, after a several months of rape, imprisonment, and a good dose of Stockholm Syndrome, Patty helped rob a Hearst bank with the SLA. Oh, the pregnant symbolism! I don’t remember all the details, but press releases were issued proclaiming her new cult name of Tania – still with the Pynchonian names. Public opinion was wildly against her. How dare she turn against her robber baron family money? Being raped and terrorized was not really credited in understanding her motivations. Again, I don’t remember all the details, but it turned into months – maybe years? – of the SLA playing cat-and-mouse with law enforcement, ending in a Waco-style shoot-out with fire and the death of most of the cult. Not Patty though. Somehow she survived.

So Patty is a fascinating American character. She later renounced all her SLA stuff, but it wasn’t enough to keep her from getting convicted of armed robbery. Her sentence was later commuted by Carter, who probably found the defense’s argument compelling about how she had no live ammo, and that most of the SLA guns in the robbery were trained on her, not the bank officials, and the fact that she’d been abducted, brutalized and raped into these actions. (Like me; I admit my bias.) She’s later been a regular fixture in John Waters films — including one where a woman is abducted into a film cult bent on bringing down the military-entertainment complex — seriously, Pynchon is like the patron saint of American history.

So, point being — and seriously, I have one — even history is an alternate history. There’s the stuff that screams from the headlines day after day, then there’s the stuff that goes down on the sidelines, which is no less meaningful, in terms of national identity and symbolism. I talked with my folks a lot about this project – in fact, I’m pretty sure one of them pointed me toward the Hearst story in the first place – and it was fascinating to hear them talk about the paranoia of the time, the sense of the end of it all. Night of the Living Dead premiered in 1969, and it was this perfect encapsulation of the times, written in horror. Kennedy may have been shot down in ’63, but it wasn’t until the murder and assassinations of the late 60s — Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X, Dr. King — that we understood that our post-War dream of enforced middle class domesticity was tearing at the seams, letting out blood into a colonial conflict that, strangely, only Nixon could end, even while he shat all over executive privilege and the Presidency. (And, I have no patience with all of the mealy-mouthed talk of him being “controversial” when he died a few years back. Only if you find treason controversial, and not criminal.)

So. Alternate history. Here we are again in America, at the end of it all. Maybe we’re always at the end of it all. Maybe the millenarian instinct is in our DNA, in our constitution, and I totally mean that as a double entente. The 2nd Amendment is a hedge against the [zombie] apocalypse, something I always think about when I consider my neighbors from two doors down, who are avowed gun nuts with a racist caricature of Obama hanging in their window. I’d be over their begging for guns in heartbeat if zombies descended on my city, and it’s amusing as all get out to me that I’ve even considered the possibility. Cuz I have, American that I am.

At the opening of Saving Stony Mayhall by Daryl Gregory. John is found at the side of the road by an Iowan family. His mother is dead, and he is an undead, bubbling infant. It’s the late 60s, and in this mildly alternate beginning, the zombie uprising in Pennsylvania that is chronicled in Romero’s “documentary” is fact. Though this is a slightly histrionic comparison, the terror of the Twin Towers had been located 50 years earlier, so America was building its Gauntanimos and security state apparatuses 50 years earlier, to work against the undead threat. (Though we’re always building against a threat. We’ve always seen our threats as twinned — coming from within and without — fear of the Soviets and the Red Scare; Al Qaeda as well as that home-grown shoe-bombing idiot. Heck, lots of Americans think the Twin Towers was the result of the CIA, not Bin Laden, as we work against ourselves or something. I’m not really interested in getting into a big thing about this, I just want to point out that we have this headline narrative, and then a whispered narrative, whatever the truth may be.) John, or Stony as he comes to be known, is a zombie anomaly — zomnomaly? see, I am shit for portmanteau, unlike Mike who coined the term ‘zombildugsroman’ for this book — he grows from zombie infant into zombie boy, and then, as most of the story is concerned with, into zombie man.

The rest of the undead are bitten breathers, who, after a nasty, murderous incubation period of 48 hours or so, wherein they bite and kill like we have all seen on tv, they resolve into people who are not dissimilar from the ones the were when they were breathing. Some forget themselves, having their memories wiped by death. Some don’t. Stony moves from his claustrophobic but largely idyllic childhood on the plains of the Midwest into a graduation of the larger, undead community. The undead play cat-and-mouse with the Feds, reluctantly, not so much a cult as a folk group of the damaged, with their own folk myths and legends, political factions, schismatic religions, and personalities. As their numbers dwindle through attrition and active attacks, they ponder the Big Bite, a Ragnarök of starting the zombie apocalypse so that their number will replenish, and they can stop living in fear of the living. As the living live in fear of the dead.

I don’t even know how not to be all spoiler about this, but certain things are inevitable. You can’t write a zombie story without that sense of the End Times, it just matters whether you think the End Times are about warning or historical understanding. This story is about Patty Hearst, not Watergate, even though those things are twinned, bubbling out of the same cultural stew. Like Patty, Stony’s story is personal, personal enough that I can remember her stupid fiancé’s name when I have no idea the name of Spiro Agnew’s wife. (Hell, even Nixon’s. What was it? Francine? Imelda?) Patty’s story is fascinating because of all the familial symbolism, even while it intersects with Presidents and filmmakers, Patty an abducted lighting rod for a bunch of symbolism about class, privilege, politics, religion and on and on. Stony is a bit of the same, sorta, a simple Midwestern boy but for the fact that he doesn’t breathe, caught up in the times. Stony is a reluctant protagonist, like we all are reluctant protagonists, and the mythology, the explanations he lays out in this novel have the exciting frission of a good retcon. Not the kind that sucks, and restarts everything wiping out the past, but the kind that takes the past into account, and writes its exegesis. There’s a lot here for a zombie nerd to love, a catalog of genre ticks made sensible. And sensibility is this book’s heart.

Zombies are irrational, unscientific. Dead is dead. My husband always tries to placate my zombie freak-outs with the utterance, “But…physics,” but which he means that zombies violate the rules of physics and can’t exist. This book takes but…physics seriously, building an alt-history predicated on the impossible, relying on an alt-physics of will and psychology, coming down to a End Times of inevitability which is or is not inevitable, but happen[s/ed] anyway, based on the rules of the future tense, the future tense of all national stories. I don’t want to make this story sound mythic, though there is discussion of how the personal narrative transmutes into folk legend. It’s complicated and personal, much more so than the headlines might suggest, so much sadder than Revelations, so much quieter than Ragnarok. Damn fine.

P.S. I often write myself out of saying stuff like this, because it doesn’t fit in the standard 5-paragraph essay, but there’s a lot here that’s funny as shit, but slyly, like an undead character based on Col. Sanders, and a random aside about the undead mascots who schill for various products, like the Sinclair dinosaur. Charlie the Tuna wants you to eat his dead flesh ahahahahaha. Gross. Clever.

The Art of Losing: Charlotte’s Web

I liked sad things when I was a child. I probably still do like sad things, the lovely feeling of loss and connection one gets when unfortunate things happen to imaginary people in books. I would beg my Grandma Dory to read me The Little Match Girl over and over, and I would weep giant crocodile tears of pain and empathy at the girl’s frozen body, the grandmother and the candles, the matches all struck and burnt down to a flash of pain and then the letting go…

Charlotte is something of this for me, but it’s worse, her little spider body grown stiff and brittle and almost silly. I don’t know why I think about the corpses these ladies leave, but there’s something incredibly sad about how Charlotte diminishes from this great spinning speaking voice into a dead bug. Sad, so so sad.


I’ve tried to write this review a couple of hundred times, but it keeps falling apart. This story is so light, so airy, that it resists too much pressure, or goes squishing out the other end. I’ve half-written a dozen childhood reveries; I’ve cracked some jokes about how well punctuated this book is; I’ve talked about Charlotte-as-writer. None of this worked, and I promise it was all fumbling garbage. The following story comes closer to capturing how this book makes me feel than any other thing I’ve written for this review. I’m not satisfied with it, but it’s what I’ve got.


My Grandma Fran was dying, and I was a thousand miles from home. The hospital was like a hospital. My two-year-old-girl did the very best a 2-year-old could do with the beeping boredom of sitting for hours at a hospital bedside, but often we would have to go rambling around just to see what we could see. The hospital had no grounds to speak of, very little grass, but it did have a square pool of water that we considered every time we walked in from the parking lot. I think it may have been a fountain at some point, but it had been turned off or broken so it was just water in the ground.

We walked up to the edge. We took off our shoes and put in our feet. She splashed with her hands held so tight that her fingers curled up, a funny, baby-like gesture from a someone who was tending towards girlishness more and more at the time. Even though the air and the water were the same temperature, the air felt warm and the water cool. We rolled up our pants and walked around. She fell onto her butt and I laughed. She splashed me and I splashed her back. We found cars in my purse and drove them around the edges and fished them off the bottom. Then a security guard came and told us that the pool was only for decoration and we had to get out. We did, and went back to the hospital room, dripping. We told Grandma about swimming in the forbidden fountain, and she laughed. Grandma was still dying.


Here’s something you should read:


“Let’s swing in the swing!” said Avery.

The children ran to the barn.

Mr. Zuckerman had the best swing in the county. It was a single long piece of heavy rope tied to the beam over the north doorway. At the bottom end of the rope was a fat knot to sit on. It was arranged so that you could swing without being pushed. You climbed a ladder to the hayloft. Then, holding the rope, you stood at the edge and looked down, and were scared and dizzy. Then you straddled the knot, so that it acted as a seat. Then you got up all your nerve, took a deep breath, and jumped. For a second you seemed to be falling to the barn floor far below, but then suddenly the rope would begin to catch you, and you would sail through the barn door going a mile a minute, with the wind whistling in your eyes and ears and hair. Then you would zoom upward into the sky, and look up at the clouds, and the rope would twist and you would twist and turn with the rope. Then you would drop down, down, down out of the sky and come sailing back into the barn almost into the hayloft, then sail out again (not quite so far this time), then in again (not quite so high), then out again, then in again, then out, then in; and then you’d jump off and fall down and let somebody else try it.

Mothers for miles around worried about Zuckerman’s swing. They feared some child would fall off. But no child ever did. Children almost always hang onto things tighter than their parents think they will.

Avery put the frog in his pocket and climbed to the hayloft. “The last time I swang in this swing, I almost crashed into a barn swallow,” he yelled.

“Take that frog out!” ordered Fern.

Avery straddled the rope and jumped. He sailed out through the door, frog and all, and into the sky, frog and all. Then he sailed back into the barn.

“Your tongue is purple! ” screamed Fern.

“So is yours!” cried Avery, sailing out again with the frog.

“I have hay inside my dress! It itches!” called Fern.

“Scratch it!” yelled Avery, as he sailed back.

“It’s my turn,” said Fern. “Jump off!”

“Fern’s got the itch!” sang Avery.

When he jumped off, he threw the swing up to his sister. She shut her eyes tight and jumped. She felt the dizzy drop, then the supporting lift of the swing. When she opened her eyes she was looking up into the blue sky and was about to fly back through the door.

They took turns for an hour.

When the children grew tired of swinging, they went down toward the pasture and picked wild raspberries and ate them. Their tongues turned from purple to red. Fern bit into a raspberry that had a bad-tasting bug inside it, and got discouraged. Avery found an empty candy box and put his frog in it. The frog seemed tired after his morning in the swing. The children walked slowly up toward the barn. They, too, were tired and hardly had energy enough to walk.

“Let’s build a tree house,” suggested Avery. “I want to live in a tree, with my frog.”

Just Regular Terrible: Red Hill by Jamie McGuire

So, I’m going to admit right off the bat that I only read Red Hill because I hate Jamie McGuire’s writing. When I was researching zombie novels for this other thing, I discovered she had written a zombie novel. So, seriously, how can I be expected to stay away? I just had to see how bad she failed at something I love. Turns out, her zombie novel is just the regular kind of terrible, not the fancy kind with raisins. I’d honestly hoped for more schadenfreude. Alas.

Red Hill is purportedly a zombie romance (in the sense that there is romance amongst humans during the zombie apocalypse, not zombies fucking, to be clear.) The first 60% is taken up with three point of view characters — Nathan, Scarlet, and Miranda — as they bop around through the zombie apocalypse. The last 40% is where the “romance” takes place, with an entirely unconvincing love triangle. The other couple has third act turn that is such a drearily pedestrian romance trope that it was actually alarming to see it deployed during the zombie apocalypse. Don’t you fuckers have priorities? 

No, is the answer. The answer is always no.

Scarlet is a pretty typical McGuire heroine, in that she’s a malignant narcissist, self-involved in such a way to be dangerous to any and all empathetic characters around her. She’s going the throw you under the bus whether it’s necessary or not — she just likes to watch the tires roll over skulls. From the very very beginning of the zombie apocalypse — which starts while she’s working as a nurse, I might add — she helps absolutely no one. She watches dispassionately as someone she knows dies, and then takes his keys. Whelp, I guess he won’t be needing these anymore! She’s the worst.

Miranda is also the worst, but I actually feel a little bad for her. McGuire has set Miranda up to be the fall guy in a morality tale about sluts and how they get what’s coming to them. Felt downright Victorian, honestly, but with well fewer classical allusions. (Indeed, none at all.) 

The third point of view character is Nathan, a man who plays weary parent because his bitch wife spends all her time on the internet. Weirdly, there were points when I honestly and truly liked Nathan and how he was characterized. His daughter Zoe has some kind of sensory integration disorder (I recognized it because my son was like this as a toddler), and the ways he worries and managed her felt real. Too bad about all the hateful shit he said about his wife, who even he admitted was suffering from depression. I guess people with clinical depression should just walk it off? Whatever. I might almost argue that McGuire should stick to stories only with dudes in them, because the weird hatred expressed for women just taints everything. But then for sure even a dudes-only narrative written by McGuire would be choked with toxic masculinity and hateful gender essentialism, so that’s not a real fix. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph do McGuire’s characters hate women though, even (and maybe especially) the ones who are women.

Just as an aside, my favorite moment in the novel is when Nathan gets a letter from his wife and then complains she could never get your/you’re right. Immediately, there was a grammar error in the text. I’m completely ok with certain errors, like the kind that were invented by 19th C language assholes. Split infinitives, sentences ending in prepositions: that’s all fine. What’s not fine is using someone’s grammar as a measure of their worth. One of my besties from middle school cannot be relied on to use the correct iteration of their/they’re/there, but this makes her neither stupid nor unworthy as a person. I cannot spell for shit, and this doesn’t meaningfully detract from my criticism of this here mean-spirited, uncharitable novel. So when I go to slag some typos in the text, I don’t intend it as an ad hominem attack, to whit: this novel is bad because a proofreader didn’t catch x error. Instead, I’m slagging Nathan’s grammar fascism in a text riddled with errors. He’s supposed to read as righteous, but considering the context, he just comes off as a dick.

Anyway, alas, mostly this book was just boring, not scary, and not convincing. I said this before in a review about zombie romance, but it’s true here too: love is just another word for no one left to kill. It’s honestly frightening, but not the way the writer intends.