horror

An Amateur’s Field Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse

Has anyone else noticed the newish zombie trend slowly permeating through our books, movies, and television? Perhaps, this is just a backlash from the fatigue we all have from sexy teenage vampires. My interest in zombies has never been particularly high, but I can’t help but notice some of the more recent offerings. These aren’t your run of the mill Romero zombie tales.

I am no expert (hence the amateur status given to this post), but I thought I would share my run-ins that have bucked my previously held opinion of zombie fare.* The creators have tried to upend the standard lore of zombies and produce something new. For me, it all began with The Returned, a recent French television series.

zombies - 1They aren’t mumbling, half-wits motivated solely for brains. No, the revenants of this small French town return as if nothing has happened even though some have been deceased for decades. They want to return to their normal lives, but with every new episode, stranger behavior and occurrences unfold. There are clearly secrets buried within the living, too. The Returned is a television adaptation of a 2004 French film called They Came Back (French: Les Revenants), which seethes with the uncanny and eerie. This slow burning film makes you feel completely off-kilter. The returned are not quite what the living expected and the business of what to do with this sudden inflation of undeceased residents is a perplexing burden. Let’s not mention all of the not sleeping and midnight meetups by the undead who seem to be planning something. Both of these zombie servings offer a different picture, which include complex emotions and simmering questions.

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It’s often noted that the 2002 British thriller, 28 Days Later, was the zombie film that reignited interest in the living dead. It took me ages to finally see it (due to my aforementioned disinterest in zombies), but when I did, I was impressed. It definitely was akin to those 1968 zombies, but it did do something different–the zombies were not slow walking  groaners. They were fast and strong making the post-apocalypse landscape even more terrifying. But we’ve moved on a little from these serious creepfests…

The genre has seen its own comedic interpretations with the fantastic Shaun of the Dead (that bar scene with Queen playing always gets me) or the slapstick horror of the New Zealand zombie flick, Black Sheep, which centers around the genetically mutated sheep that have secretly been created on the outskirts of a family farm by scientists looking to birth savage carnivores instead of docile grazers. Has anyone else seen this? I feel like I’m the only one. Shall I tempt you with the trailer? Also, we cannot forget Zombieland, a film that sees gun-toting Woody Harrelson driven to find a Twinkie in a zombie-filled world.

But this new zombie is flashing its teeth in writing as well. Isaac Marion’s debut novel, Warm Bodies, is narrated by R who isn’t your mamma’s zombie. Marion is writing from a zombie point of view–something which often is not a feature. R spends his days very slowly walking around a former airport with his other zombie cohorts in post-apocalyptic Seattle. He is bored, can’t remember his name, and on a recent hunt for brains, he meets Julie, a member of the living. R has a deep inner monologue and can relive memories of those whose brains he’s devoured. As the book goes on, R starts to become more human-like. He can string more than a couple of syllables together and his body movements are less restricted. Warm Bodies has been labelled a zombie romance, which it is, but it was also enjoyable to read as a new take on the zombie genre. There is also a 2013 film adaptation that is fun to watch as R goes through his zombie existential crisis.

Of course, there is horror maestro Joe Hill’s short story, “Twittering from the Circus of the Dead.” Honestly, I was skeptical at first because the entire story is written in a succession of Tweets by a teenage girl on a road trip with her family, but I was pleasantly surprised. It was a real joyride. The 140 character Oulipian constraint makes for some side-splitting moments. The whole time, the girl is tweeting her family’s car ride even when they make a wrong turn leading them to the Circus of the Dead–a circus manned by zombie entertainment. Even when her own brother is turned, she can’t help but be surly and she remains tweeting till the very undead end.

TYME2WASTE He’s not very good at being a zombie. He isn’t even trying to walk slow. He’s really going after the ringmistress. 9:04 PM – 2 Mar from Tweetie

zombies 3

“They’re coming to get you, Barbara!”

Zombie stories and resurrections have been around for centuries. The mindless brain-centric menace can trace its roots to West Africa and Haiti where many myths and stories shape our present day zombie. The mainstreaming of the word began in the late 1920s and exploded with the release of the 1932 Bela Lugosi picture, White Zombie, based on William Seabrook’s book (note: his Wikipedia page states, “[W]as an American Lost Generation occultistexplorer, traveller, cannibal, and journalist.” Maybe, one of the best entry openings on the site?).  

I proffer that zombies became more than just the living dead with Richard Matheson’s I am Legend. We can argue that the creatures are really more like vampires, but this is my blog, so I win. They’re zombies. In his 1954 novel, Matheson popularized the notion of a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by an unknown contagion. This is really a must-read even outside of the zombie wheelhouse. (Let’s all just agree to forgo the recent film adaptation for the sole reason that the filmmakers totally throw out the idea of what “I am Legend” means in the book). Matheson’s excellent book won’t be the last to elicit a dwindling world where war, disease, and other man-made epidemics will be our downfall.

Newer zombies are regularly shown as staying awake all night long. Their inability to sleep and their weary-eyed restlessness is often highlighted. Even in Karen Russell’s new novella, Sleep Donation, which is not strictly a zombie piece, compares the insomniacs to zombies. They are rendered insane by the sleeplessness and an epidemic is raging through the world. A cause is not given, but it is obviously a metaphor for society’s anxieties (also, commenting on the fact that with every progressing day, we are less likely to pull ourselves away from our various screen devices that have been show to interfere with sleep).

Even in the horror-comedy schlock fest, Jennifer’s Body, a bit of commentary is going on. Although, Jennifer is not explicitly labeled a zombie (more a demon), she comes back to life to wreak havoc on the high school boys who objectified her. It is a ridiculous and absurd film that is pretty great and it tries to tap into the portrayal of women in slasher flicks (the execution can be questioned at times, but still admirable, for lack of a better word). Roger Ebert wrote in his review, “As a movie about a flesh-eating cheerleader, it’s better than it has to be.” It is a suitable addition to a genre that is already highly saturated with male voices.

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Supernatural works are often stand-ins for society’s very real fears and worries. Letting go and grief seem to be apparent themes in The Returned and They Came Back, and we are seeing it again in the new US television series Resurrection (based on the 2012 novel, The Returned, which has nothing to do with the two French works, but also deals with long-dead people returning to a small town. Read the Slate article to clear everything up). Also, in all three, the revenants are unable to sleep, denoting them as the other and keeping from the very human function that visits us every night. I have not read Jason Mott’s novel, but I’m curious if anyone else has an opinion on it.

Our new zombies are often having existential crises. They keep their heads high and ruminate on their fates. Sometimes the world is destroyed by a disease, but many times this is not the case. R doesn’t remember how he lost his sense of self. Did this new, distracted world just think itself into zombieism? Many iterations don’t sleep. They can be found walking aimlessly and unblinking with plenty of time to think. They seem harmless at first, but when more come, the true monster shows its face. They might not always be guttural, fleshy cannibalistic heaps anymore. As readers and watchers of these new zombies, we often become enthralled by this different approach to the genre. The stories are evolving with our own present world, for the good and the bad. Our anxieties are being manifested in post-apocalyptic worlds filled with modern creatures. No matter what, though, zombies are always a human creation. They are mutating and overcoming us until we must send in Brad Pitt to rid of us of our World War Z.

Now, I am off to watch Cockneys vs. Zombies to add to my zombie arsenal. Do you have any to add? They are certainly plenty of zombie films, but are there any more works of fiction that are just begging to be read? Does anyone else notice that many vampire books are written by women, but zombies seem to be the playing field of men?


* Sorry Walking Dead fans. From the one random episode I watched last year, this series solidified my previous held disinterest in Zombies and their ability to bore with me the main focus being on walking back and forth slowly.

Appendix

1. Images [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8]
2. Zombies are such a trend now that there are zombie-themed apps, including a jogging “adventure,” called Zombies, Run!
3.  A short list of zombie films starring Bela Lugosi and Vincent Price.
4. Many thanks to Helen for recommending the television series The ReturnedThe TV series airs on Sundance Channel and can also be binge watched (recommended) on Netflix. They Came Back can be watched for free in its entirety on Hulu. Although, I recommend finding the DVD for the extra “making of” documentary.
5. Never utter these words during a zombie apocalypse.

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Horns by Joe Hill

Horns by Joe Hill

I first heard about this book last year when I read it was being adapted for film (photo above showing the main character portrayed by Daniel Radcliffe). The novel’s premise seemed right up my alley. It is a blend of the fantastic, horror, absurd, and revenge, which novelist Joe Hill pulls off so very, very well.

Ig Perrish wakes up after a night of drunken debauchery to find that horns have sprouted out of his head. While still in the fog from the night before, the reality of these horns can, of course, be questioned because “it wouldn’t be the first time he’d confused fantasy with reality, and he knew from experience that he was especially prone to unlikely religious delusions.” However, Ig and the reader soon realize that his world is no longer normal. Are the people he encounters seeing the horns or are they oddly invisible to others? Everyone starts to tell Ig the unfiltered truth, even divulging deep, dark secrets and feelings.

But what is said to Ig while he is adorned with these new horns is usually filled with disgust and vitriol, because the year before, he was accused of raping and murdering his girlfriend, Merrin. The power of the horns are even more useful as Ig tries to uncover what really happened to her.

The novel is filled with dark premises and reprehensible secrets, but Hill’s writing takes the despicable and winds absurd humor around it that is delightfully indulgent.

Lee and Ig had been friends in another life, but all that was behind Ig now, had died with Merrin. It was difficult to maintain close friendships when you were under suspicion of being a sex murderer.

As the novel goes on, Ig continues to metamorphose both with the powers the horns give him and through the author’s language, choosing to even further equate Ig’s new anatomy with that of a devil. He is the dark confessor for all of those who lent a hand in condemning him during the investigation into his girlfriend’s murder. I also think it’s an interesting idea from the writer’s perspective to introduce a conceit that allows for the unrestrained revealing of information. Joe Hill writes, “It was, perhaps, the devil’s oldest precept, that sin could always be trusted to reveal what was most human in a person, as often for good as for ill.”

Horns plays a lot with the idea of Church (big C), and the dichotomies between good and evil and what is godly and what is damnation. Ig is an anti-hero, both marked as one by the horns and the difficulties arising when archetypes are ripped apart and redesigned. This is an entirely absorbing novel and the ending (which I shan’t give away!), had whiffs of a plot point in Twin Peaks. Whether this was intentional or not, I do not know, but I enjoyed the possibility.

I am curious to see the film adaptation. Does anyone know further information about release dates?


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*Top images from Wikipedia and IMDb.

 

Throttle and Duel

Homages are an interesting thing. Often enough they are created to tickle our fancy for the original. With the short story, “Throttle,” the reader gets just that. I think we can all agree that Richard Matheson has produced some fine works (I am LegendThe Shrinking Man, episodes for The Twilight Zone to just name a few for the uninitiated). One of his great anxiety inducing stories is “Duel,” which also was adapted for television and film by Steven Spielberg.¹

If you’ve never read “Duel,” I suggest reading Matheson’s story first, not only for the references in King and Hill’s story, but for the sheer fact that it is highly enjoyable.²

It sounds simple and maybe not as horrifying as one would imagine, but “Duel” literally races down the highway taking the reader along with it, leading to intense page turning. The story is about Mann, our leading driver, who finds himself impatiently trying to pass a truck on the highway. What ensues is a death-defying cat and mouse duel between Mann and the truck driver, who Matheson focuses on as a truck and less like a man (Man vs. Machine?). Matheson strips the characters of their identifying humanity, creating battling creatures.

Then, unexpectedly, emotion came. Not dread, at first, and not regret; not the nausea that followed soon. It was a primeval  tumult in his mind: the cry of some ancestral beast above the body of its vanquished foe.

So, you can see why Stephen King and his son, author Joe Hill (who is a completely wonderful writer in his own right; I hope to have some reviews of his work soonish) would take on the task of creating a story influenced by “Duel.” Homages can be fun when done right (no one likes a copy cat) and this one certainly is just that. In “Throttle,”³ we have a gang of hard-living motorcyclists with more back story than Matheson’s Mann. While on the road, they must maneuver down the highway while outracing a dueling tractor trailer. The motorcyclists have a seedy story to hide and it all comes to deadly fruition during the final duel. Oh, and there are illustrations to supplement the spinning tires and Army tats.

I’ve never seen Sons of Anarchy, but I’m sure fans of the show will like this one. I know I certainly had a good time. Also, I kept thinking of the grumpy Hell’s Angels in the East Village who yell at tourists, who dare to sit on the bench outside of their clubhouse on East Third Street. For all non-New Yorkers, even though absolutely no member ever sits on that bench, they don’t want you to, either.

***

  1. You can read a little recollection by Spielberg about the story and adapting it here.
  2. “Duel” is available to read for free online at Google Books.
  3. “Throttle” is available for a steal at .99 cents.

**Many thanks to Rory at Fourth Street Review for pointing this one out. I was a bit busy this month and I know I’m a day late and buck short, but maybe this one will count as my contribution to her month-long, King’s March.
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“Beyond the Door” by Philip K. Dick

That night at the dinner table he brought it out and set it down beside her plate. Doris stared at it, her hand to her mouth. “My God, what is it?” She looked up at him, bright-eyed.

“Beyond the Door” is a 1954 short story by Philip K. Dick that appeared in the January issue of science fiction magazine, Fantastic Universe. This story is not what you think when you think sci-fi or other of Dick’s works like ValisMinority Report, or Flow My Tears the Policeman Said. Like Wikipedia describes, it is a story that falls in the low fantasy category. I didn’t know what this was, so when I finished reading the story I looked it up on their site: “[N]onrational happenings that are without causality or rationality because they occur in the rational world where such things are not supposed to occur.”

Dick’s story concerns itself with Doris, a housewife, and her husband, Larry. He gives his wife the lovely gift of a Bavarian cuckoo clock, but ruins the moment by babbling on about how he got it wholesale. Doris is annoyed with her husband and as the days go on, Doris who dotes on the cuckoo bird, sees the tiny timekeeper pop out every fifteen minutes, where the grumpy Larry who constantly winds the clock, never sees the bird lurch forward. He ponders about the cuckoo “inside the clock, beyond the door, silent and remote.”

What’s so fascinating about this short story is that Dick is able to cover so much humanely tension with layers of the fantastic in only a few pages. Clearly, every sentence is important, every small movement is chosen for a reason. Returning back to the definition of low fantasy, I think about of some of the best stories of the fantastic are those that start in a normal place or space, but the rules are quickly built notifying the reader that something is amiss. I would definitely paint this story in terms of the fantastic and horror.

Dick has taken the familiar tale of domestic melodrama and added the strange concept that the cuckoo bird inside a clock lives with his own awareness. In the world of “Beyond the Door,” it is part of the story’s landscape that it is totally acceptable to have such a cuckoo clock. The behavior of the mechanical bird also reflects the jealous eye that Larry has for Doris’ friend Bob, an antiques lover who Doris invites over to the house to see the clock.

I am always impressed by writers who can bundle up so much in such a small space. The trend in literature now in the US is to produce massive tomes (I recently read about a novel sold at auction for $1m and comes in at over 900 pages). There is something to be said about being wrapped up in a lengthy, complex tale, but I generally feel more blown away by less is more.

“Beyond the Door” could also be marked as a horror story. Read plainly, the bird terrorizes Larry. At one point, after holding the clock, he investigates a nick on his hand and being left alone in the house with the cuckoo doesn’t end well for him either. There is clearly something deeper going on in the story between Doris and Larry and Bob…and the cuckoo. I have no doubt that writers like Stephen King have read “Beyond the Door,” because it does so well to take a plain object and transform it into something that is waiting to unnerve us.

Available for free in the public domain…

This House is Haunted by John Boyne

This novel came to me at the perfect time¹–sick in bed, unable to do much, and in need of some quality entertainment. Although, most of my time recently has been spent napping, I was able to squeeze in some reading time and a wee bit to write this review.²

This House is Haunted is a takeoff on 19th century Gothic tales (think The Turn of the Screw and Jane Eyre). Eliza Caine is a 21-year-old school teacher who lives with her ailing father. In the first line of the book, she declares: I blame Charles Dickens for the death of my father. For you see, her father insists on going out one night to see the fine author read one of his stories. The weather is too much for him and Eliza is finally left without parents (her mother died some ten years or so prior).

Without enough money or anything latching her to her hometown of London, Eliza answers an ad for a governess. There is no interview or reference-checking on the part of the family placing the ad; she is outright hired. When Eliza turns up in Norfolk, a nasty accident almost befalls her and when she arrives at the home of her new charges, she is not met by the parents but only by the children–the young Eustace, aged 8, and his older sister, Isabella, who speaks like a tiny, creepy adult.

Many accidents befall Eliza Caine, along with spooky moments of phantom hands yanking her out of bed or trying to choke her. She finds out that her predecessors also had unpleasant tenures as governess.

Besides the excellent exercise on Boyne’s part to write a well-conceived and engrossing tale of 19th century ghosts and intrigue, the real pleasure came from the mystery surrounding all of the strange events. With the unsettling Isabella and the unpleasantries stalking Eliza Caine at every turn, I couldn’ t put the book down. Of course, there is a tragic history behind Gaudlin Hall–the half-derelict home which the children live in–but only portions are extricated at times and it is up to Eliza to pull out as much as possible and piece it all together.

Fans of Gothic novels will definitely enjoy This House is Haunted. Its appeal, however, stretches further than to just those who are looking for an entertaining Gothic homage. It stands alone even with its apparent influence and I dare you to not be caught up in its captivating plot and characters. One shouldn’t merely dismiss it as a shadow of an earlier genre, but an alluring work of fiction that encompasses what we most look for in a novel.

***

¹ I originally heard of this book through NPR’s Book Concierge, which I highly recommend.
² Excuses, excuses, I know, but many apologies for a short and light review this time round.

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

“The pain was terrible. And then she remembered. It was over. It was over. The baby was born…”

rosemarysbabyLike most people, my familiarity with Rosemary’s Baby comes from the excellent film adaptation by Roman Polanski. In my edition of the book, the short but intriguing introduction penned by Mysterious Bookshop owner, Otto Penzler, states that Polanski–who was new to Hollywood filmmaking–had not realized that he could take liberties with the source material, which is the norm with adaptations. But enough about the film and more about the book!

Although, I had already known the outcome of the narrative and what lies behind every twist and turn of Rosemary’s Baby, I still found myself creeped out by the novel. The writing is unadorned and straight to the point, but Levin is able to do something interesting with his words. What stood out to me was young Rosemary’s constant battle between the people trying to control her and her pregnancy (and, for that matter, her everyday life). Her insufferable husband, Guy Woodhouse, thinks she is just a silly housewife whose duty is to make him breakfast and to read him lines while he is rehearsing for his next play. When Rosemary, amid her fear of a conspiracy to take her unborn baby from her for a more dastardly endeavor, reaches out to an obstetrician she once saw, who ultimately thinks she, too, is a frivolous woman who must be taken away by her husband and attending obstetrician. Her fears and worries are not considered and her husband Guy says, “[Dr. Sapirstein] has a name for it. Prepartum I-don’t-know, some kind of hysteria. You had it, honey, and with a vengeance.

What always enthralled me about Rosemary’s Baby was the idea of paranoia and suspicion. Rosemary begins by rationalizing her own doubts but, as the story evolves, it becomes a “who can she trust” scenario that leads to the reader’s rapid heart beat and intense desire to turn page after page. With Rosemary doubting her situation and sanity, so does the reader.

“This is no dream, she thought. This is real, this is happening.”

While many people may argue that Rosemary’s Baby is not horror so-to-speak, I don’t concur. The horror of the story is that Levin has setup a real world that is so average and filled with evil represented in the most mundane and unsuspecting of people.

 

Rosemary’s Baby is Number 2 on my RIPXVIII list.

‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

“He refused to talk about the town of Jerusalem’s Lot…”

Salem's Lot by Stephen KingThis is the first book read from my list for this year’s RIPXVIII. I very rarely get a chance to read anything that might be considered genre so I’m a bit naive when it comes to the challenge of finding something suitably horror that still retains some semblance of literary talent. I had read Carrie years ago (King’s first published book that is both enjoyable and well-written) and dabbled in some of his shorter works–short stories, an essay, and a novella or two. So, when I decided to take up this year’s RIPXIII, I went straight to Stephen King.

In the supplementary introduction and afterword, King talks about his love for Dracula, a book he read as a child and subsequently taught when he was briefly a high school teacher. This book was the catalyst for writing Salem’s Lot. He “wanted to tell a tale that inverted Dracula.” Where the “optimism of Victorian England shines through everything like the newly invented electric light” in Dracula, the characters of Salem’s Lot, fought off the evil with weapons and know-how from folklore.

In Salem’s Lot, King’s second novel, he is at the top of his game. He has always been a writer that takes something so ordinary in our lives and makes it incredibly creepy and evil. Also, being richly influenced by Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, King takes us on our way. The book opens with the information that a small town in Maine has become abandoned. It’s as if all of the residents just blew away.

Ben Mears, a semi-successful writer, returns to the Lot, a town where he spent some of his childhood. He visits the Marsten House, which has a murderous history of its own, and is intent on renting it. However, Ben soon finds out it has been purchased already by a pair of mysterious out-of-towners. What King does so well is to set up a perfectly average place and then slyly unravels it, revealing all of the nasty bits.

I am always fascinated by the concept of penning a truly frightening book. I am a big lover of The Haunting of Hill House (along with other works by Jackson) and I was so impressed how she made the house pulsate like it was its own character. King does the same thing. The scariest moments were when you didn’t see anything at all. When two workmen are hired to bring boxes into the cellar of the Marsten House, I felt all of the anxiety that those two characters felt.

“There are evil men in the world, truly evil men. Sometimes we hear of them, but more often they work in absolute darkness.”

By not complicating the “rules” and the “evil,” King has written a book that truly does go bump in the night. His vampires are hissing, bloodsucking villains of yesteryear. It seems, lately, that many vampires are sexy, glowing creatures with a slight moral code. Not these baddies. For a while now, I have had an interest in Slavic folklore concerning vampires. It was a pleasure to see the protagonists grabbing bulbs of garlic and negotiating who will be staking whom.

In our culture, we have an unfortunate divide between literary and commercial and in most case, never the two shall meet. I’m of the belief that there are schlocky works of literature and commercial fiction, as well as highly merited of both category. Also, sometimes the divide is correct but I’ve always thought of Stephen King as one of those writers who can combine both.

I also recommend Viy by Nikolai Gogol for those interested in a tale of a more Slavic folklore vain. The story is available for FREE through Project Gutenberg and you can watch the 1967 Russian film adaptation for free online through YouTube (with English subtitles; also you might have to watch it directly on YouTube’s website).

Young Lovecraft by José Oliver and Bartolo Torres

As my local branch of the NYPL was just about to close and I was getting that anticipatory look from the tired staff, I found a display of new books including an interesting looking graphic novel called Young Lovecraft by José Oliver and Bartolo Torres. I’m not well-versed in the world of graphic novels but I have read a few and I’ve enjoyed the ones that I’ve picked up.

Young Lovecraft is an alternative biography of the classic horror writer, H.P. Lovecraft. My favorite parts were the panels where the young Lovecraft is rewriting some of his favorite tales–The Raven, Moby-Dick, etc.–but usually the endings differ with a giant creature destroying everyone. Also, he has a fun romp at a graveyard party with the ghosts of Poe, Rimbaud, and Baudelaire.

For a lover of literature it was a real pleasure. I’ve only read one of Lovecraft’s stories but it made me want to investigate some more.