Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Living Dead

Zombies are the new hotness.

Or, perhaps I should say, were the new hotness. After Resident Evil and 28 Days Later got them back in people's perception, the shit blew up. Comic series, video games, movie after movie after movie all came out, feeding people's need for more apocalyptic survival horror action. It's tapered off somewhat lately and what remains was either really cheap to produce or really, really good.

Everyone and their mother has their theory on what the whole zombie thing MEANS, what strange shared psychosis in our culture responds so strongly to the image of hordes of cannibalistic undead coming for us. Generally they tend to fall on the dark-reflection-of-our-consumerist-fixation side, the perverse-need-to-eradicate-all-social-structures-and-leave-survival-as-life's-primary-purpose side, or the let's-load-up-and-blow-shit-up-common-man-with-a-gun side. I think these all have their validity and I got three of my own:

1) Horror is often dependent on the Other invading the Normal. People are living their lives, introducing themselves to the reader/viewer and agonizing about their Unresolved Conflict, when Victor the Vampire or Winston the Werewolf or Yukiko the Yurei shows up and causes some mischief. Some people get bumped off, some chick wanders around a dark place looking Scared but Determined, the Other is killed and the status quo returns to Normal.

Zombies invert that formula. In a zombie tale, the Normal is the first thing to go. Suddenly the world isn't threatened; the world has fundamentally changed. The narrative doesn't take you to a different place and demand that you play by their rules like science fiction or fantasy does. The world is still ours and it's falling apart. It's incredibly jarring and adapting to that disorientation is part of the fun.

2) The rules are elegantly simple. The dead are walking around. If they get you, and they probably will, you will die horribly. If you get bit, you will die. They can be stopped with a shot to the head. Sometimes fire scares them, sometimes it doesn't. Within that framework you can build stories spanning the range from early Ingmar Bergman-style wallows in existential despair to macho gun-heavy survivor stories.

The zombie world presents a strong appeal for mental role-playing. Most people I know who have any degree of affinity for zombie stuff love making contingency plans. What would they do when a zombie shows up? Where would they go? How would they prepare themselves? Who would they save? What would they value? What would they do when their backs are absolutely against the wall? It seems to be a simple frame work for people to play around with their worst case scenarios.

3) The nature of the stories, and the fact that despair is just as much a threat as the zombie hordes, mean that zombie stories tend to spend more time with characterization than other horror tales. Unlike many horror movies, especially slasher movies that make perverse anti-heroes out of their killers, we're squarely on the human's side in zombie flicks. We need to be beside them, we need to feel their fear, and we need to share their strain for the stories to really work. The original Night of the Living Dead still works remarkably well because of the way we watch these confused and frightened human beings fall apart as they bicker among each other and get themselves killed.

So, that's my pet theory on the appeal of the zombie genre. Now let's apply that to The Living Dead, a recently released anthology of zombie tales edited by John Joseph Adams.

I really liked this book. Anthologies are often a hard sell for me. It takes me some time to become emotionally engaged in a narrative and I find the effect of having to constantly switch between characters and writing styles disorienting, but the stories were well-written and compelling. The editor didn't take chances with a lot of new names and most of the authors are well-known names in genre fiction. While this didn't expose me to a lot of new talent, it did give me a chance to see some of my favorite writers at work in a familiar sub-genre.

The one complaint I did have with the book is that it's definitely not geared to the long-time genre reader. Most of the stories can be found in other, older anthologies and I found myself coming back to tales I read a long time ago. Still, at fifteen bucks, it's kind of a can't-go-wrong.

Anyway, my breakdown of the tales;

This Year's Class Picture by Dan Simmons: A very straightforward, very cool zombie tale that fits us squarely in the mind of a teacher trying to reach her zombie pupils. It's one of those ideas that could have been tremendously trite and stupid, but Simmons pulls it off. It also has one of the most sweet, least hokey endings I ever read in genre work.

Some Zombie Contingency Plans by Kelly Link: This one isn't really about zombies per se, but it does some nifty characterization tricks, has one of the most compelling leads in the book, and has one of the best back-and-forth conversations I've read in awhile. I'm not entirely sure what's going on in Soap's head, but he's not in a good place and it's a sick joy to read.

Death and Suffrage by Dale Bailey: I was a little wary, getting into the book. While I agree with the politics of the story, having the dead vote the way I would made me worry the story would be some hackneyed soapbox diatribe. I liked the lead character and as the story moved on and the emphasis moved away from the presidential fight and toward the mysteries of his past I found myself drawn in. There's some good character stuff and some strong dialogue set pieces, and I'm kind of curious to see the Masters of Horror episode they did off this story.

Ghost Dance by Sherman Alexie: Sherman Alexie is one of my favorite writers, though he's definitely not someone I'd ever expect to be contributing to a genre anthology. His tale of unburied past and violent vengeance hit my liberal buttons, but the story felt a little disjointed, a little hollow. Sure, it's good. It's really good. But it's not really Sherman Alexie good.

Blossom by David J. Schow: I am gonna have to part company with the horror orthodoxy but I've never been a big fan of David Schow's work. His stuff rubs me the way a lot of the big name splatterpunk does: too much shock, not enough substance. In the story's introduction he talks about the image that inspired the piece and the story he built around it didn't really do anything for me. Someone has kinky sex. Some weird stuff happens. Someone dies violently. Splatterpunk. Done. Next?

The Third Dead Body by Nina Kiriki Hoffman: I had high hopes for this story. There wasn't much in the book mixing zombies with serial killers and the story has a killer opening line. I had a hard time connecting with the rest of it. The character's arc was poorly laid out and I didn't care in the end.

The Dead by Michael Swanwick: Yuppies treating the reanimated as a business resource is an obvious sort of idea, but I liked the enthusiastic sleaze of the story and the capitalistic implications of the author's ideas about zombies.

The Dead Kid by Darrell Schweitzer: As a big-city kid, I'm a sucker for small-town adolescent nostalgia horror tales. Bradbury got the taste under my skin and King, Lansdale, and Partridge kept the addiction going. This story is one of those narratives, and it's a real treat. I like how the zombie is the victim and not the danger, I like the way Schweitzer's lead alternates between conformity and his sense of ethics. The ending feels a little too bright for the tale, but after all the gloom and doom that tends to hover around the zombie genre it's nice to have a happy ending.

Malthusian's Zombie by Jeffrey Ford: I loved this story. The title character was a neat, strange little academic and the clever trick he plays on the narrator got me at the end. The story puts together a little world, plays fairly by it's own rules, and pleasantly surprises the reader at the end.

Beautiful Stuff by Susan Palwick: Beautiful Stuff was the story I feared Death and Suffrage was gonna be. The liberal outrage is painfully obvious and the big moral at the end was cringe worthy. The story is well-written and enjoyable on a craft level, but it's too obvious and pleased with itself.

Sex, Death, and Starshine by Clive Barker: I've got a lot of things to say about Clive Barker that I'll save for another time. Suffice to say, it's an old story and it's still really, really good. I'd give this one to my theater-working friends if any of them were actually literate.

Stockholm Syndrome by David Tallerman: It's a very straightforward survival horror story. Perhaps too straightforward, but it had a strong personality guiding the narrative.

Bobby Conroy Comes Back From The Dead by Joe Hill: A non-horror story about love rekindling on the set of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, this bittersweet little tale is a nice love letter to genre fans.

Those Who Seek Forgiveness by Laurell K. Hamilton: I'm usually inclined to roll my eyes at Laurell K. Hamilton as she tends be be associated with that whole supernatural romance subgenre running around these days. In truth, I never gave her a chance and I gotta say that this is a pretty good story. It's very linear and without many surprises, but it has that fun, punchy feeling of those goofy old theme anthologies I used to read in high school.

In Beauty, Like the Night by Norman Partridge: There's a lot more stuff going on in the story than is given space to work with. As a result, it feels like a longer work chopped down and it suffers for the editing. Still love ya, buddy. Would like to see more with this.

Prairie by Brian Evenson: One of my favorite pieces in the book, this weird little story is written like a sea captain's log as they travel some very grim seas. The matter-of-fact depiction of ghastly imagery and clinical, cold speech shouldn't work, but it does.

Everything Is Better With Zombies by Hannah Wolf Bowen: Wow. Seriously. Wow. The stuff going on here is subtle and painful and terribly cool. Another story where zombies are more a metaphor than a threat, the heartbreaking stuff going on unspoken between the characters absolutely works.

Home Delivery by Stephen King: I've got a lot to say about Stephen King, too. Like Clive Barker, it's gotta wait for a more focused article. Suffice to say, you've probably encountered this story in a dozen places before. It's still a tidy little story with incredible characterization. The zombie apocalypse barely affects the small island community and the characters have a unique dialogue style and point of view. I'd liked to have seen something new, but this one still works.

Less Than Zombie by Douglas E. Winter: This was the first fictional work I've read, having mostly known him from his non-fiction biographies of various genre authors. His insight makes this pastiche of Bret Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero work with a certain sleazy charm, capturing the cold disconnect between Ellis's characters and the way they bang off each other amidst the undead. This story isn't a pleasant tale but it portrays yuppie nihilism effectively and remains engaging and clever.

Sparks Fly Upwards by Lisa Morton: This one is tricky to put my finger on. A political tale about abortion and religious fervor, this one contains a lot of raw emotion. I tend to be leery of stories that put their themes front and center in the narrative, but this one more-or-less stays readable, despite the painfully earnest final paragraph.

Meathouse Man by George R.R. Martin: One of the more unusual contributors to the anthology, George R.R. Martin writes in the fantasy genre, which I rarely dip my toe in. I dug this little ditty, though. Set in the far future, this story of zombie slave labor, necrophilia, and love gone sour was apparently inspired by some bad times in the author's life and Meathouse Man comes out very raw and wounded. At times the writer's pain is a little too naked and the story seems to have been constructed as an elaborate Rube Goldberg torture device to batter the innocent protagonist by mean old love, but I enjoyed it.

Deadman's Road by Joe R. Lansdale: I'm a big Joe R. Lansdale fan but I've never actually read Dead In The West, the old Western zombie story where disillusioned priest and monster hunter Rev. Jebidiah Rains makes his first appearance. He's one of the only action movie style heroes in this book and Deadman's Road is a fun little tale for him to run around in. It's very direct and cinematic, without a whole lot of fat on the bone: bad shit happens, preacher man stops it. It is, if anything, a little too free of surprises but I wouldn't kick it out of bed.

The Skull-Faced Boy by David Barr Kirtley: Great title. Okay story.

The Age of Sorrow by Nancy Kilpatrick: The low point in the anthology, it presented the fundamental danger of last-person-left-alive scenarios; if we have to follow one person around, they'd better be interesting. I did get to learn about the characters ovulation cycle, which was, y'know, different.

Bitter Grounds by Neil Gaiman: Oh, dear. I was dreading this one. I really like Neil Gaiman and I think that when he's on his game he's one of the best popular fantasists of our time, but after reading and rereading this story, after staring at walls and contemplating the Meaning Of It All, I still can't tell whether this is a deep, complex, and rich tale of death and emptiness or one of those stories where a writer is being deliberately, maddeningly vague in order to seem more clever than the story actually is (the Donnie Darko effect.)

She's Taking Her Tits To The Grave by Catherine Cheek: A gimmicky title, which tends to be a turn-off, but a cute little yarn about a vacant L.A. woman who doesn't deal with her death and subsequent resurrection well.

Dead Like Me by Adam-Troy Castro: OMG! BFF on this story! A vicious little handbook for survivors who want to stay alive by acting like zombies, this one fits squarely in the Romero world and is one of the best tales I've ever read about losing your humanity to the zombie hordes. Seriously, go read this now.

Zora And The Zombie by Andy Duncan: One of the stories in the book that uses the old Voodoo zombie mythos, this one follows Zora Neale Hurston as she meets an institutionalized zombie in a Caribbean asylum. This one builds a strong atmosphere and has an exotic sensuality to the tone. Kudos.

Calcutta, Lord Of Nerves by Poppy Z. Brite: Man, I haven't been back to Poppy Z. Brite in years. During my adolescent Goth phase, her early work was mandatory reading. Coming back to this story after ten years was a treat. This tale is less a story and more of a travelogue of zombie-infested Calcutta, but she does a fantastic job of bringing the city to life. You pick up the heat, the sounds, the smells, you learn the lingo, and you come to believe that Calcutta would be the one place in the world where the dead could rise and no one would notice.

Followed by Will McIntosh: Another political zombie tale, this one is one of my favorites. A non-violent story about people's lifestyles catching up with them in the form of dead bodies who follow you around in silent judgement, this one fits very will with my San Francisco Organic Co-Op mentality.

The Song The Zombie Sang by Harlan Ellison (r) and Robert Silverberg: Given the pedigree of the authors, of course this tale was gonna work. After an anthology filled mostly with familiar zombie archetypes, they cooked up a good story about art and the passion of the living.

Passion Play by Nancy Holder: I didn't realize until I got to this story how few of the tales in this anthology dealt with the religious implications of the zombie apocalypse. This one, in which a Bavarian town reenacts the Passions of Christ with zombie actors as part of a covenant with God, was a welcome change of pace. It tends to sprint when it should jog, but it pulled off what it set out to accomplish.

Almost The Last Story By Almost The Last Man by Scott Edelman: Oh, man. I never really expected to discover anyone new but this was one of the big pleasures of this collection. A multi-layered tale of a writer desperately telling stories in the middle of Romero's apocalypse, the narrator succeeds in drawing us into his desperation. It covers every type of story you could imagine Romero devotees telling and does an amazing job engaging us with the narrator as he goes to his doom.

How The Day Runs Down by John Langen: A fantastic tale to close the anthology with, HTDRD is a monologue piece, written as a stage play, where a mysterious stage manager narrates the apocalypse, pulling in characters into his story and having them share their experiences with us. It's homespun and folksy and very, very dark.

Anyway, that's the collection. I really enjoyed this book and I'm probably gonna pick up Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse at some point in the near future. Again, there's probably a bunch of stuff you've seen before, but it's a good little mix tape of monster madness.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

What I'm Looking Forward To In 2009

The Midnight Meat Train

Those of you who haunt the various internet horror communities have probably read bloody-disgusting's reporting on the nonsense surrounding Clive Barker's The Midnight Meat Train. Apparently some studio drama suppressed the movie's release so that a larger advertising budget could be pushed to The Strangers, a movie I thoroughly enjoyed.

I tend to be wary of things the internet community tries to turn into a rallying cause. The original story is one of my favorite Clive Barker pieces and the trailer looked really good, but suddenly the blogs and the podcasts and the lumbering beast that is the internet hype machine rallied behind the tragic cause of MMT, wailing and beating their breasts like Italian widows at the injustice of it all. Internet hype is just the community doing the advertiser's job, and I've been sold that bill of goods before (think Snakes on a Plane.)

Having said that, I am really looking forward to MMT.

I like my horror relentless and pure and The Midnight Meat Train doesn't look like it holds back. I like director Ryuhei Kitamura's previous work and his sense of style. And, as previously stated, the original story is one of my favorites. It captures something ancient and twisted about the heart of New York City, and about how the needs of societies can sometimes require the most grim sacrifices. I'm trusting my gut and I'm really looking forward to this one.

Friday The 13th

I know you're not surprised by this one.

As much I I love them, I have to admit that the series cannot continue without a reboot. The storytelling "style" of the original films was too simplistic, too amateurish, too much of a happy accident to bring in any kind of modern audience. I half expected future sequels to wind up in the direct-to-DVD market. Still, the basic tropes of the series hold a powerful campfire ghost story appeal for me: A revenant in a bone-white mask haunts the ruins of a decrepit summer camp.

Plus, it's got Jared Paladecki. I am a big fan of Supernatural and the brothers Winchester. When I went to the Friday the 13th panel at San Diego Comic Con wearing my "What would Jason do" tee-shirt, he dug it. Right friggin' on.

My Bloody Valentine

There is a lot to be said for the original MBV. It was genuinely well-shot and creepy, and stood out among the early eighties slasher movies. It's not the kind of thing you'd expect to be remade, but I like the nutty way they're marketing it. I'll go see a 3D slasher flick any day.

Besides, it's got Jensen Ackles. He's become shorthand in my social circle for describing quality: "It's good. It's real good. But is it Jensen Ackles good?"

The Unborn

I admit that I was initially gonna give this a pass because it was marketed as another timid little ghost story, albeit one with an uncomfortable allusion to the pro-life movement, but it's David S. Goyer's baby, who has done some pretty fantastic work in the horror/fanboy mode. I'm curious to see what he does with a traditional ghost tale.

Guillermo del Toro Doing
At The Mountains Of Madness

It's Guillermo del Toro.

Doing Lovecraft.

'nuff said.

13: Fear Is Real

I really should know better.

Horror is an artificial construct and it doesn't necessarily mesh well with the forced drama of reality TV. Still, curiosity is gonna get the better of me on this one.

Besides, I can imagine how wonderfully wrong it could go:

Resident Evil 5

The game that resurrected the zombie genre gets another iteration, this time with our hapless heroes doing their thing in the heart of war-torn Africa.

I'm terribly excited about this game. I admit that I didn't give RE4 the fair shake it deserved, mostly because I had a tough time getting into the gameplay mechanics, but I'm ready to check out what they have planned next.

The Death of Torture Porn

I'm hesitant to completely condemn the much maligned "torture porn" sub genre of horror movies, mostly because you never know where something genuinely clever is going to come from. However, I come from a generation slightly older than the torture porn audience and while I appreciate how viscerally effective it can be, torture porn takes the genre into a place I'm not always willing to go.

It's like pepper: it works well as a seasoning, but I can't eat a whole meal of it. At this point it seems to be petering out on it's own and I am eager for the next new idea.

Finally Getting to See
Trick 'r Treat

Yet another much-hyped horror flick that can't seem to find its way into theaters, I've been following it for awhile now and I would really like to see it in the big screen.

My tastes in horror fluctuate. Sometimes I like stories that have a strong supernatural element, but I often find that too much time is spent explaining the rules of the world. Sometimes I like "realistic" horror, but I've seen this descend into the grotesque explorations of torture chambers and serial killer hovels. I get the sense that they're going for a blend of the fantastic and the mundane, told with the weird creepy nostalgia of a Bradbury yarn.

Plus, y'know, Anna Paquin.

Watching More
True Blood.

This one actually kinda bugs me. I've got a real problem with the neutering of the vampire archetype and True Blood definitely falls into the vampire-as-romantic-lead category. Still, it's got strong performances, strong characterization, sexy storylines, and a great Deep South style.

Plus, y'know, Anna Paquin.

Catching Up With

I'm actually kind of dreading this.

Supernatural is one of my favorite shows on TV. I love the show's blue-collar ethic to monster hunting and its commitment to actually scaring the viewer. Sam and Dean Winchester are fantastic characters and I've always found the stories engaging.

Lately, the show is getting away from it's core appeal. I really hate Ruby, I really hate the parade of interchangeable smirking demons, and I hate the fact that the show is getting too deep into the war between heaven and hell. It's not unlike Lost, where the mystery is infinitely more fun than the explanation. Still, I'll take a mediocre Supernatural over a good Buffy any day.

Whatever Max Brooks Is Up To Next

Nobody does zombies better.

He's been pretty mum about his latest projects but since George Romero is quickly becoming the George Lucas of the horror set, Max Brooks has the Midas touch with his work. World War Z was one of the most thoughtful, most terrifying, and most humane books I've ever read. I gather that he's not going to stay in Romero's playground forever but I hope he stays in the genre. Christ, I'd read the man's grocery list.

Running More Call Of Cthulhu Games

It's been a fairly crazy year and I haven't had as much time to indulge my passion for horror gaming, but I've got a new circle of friends, more free time, and a compulsion to turn off lights, roll dice by candlelight, and speak in a spooky voice.

Getting Off My Lazy Ass and Doing The Podcast

I started this blog as a companion piece to my podcast. Maybe I should get off my ass and produce the stupid thing already. Staaaaaaay tuned!


I am optimistic about the genre in 2009. There are some heavy hitters coming up, some exciting projects, and some interesting things to look forward to. Keep sticking around and checking back at the CreatureCast blog. We'll have plenty of good stuff for you.