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The sky is harmlessly transformed into the underside of a table, and the clouds lengthen and thin into the wicked webs of spiders.

I am fairly certain that it was with this line that I fell completely in love with Pontypool Changes Everything.

To describe the plot feels like a Burroughsian exercise in futility, but sure I’ll give it a lash regardless. A peculiar disease begins to sweep across a regional township. The infected begin to suffer from an unusual form of glossolalia, unbeknownst to themselves as they babble to friends and colleagues. Shortly thereafter the infection progresses to the next stage and the afflicted become violently aggressive, fall into a fit and crack their own necks only to resurrect as ululating ghouls. The disease then explodes into multiple vectors, with those garbled phrases hooted and wailed by the creatures spreading it even further.

See what Tony Burgess has done? He’s gone and made memetic zombies.

The story warps and shifts its way through the perspectives of some few survivors and members of the infected enduring the horrifying process. Initially we are introduced to Les Reardon, a mentally ill drug addict, which neatly throws doubt on the depiction of events he passes on to the reader. For all we know these are the delusions of a madman. Even when Reardon slips out of the story, that suspicion remains. In part this is due to Burgess’ writing style, as exemplified above. Maddeningly elusive, hinting at possible meanings, elliptical in its descriptions of this pandemic – the book itself is clearly a vector of the very same disease. As the story opens it feels like a hybridisation of Joe Lansdale and José Saramago, but it quickly evolves into a far more cunning breed of book.

The film Pontypool was released a few years ago directed by Bruce McDonald. In the novel’s afterward Burgess, here seen interviewed on the film, goes on to explain the differences between the filmed work and his own novel. It seems entirely fitting that the story has mutated into a new form for its adaptation, dropping the storyline of a deranged father dubiously safe-guarding his infant from a pandemic in favour of Stephen McHattie playing a shock-jock DJ besieged by the infected. I have been a fan of the actor for many years – his performance in the execrable Watchmen is one of the few brief shining moments therein – and Burgess describes beautifully the moment when he visited the set and watched his words being spoken by the actors assembled.

Still the book is the original work and worthy of exploration by fans of the film, as well as curious bystanders. Among the many cruel jokes trotted out during its narrative, there is even the suggestion that Marcel Duchamp’s surrealistic urinal is somehow responsible for the chaos. The punchline that follows says it all “So, like, I guess this is one disease that you can catch off a toilet seat.”

This is mindbending, witty, bizarre stuff. Don’t bother reading it with the light on. It will warp your brain regardless.

Pontypool changes everything

“The Kellis-Amberlee virus was an accident,” said Dr. Abbey, still looking at the pane of safety glass. Her hand moved slowly over her dog’s head, stroking his ears. “It was never supposed to happen. The Kellis flu and Marburg Amberlee were both good ideas. They just didn’t get the laboratory testing they needed. If there’d been more time to understand them before they go out, before they combined the way that they did…but there wasn’t time, and the genie got out of the bottle before most people even realized the bottle was there. It could have been worse. That’s what nobody wants to admit. So the dead get up and walk around – so what? We don’t get sick like our ancestors did. We don’t die of cancer, even though we keep pumping pollutants into the atmosphere as fast as we can come up with them. We live charmed lives, except for the damn zombies, and even those who don’t have to be the kind of problem we make them out to be. They could just be an inconvenience. Instead, we let them define everything.”

“They’re zombies,” said Becks. “It’s sort of hard to ignore them.”

What the hell Emmet?! Zombies? Again!? Well..Set the way-back machine for June 21 2010. That was when I began the – now happily concluded (which you’ll have noted due to the lack of blog updates lately) – experiment to read and review a book each day. The first title was Feed by Mira Grant, the pen-name of Seanan McGuire who gave my humble notice a mention.  I even got to write up a piece for Filmink Magazine based on Feed for their They Should Make A Movie of That feature.

I am very fond of the book. Thankfully the sequel is pretty tops too.

Shaun Mason survived the events of the previous book physically, but mentally he is the walking wounded. The death of his sister George has left him so severely disturbed he finds himself conversing with her ‘ghost’. She was always the better half of the two siblings, the voice of reason, the sensible one. Shaun has gone from the fun-loving thrill-seeking to a man with a death-wish. His blogger colleagues have begun to give him a wide berth, his mutterings and explosions of temper making him a liability in their attempts to give unbiased lived coverage of zombie-afflicted regions in America.

But then a woman believed to have died in an accident shows up on his doorstep, describing a conspiracy involving the Centre for Disease Control – one that may be responsible for the death of George. Suddenly Shaun is a man on a mission again.

Grant ratchets up the tension with the sequel and gives even more insight into the ‘managed’ zombie apocalypse of the Feed universe. The world-building continues, with this series a fascinating commentary on how social media relates to the mainstream and the compromised relationship between politics and big business. It’s a fantastic irony that the rise of the undead has catapulted the health industry into the biggest business within the world. It’s very amusing to see the CDC become targeted in so many zombie dystopias. The Walking Dead also featured the Centre in their first season finale and they themselves have taken advantage of this sudden popularity and produced a zombie comic of their own!

There’s also some wicked humour on display here. Such as George and Shaun’s childhood viewing of Bambi when they cheered at the death of the titular deer’s mother, because she did not revive. Furthermore the ‘banter’ between the siblings produces a witty running commentary on the book’s action.

This is an excellent horror series, with real brains and heart.

Deadline by Mira Grant

The book of war, the one we’ve been writing since one ape slapped another, was completely useless in this situation. We had to write a new one from scratch.

I reread Brooks’ follow up to the Zombie Survival Guide just as news broke that Glasgow had been converted into downtown zombie besieged Philadelphia for the Brad Pitt film adaptation. That earlier book featured a series of tongue-in-cheek survival techniques for dealing with the imminent time of the undead rising to feed upon the flesh of the living. If you go into a bookstore you’ll like as not find the Guide in the humour section. But the interesting section in the book was its latter half when Brooks introduced a series of short ‘histories’ featuring zombies tropes being applied to a number of unfamiliar settings. My favourite was the zombies in the French Foreign Legion narrative.

For World War Z Brooks revealed that the zombie apocalypse has already happened and following years of hardship humanity is slowly rebuilding itself. This time the storytelling device is that our narrator is a bureaucrat traveling around the world assembling a report on the outbreak of the mysterious disease that caused the ghouls and how it led to the breakdown of civilized society.

The one and one interviews between the narrator and the individuals he meets allows Brooks to introduce a series of contrasting genres into the monotonous zombie horror format. There are military exercises, home invasions, scientific inquiries, political satire – World War Z becomes a wide-ranging critique of many aspects of contemporary culture.

With brain-munching on the side.

Given the variation between the interviews, the tone shifts drastically from ‘objective’ reportage, to comedy, tragedy – even psychological suspense. There has been much comment over the years in relation to the celebrity cameos hidden in the text, from an apathetic Paris Hilton, to Howard Dean and even Nelson Mandela. There is even something blackly comical about Brooks pitching that the only event that could lead the political parties of the United States to unite is the near annihilation of the human race. As such this functions in the best tradition of post-George Romero zombie horror, happy to indulge in both gore and allegory.

There is no plot as such in this book. Rather this is a fictional history of the events that follow the outbreak of World War Z. Brooks was apparently inspired by the documented history of the second world war. Despite this the book is genuinely powerful, avoiding the calculated phrasing of the official report it will come to create. Indeed the narrator frequently alludes to how the official account will exclude much of the personal detail included here. That is possibly the smartest aspect of the book, how it balances the immensity of the horror unleashed with the ‘official version of events’. Compare this to Seeing by José Saramago, the sequel to Blindness, where we discover the government has completely buried the spontaneous lose of sight of an entire city’s population. Ultimately the characters introduced by Brooks are left to deal with the sights they have witnessed and the tragedies they have experienced alone.

This is an instant horror classic, which rises above its brain-dead peers.

World War Z

He nods. He understands. And then he takes my hand and presses his lips against my palm. It feels like fire entering my bloodstream and laying siege to my body. He kisses my wrist, and I am an inferno. He starts to move up my arm, his breath tantalizing, and I almost give in as he pulls me to him.

But instead I step back, cradling my arm to my chest. “Be well,” I tell him because I don’t know how to explain what I really want to say. And then I slip out the window and am covered in snow that instantly douses my skin, which just moments before had been aflame.

Paranormal romance has evolved certain tropes that are in danger of becoming repetitive. Firstly, the whole romance itself has often been perpetuated through a love triangle whose oscillations sustain a series of novels. Secondly the female protagonists have a tendency to either be clumsy, or suffer extreme injuries/physical deprivations. What interests me is that this kind of wish fulfillment fantasy carries echoes of male adventure novels. Bond having to choose between the ‘good girl’ and the bad. Clive Cussler‘s Dirk Pitt receives terrible injuries only to get right back up again and carry on. Are Paranormal Romance books just gender-swapped boys’ own adventures, with all that that implies?

Mary lives with her mother and brother in a community of survivors following a catastrophic event that destroyed civilization. Their memories of the time before are vague and the event itself is simply referred to as ‘The Return’ – when the dead rose and began to feed on the living. These once human creatures are known as the Unconsecrated and for her entire life Mary has lived with the sound of their cries every day, pressed up against the protective fence that surrounds the village. Beyond the fence lies the impenetrable Forest of Hands and Teeth.

When Mary’s mother is killed and her brother disowns her, she is thrown to the mercy of the Sisters, who run the village community. Her only other option would be to marry, but her best friend is to marry the boy she loves Travis and his brother, Harry, who does want her let the Sisters take her from her home. She is alone.

Sister Tabitha attempts to break Mary’s spirit and teach her that the only option is to accept her fate. Instead the young girl continues to find new ways to rebel, despite her punishments. Eventually she discovers a secret that the Sisters and the Guardians, who patrol the village fences, have been hiding. There is another girl in the Cathedral, wearing red, who Mary has never seen before. She is not from the village. Is there another place where life survived? Will she ever, as her mother promised her, see the ocean?

This is a very problematic novel. For a start the ‘romance’ is entirely counter-productive. Sister Tabitha claims that Mary’s headstrong nature will be the doom of the village. As it happens, she is not far wrong. The main character’s insistence on pursuing her own desires are pitched as being liberating, but she is living in the centre of community surrounded on all sides by monsters! Priorities! When survival becomes the most important thing, Mary is still mooning after Travis. More interesting by far is her relationship with her brother Jed, who blames her for their mother’s death. Unfortunately the novel only returns to their conflict near the end, just in time to tie up loose ends before the anticlimactic conclusion.

Mary is simply infuriating, her self-absorption almost justifiable if the reader considers that she must be suffering from colossal trauma given the village’s circumstances. The Unconsecrated themselves are mindless monsters that are simply always there. Their function in the story is to represent an ever-present threat, but beyond that there is nothing of interest about them.

This is a frustrating, tedious novel, that loses its way once the characters themselves become lost in the Forest of Hands and Teeth.

“So, do you think , kiddo?” Though, judging by his son’s disgusted expression, Matthew probably already knew the answer.

Mockingly, Robby answered, “If it moves, you can kill it.”

“Why the sarcasm, I thought you got off on stuff like this.”

“Um, just because you’re now married to my mom, doesn’t mean you know me. You haven’t even known me long enough to know me.”

Originally posted over at Tastes Like Comics.

Robby and his new father Matthew have a strained relationship that they attempt to endure for the woman in both of their lives Janet. Any bonding between the two comes as a struggle, so when Janet suggests Matthew take his new son on a hunting trip he reluctantly agrees, despite feeling the effort will be wasted. After all Robby prefers to play Grand Theft Auto than step outdoors.

Of course both men do have in common an interest in random violence, of the simulated kind. They travel to a Mexican island off the southeast coast to take part in an unofficial tourist hunting package known as Dangerous Hunts: Safari-Style Hunting Practically In Your Own Back Yard. Off the books and run by a seedy character known as Garrick, American huntsmen who want to enjoy slaughtering wildlife over the course of a fun-filled weekend. Robby, however, is less than impressed

Before the two men in Janet’s life can come to an accord, the tour group suddenly finds itself under attack from a different kind of hunt – the undead.

Masters sets the scene quite nicely and as is typical for zombie fiction, the mouldering monsters function more as a metaphorical plot device. In Dangerous Hunt the allegory is the nature of male bonding, how danger can bring them together. The comparison between video game violence and hunting parties is an interesting one, not one that has often been made. Perhaps because hunting is seen as outdoor exercise, whereas gaming is the province of pale-skinned competitive sorts who live on the internet. Instead, this story hints that there is a common root.

I was reminded of David Eddings’s first book High Hunt, which came before his successful career as a fantasy author, as well as the film Southern Comfort which paralleled a hunting party in unfamiliar territory with the occupation of Vietnam. The men in Masters’ novel are unprepared for the devastating zombie assault, but quickly take to headshots and explosives. Being allowed to kill with impunity is shown to be enjoyable to some of the characters, especially the bloodthirsty Daniel, a fellow ‘tourist’ who takes to the combat quite naturally.

As for zombie fans, the creatures here avoid the recent trend of identifying the undead as being the result of some experimental virus, or disease. Instead it is hinted that a naturally occuring plant on the island is responsible, more in keeping with original houdon tales of resurrected murderers.

Overall Dangerous Hunts is an enjoyable and fast-moving short yarn, with an interesting use of the zombie sub-genre tropes. Go check it out.

With thanks to the author for my review copy.

When I was eight, my mother lost me to zombies in a one-card draw.

Some first lines do not fool around. In a  short burst they let you know straight away what you’re in for by choosing to read this book. There are lines that grab your attention (“Mother died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.”), lines designed to raise a wry chuckle before the action commences (“When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.”) and then there are writers like Marjorie Liu, happy to deliver a one-line manifesto for the fun she has in mind.

Maxine Kiss has lived with whole life with the knowledge that the world is full of dangers most people will never have to face. She, unfortunately, has been raised for precisely that purpose. The last in a long line of women known as Hunters, she has grown up to expect nothing more than a short life of pain and violence. Her enemies are a host of demons who hide in human skins, possessing them and transforming innocents into zombies, foot-soldiers in a millenia-old conflict. Maxine’s job is to hunt them down, give them no quarter. She is not unarmed, she has powers of her own in the form of five demon tattoos that come to life at night and protect her. During the day they sleep, but the tattoos themselves act as a shield against any harm.

Unfortunately for the world Maxine has found a reason not to fight anymore. She is beginning to doubt her mission. And her timing could not be worse.

Hunters do not typically allow men into their lives, but Maxine’s is going to be made far more complicated by several. First there is her lover, the ex-priest Grant with mysterious abilities of his own relating to synaesthesia. Then there is Jack, an elderly archaeologist who knew her grandmother and seems awfully familiar with her history. Tracker, a creature who looks like a man, centuries old and bound to Maxine for reasons he refuses to explain, also enters her life unexpectedly (he pushes her in front of a bus – but he apologises later). Finally there is Byron, a homeless boy who witnessed the murder of a private detective who was on the trail of Maxine herself. She has no idea who paid the detective to track her down – in fact the police are curious about that very same point – but she recognizes that the boy himself is special. It is rare for her to see demons and zombies fighting over anyone else beside her self.

Not only has Maxine’s personal life dulled the edge of her mission, a creature from behind the Veil, the crumbling barrier between this world and the realm of demons who have not walked the earth for thousands of years, has escaped. It wears Maxine’s face, it hunts her friends, taunts her with the secrets she has not yet been told and it cannot be harmed by any weapon she has.

In order to beat this creature – in order to survive – Maxine will have to face up to some painful facts about her own family.

Marjorie Liu‘s first novel in her Hunter Kiss series does a fine job of establishing Maxine Kiss as a modern day heroine, but also delivers some impressive world-building. By the last chapter there are plenty of mysteries still to be resolved, but many questions have been answered. Liu’s own mythology borrows liberally from several sources, but still retains a sense of novelty.

As such the action proceeds with thankfully few gratuitous fight scenes. In fact at one point Maxine breaks away from her own troubles to help out wth a natural disaster in the Middle East. It is an interesting moment. So often novels involving a hero fighting to save the earth from the apocalypse seem painfully insulated from very real catastrophes that happen every day. Liu also returns the concept of the zombie to its vodun roots, a body possessed by an evil spirit, or demon.

What is at times unusual is the lack of female characters in the book. There are two demonesses, Blood Mama the zombie queen and the creature that escapes the veil; a madwoman cared for by Grant; and a colleague of Jack’s who is fond of unicorns. Maxine herself refers to her constant companions, the demonic tattoos, as ‘the boys’. She’s surrounded by testosterone.

An entertaining and punchy yarn.

She turned. When his hat came off, his hair had come off too. In the confusion all she had seen was a chalk-white scalp, so she turned expeting to see a bald albino maybe. But no. With his sunglasses gone and his scarf hanging down, there was no denying the fact that he had no flesh, he had no skin, he had no eyes and he had no face.

All he had was a skull for a head.

Ok, I’ve got my writing music playing (Pat Boone’s cover of Enter Sandman, if you must know) and am in the mood to celebrate. See I get happy when I find an Irish writer I had not heard of before. 2009 was the year of Eoin Colfer for me, whose Artemis Fowl novels I blitzed through in a fortnight. I was excited to find a contemporary author who could take the mythology I had been raised with and update it for modern times.

It appears Derek Landy is of a similar calibre.

This book opens with a mysterious will and ends with a young girl set upon a very peculiar destiny. In between we have skeleton detectives, cthonic gods, wars of magic and a murder mystery.

The death of Gordon Edgley, known as a popular author of portentous horror fantasy novels, comes as a surprise to many but occasions little grieving. Edgley had an uncommon ability to get under people’s skin and was known to move in very unusual circles. His twelve-year-old niece Stephanie had grown quite close to him, being one of the few interesting individuals in the coastal town of Haggard near Dublin. When the reading of the will reveals that Gordon left her both his home and fortune the assembled Edgley clan is left in shock, most notably her aunt and uncle who strongly resent her incredible inheritance.

Yet her sudden good fortune is not the only thing that Stephanie came into that day. She also made the acquaintance of Skulduggery Pleasant – mystical detective. When her inheritance earns Stephanie a powerful enemy, Skulduggery comes to her rescue and introduces her to a world of magic and wonder that exists side-by-side with our own. His talk of ancient weapons, councils of sorcerors and elemental magic all sounds quite plausible to her. After all, Skulduggery is a talking skeleton who can shoot fire from his hands.  

On the run from museum vampires and the malevolent Hollow Men, Skulduggery and Stephanie can count on few allies – such as the tailor-cum-boxer Ghastly Bespoke and London monster-slayer Tanith Low – as a malevolent force sweeps through Dublin’s magical community, threatening to tip the world into a mystical apocalypse. All Stephanie has to do is find the key to a magical artifact that can summon gods, prevent the villain from obtaining it first and try to make sure no one learns her real name – as in the world of magic, names have power. Oh and hide all of this from the watchful eyes of her parents. 

This book is a delight from start to finish. The plot races along, the banter between Stephanie and her undead companion is hilarious and Landy utilises his experience as a black belt in Kenpo to describe some fantastic fight scenes. When detailed descriptions of blocks and kicks don’t suffice, he’ll then have Tanith perform feats such as run along a ceiling to hack at the heads of attackers from above. 

On a related note, I was pleased to hear that Landy practices Kenpo, as when I was just a little nipper in 80′s Ireland I had the pleasure of meeting Ed Parker (and yes, this is a photo of him training Elvis Presley).

On top of being very funny, thrilling and filled with monstrous creatures such as the unstoppable White Cleaver, Landy also throws in some nods and winks to Lovecraft fans. The ‘Faceless Ones’, are a homage to the New England fantasist’s ‘Old Ones’, and are even credited as such  by the book’s antagonist. There is even a hint that Stephanie’s adventures could all be the result of a form of family dementia. Perhaps all of what she is experiencing is a grief-stricken hallucination inspired by Gordon Edgley’s writings. I was briefly reminded of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode Normal Again - an association encouraged by the Buffy-esque Tanith, who shrugs off major wounds and even has a catchphrase ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough, great fun all round.

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