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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

“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.

There’s something about your own name in someone else’s handwriting that gives you an instant blip of recognition, even when you meet it in unusual circumstances. And this certainly counted as unusual in my book. For one thing, it was written backwards, from right to left: but then, that was because it had been written on the inside of the car windscreen, by someone sitting in the driver’s seat. More strikingly, it was written in blood.

When I first read Mike Carey’s The Devil You Know I was pleased with his mixture of Chandlerisms and references to Vertigo Comic’s John Constantine, with protagonist Felix Castor also a Scouser with paranormal abilities. Thankfully Carey was able to go further with his own literary sandbox, introducing themes and ideas that might not have gone over to well with DC editors looking to develop further sequels to the mediocre Constantine film. The three titles in the series preceding the subject of today’s review are fast-moving supernatural thrillers, with Felix Castor a sometime-exorcist by trade, trying to make a living in a post-Millennium London that is teaming with werewolves, zombies, demons and ghosts.

This book quickly introduces the status quo, without leaving new readers lost. I would recommend reading Castor’s previous adventures, just to get a feel for the universe Carey has fashioned, as well as the excellent supporting cast.

Thicker Than Water opens with a daring heist, of sorts, with Castor and his partner Juliet (a succubus whose actual name is Ajulutsikael, but that’s not important right now) absconding from a private hospital with a very special patient. Some years ago Castor botched an exorcism involving his friend Rafael Ditko, which body was then transformed into a cell for a very powerful demon named Asmodeus. For years Castor has played a game of brinkmanship with the creature, managing to keep it sedated for brief periods so that Ditko can enjoy some peace. Until that is word got around about the powerful demon trapped in a human’s body and a court order was issued releasing him into the custody of old rival’s of Castor’s, who dearly wish to see what makes a creature such as Asmodeus tick.

After everything seems to go according to plan, Castor tries to lie low. Ditko is safely stashed away at a friend’s househouse. His landlord Pen gets to visit her old boyfriend for a conjugal visit or two while the demon is slumbering. And his buddy Nicky, the paranoid zombie, has invited him around to watch a private screening of Blade Runner in his own restored cinema. Then everything goes wrong fast.

Castor is implicated in the stabbing of a man named Kenny Seddon. Not only did he grow up with the victim in Liverpool, the severely wounded man managed to write the exorcist’s name in his own blood at the crime scene. As a suspect Castor is ordered to stay at home for questioning, but suspecting a fit-up, he returns to investigate Seddon’s home at Salisbury estate, a vast perpendicular warren of tower flats and narrow over-passes. There he discovers a malign, vicious miasma of evil, infecting the ordinary families living in the towers with a thirst for blood and violence. Somehow it is all connected to Felix and his childhood. And only Asmodeus knows what it wants.

First off this book is a great leap in quality from the preceding entries. I enjoyed them for what they were, but thought the formula was beginning to wear a bit thin. Carey has positioned all his pieces nicely for this book, allowing for greater depth with a more personal touch entering the proceedings. Castor’s childhood and his relationship with his brother Matt the priest is dwelled upon, we learn more about the nature of demons, adding to the already impressive world-building of the series and his rivalry with the demon Asmodeus finally comes to the fore.

New characters are introduced, including a zombie with a woman’s voice and a team of Catholic exorcists with fewer qualms about eliminating souls than Castor. The overall feel of the book is that of a more pop-culture literate William Blatty, with a fine line in Scouse banter. There’s even a dig at Blair-era Labour cynicism, as well as themes relating to adolescent self-harm.

Castor’s the kind of bloke you’d enjoy having a pint with, but would never want to owe a favour to. Check out this series and enjoy his company – from a distance.

Just as he was about to shut the window, he caught sight of a group of people charging up the street. Three women leading five or six men. They were half-naked and running like maniacs, but the main thing was, they were blue. Really blue blue, like zombies in a cheesy horror movie. It was sick. Their mouths were wide open, and their eyes were black and bugging out of their heads.

Ok lets just stop for a moment. Have you seen the name of the author in this post’s title? Walter Greatshell? What an awesome name! I picked up the book just so I could claim to have read something by a writer with that name.

Now the title itself was a cause for concern. Yes the marauding undead creatures in this book are referred to as ‘Xombies’, but then I did enjoy Charlie Huston‘s vampire series, with its own attendant neologism – vampyres. Then there’s ‘Apocalypticon’ – it sounds like a bargain bin video game. But I put these concerns aside for you, dear blog reader, for I felt the need to bring you word of Walter Greatshell.

Of course I quickly realized this is actually the second in a series of novels. The background to the plot is quickly established in the opening chapters. An engineered virus named Agent X has swept the world (hence ‘X’ombies) and human civilization is in ruins. Sal DeLuca is one of a dwindling number of civilian refugees aboard a submarine approaching the East Coast of the United States. His father died trying to make sure his son was given safe passage on board, but now the teenager has new problems. With the vessel’s commander isolated by a mutinous crew, the ‘non-essential’, passengers, mostly adolescent boys like Sal, are rounded up and sent ashore to forage for food. If they survive they will have proved themselves useful.

There are no women on board the submarine, apart from the sinister scientist Alice Langhorne. She was involved with the experimentations that led to the creation of Agent X. She worked with its creator, Uri Miska, even helped cover up the initial outbreak of the contagion, which was originally intended as an elixir dispensed by the Mogul Cooperative to those that could afford it. Eternal life and rule over the entire world. It all went wrong though and an experimental version of the serum got loose, targeting women and transforming them through a process of asphyxiation into undead Xombies. Alice Langhorne has another ace up her sleeve though, the sole remaining leverage left to her. An intelligent Xombie, the blue-skinned girl known as Lulu, who can command and pacify the marauding hordes on land. Through her Alice might even find a cure for the contagion, that is if she is truly interested in saving what remains of the human race.

This book is quite unusual. I really had a hard time making my mind up about it at first. It begins with a flashback to the beginnings of the outbreak, a useful introduction for those who had not read Xombies: Apocalypse Blues. Greatshell describes an odd scene of prison convicts playing poker in the middle of a rodeo, for the entertainment of locals. Then all hell breaks loose as blue-skinned teenage girls begin assaulting and choking the people in the audience. What am I reading, I thought to myself? Is this some kind of misogynist tract?

Perhaps on the surface it seems that way, but Greatshell has broader ambitions. There are references to Greek myth throughout – female Xombies are referred to as Harpies, or Maenads at times – and the terrified men on board the submarine quickly turn mutinous, attacking one another instead of focusing on survival. There’s a scene with Langhorne and a senior military officer were he notes she is taller than him, older than him and possesses more natural authority than him. I am not sure whether the novel’s themes are a reaction against sexism, or appealing to an outright fear of women. Either way it’s an interesting counterpoint to the macho canon of militaristic sf/horror.

Yes the prose is quite purplish at times and the quotations from a supposed official account of the Xombie epidemic that open the early chapters lack that clarity of language that made Max BrooksWorld War Z so convincing. Still I can’t help but admire the book for doing something interesting with zombie tropes.

A most curious horror novel.

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