Sunday, January 16, 2011

Zombie Apocalypse!

I don't like zombies.

There aren't many monsters about which I'd make that kind of blanket statement.  I like ghosts.  A lot of the time I like vampires.  Werewolves have their moments.  Mummies... You know, I can't think of a single mummy story I've ever read.  There must have been at least one, but nothing comes to mind.  I don't dislike the idea of mummies, anyway.  But zombies.  Zombies bore me.

That doesn't mean I've never liked a zombie short story.  In fact, I can name five I've admired, right off the top of my head.  "Granny's Grinning" by Robert Shearman, "Wake-Up Call" by David J. Schow, "Nvumbi" by Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem, "The End of Everything" by Steve Eller, and... and....

Note to self: go back and change "five" in the previous paragraph to "four."

Anyway, the point is that I don't hate zombie fiction on sight.  The reason so much of it bores me is that of all horror monsters, zombies seem to me to offer the least potential for innovation.  They are, in the vast majority of stories, brainless, so how much can a writer do with them?  Obviously there are ways around that: each of the stories I mentioned above does something new, either with the zombies themselves or with the humans around them.  That's what I want from a zombie story: a novel way of looking at the concept.

All of which is by way of saying that I am probably not the best person to review Stephen Jones's recent anthology Zombie Apocalypse!  I picked it up based on the names of some of the contributors (Michael Marshall Smith, Tanith Lee, Kim Newman, etc.) and on Jones's deserved reputation as a top-notch editor.  I hadn't realized, however, how thoroughly the book's central conceit had been implemented.  As the cover copy says, this "epic story" is "told through a series of interconnected eyewitness narratives-- text messages, e-mails, blogs, letters, diaries, and transcripts."  Not only that, but each page is made to look like the narrative it includes.  If it's a handwritten diary entry, it appears handwritten, on a lined piece of notebook paper.  If it's a collection of Tweets, it looks like a printout of a Twitter feed.  The authors and story titles aren't even given on the first page of each story; for that information, you have to turn to the copyright page at the back.

In evaluating this approach, it's tempting to make comparisons with Max Brooks's World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, which also dealt with a global zombie outbreak via a series of personal accounts, though that was a single-author book and didn't try to mimic the layouts of its various narrative strands.  But I'm not going to go down that road, both because it's been a while since I read World War Z (at least two-and-a-half years), and because I don't think comparison would necessarily be revealing.  What I will say is that the existence of World War Z, and the ongoing resurgence of zombie fiction launched by Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Beating A Joke into the Ground, only increased the need for Zombie Apocalypse! to bring something new to the table.  And that, unfortunately, is where I felt the book fell flat.

Before I get to that, though, a few thoughts about the epistolary structure.  Many first person narratives are simply unrefined description of events, straight from the mind of the protagonist, rather than "real," refined written records or monologues.  Therefore, exposition, unnecessary detail, writerly asides, can all be explained by the conventions of fiction.  Something that presents itself as an actual document, however, doesn't have that luxury.  And the need for realism becomes all the more pressing when you mimic the actual format of the document itself.  The stories in Zombie Apocalypse! sometimes manage this, but more often they feel strained and unlikely.  I had particular problems with Robert Hood's "Wasting Matilda," in which the zombies reach Australia.  The bulk of the story is a transcript of a transmission received from a pilot after her plane crash.  With occasional pauses for a drink of water, she talks for 24 straight pages, remembering exact quotes from people she met and offering philosophical asides.  It doesn't help that she talks in implausible sentences like "The horror of these plague victims was making me physically ill" and "Faced by these utterly unnatural creatures-- the abysmal absence in their eyes, the inhumanity that threatens all the long-held notions you've ever had of the sanctity of life, the absolute nature of death and the stability of the existential world-- any pretense to notions of heroic action simply drain away."

Beside the inherent problem of realism in this format is the issue of gimmickry.  After I started to feel that too much attention had been paid to coming up with new media to co-opt.  Tweets and text messages and e-mails and a webcam transcript and and home-made video transcripts and...  It can seem too flashily clever and modern.  But I could look past these complaints if the book as a whole had something deeper to offer.  But I don't think it did.  Too many stories showcase a flat stock character (a silly teenage girl, a zombie nerd, a horny Twitter user) and throw zombies at him or her.  And the ending is almost always the same, which means that underneath its play with forms the book is quite repetitive.  The best sections are the earlier ones, as the zombie menace slowly reveals itself.  Because they're not dodging brain-eaters, the characters have more space to reveal themselves as characters with histories and personalities.  However, here as elsewhere they're often reduced to types.  This is the opening to Sarah Pinborough's "Diary Entry #1":
OMG! I'm 13. Finally! At last! A teenager!! I wonder if I look any different? I sooo feel different, even if I'm not having a great big grown-up party like Emma Bolton and Charlotte Partridge had last month. (Joint of course, cos like the Barbies could ever do anything apart???) I don't even really want a huge party but if I had one I wouldn't invite them anyway cos they never invited me to theirs even though they invited George-- but that was probably just to get Alex to go. (Alex-- sigh.)
That's cute enough, although a little goes a long way, but instead of an actual teenager's diary, it feels like the distilled cultural notion of the Teen Girl Diary.  Likewise, the zombie nerd who writes the blog in Lisa Morton's "They're Coming to Get You!" is a young wiseass with a lot of knowledge and girlfriend problems.  Not quite groundbreaking. In a movie, brought to life by an actor with specific mannerisms, he'd be an interesting character, but on the page he falls flat.  Peter Atkins satirizes Hollywood in "The Show Must Go On," but it's the same kind of Hollywood satire that's been on offer for years now (liberties with the facts! brainless action films with lame one-liners! and the great whipping boy of 21st-century pop culture, reality TV!), amusing but a little stale.

I don't mean to suggest that I disliked all the stories in Zombie Apocalypse!  Christopher Fowler's "Dead Ground Zero," which details a lone scholar's desperate attempts to warn the British government that its plan to dig up an ancient cemetery is a Very Bad Idea, was fun and subtly spooky, and Paul Finch's "Special Powers" made good use of the police-report format to control paced and create tension.  (It's pulled down a bit though by its one-dimensional antagonist, an authoritarian careerist who's also cheating on his wife, just in case we hadn't understood that he was the bad guy.  Part of the context for the zombie outbreak is an increasingly controlling UK government, which is a very real issue but which is treated throughout the book in ways that make Avatar seem nuanced.)  And there's my personal favorite, "The Reign of Santa Muerte" by Mark Samuels, which offers the last ever broadcast of a Mexico City radio station, as its reporters investigate rumors of a pseudo-Catholic zombie cult in the barrio of Tepito. 

But even these fine stories don't stand out as they should, because of the overall sameness of Zombie Apocalypse!  In nearly every story, the zombies reach a new location and we learn via a new narrative format how they overwhelmed it.  The characters whose lives they disrupt have some depth, but not enough to make me care whether they live, or die, or die, and then come back to life hungry for brains.

Despite these causes of dissatisfaction, I have to concede that Zombie Apocalypse! works well on the level it's aiming for.  Most of the stories are well-written, the epistolary structure makes for a quick, engaging read, and there are a few nice moments of brain-crunching, monster-crushing terror.  For fans who can't get enough of the zombie menace, I'd strongly recommend this book.  Those who are less enthusiastic about the undead may want to proceed more cautiously, but will probably find something to enjoy here as well.

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