After the World – Volume 1 & 2- Novella Review
‘Killable Hours’ by Clay Blakehills, and ‘Gravesend’, by Jason Fischer — volumes 1 and 2 of a new zombie fiction series published by Black House Comics
Is anybody ever going to publish a definitive ‘zombie’ story, or is the whole brain-eating, shambling, undead thing essentially a movie trope? It’s a good question, and if anyone is going to provide an answer, I think it’s likely to come through the new ‘After The World’ series of novellas from Black House Comics.
The books are small — about sixty A5 pages — and inexpensively produced, stapled at the spine, with glossy covers featuring gory illustrations which would have done justice to the legendary EC comics of the ‘50s. An equally inexpensive $5.00 cover price makes them a bargain for readers of horror and action: quick to pick up, easy to read through in one decent session. Absolutely the perfect air-travel fare.
And the contents?
I’ve been given the first two issues for review purposes. The plan from Black House seems to be about getting a range of writers each to create their own ‘take’ on a world over-run by the aforementioned brain-hungry types. While the undead are pretty much your classic slow, shambling, flesh-eating zombies whose bite can infect the living, what is actually interesting and original about this series is the fact that the world of the narrative is a shared one. That is, the novella ‘Killable Hours’ by Clay Blakehills is set in Melbourne at the beginning of the outbreak, but Jason Fischer’s novella ‘Gravesend’ is set in England of the same imaginary world, some months after the outbreak has really taken hold. In this way, I imagine that Black House intend to create a greater arc of story, like all the best forms of serial narrative. How will it turn out? I have no idea, but to judge by the first two books, it will be fun finding out.
The two books couldn’t be more different in tone. In ‘Killable Hours,’ Blakehill is clearly riffing off the classic movies. The entire story unfolds over the course of a single afternoon or so, in a law office in an inner-city Melbourne high-rise. Terry Daniels is a young law clerk, midway through his term at Walters Kendall, and more than a little ambivalent about his future as a lawyer. In keeping with his youth, he’s something of a cipher, a character not yet fully developed. His point of view is clear and well-maintained, punctuated by pop culture references and just enough hipster cynicism to make young Terry a sympathetic protagonist.
The best thing about Terry is that he’s not actually stupid, and it’s this aspect of his character which Blakehill plays up in his riff on zombie mythology. Clearly, Terry has seen All The Right Movies. When the dead start to rise (and they do so with astonishing rapidity) he doesn’t panic or dither. Instead, he grabs the nearest heavy, blunt instrument and starts looking for a place to hole up. And really, that’s about it for the storyline — because clearly, Clay Blakehill has also seen All The Right Movies. He has plenty of fun subverting zombie-movie stereotypes and cliches. He takes an evident delight in action, violence, and an acceptable degree of gore. He creates enough sympathy for his protagonists to develop suspense as they struggle to escape the building and find safety — in fact, in all ways, he does a pretty good job of replicating the Romero zombie-flick experience in print.
But is that really the way to go? Does recreating the zombie movie in print form provide for the zombie-lover the kind of satisfaction that Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, or even Rice’s ‘Interview With The Vampire’ gave to the fang-hags? To be honest, I can’t say. I find Romero’s movies (particularly the original and in my opinion, the best) interesting, but not particularly engaging. For me, it’s a case of ‘seen one, seen ‘em all’ — and thus, for me ‘Killable Hours’ is nothing special. Fast-moving, well-written and entertaining, but it holds nothing I haven’t seen in one form or another on the screen already.
Jason Fischer’s ‘Gravesend’, on the other hand, is a far more recognisably ‘literate’ work. The zombies are still there, along with the gore and the action and the violence, but the structure is that of a true book, rather than a movie. Tamsyn Webb is a school-age girl now living in a fortified compound in the town of Gravesend, in Kent. She’s got issues of her own, what with having lost her mother in a car accident, and growing up in a single-parent family is obviously a hell of a lot harder in a world where the dead are constantly trying to break in and eat everyone you know.
Gravesend is a postapocalyptic siege city. The city’s defenses are jerry-rigged, and must constantly be observed and patrolled. The numbers of the dead outside are constantly increasing. Supplies are hard to come by, and the morale of the motley group inside the walls is fraying fast. Against this dark backdrop, Fischer offers an effective, character-driven coming-of-age story in which Tamsyn must overcome the expectations of all those around her, and defeat her own inner demons before she can move on.
The action and horror are still there, and the story moves at a fine pace. However, this is clearly a book, not simply a printed-page rendering of a zombie movie. Characters have distinct and powerful personalities and motivations, and go through very real arcs of development as the story unfolds to a conclusion both eminently satisfying, and still gratifyingly open.
The contrast between the two books is fascinating. Bringing a true novellist’s sensibility to the zombie story, Fischer’s writing appeals to the dedicated reader while still reaching out to the horror film fan. Blakehills, on the other hand, brings us in close to the black jokes, the grotesque visuals and the crushing, relentless pace of the zombie movie, sacrificing the deeper complexities of character and theme which usually sustain an interesting book in the process.
I don’t think either of the two has yet created the definitive Zombie novel, but both books are entertaining, and Fischer’s has enough genuinely literary chops to provide some real depth to this high-concept backdrop. The question remains: can a fundamentally cinematic trope such as the zombie ever really be more than ‘just a setting’ inside printed fiction? Are we ever going to be able to engage with zombies as characters, in the fashion done so effectively with vampires, or are they doomed to remain brain-sucking, flesh-gnawing bits of (re-) animated scenery?
Keep an eye on the ‘After The World’ series, and you may just find out.
Both novellas are available from www.blackboox.net
You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
Both comments and pings are currently closed.