Tag Archives: post-apocalyptic

Visions of a Grim Future in Tim Lebbon’s Still Life

STILL LIFE FINAL COVER2.inddA few years ago, in the course of writing a review of Conrad Williams’ powerful novel One, I declared Williams to be the “king of bleak, the lord of grim.”  After reading Tim Lebbon’s novella Still Life, published by Spectral Press, I’m inclined to say that there’s a new contender for the throne.

Set nearly a decade after an unnamed but seemingly Lovecraftian “enemy” made an “incursion” and conquered the human race, Still Life focuses on a small British village, where the residents are held captive, the village border guarded by deadly creatures and the villagers’ daily activities monitored by the “Finks” — the name given to the traitors recruited by the enemy to help keep the villagers subjugated.

Young widow Jenni is a key character, her husband Marc having been killed in the war against the enemy, although she is seemingly somehow still able to communicate with him from beyond the grave.  In dying, Marc became part of the horrific “road of souls,” as described here:

She saw that endless roadway crossing the land, piercing its borders and wending across plains of dying crops, through valleys where some rivers still ran red, past scattered villages where survivors scraped a meagre existence in what was left after the ruin. Miles long, endless miles, and every part of it made from the shattered and crushed corpses of the vanquished. How many bodies?  was the question she sometimes heard, and the one she was so afraid to ask herself. How many dead do you need to build such a road?

Later, the construction of the road is described vividly:

The piled mass of humanity is ploughed down by huge machines, limbs severed, bodies bursting in rains of blood and flesh. Then come the rollers, giant things that bear immense weight onto the wretched layers of the defeated, crushing them down, squashing, merging men and women, boys and girls, into a complex mess of ruined flesh and bone.

Jenni is recruited by Damien, the leader of the resistance, to take part in an effort to overcome the Finks. What they will do next, if they succeed, is not so clear…but the desire to try and do something, anything, to fight back, is strong.

Still Life is a very compact story, quickly paced and a lightning-fast read.  And, for most of the way, it’s a dark and seemingly hopeless ride…but in end Lebbon provides at least a glimmer for the reader to cling to.

Up All Night With Paul Kane’s Sleeper(s)

sleeper(s)  smaller versionThe publicity materials for Paul Kane’s Sleeper(s) (Crystal Lake Publishing; 184 pgs.; $9.99) compares this short novel to work by John Wyndham and Nigel Kneale, two highly-regarded authors of classic UK-based disaster fiction.  And the allusions don’t stop there — Kane name-checks both Wyndham and Kneale in the text, and events take place in the village of Middletown, which certainly seems to be a play on Wyndham’s Midwich (from The Midwich Cuckoos).

All of this tends to raise one’s expectations a bit — it did for me, at least — and although Sleeper(s) is certainly lean and fast-paced, it ultimately feels a little too formulaic for me to pronounce it to be up to the standards of Messrs. Kneale and Wyndham.  Following the Prologue, the story begins with an ominous first line:

“The disorder presented itself as a mild form of fatigue at first.”

From fatigue, the fast-spreading illness quickly escalates to a sort of sudden-onset narcolepsy, to put it mildly. Before you can say “sweet dreams,” the entire town of Middletown has fallen into apparent comas. The town is quickly quarantined and Dr. Andrew Strauss, a brilliant scientist, is called in by the government to lead the investigation into the affliction.  Strauss is an eccentric character who, it turns out, has been dreaming for years of a specific woman, who’s suddenly telling him (in his dreams) that “it’s time…come quickly!”  The good doctor is quickly convinced that the woman of his dreams awaits him somewhere among the sleepers. Strauss is accompanied by his assistant, Bridget Clarke, who has an obsession of her own — namely Strauss himself.

Attempting to direct Strauss is a cadre of American and British military brass, with UK Major Radford acting as the strung-too-tight wildcard, although his fellow high-ranking officers General Fitzpatrick and Colonel Huxley (the latter being leader of the U.S. forces) are no day at the beach, either.

But all is not as it seems with the dozing villagers of Middletown.  When the expedition team ventures into the land of Nod, they discover that the sleepers, who are now covered with a cobwebby substance, are capable of waking. But when they awake, they show no signs of the individuals they were previously, instead moving like mindless meat puppets controlled by a hive mind.

That sense of a “by-the-numbers” approach that I mentioned earlier applies at times to both plot and character development, as virtually every event is designed to drive the plot forward, with little to no time for subplots, red herrings or the like; and several of the characters seeming rather flimsy and stereotyped — like the aforementioned Major Radford, whose general theatrics and love of war seem over-the-top, and British soldier Timms, whose hatred of the U.S. in general, and one American soldier in particular, likewise feels forced.

Sleeper(s) features wonderful cover art by Ben Baldwin and a nicely-crafted Introduction by David Moody, who closes with this:

“Read Sleeper(s), then ask yourself, do I have as much control over my life as I think I do? Are you really your own master, or are you just a pawn.”

Personally, I’ve read other work by Kane that I’ve enjoyed more than Sleeper(s), but if you’re a fan of fast-paced disaster fiction, this novel may well be a good choice for you. It’s not a winner in the way of Wyndham, but you could call it a near-miss kneeling at the altar of Kneale.