Tag Archives: zombies

Michael Marshall Smith’s Everything You Need… and Some Things You Won’t Forget

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I’ve been singing the praises of Michael Marshall Smith’s short fiction for longer than I care to remember and, given how relatively little work he does at shorter lengths, the appearance of a collection of his work is reason to celebrate.  Everything You Need (Earthling Publications; 280 pages; 1,000 signed copies; $45), his first collection since 2003, is one of those infrequent reasons.  The book gathers 17 stories, with six published here for the first time.

Smith has a knack for taking relatively simple situations and casting them as symbolic of more macroscopic issues, and representative of situations that most, if not all, of us will face. Take, for example, “This is Now,” wherein a group of men, longtime small-town friends just beginning to grow a little long in the tooth, reminisce about a night in their youth, when they forced their way into a secured area (the nature of which is both fascinating and frightening) and barely escaped with their lives. Not surprisingly, they’re moved to try and breach that barrier again in an attempt to recapture their youth. In one character’s simple reflection, Smith manages to capture a universal sentiment for everyone over a certain age:

“As I looked now through the fence at the other forest I was thinking how long a decade had seemed back then, and how you could learn that it was no time at all.”

In a way, both “Walking Wounded” and “Different Now” are about definitive moments in relationships.  In the former, a past experience begins to physically haunt protagonist Richard, leading him back to a former residence that was the site of said experience, while the latter centers on a couple’s argument that spirals out of control, leading one to walk out and leaving the other to try and pick up the pieces in a world that has literally been broken by their break-up.

There are a couple zombie stories (nearly requisite these days) to be found in these pages, but you wouldn’t expect Smith’s takes on the sub-genre to be perfunctory, and these certainly are not.  “The Last Barbeque” is related as a description and transcription of a video that  records two men preparing for a barbecue at a strangely-deserted lakeside location, while “The Things He Said” concerns a solitary man in a remote cabin, reminiscing about his father while detailing his rigid daily schedule.  Both are stories are unveiled in layers, with their true nature not revealed until the innermost levels are reached.

It’s possible that one of the reasons I like “Unnoticed” so much is because of its locale, just a few miles from me, but there’s much more to like in this tale of a man who suddenly notices a building in his neighborhood, with a strange automobile from yesteryear (but…not quite) that’s somehow been shoehorned into the building lobby.  Sometimes, when we tend not to see things…it’s safer that way.  The setting for “Sad, Dark Thing” is even closer to my house, and the story is even better, involving a man on a Sunday drive in the Santa Cruz mountains, who stumbles upon what seems to be an extremely low-rent, and half-assed tourist attraction, but which turns out to house an extraordinary, if very dark, find.

Melancholy would be the word I’d use to describe much of “The Good Listener,” although this story of a son tracing his deceased father’s final steps, which include a mysterious missing period of time, is ultimately redemptive.  The son’s thoughts about the gap in his father’s history represents one of Smith’s best passages:

“I’m happy for the hole to remain. I no longer feel the need to fill it. There have always been silences in the world, and that’s the way it should be. There should be gaps. Sometimes it’s in those moments of silence, of dead air, that the meaningful things happen. It’s good we have things listening to all our stories now, keeping track of everything we have been and done.

It’s even better if, like the best listeners, they turn a deaf ear from time to time.”

Speaking of exceptional passages, although “The Woodcutter” is not one of my favorite stories in the collection, it does contain another prime example of Smith capturing a universal truth in a few sentences:

“He knew himself well enough to know that this was a bad idea, however. It was this kind of impulse that had gotten him here in the first place, a tendency to grow tired of one kind of life, of its hierarchies and constraints and rituals, and to think he could flip tracks. It didn’t work… Sometimes when Spike spent afternoons killing time in bookstores he wanted to go up and tap the shoulders of the people earnestly browsing the Self-Help section and tell them this fact, that they should give up on the idea of change and try to make friends with who they were before they did something dumb and fucked up what they had.”

The last story I want to call out is “What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night,” a deliciously dark (literally) tale, in which a family of three wakes up in the middle of the night to find themselves trapped in an unfamiliar, pitch-black room, with no exits.

In the publicity notes for this collection, Earthling Press publisher Paul Miller says:

“A decade ago, my press was privileged to publish Mike’s last collection, which was hailed as ‘stellar’ by Publishers Weekly and a ‘major publishing event’ by Ellen Datlow… As strong as that collection was, I believe this one is even better.”

My first thought was that, no, this is not a better collection than that previous collection, More Tomorrow and Other Stories… not even close, really, because Smith was still in his short fiction heyday ten years ago, and has mostly concentrated on novels since then, and the lack of focus on short fiction would have to be evident in this collection.

But.

But.

As I skimmed back through these stories and reviewed my notes in order to write this review, I had no choice but to acknowledge that this is in fact one helluva collection. I still don’t think that I can declare it better than More Tomorrow, but it’s definitely in the same league.

In short, Michael Marshall Smith is one of our very best authors of short dark speculative fiction, period. It’s a shame that he doesn’t write more at shorter lengths.  Bracketed with fantastic art by Vincent Chong and capped by Smith’s highly engaging story notes, Everything You Need is definitely something you need.

Brett McBean’s The Awakening is an eye-opening read

I try to review as many titles as my time allows.   My desire to be as prolific as I can be means that I have a natural affinity for shorter works… and, conversely, a slight tendency to avoid longer works.  It’s thus probably no surprise that I sighed deeply when Brett McBean’s novel The Awakening landed in my mailbox with a resounding thud.  Beautifully produced by Tasmaniac Publications in a signed, limited edition (200 copies) hardcover, and featuring striking cover art by Erin Wells and an insightful introduction by Ray Garton, The Awakening weighs in at a hefty 470 pages.

Although Tasmaniac is an Australia-based publisher and McBean is an Australian author, The Awakening is almost completely all-American, with the only exception being a character from Haiti.  But more on him in a minute.  Operating in a milieu that has to be largely foreign to him, McBean does a remarkably good job rendering small-town USA in this coming-of-age tale.  I noticed a small handful of mistakes in language use, but for the most part, McBean nails it.

The story is set in a typical Midwestern town and revolves around 14-year-old Toby Fairchild, his best friend, Frankie, and the object of Toby’s affections, Gloria.  Determined to enjoy their last summer before the trials of high school begin, Toby and Frankie are on the cusp of growing up, torn between lingering childhood interests and burgeoning teen obsessions.  But summer has barely begun before a traumatic attack destroys their idyll.  Toby has no memory of the incident, but he at least finds some solace from the fact that he develops a relationship with Gloria in the wake of the attack.

The other person with whom Toby subsequently develops a bond is the aforementioned non-American – his reclusive neighbor, Mr. Joseph , a Haitian immigrant.  As Toby gets to know Mr. Joseph, he learns that the rumors and prejudice surrounding the old man are unfair, while at the same time discovering that the world is a much bigger, and stranger, place than he realized.  And, although it sounds cliché, Toby also discovers that monsters are real, but their identity is far different than what he’d supposed.

So what about my initial, at-first-sight impression that this book is too long?  Well, even though the story is compelling, and the characters extremely well-developed, the fact remains that precious little happens in the first half of the book, and many dialog-heavy scenes extend beyond what’s really necessary.  Although these lengthy scenes do serve to further cement our perceptions of Toby and Frankie, they do so at the price of narrative momentum.  Don’t get me wrong – every time I had to set aside The Awakening, I found myself eager to return to the unexpected twists and turns found within its pages.  But the book would have been even stronger if there were a few less of those pages.

A final note: unfortunately – although fortunately for the publisher – The Awakening sold out prior to publication, so tracking down a copy may prove problematic.

Breathing New Life Into Zombie Fiction — Mason James Cole’s Pray To Stay Dead and Bryon Morrigan’s Acheron

The zombie fiction onslaught shows no signs of abating as of yet, and there are only so many times that one can read a slight (if that) variation on the same theme before it starts to feel tired, if not outright…dead. Fortunately, not every author who’s penning a zombie novel these days is dragging out the mouldering approach. Two cases in point are Mason James Cole’s Pray To Stay Dead and Bryon Morrigan’s Acheron, each of which offer something fresh in the realm of the rotting dead.

On the surface, Cole’s novel, which comes courtesy of Creeping Hemlock’s Print is Dead imprint, might sound pretty run-of-the-mill, as a variety of characters suddenly find themselves living in a post–zombie-apocalypse world: five friends on a road trip to Lake Tahoe, a feuding older couple running a small store on the road to Tahoe, a war veteran and long-haul trucker seeking to make his way back to his daughter in New Mexico, and a backwoods clan/cult led by a patriarch whose religious fervor is outweighed only by his hypocrisy.

Three things, however, make Pray To Stay Dead stand out:

  • The 1974 setting, which adds interest, especially the references to the Cold War, Watergate, President NIxon and other touchstones that serve to capture the zeitgeist of that era.
  • The inhumanity displayed by several characters to their fellow man, which at times makes the zombies’ empty-headed hunger seem tame by comparison.
  • The characters, who are sufficiently well-drawn to generate reader empathy.

Among those characters, the characters seeking survive the zombie siege in the small store are particularly interesting, as wife Misty, her estranged husband Crate (who’s been living as an exile in a shack behind the store), and her adopted lover Charles form three points of an odd triangle, with emotions and positions shifting significantly during the course of the story, as the stress of the situation naturally brings out the worst in some.

Along the way, Cole makes some interesting observations, such as comparing the naked, morbid curiosity of many onlookers during the Vietnam era with the hunger of the living dead:

“…it was pretty damned obvious: she wanted to know if he’d killed anyone, and if, how many; and what did it look like, feel like, smell like? He saw here eyes crawl over his body, scavenging for overlooked scars. Everyone was a ghoul, eager to rip the bones from the dirt and see if there was anything wet left to suck out. Everyone wanted to hear about the bad stuff, about the brains popping and the blood flying. This had once surprised and disappointed him.”

The above passage may be the first time in P2SD that Cole contrasts the living with the dead, but it’s far from the last. Combine such trenchant observations with engaging characters and an offbeat setting, and you’ve got a recipe for a zombie revival. Cole is apparently the pseudonym of a conservative Utah resident who’d like to keep his authoring alter ego under wraps. Here’s hoping he allows his dark writer side to emerge again soon.

Bryon Morrigan’s Acheron, which is published by zombie specialist Permuted Press, employs an equally offbeat milieu — it’s set in Iraq and literally starts with a bang when Captain Nathan Leathers’ small convoy is hit by an IED that leaves several members of the convoy dead and Leathers captured by apparent insurgents. When a series of earth-shaking tremors and explosions, punctuated by some strange, unidentifiable noises, serve to open an escape route for Leathers, he emerges from his subterranean cell to find a city enshrouded in green mist… and when he explores the mist, he finds it hides not only the walking dead but an assortment of other strange creatures as well.

A chance meeting with an Iraqui who Leathers nicknames Muhammad ends up saving the Captain’s life and leading to his meeting several other survivors, both Iraqui and American, holed up in the new Iraqui Police headquarters. Included among those survivors are some archeologists, who describe what they believe to be the source of the supernatural events, and a small group of American private security/mercanaries, who provide the man vs. man tension and subplot, similar to the encounters seen in Cole’s novel.

Acheron is related via eighty-six short, punchy chapters, a staccato style that matches well with the action-driven plot. This novel is loosely connected to Morrigan’s earlier book The Desert, and it’s apparent that the author has improved his craft fairly considerably since the first book. The occasional awkward passages and stilted dialog that detracted from The Desert are almost non-existent here, and character development is noticably stronger. Morrigan’s style is fairly vanilla, so it’s plotting, and pacing that have to carry the day and fortunately they manage to do just that. The tale closes with an indication that a true sequel will follow, a development that I look forward to, given Morrigan’s ability to combine war and horror into an action-packed thriller.

Going Southard

I reviewed Nate Southard’s He Went Through a while ago, and my very favorable impressions of that chapbook led me to search out more Southard, which brings me to two recent titles — Scavengers and This Little Light of Mine.

Let’s start with Scavengers, one of the first wave of titles from the zombie-focused Print Is Dead, an imprint of Creeping Hemlock Press. Scavengers is an expansion of a graphic novel, A Trip to Rundberg, which Southard earlier scripted. In his Acknowledgments, Southard states “The first two drafts of this novel were written in just over a week.” It wouldn’t be fair to say that the pace at which the book was written is evident in the finished product, but it is fair to say, I think, that expanding the story to novel length may be stretching it a bit beyond the plot’s comfortable limits.

Scavengers starts out seeming like your standard-issue “survival in a post-zombie-apocalypse world” story, with the only question being who, if anyone, will survive. The plot focuses on the plight of the small midwestern town of Millwood, which is a relatively safe outpost, but one that’s rapidly running out of food. Faced with the prospect of slow starvation, the town elects to send a scavenger party of five — three of whom are selected via lottery — to a supermarket in the neighboring town of Rundberg, which is believed to be overrun by zombies. Not surprisingly, the ragtag group is ill-prepared for the ghoulish gauntlet that awaits them.

Featured foremost among the quintet are Blake Ellis, an honorable young man forced to leave behind the woman he’s come to love, and Chris Stevenson, who, to be blunt, is an asshole of world-class proportions. In fact, it’s borderline unbelievable just what a jerk Stevenson is, even in light of what we eventually learn about his past. His behavior, and the other characters’ reactions, at times grows tedious, as there are only so many times that one can read variations on passages like the following:

“[Blake] breathed deep and swallowed the urge to jerk an elbow into the bridge of Stevenson’s nose. The smug prick was really beginning to work his last nerve.”

I feel ya, Blake, I feel ya. Similarly, the characters’ numerous narrow escapes from the hordes of zombies roaming Rundberg start to feel a bit repetitive, with the scenes becoming less tense and almost tiresome.

I’m afraid I’m sounding a bit too harsh, though — it’s not as if Scavengers doesn’t have some redeeming features. For example, the first two-thirds of the story, before the repetition creeps in, features some strong drama and ever-ratcheting tension. And it’s worth noting that, even though flashbacks can often detract from the pace of an action-oriented story like this one, Southard does a great job keeping his backward glances brief, making them informative without being unwelcome interruptions. Finally, there’s a chillingly inventive death scene crafted for one of the characters, and a grimly downbeat ending shortly after that — an upbeat ending would have seemed more than a little incongruous, so kudos to Southard for embracing his dark side.

All in all, Scavengers was a bit of a mixed bag for me, but zombie zealots will likely find much to appreciate.

Much more impressive is Southard’s This Little Light of Mine, a novella from Burning Effigy Press that benefits from wicked pacing sans padding, and features a refreshingly different type of menace. Set entirely in the claustrophobic confines of a parking garage that collapses in the opening scene, the plot focuses on two survivors trapped in the ruins of the garage. Protagonist Brandon is determinedly optimistic and intent on escaping and seeing his wife again, while insurance executive Clair is a bitch on her best days (Southard seems to have a penchant for deploying highly unlikable characters); not surprisingly, the overwhelming fear and stress of the situation brings out her worst.

Literally cloaked in darkness, choked by dust and ringed by rubble, Brandon and Clair struggle to stay calm and keep hope alive. Buried in the underground garage, there’s of course no cell phone signal available, but Brandon finds a hide-a-key on one of the nearby cars, and using the car’s radio is able to tune in a signal from what seems to be the only radio station on the air.

The radio announcer describes nationwide earthquakes and mass devastation, and then Southard twists the knife a little further by having the announcer add:

“Looks like the peanut gallery has decided to join in on the fun, guys and gals,” the man said. “Got reports from all over the damn place now. Ghouls and goblins or whatever coming out of the ground. Just ignore the bullshit, folks. Take care of yourselves and each other. I’ll stay on until they shut me down.”

There’s initially a third, unconscious victim trapped in the garage — Joe, a friend of Clair’s — but as they try to sleep at the end of their first day in the garage, Brandon shuts off the car’s headlights in order to save the battery…and later awakes to the sound of Clair’s screams and the sight of Joe’s eviscerated corpse. It seems the stories of creatures coming out of the underground are not just stories, and that Brandon and Clair’s predicament has gotten even worse.

Weighing in at 52 shuddering, skittering pages, This Little Light of Mine is a riveting read.