I just read: The Fireman

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-11-02-42-pmLet me start by saying that I loved Joe Hill’s book Horns. It was definitely in my top-five books for the year that I read it (2013? 2014?). It was the perfect horror novel, with all the right tropes and a few good twists and deviations in plot structure. Any time a horror/paranormal novel clocks in at over 400 pages, I expect it to be a bit too sprawling. I think the best spooky novels are oftentimes fairly short-and-sweet. But Horns had just that right amount of ‘sprawl’ to it. It bounced back and forth through some classic coming-of-age flashbacks; established a good mystery with some solid red-herrings; established a great, unique villain; and set up the reader for some devastatingly heartbreaking moments. Awesome.

On the other hand, Hill’s latest horror novel, The Fireman, left me with mixed emotions. It’s over 700 pages long, so I can definitely say it felt too long. There’s a lot of stuff stuffed into this book. (OK, not my most well-crafted sentence.) A plague, a near-apocalyptic setting, a psycho ex, escaped convicts, a ghost, a potential psychic, sci-fi exposition involving brain chemistry, a religious cult, a murder mystery, two or three secondary mysteries, a budding romance, car chases and gun fights, whew!

Here’s the basic premise (which definitely drew me in): humanity is being decimated by a plague of spontaneous combustion. The plague is caused by a fungal spore called Dragonscale. The Dragonscale grows on skin in glittering black patterns, like tattoos, but those pretty tattoo patterns can burst into flame when the infected feel stressed. The story follows a recently infected (and recently impregnated) nurse named Harper Grayson.

In the first act of the novel, we follow Harper, seeing the beginnings of the outbreak through her eyes. Hill establishes another great villain in Harper’s husband. He starts off seeming fairly nice, but quickly we see how self-centered, misogynistic, and brittle he can be, especially once Harper becomes infected. Harper makes like Julia Roberts in Sleeping With the Enemy, and we’re off to ‘Act Two!’

This is where the story became too bloated, in my mind. Harper falls in with a tight-knit community of Dragonscalers who have found a way to tame their infection—to stave off a fiery death. I wanted to skim through parts of this section, which introduced over a dozen characters. Too benign, too boring. Too many corny references to Mary Poppins, 80’s music, and MTV VJ Martha Quinn (Martha Quinn?!? Really?) But of course this is Hill building up a sense of complacency. Just as Harper’s husband revealed his dark side, eventually her new friends show their ugly sides.

My favorite part of this section is Hill’s sci-fi explanations of how the spore interacts with the minds of its hosts, how it has a biological imperative to punish stress and to encourage a harmonious ‘group-think.’ Hill relates this to oxytocin, which is a real-life hormone, and a pretty scary concept in its own right.

The Dragonscalers are being hunted by ‘Cremation Squads,’ who want to end the contamination with a holocaust of their own. So Hill sets up a interesting conflict where we get to see both sides of a mob mentality. The Cremation Squad are xenophobes (violently rejecting outsiders), and yet the people who are supposedly on Harper’s side are too prone to cultishness (tightly controlling insiders).

I love books where close-knit or desperate communities devolve into totalitarianism. The Beach, Lord of the Flies (sort of), Walking Dead, even Watership Down (which is mentioned a few times in this novel). But once again, there’s maybe a few too many scenes, and few too many story elements, and there are points where it seemed like the plot might collapse under its own weight.

I think part of the reason I felt restless was because I expected the xenophobes vs. zealots storyline to play out and climax at the very end of the book. So when I was about 80% through the book, I was thinking, ‘Whoa, I have a long way to go before all this stuff is resolved.’ But no, Hill surprised me by changing the status quo earlier than expected.

I won’t talk too much about ‘Act Three’ to avoid spoilers, but I will say I enjoyed it. I could definitely understand why some people might find it slow, or a bit anticlimactic, but I appreciated the change in structure, as a sort of thoughtful, hopeful denouement. Also, I truly didn’t see the last twist coming, and I liked that part very much.

So, overall, I think I’m finding that I like the book more than I thought I did. Just one last comment: Hill tries that trope of taking a fairly banal lyric or rhyme and framing it in a horror context so that it comes off as creepy or bad-ass. But I’m sorry… there’s nothing creepy or bad-ass about Mary Poppins quotes. ‘Spoonful of sugar.’ ‘Chim-chim-cher-ee.’ Ugh. It just reminds me of being forced to watch 60s Disney movies on the last day of school. Although there is a scene that used the Christmas carol, ‘Old Come All Ye Faithful,’ and that scene was very creepy.

To the ends of the Earth

What is it lately with all the apocalypses? Everywhere you look in pop culture, someone’s trying to survive one. There’s your garden-variety plague apocalypses (Station Eleven). There’s your zombie plague apocalypses (Walking Dead, World War Z). Comedic apocalypes (Last Man on Earth). A capital-A Apocalypse (the villain from the upcoming X-Men movie). HBO apocalypses (The Left overs), celestial apocalypses (SevenEves), and apocalypse remakes (Fury Road).

Why are we so obsessed with the world ending? There’s a theory out there that says that the post-apocalyptic genre taps into a deep desire to return to our primal roots—and not necessarily in a good way. If the society’s infrastructure crumbles, then all social conventions go out the window. And then its totally acceptable to kill strangers. In fact, in the case of a zombie plague, it’s downright pragmatic.

I’m not sure I’m ready to go that far, that all post-apocalyptic stories are excuses for us to vicariously satisfy our bloodlust Besides, I think we’re probably just as bloodthirsty now as we were twenty or thirty years ago. So why are post-apocalyptic so overwhelmingly popular now? Why is Kansas’ governor officially declaring October zombie preparedness month? Why are Zombie Runs and Zombie Paintball so popular? Why is ‘Doomsday Preppers’ a thing?

It’s not hard to figure out why movies in the 1950s featured atomic monsters like Godzilla or Them!. (Not ‘them,’ ‘Them!’) Back then, nations were legitimately scared of being wiped off the map by nuclear war. Compared to the real fear of a nuclear holocaust, ‘It Came From Beneath the Sea,’ or ’The Giant Gila Monster’ seem downright cozy.

So what’s zinging our zeitgeist in 2015?

How about the fact that we’re just too damn connected? Facebook, Skype, texts, emails, tweets, photo streams… We are inundated with enough messages and info to choke the most robust of data plans. Thank goodness for those of us with phone phobia, the only means of communication that seems to be going extinct are actual phone calls. Still, it’s becoming a bit alienating as constant contact replaces human contact.

For many Millennials, who have grown up in a world of Google searches, push notifications, Netflix queues, and geofencing, the idea of all those connections suddenly ceasing probably seems equally fascinating and horrifying.

So what are we going to do about it? Move into a solar/wind powered cabin, somewhere off the grid? Actually it would be far easier to download The Dog Stars to our phone and visit the post-apocalypse whenever we like—in short escapist bursts—between checking Tinder.

PS: I guess I should complain about the ubiquity of post-apocalyptic stories, since I just contributed to the genre myself. (Try Idyll for an apocalypse on another planet!)

PPS: I just finished Peter Heller’s ‘The Dog Stars,’ so I’m hoping to write a review in about a week.

I just read: Breakers

breakersThe Stand is probably my favorite Stephen King novel, and probably my favorite post-apocalyptic book. In fact, whenever I read a post-apocalyptic story, I’m hoping at that it will capture some of that lonesome, open-road magic that made The Stand so great.

I have to say that more than any other book, Edward W. Robertson’s book Breakers has come closer to meeting those unreasonable expectations.

Breakers follows two men (in New York City and LA) as they struggle to survive while an extremely deadly plague wipes out 99% of the human population. About halfway through the book, the main characters realize that the plague originates from a race of alien invaders who have now swooped in to take over our decimated planet.

Here are the things that struck me about the book:

1) Harrowing scenes of NYC and LA as the havoc of the plague takes hold. The scenes read like a gruesome travelog. Robertson does a great job of working in landmarks and everyday environments, which help to give the reader a distinctive and realistic flavor of each city.

2) The prerequisite trek across a desolate countryside, complete with scenes of abandoned highways and idyllic natural landscapes. One particularly inspired scene compares foraging in the wilderness to a real-life version of The Legend of Zelda. It reminded me of a couple of passages from Alex Garland’s The Beach, where another unhinged protagonist compares survivalism to video games.

3) The aliens in Breakers are pretty one-dimensional. They don’t talk; they just wave their tentacles, round up humans like cattle, or incinerate them with laser pop-guns. Yes, this is somewhat creepy, but it’s also the M.O. of the Martians in Mars Attacks. Breakers is the first book in a series, and there are hints that there’s more to the aliens than meets the eye, so maybe this complaint is addressed in future books.

4) The ending. Robertson opts to split the characters up on converging paths to the climax. This is my all-time favorite structure for an action ending, since the first time I saw Return of the Jedi. Yes, in my opinion, Return of the Jedi has one of the best endings in action-adventure history. Luke in a battle of wills with his father and the most evil man in the universe… Han and Leia leading a jungle assault… Lando hurtling toward the Death Star… Even when you consider those cutesy, Teddy-Graham-looking Ewoks, it’s still a great finale.

Robertson’s multiple climaxes (OK that doesn’t sound right) wrap the book up in a very satisfying way. And that’s something to celebrate. “Yub nub!” As those damn Ewoks would say.

I Just Read: Station Eleven

station-elevenI’ve read a few looong books lately, books that are parts of even looooonger trilogies. So it’s nice to get to the end of a book and actually be sorry it’s over. Ahh, the sprightliness of upmarket speculative fiction. Not only is it worded so prettily, but it’s plotted and edited for brevity.

Station Eleven is an upmarket post-apocalyptic novel written by Emily St. John Mandel. In this book, the end of the world is brought on by an extremely deadly flu, and the story flits back and forth in time—before, during, and after the outbreak. The narration follows five main characters, and a series of coincidences links these characters’ lives, both pre and post pandemic, and before and after death. The co-inky-dinks only become more prevalent as the character’s figurative ‘small world’ becomes a literally decimated small world. I don’t think the author was trying to create a sort of apocalyptic, mystical force of ‘Fate’ (although a lot of post-apocalyptic books tend to go that way: The Stand, The Passage, Swan’s Song). Instead, Mandel’s serendipity is an echo of art, of stories that outlive their authors, of actors whose fame outstrips their personal lives. In this post-apocalypse, ideas from Shakespeare, Star Trek, and the glossy photos of tabloid magazines keep the survivors inspired and illuminated, long after the loss of electricity and air-travel.

Most of the unlikely connections in Station Eleven stem from a comic book that was published at a vanity press (only ten copies were ever made) by an unknown author who may or may not have died twenty years ago. If, like myself, you’re aspiring to be an independently published author, this idea will probably strike you as particularly sad. And the book does often strike a melancholy mood. Even before the plague: these characters are haunted by divorce, dysfunctional families, and dissociation from their own lives. And Station Eleven doesn’t offer much in the way of easy answers, or chances at redemption. But it is sparkling with hope.

I Just Read: Annihilation

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeerA team of four women are tasked with charting the mysteries of an isolated coastal wilderness called Area X. Area X seems to irrevocably change any human who enters it (those who are lucky enough to leave). And Area X is spreading.

Reading the description of this book, I knew it fell squarely in my wheelhouse. The actual book fell obliquely; then skidded to a stop in a corner of my wheelhouse than I hadn’t expected, a secluded, Lovecraftian corner. (OK, I’ll drop the wheelhouse euphemism. What the Hell is a wheelhouse, anyway?) I expected to read something sparse and allegorically apocalyptic (The Road), but the book reminded me a lot of Albert Sanchez Pinol’s quasi-Lovecraftian novel, Cold Skin.

That’s not to say that this slim novel isn’t sparse and allegorical apocalyptic. Characters are only signified by job title or role, never by an actual name (the psychologist, the surveyor, the husband, etc.). The overall tone of the book is distant and clinical. The story is told in first person through the journal of a biologist. As a new writer, I’m always struggling with the yin and yang of showing vs. telling. First person POV seems particularly liable to lead to dreaded ‘telling.’ As I read each exceptionally crafted paragraph, it seemed to me that each chunk of prose was at least 60% exposition. But something about this narrative detachment—this fact-to-fact-to-fact storytelling—served to heighten the creep-factor, not buffer the reader from it. The book is punctuated by quite a few skin-crawling moments.

The biologist wanders pine forests and marshes (Man, I love me some maritime settings!) and encounters some typically Lovecraftian horrors of the indescribably monstrous variety. (You know the horrors are ‘indescribable’ because that’s always the first word H.P. Lovecraft used to describe them.) Toward the end of the book, the narrator shifts from detached observations of effed-up, unexplainable events to far-sighted hypotheses of what is actually happening, and that’s when the book takes a step backward. (Midi-chlorians, anyone?) This book is Part One of a three-book series, and I hope the next two books don’t shed too much light on this ephemeral mystery that Vandermeer has created.

One more thing: the covers of this series are kick-ass.