Friday, December 4, 2009
Bloody Pages Book Reviews
Valley of the Dead (2009)
By Kim Paffenroth
Cargo Cult Press
Review written by Nickolas Cook
Only Kim Paffenroth could have written VALLEY OF THE DEAD. And that’s as it should be, since he’s a man who knows his religious literature. In this case, he makes the argument (tongue in cheek, one assumes) that Dante Alighieri based his most famous work, THE DIVINE COMEDY, in which he explores Hell and argues political, sociological, religious and philosophical points with its denizens, all while giving us a guided Christian view of the netherworlds, on actual events he witnessed during his travels abroad in wilder countries where a zombie plague has ravaged the countryside.
Sounds a bit far reaching?
Well, Paffenroth not only pulls it off as a zombie novel of the first order, but he also manages to make his novel a compellingly well written accoutrement to Dante’s works and life.
The story opens up with a fast pace and never lets up, as Dante suddenly finds himself in the middle of a pitched battle between zombies, a fleeing village full of people, and an army that is killing everything in sight, living or undead.
There he meets Bogdana, a young pregnant woman, who has just lost her husband to the plague and is fleeing before the ravaging army. They escape together, fighting the undead and taking refuge in the woods. Before long, they meet a deserter from the army, Radovan, a soldier who cannot conscience the slaughter of innocents along with the undead.
Together, the trio set forth to find a path over the distant mountains so they can escape the plague and the army.
Their adventures find them in a strange monastery, where they meet, Adam, who offers to show them the way.
What makes this such compelling reading for anyone who has read Dante’s work, is that Paffenroth manages to mirror his fictional journey through Hell, using the undead as the denizens of Hell, and peopling the landscape along the way with real people he will one day write about who suffer in Hell for their various sins. No sin is left unturned: greed, lust, rage, etc., etc. as Paffenroth explores human nature along with Dante as his guide.
If you buy no other zombie book this year (and Lord, there are a ton of them these days), make this the one for which you hand over your hard earned cash. It will entertain and, hopefully, enlighten. It might even get you to pick up Dante’s THE DIVINE COMEDY again…for fun this time; no book reports will be due.
Dying to Live (2006)
By Kim Paffenroth
Review written by Nickolas Cook
Back when Kim Paffenroth brought us GOSPEL OF THE LIVING DEAD it was obvious he was a man who knows his zombie lore.
With DYING TO LIVE, we see he not only knows zombies, but that he also knows the human condition as well. It’s one thing to imagine a zombie apocalypse, all the bloodshed and violence, the loss and anguish, and it’s very easy to intellectualize it, make it palatable and even entertaining in a grim sort of way. And that’s what most zombie apocalypse novels tend to do: they make it fun.
Paffenroth takes the tropes and gives them a very human twist.
What does that sort of loss and pain do to real people? And what happens to their belief system when it seems that they are living in a sort of hell on earth?
Paffenroth tackles such philosophical questions using his background in Religious Studies and Philosophy, and his knowledge of such great texts as St. Augustine’s Confessions, to explore what happens to the human heart when thrown into a hell of the undead.
His protagonist carries a very biblical sounding name, Jonah Caine. Caine, separated from his wife and child when the plague begins its rampage, decides to hike cross country to find out what has happened to them. Along the way, he must fight to survive against the ever increasing population of undead flesh eaters. Soon, he meets and is taken in by a small band of survivors who have made their home inside a museum that overlooks a small city.
And what Paffenroth does with this setup is what makes DYING TO LIVE different than any other zombie novel I’ve read so far. He doesn’t send his survivors on some far flung quest to find any mysterious cures or answers to the plague. Instead, he keeps them inside the cityscape, where they learn the essence of good and evil within its boundaries.
He also delivers something unseen in other zombie fiction, in the body of Milton, a man who is inexplicable both living and undead, and who can control the zombies as if he were a shepherd. Here, his characters discourse in quasi-religious matters and the nature of the human beasts- its essential needs, both mental and physical.
But if he must discuss good, he must also show use evil. And he does so when Caine and his friends are captured by a roving band of hunting prisoners from the nearby state pen. Inside its decaying walls we see the true face of the beast. It is a gory and heart wrenching experience, even for the most hardened of horror readers. If you think the undead are the true evil, think again.
But here is where it does tend to get a bit overblown. Because Paffenroth has to give us an evil with no other purpose than just plain being evil. And he doesn’t take into account that people who live inside prisons aren’t always the essence of evil. Even in state pens, there are people who just happened to hit hard luck and found themselves swallowed by the system, deservedly or not. So what I’m saying is that not every single person in prison is going to act the way he so simply portrays.
That aside, he does a fine job making his readers think about the nature of life and good and evil and being human.
History Is Dead: A Zombie Anthology (2007)
Edited by Kim Paffenroth
Review written by Nickolas Cook
Zombies span the ages! Well, we know this isn’t the first time we’ve seen the zombie antho tackle historical periods, but most of those past efforts have…well…kind of shambled around aimlessly, until the book just falls over and dies.
Not so with editor Kim Paffenroth’s HISTORY IS DEAD anthology. Inside you’ll find some of the better examples of the undead spanning different time periods across the world. It’s obvious Paffenroth had a vision in mind before selecting the stories, and for the horror fan, he has done a wonderful job of giving us new authors, with new and interesting takes on the undead throughout history. Some of the standout stories for me were Christine Morgan’s ‘The Barrow Maid’, Scott A. Johnson’s ‘Harimoto’, James Roy Daley’s ‘Summer of 1816’, David Dunwoody’s ‘The Reluctant Prometheus’ and Jonathan Maberry’s ‘Pegleg and Paddy Save the World’. Not to say the other stories don’t entertain, but the above mentioned have a special quality about them that makes the entire collection shine brighter.
There are stories of good vs. evil, love and hate, the blessed and the meek, and stories of gore and beauty, sometimes in the same tale.
If you’re looking for new voices in zombie fiction, look no further. It’s my opinion that you will probably see most of the authors in the TOC popping up in other anthologies and in the small press.
As a Lovecraft aficionado, I take an interest in all things HPL, and when I came across the website of Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom a while back, my curiosity was definitely piqued.
Let me make one thing clear – I consider myself a Lovecraft scholar, but I’m not a Lovecraft purist by any stretch of the imagination. As much as I love The Old Gent’s weird tales, I love even more a contemporary writer that can understand Lovecraft’s intent and then weave their own storylines within the Mythos.
With Arcana’s “Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom”, Bruce Brown has given us a little of both… he spins a yarn that falls half in the “real” world – that is, Lovecraft’s childhood – and half in The Frozen Kingdom, an alternate dimension that brings to mind Randolph Carter’s Dreamlands.
In fact, one of the strengths of HLatFK is that, if you’re an HPL fan, everything feels a little familiar. Brown is obviously a fan himself, and so you feel comfortable letting him steer you through his version of Lovecraft Country. And as he tells his story, we meet characters and creatures and discover clues that will obviously lead young Howard to the writer he becomes and the stories he’s best known for.
The art, by Renzo Podesta, is nothing short of gorgeous, each frame so stuffed with natural motion that it looks like you’re looking at a series of animated cels, colored in muted sepias for Howard’s everyday, real world, and icy blue-greens in the world of the Frozen Kingdom. In fact, more than once I thought to myself, “I want to see this movie!”
Will everyone love this? Probably not. There’s a broad and sometimes jarring child-like humor that runs contrary to the dark images, but I embraced it for what it was – the obvious joy of a writer getting caught up in his characters, and Podesta counters by channeling Bill Watterson (creator of Calvin and Hobbes) at his best with young Howard and his Cthulhian pet, Spot.
Where so many recent companies have jumped on the Lovecraft bandwagon and turned the Old Ones into just a bunch of creatures to punch, shoot, or blow up, it’s nice to see someone with a genuine love – and knowledge – of the source material step up and show ‘em how it’s done.
Editor, Art Director, Lavatory Cleaner
Planet Lovecraft Magazine
(The Black Glove thanks guest reviewer, K.L. Young)
Black Static Magazine Issue#13 (Oct/Nov 09)
Review written by Nickolas Cook
Seems to me in recent years that the horror fiction/nonfiction magazine markets have all but gone dry. Where once you could find plenty of older and new titles to peruse at the local chain bookstore, now there are only a handful that have survived the horror depression, and the more recent economic one.
So it’s great to see someone putting something as professional as BLACK STATIC back on the magazine shelves.
I was recently sent, all the way from the UK, issue #13, and what a joy it was read. Editor Andy Cox, and Contributing Editor Peter Tennant, have done a fine job of mixing the fiction with the nonfiction aspects of the genre. But what makes this magazine a bit different for an American reader is the UK-sentric take on the genre. It’s a great way to find new authors, and even new films, that you would not necessarily be exposed to here in the U.S.
Here’s a perfect example. One of my favorite authors that most U.S. horror readers haven’t heard of is Joel Lane. He has an excellent tale within BLACK STATIC’s pages. As does James Cooper, Tim Lees, Kim Lakin-Smith, and Carole Johnstone. All of which deliver extraordinary fiction.
But with BLACK STATIC, you also get columns by none other than Stephen Volk and Cristopher Fowler, two names that every U.S. horror fan should know better, but unfortunately do not.
And even if you’re only interested in reviews, they have tons of them. Pages upon pages of film and book reviews to keep you reading into the wee hours.
So if you’re looking for a new magazine to give you something you won’t find in the less than great U.S. genre mags we currently see on the shelves, pick up a subscription of BLACK STATIC. I guarantee you’ll find something to love and look forward to each new issue.