World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Forget what you think you know about the contents of this masterpiece if all you know is the cinematic adaptation. Max Brooks’s followup to his excellent Zombie Survival Guide is that rare beast among all the reams of unending apocalyptica: it’s a story that’s as much about the world we live in now as it is a story of surviving hordes of the undead.

It’s a zombie novel where the insights about our world and all its cultures outnumber the flesh-hungry ghouls. It unfolds in short chapters that skip around the globe with delightful grace. There’s no main character, other than humanity itself. From the mountains of China and Russia to the shantytowns of South Africa to — yeah, buddy — the International Space Station — this book never settles down into a solipsistic American perspective. Brooks owns the title of his novel.

That so much fresh thinking could grow out of such tired ground gives me hope for humanity — and all writing in general.

Granted, the voices all end up blending together, and in a collection of alleged oral histories perhaps that’s a not-great thing. Yet as I continued reading, I was almost glad Brooks didn’t go too far with individualized voices because Brooks’s writing is clear and informative and rich in surprisingly well-imagined details.

At nearly every turn, Brooks uses encounters with the undead to speak about something else, something true about the way our various cultures operate. I’m in awe of this m’f’ing book. That anyone has been brave enough to write anything else about the living dead since this thing was published is incredible to me (though I am also grateful for some of those recent efforts, bless their rotting hearts).

I slid this one back on the shelf tonight feeling lucky to have it there.

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A long season of depression appears to be be reaching a conclusion. I’ve little to show for the last few months, and I have a great number of unfinished obligations. At this point, they’re almost broken promises. But if it’s writing or fiction related, it’s likely I’ve dropped the ball on it. This means critiques that have waited for months, stories that have barely progressed, and books that cry out for additional editing.

I’ve joked that I’m retired. I’ve joked that I should have chosen to get into carpentry instead of writing. Or been a microbrewer. Anything that could’ve proven more useful or worthwhile to others.

People like cabinets. People like microbrews.

But some people like the stories I’ve done. And, to be honest, I like a lot of the stories I’ve done. And I have a few others that I’m not leaving until I’ve fully crafted.

So I’m turning the lights back on. I’m firing up the machines. I’m sitting back down.

Fingers on keys.

And I’m going back to Daukherville.

Dark Screams: Volume One
Dark Screams: Volume One by Brian James Freeman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a huge fan of Stephen King’s Creepshow, I was thrilled to see the long-lost short story “Weeds” in the table of contents for Dark Screams: Volume One. I knew it as “The Lonsesome Death of Jordy Verrill,” but it has even more barbs and thorns in prose form (as well as being a little bit less campy).

It’s a good, tone-setting start to a solid anthology of genuinely creepy stories that harken back to the five-short-story structure of Creepshow itself, or even the original EC Comics. “The Price You Pay,” by Kelley Armstrong, is a fast-paced, twist-a-second revenge story with bloody consequences. Even if I didn’t buy every turn the story took, it was a still a compelling read.

Bill Pronzini’s “Magic Eyes” is a classic tale of a potentially homicidal man in an insane asylum. Well told, though somewhat familiar-feeling in shape and feeling.

The last two stories are the knockouts here, however. Simon Clark’s “Murder in Chains” had me delighted from start to finish. A simple story about a man who wakes up in an underground chamber, chained to a stranger. I never knew where it was going, but it was suspenseful and exciting the whole time.

But when I felt certain that “Murder in Chains” would be my favorite of the lot, Ramsey Campbell’s “The Watched” put on a clinic of how to place one creepy detail after another for terrific effect. I’m still in awe of the construction and execution of this story, which focuses on a young boy, a spooky cop with odd requests, and the neighbors who live next to the boy and his grandmother. Well done story with a pitch-perfect ending.

So some stories knocked my socks off while others were a bit more average, but there wasn’t a dud in the bunch. I thought this short anthology was a whole lot of fun, and I’m definitely going to keep an eye out for volume two.

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Ed at Eleven is my comic horror anti-romance about a girl who leaves her cult to pursue a relationship with a local news anchor. Things get bloody from there.

It’s been kicked about and reworked in a number of ways since the summer of 1999, when I wrote an initial screenplay version in eight days. In 2010, I wrote the first draft of its current incarnation as a NaNoWriMo novel.

It took me a few years to really figure out how to edit a novel. The first revision to the book was hard as hell. But I kept hacking at the weeds, until the book swelled from just over 50,000 words to just over 80,000. Then I revised again. And again. And then I read through it and fixed some typos and errors.

This weekend, I started another huge push on the novel, trying to turn scenes that are “ok” into scenes that are “pretty great.” It’s a fun place to be.

So … I’m sorry if you haven’t heard from me in real life. I’ve been in the dark woods, tearing my hair out and such.

One more week of edits, and then it’s going out the door.

No point keeping a novel in the cave forever when it could be out there getting rejections. But even if a book is rejected, at least it’ll be getting read. 😉

So … like … yeah.

You should know, precious few people have liked anything I wrote. I’m constantly being beaten about the head and face by rejections. Tonight’s rejection was the first rejection I ever received for a novel.

Count that as progress if you want.


I’m going through the process, being surprised that I’m feeling hurt at all at this point (closing in on a hundred rejections whilst reading stories about the successes of too many other people at far younger ages), and taking the two-and-one-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads because of course.

I really wish I’d gotten into carpentry instead of writing. No one argues with an adequate birdhouse.

You might think it’s all about self-promotion, but I think you’re wrong. Of course, I could be wrong about THAT, but, you know… it’s like they say in my hometown: “hard tellin’, no knowin’.”

Here’s what I think, in case it matters and has a chance of being convincing: writing is, at the end of the day, a social activity. As far as I know, it was Dean Koontz who first put the thought in my head that no writer, however bleak the tales they tell, is a pessimist. What an inspired observation. I think it’s true. If you’re writing, you’re trying to talk to an audience. You’re trying to take something from your own head and make it glittery enough for someone else to look at it and think, “Cool!” or “That’s sad!” or “Jesus, Grandpa, what’d you READ me this for??” Yet still, any act of communication is fundamentally a hopeful one.

When I’m writing, I’m thinking, always, about conveying something to other people. So is it really any wonder at all that I overdo it with the Facebooking and the Twittering the more I write?

I say no. I say (cuz I like to SAY!) that it’s only natural. I’m TRYING to speak to you with every word I write. How is that any different from the urge that guides all of us to our social media accounts?

Vaguely apropos aside: Roger Ebert had one of the best Twitter feeds I ever had the pleasure of following. I suspect there’s a really good reason for that.

Anyway, still — I apologize. I know I post too much when I’m actually working hard. Even my wife says that if she wasn’t married to me, she’d probably unfollow me (HARSH!). I don’t blame her.

Just thought I’d offer a tiny bit of a self-defense.

There are a lot of genres out there currently vying for the honor of Most Overdone Genre Ever. Sure, you got your zombies, your vampires, your teenage girl caught betwixt two adoring suitors. Yet there is one genre that, for me at least, stands far above any of these.

My last post was about how the Alien franchise lost its way when it changed Ripley from an ordinary, strong woman into a mythological hero. What I failed to do in that post was fully convey my total exhaustion with plots centered around the mythological superhero, commonly referred to as … “The One.” It is this genre of story that bores me more than all the others combined.

I am so sick of all these goddamned special heroes. These stories positively reek of American exceptionalism — egocentric, megalomaniacal bullshit!

Please. Please. For the love of all things, can we just stop it with this crap? I mean, okay, I’ll grant you — The Matrix was a great hero’s journey. But I think everyone, on some level, knows why the sequels didn’t work. It was because NEO — hamfisted anagram that he is — is a total freaking bore once he realizes he’s basically Computer Jesus. There’s no reason for any conflict anywhere after the first film. To pretend that that story ends in FISTICUFFS!?! Seriously?

But hey, okay, maybe you want to cite Star Wars as an example of a great myth, rousingly told, and point out that no one’s more special than the Skywalker clan. Sure. You could do that. But it’s not true. Until the prequels, there wasn’t anything truly intrinsic to Luke Skywalker himself that an ordinary person couldn’t hope to achieve as well (especially if you stick with the original film, which was really just the simple story of a farmboy doing WAAAAAAAY better than anyone thought he would). The Force used to be democratic. Then it became hereditary. Wasn’t it more fun when it could’ve been you using the Force to make that shot?

It was for me. Cuz the doc tells me my midichlorian count … too low! Sigh. Now I’ll never achieve my Jedi dreams!

To paraphrase a George R. R. Martin line, I have a deep affection for cripples, bastards, and broken things. Even Orson Scott Card’s military genius Ender Wiggin was hobbled by his youth (and the bloodthirsty jealousy of his peers), and Card re-upped to an even bolder degree with the parallel story Ender’s Shadow, detailed from the perspective of the even more frail Bean. Sure, Ender and Bean were both examples of characters exhibiting vast traces of one-itis, but they were still overwhelmed enough to bring the story back into a more naturally dramatic state. Hell, even freaking Beowulf is basically the story of a really old man, who inadvisably goes out to fight once more after having listened to Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” one too many times.

Yet still, I feel like a lot of these are examples of characters that want to have it both ways — they want to play the overwhelmed overdog, and that shit is just getting as bone-achingly tired as any of your old-timey Scandinavian heroes.

The deluge of characters who either discover or start as part of some exemplary race or group of “specials” disturbs the living shit out of me. Doesn’t it smack of a distasteful love of supremacy? Isn’t there anyone out there who wants to write about ordinary people facing overwhelming problems? Isn’t that more the ordinary state of regular humans? What in the name of holy fuck is with this unrelenting trend of superheroes? There’s a reason I relate to Ripley in the first two Alien films and don’t relate to her as much (or at all) in the sequels. There’s a reason Tyrion — the dwarf without any real hope of defending himself unless he can convince someone else to take up a sword on his behalf in most situations — is my favorite character in Game of Thrones. 

They’re freaking normal. They’re not “the One!” They’re a whole lot like you and me.

So the next time you find yourself out there thinking how to make your character cool and extraordinary … maybe just go the crazy route.

Maybe just make them fucking normal.


As the release of the upcoming video game Alien: Isolation creeps slowly closer, I find myself loving everything the developers say about the project: they want to stay true to the original Alien film (in my opinion, still the best) and focus on horror over action, period detail over fancy sci-fi wizardry. A recent dev diary even detailed how they were running the video game footage through mangled VHS tapes to make it more authentic.

I’m pretty sure the results will be right up my alley. Even if something preposterous happens and the game turns out not very good, I applaud the team for their perfect intentions.

Like nearly all the video games ever made based in the Alien universe, a lot has been lost along the way since 1979. Recently, I read a great post on about the difference between the original Die Hard and most current superhero / Hollywood tentpole blockbuster action-fests. Basically, the point boils down to the difference between fairy tales and myths. In myths, your hero is special, ordained with gifts other mere mortals do not have. In fairy tales, the characters are ordinary, and their fates are often grimmer. As I grow increasingly impatient with the onslaught of “the One”-style stories, I’ve come to realize that my sensibilities — and the reason I like the horror genre above all others — is that I find fairy tales far more compelling.

As the writer states: “… Myths are badass. Fairy tales are hard core.”

Which brings me back to my favorite film of all time: Ridley Scott’s original Alien film. Since the rise of the franchise, it’s become as much the myth of Ellen Ripley as it has been a series of encounters with Xenomorphs. And that’s exactly where it went wrong.

In the first film (if you can forget the arc of the sequels) you might notice a curious thing: for all intents and purposes, Tom Skerritt’s Captain Dallas is the protagonist of the movie. Ripley becomes the main character only as the others die off, but it’s in no way obvious that it’s her movie in the beginning. Dallas talks to Mother first. Dallas has the final say in key decisions while he’s around to do so. Ripley, the science officer, has her authority questioned by nearly every single character. She’s not “the One”; she’s just the one who lives.

Even in James Cameron’s excellent, world-and-myhos-expanding sequel, she was not without significant vulnerabilities. She most certainly was not a badass soldier; she did her best to contribute and earn the respect of the crew, where and how she could. It’s this vulnerability that makes her so compelling in the first two films, and it’s this vulnerability that she in rather literal terms loses from the third film on.

It all hinges on that moment in Alien 3 when the alien snarls right next to her face … and backs away. That’s the moment when Ripley ceases to be an average person in a series of horrible situations that require everything she has to survive and becomes a queen. She becomes “the One” — the one human with a vaguely mystical connection to the alien. In a lot of ways, the aliens respond to her as Hannibal Lecter responds to Clarice Starling, in seeming suggestion that she alone “gets it” and “is worthy” … of whatever.

Which is only born out further by her Jesus Christ-style resurrection in … oh yeah: Alien: Resurrection. First the Christ pose as she falls into the fire in Alien 3, next the rise from the darkness in Resurrection. And that’s where the franchise died. It shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise, really, when Prometheus proved a full-on religious revenge story about some overgrown zealots beating humanity in the face for murdering their Space Jesus two thousand years ago. Only thing worse than making Ripley a mythic figure was making everyone on Earth a mythic figure, directly tied to the Engineers and the creation of the alien itself.

Ridley Scott has said that when he made Alien, it was in part a response to the glossiness of a lot of sci-fi he’d been watching at the time. He wanted the crew to feel like “truckers in space.” Bravo. It felt like it. It felt like these were people no one — not even their employer — truly gave two shits about. They weren’t as interesting or as important as the thing they’d found that was killing them off. Their lives were cheap.

No one on the Nostromo was “the One.” No one was even in the running.

And man did that ever make that film work!

Somehow, Prometheus made the alien seem entirely too close to home. All the great atmosphere created by the silence of the Nostromo in the beginning of Alien, the foreign quality to everything they encountered, and the sheer sense of isolation — all of that was forgotten by the closing credits of Prometheus, as the myths squashed the last remnants of the franchise’s fairy tale origins.

So color me heartened by the title of Alien: Isolation. I’m looking forward to agonizing over the vulnerability of the protagonist.

I’m looking forward to returning again to the roots of a story that started with average people, in overwhelmingly terrible situations.

I’m looking forward to another fairy tale.

Next by Michael Crichton
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

So I used to really love Michael Crichton. Pretty much until he wrote the screenplay for Twister and things started to go downhill. The sequel to Jurassic Park was dreck. Timeline was borderline unreadable, and then he denied the influences of human activity on climate change in State of Fear. Oh, heavens. Crichton had lost his mind, it seemed to me.

Prey was okay. Kinda liked that one.

But whatever. Life goes on. Time passes. And I came to miss his peculiar blend of cardboard characters and crackling plots, infused with his brilliant gift for turning science into mental candy. So, okay, I picked up Next, hoping it would at least be fun.

And … what a mess! Readable, sure. But WOW! It’s certainly not a one-star book, given it’s convincing views on genetic research and patent law. It also features a subplot that I feel was stolen by the recent film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It didn’t bore me, either — hell, it barely stuck to a single plot-line long enough to do that. But the characters are so numerous (this thing actually has no main character), I was still waiting for the thing to start when it ended, more or less arbitrarily. Crichton said he was trying to model his book after the human genome, where the various plot strands were genes, and you never knew how important they were or what they were actually doing there.

Well, ok, then. Mission accomplished, I guess.

This book had the curious effect of endearing me to its author, if only for how gloriously off-the-rails he’d gone. This book is one strange mutant of a pop-science novel.

Good news is that last year the US Supreme Court invalidated gene patents. Who knows what role Crichton’s writing played in the formation of that decision, but it’s sad that he wasn’t alive to see it.

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