August 28th, 2006


Monster Island

I loved David Wellington's debut novel, Monster Island. It's better written than any zombie novel has a right to be, though I suppose that should come as no surprise from someone with a creative writing MFA. He's got a literary style and a fast-paced, pulpy story to tell, and somehow the two mix perfectly.

I'm of the opinion that zombies have been pretty much done to death at this point, so it's especially refreshing to see such an original take on this classic horror trope. Yes, these zombies still eat the flesh of the living, but it's the characters that make the story so original. When was the last time you read a zombie novel where the protagonist is a UN weapons inspector traveling with an army of Somali schoolgirl warriors? I also loved that the characters have a clear mission outside of simply trying to survive: Get into Manhattan, retrieve the medicine stashed in the UN Secretariat building, and take it back to warlord-dominated Somalia, possibly the only place left on Earth that's safe from the zombies. The book is also extra enjoyable if you're a New Yorker and are familiar with all the landmarks, stores and subway stops in the novel. There's even a scene in the Union Square Virgin Megastore, one of my favorite places to kill time in Manhattan!

But Wellington's most brilliant creation has got to be Gary. A doctor and a native New Yorker, Gary decided when the zombies came that if he couldn't lick them, he'd join them instead. Realizing that zombies are only stupid because their brains don't get any oxygen between the moments of death and rebirth, he devises a way to become a zombie himself without losing his intellect or memories. That way, he can still be sort of alive and not worry about the dead eating him. It's kind of ingenious, and I've never seen anything like that before in zombiedom.

Another standout is Mael Mag Och, a Celtic bog mummy who wakes up in the middle of a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition with his faculties just as intact as Gary's. He's sort of the flipside of the same coin, Gary's darker half and a symbol of what he could easily become. Mael, with his army of herky-jerky reanimated Egyptian mummies from the same museum, also happens to be the funniest character in the novel.

Monster Island is one of the best horror novels I've read in a long time. As I said before, the writing is amazing, and Wellington knows how to keep the story moving. Monster Island is getting a Bram Stoker Award recommendation from me. The second and third books in the trilogy, Monster Nation and Monster Planet, are due out later this year and early next year respectively. I can't wait.

(Full disclosure time: Dave's a friend of mine, but don't take that to mean my review is biased. As you know, I've given bad reviews before to things friends have written or edited.)

Next up, Brian Keene's novella, Take the Long Way Home, a copy of which he was kind enough to send to me because I gave him some very minor help when he was writing it. Then it'll be back to the Straubathon!

Masters of Horror: Jenifer

Dario Argento's Jenifer isn't terrible, but it's not that good either. I think most of the problem lies in the fact that there's no complexity to the story, and all attempts at depth ring hollow. Once Steven Weber's character rescues Jenifer from someone about to kill her (Weber also wrote the screenplay) we become immediately distanced from his motives, and thus from the character himself. We don't know why he becomes so obsessed with this hideously disfigured woman, which makes everything that follows -- the sexual relationship, the complicity in the murders she commits -- less than compelling. This could have been overlooked if Argento had brought his A-game -- after all, most of his movies succeed on style, not sense -- but Jenifer could just as easily have been directed by Alan Smithee. It has none of Argento's signature Baroque visual style. If I didn't already know it was Argento, I never would have guessed.

In the world of "no good deed goes unpunished," the story warns us not to take in people in need or they'll wind up eating your cat, your neighbor, a carnie and your new boss's son. But that's okay because she'll also have awesome sex with you. As morals go it's a bit dubious, but Jenifer, to its credit, is not a moral tale. It's more of a tragedy of bad choices, and that's something I can get behind. Too bad the story itself is so mediocre.

The saving grace here is Carrie Fleming. Her performance as Jenifer is fearless, interpreting her as a mix between a wild animal and an innocent child. She brings a lot of raw emotion to a role where she doesn't have any dialogue outside of shrieks, grunts and wails. At least she brings her A-game, even if Argento doesn't. And Weber is his usual wooden self, relying more on stubble and makeup than acting skill to indicate his downward slide.

Also, the ending will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever read a book or seen a movie, ever.