A Review of NOS4R2 (a.k.a NOS4A2 for you Americans)

“Fantasy was always only a reality waiting to be switched on.” (NOS4R2)

A creepy man in a creepy car.

The (excellent) British cover.

Many reviews of Joe Hill’s work begin by comparing him to his famous father, Stephen King. I’m going to skip that (though apparently I’m still going to mention it, as this is unavoidable even if it is something they’re both probably tired of). I haven’t read much of Stephen King’s work, anyway. I’ll tell you whose work I have read a lot of, however – Joe Hill himself. And I have to say, I’ll be very surprised if Mr Hill doesn’t end up being at least as well-known as his father, if not more so.

Joe Hill’s Locke and Key comics, illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez (who deserves just as much of the credit), is the greatest comic series I’ve read since Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Another of Joe Hill’s novels, Horns, I also loved – although I wrote a 5000-word mini-dissertation on Satan in literature shortly before reading it, and I felt like Joe Hill got it, like he agreed with all the conclusions I’d come to on some strange level, so it was very much one of those books you read at exactly the right time to fall in love with it no matter what.

NOS4R2, or NOS4A2 in America (presumably so the pun still makes linguistic sense) is another of Joe Hill’s novels. It is so called because it is the numberplate on the semi-demonic Rolls Royce Wraith owned by the novel’s primary antagonist, a Nosferatu-like figure known as Charles Talent Manx the III. Charlie Manx is the figure who very much dominates the pages of the novel, and the one who haunts your nightmares afterwards. I came across NOS4R2 in very different circumstances to Horns. I didn’t seek it out due to any prior interest – I just happened to win it in a Twitter competition being held by Gollancz. Gollancz asked what custom numberplate Joe Hill would have on his car – after a moment’s thought, I replied with what I thought would be a good semi-coherent pun: “STORY-ENG1N3.”

I'm not sure who I can credit this excellent fanart to, as I found it on Joe Hill's tumblr. If someone knows who to credit, let me know!

I’m not sure who I can credit this excellent fanart to, as I found it on Joe Hill’s tumblr. If someone knows who to credit, let me know!

On reading the book, “STORY-ENG1N3” proved to be far more apt than intended. Joe Hill has described NOS4R2 as his extended thesis on horror fiction, and I can see why. In the world of NOS4R2 – a world which Hill implies also encompasses his other works, such as Locke & Key and Horns, and even some of his father’s work – the origin of the “magic realism” which characterizes horror is revealed to be “super-creatives.” These are people who bring their inscapes out into the wider world, like a sculptor bringing the statue in his head to reality, or a horror author giving life to a story he’s dreamed up by putting it to paper. Hill deliberately incorporating the canon of other works into this one isn’t just a bit of fanservice intended to make people like me excited; it also deliberately extends the idea of the “super-creative” to retroactively provide an interesting and open-ended explanation for the impossibilities to which horror gives life.

Furthermore, Hill also uses this to highlight a particular trope of horror – the way in which seemingly mundane places or objects are given a scary, supernatural significance. The power of the “super-creative” relies on an item close to them – like Charlie Manx’s car, or Jason’s machete, or the titular play in The King in Yellow. These items give them access to their “inscapes” – lets them drive or otherwise travel to semi-mythic locations of haunted or otherwise supernatural significance, such as Charlie Manx’s horrible Christmasland, or the well in The Ring, or the titular landscape of Clive Barker’s Imajica. The effect really is something of a thesis, or masterclass, on the semi-mythic process of writing horror, of drawing the horrible and the strange from your head into reality – and it means that Charlie Manx’s car, and Charlie Manx, and the novel’s protagonist Vic McQueen and her Triumph motorbike, and the novel itself and Joe Hill and all horror, really are each something of a “story engine.” And that Hill has engineered what amounts to a constantly self-creating mythos.

This has gone from a review to an essay, which is how you can tell how much I liked NOS4R2. I don’t want to give the impression that its thematic implications are the most interesting thing about it, however – it’s a fast, engaging, sometimes genuinely terrifying read, which manages, like all great horror, to take something ordinary and make it horrifying – in this case, Christmas. Christmas songs will never sound the same to me again. If you’re a fan of horror, or of good fiction in general, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Hill builds an amazing horror mythos and populates it with sharply-drawn, painfully real characters – he has an awe-inspiring ability to make his characters seem as flawed and contradictory as real people are, sometimes in the space of a few sentences, seemingly without effort and without compromising either their role in the plot or the reader’s empathy. This is one of the greatest things about Hill’s writing, and something I’ve come to specifically look forward to after seeing it in both Locke & Key and Horns.

I do have some reservations about NOS4R2, but unfortunately most are to do with the book’s ending – so I won’t go into much detail, being as vague as humanly possible, but even so, if you’re averse to spoilers, don’t read beyond this point! Just go buy the book. It’s great, and you need to read it. Got it? Good.

~

Okay, spoiler territory ahead. Just to make things clear: what you should take away from this review is that the book is a masterpiece, masterfully written, and is certainly worth a read, especially by horror fans. But I do have some relatively minor problems with its ending – while perfectly adequate, I don’t think it quite lives up to the pace and expectations which have been built up throughout the novel. More importantly, however, the very last few pages turn the ending from a tragic one, to an unambiguously happy one. I think Hill overshot the mark slightly here – with relatively few changes, I feel he could’ve ended on a halfway point between the two, on the exact kind of bittersweet note that the novel demands, rather than the quite puzzlingly happy one which seems to slightly weaken all that has gone before it.

~

But honestly, that was the most minor of criticisms, and I only make it because Hill sets such a high standard throughout. Go and buy NOS4R2. I’m eagerly anticipating the end of Locke & Key, as well as whatever else Hill brings to us in the future.

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A Re-Introduction

So, you may have noticed that this blog has been inactive for almost two months now, with the one exception of an extremely silly post to commemorate Ed Balls Day (a post which I hope we can all accept must never be discussed again). The reason for this is simple – I was struggling and sweating over my Finals exams, which finally finished just over a week ago. Since then, I’ve slept lots, and drunk lots of alcohol, and I now find myself a close approximation of a normal human being again, able to do all the things which other human beings have to do. Like search for jobs!

Now that I have free time, I’ll (hopefully) be able to pay more attention to this blog. I have a book review I’ll be posting later today, and expect to see lots more non-Ed Balls content over the next few weeks! Let us never mention Ed Balls again. Actually, let’s make this the first Official Rule of this blog. No Ed Ballses. We are Ed Ballsed out.

I hope to see you again soon!

 

Ed Balls, Light of my Life, Fire of my Loins

In celebration of Ed Balls Day, I have altered the first 7000 words of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, replacing Lolita with Ed Balls. I did this last night when I was feeling very sick and sleep-deprived. Yes, I know it is The Silliest Thing.

I hope you enjoy it.

1

Ed Balls, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Ed-ba-alls: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Ed. Balls.

He was Ed, plain Ed, in the morning, standing five feet eleven in one sock. He was Edward in slacks. He was Mr Balls at parliament. He was E.M. Balls on the dotted line. But in my arms he was always Ed Balls.

Did he have a precursor? He did, indeed he did. In point of fact, there might have been no Ed Balls at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial Labour MP. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Ed Balls was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.

2

I was born in 1910, in Paris. My father was a gentle, easy-going person, a salad of racial genes: a Swiss citizen, of mixed French and Austrian descent, with a dash of the Danube in his veins. I am going to pass around in a minute some lovely, glossy-blue picture-postcards. He owned a luxurious hotel on the Riviera. His father and two grandfathers had sold wine, jewels and silk, respectively. At thirty he married an English girl, daughter of Jerome Dunn, the alpinist, and granddaughter of two Dorset parsons, experts in obscure subjects–paleopedology and Aeolian harps, respectively. My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three, and, save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory, over which, if you can still stand my style (I am writing under observation), the sun of my infancy had set: surely, you all know those redolent remnants of day suspended, with the midges, about some hedge in bloom or suddenly entered and traversed by the rambler, at the bottom of a hill, in the summer dusk; a furry warmth, golden midges.

My mother’s elder sister, Sybil, whom a cousin of my father’s had married and then neglected, served in my immediate family as a kind of unpaid governess and housekeeper. Somebody told me later that she had been in love with my father, and that he had lightheartedly taken advantage of it one rainy day and forgotten it by the time the weather cleared. I was extremely fond of her, despite the rigidity–the fatal rigidity–of some of her rules. Perhaps she wanted to make of me, in the fullness of time, a better widower than my father. Aunt Sybil had pink-rimmed azure eyes and a waxen complexion. She wrote poetry. She was poetically superstitious. She said she knew she would die soon after my sixteenth birthday, and did. Her husband, a great traveler in perfumes, spent most of his time in America, where eventually he founded a firm and acquired a bit of real estate.

I grew, a happy, healthy child in a bright would of illustrated books, clean sand, orange trees, friendly dogs, sea vistas and smiling faces. Around me the splendid Hotel Mirana revolved as a kind of private universe, a whitewashed cosmos within the blue greater one that blazed outside. From the aproned pot-scrubber to the flanneled potentate, everybody liked me, everybody petted me. Elderly American ladies leaning on their canes listed towards me like towers of Pisa. Ruined Russian princesses who could not pay my father, bought me expensive bonbons. He, mon cher petit papa, took me out boating and biking, taught me to swim and dive and water-ski, read to me Don Quixote and Les Miserables, and I adored and respected him and felt glad for him whenever I overheard the servants discuss his various lady-friends, beautiful and kind beings who made much of me and cooed and shed precious tears over my cheerful motherlessness.

I attended an English day school a few miles from home, and there I played rackets and fives, and got excellent marks, and was on perfect terms with schoolmates and teachers alike. The only definite sexual events that I can remember as having occurred before my thirteenth birthday (that is, before I first saw my little Alan Johnson) were: a solemn, decorous and purely theoretical talk about pubertal surprises in the rose garden of the school with an American kid, the son of a then celebrated motion-picture actress whom he seldom saw in the three-dimensional world; and some interesting reactions on the part of my organism to certain photographs, pearl and umbra, with infinitely soft partings, in Pichon’s sumptuous La Beautи Humaine that that I had filched from under a mountain of marble-bound Graphics in the hotel library. Later, in his delightful debonair manner, my father gave me all the information he thought I needed about sex; this was just before sending me, in the autumn of 1923, to a lycиe in Lyon (where we were to spend three winters); but alas, in the summer of that year, he was touring Italy with Mme de R. and her daughter, and I had nobody to complain to, nobody to consult.

3

I remember Alan Johnson’s features far less distinctly today than I did a few years ago, before I knew Ed Balls. There are two kinds of visual memory: one when you skillfully recreate an image in the laboratory of your mind, with your eyes open (and then I see Alan Johnson in such general terms as: “milk-colored skin,” “strong arms,” “swept grey hair,” “long ears,” “big bright mouth”); and the other when you instantly evoke, with shut eyes, on the dark inner side of your eyelids, the objective, absolutely optical replica of a beloved face, a little ghost in natural colors (and this is how I see Ed Balls).

Let me therefore primly limit myself, in describing Alan Johnson, to saying he was a lovely man a few months my junior. At first, Alan Johnson and I talked of peripheral affairs. He kept lifting handfuls of fine sand and letting it pour through his fingers. Our brains were turned the way those of intelligent European preadolescents were in our day and set, and I doubt if much individual genius should be assigned to our interest in the plurality of inhabited worlds, the intricacies of New Labour power politics, infinity, solipsism and so on. The softness and fragility of baby animals caused us the same intense pain. He wanted to be the leader of the Labour Party; I wanted to be a famous spy.

All at once we were madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly in love with each other; hopelessly, I should add, because that frenzy of mutual possession might have been assuaged only by our actually imbibing and assimilating every particle of each other’s soul and flesh; but there we were, unable even to mate as slum children would have so easily found an opportunity to do. After one wild attempt we made to meet at night in his garden (of which more later), the only privacy we were allowed was to be out of earshot but not out of sight on the populous part of the plage.

There, on the soft sand, a few feet away from our elders, we would sprawl all morning, in a petrified paroxysm of desire, and take advantage of every blessed quirk in space and time to touch each other: his hand, half-hidden in the sand, would creep toward me, his slender pale fingers sleepwalking nearer and nearer; then, his opalescent knee would start on a long cautious journey; sometimes a chance rampart built by younger children granted us sufficient concealment to graze each other’s salty lips; these incomplete contacts drove our healthy and inexperienced young bodies to such a state of exasperation that not even the cold blue water, under which we still clawed at each other, could bring relief.

Among some treasures I lost during the wanderings of my adult years, there was a snapshot taken by my aunt which showed Alan Johnson and the staid, elderly, lame gentleman, a Dr. Cooper, who that same summer courted my aunt, grouped around a table in a sidewalk cafe. Alan Johnson did not come out well, caught as he was in the act of bending over his chocolat glacи, and his broad shoulders and the parting in his hair were about all that could be identified (as I remember that picture) amid the sunny blur into which his lost loveliness graded; but I, sitting somewhat apart from the rest, came out with a kind of dramatic conspicuousness: a moody, beetle-browed boy in a dark sport shirt and well-tailored white shorts, his legs crossed, sitting in profile, looking away. That photograph was taken on the last day of our fatal summer and just a few minutes before we made our second and final attempt to thwart fate. Under the flimsiest of pretexts (this was our very last chance, and nothing really mattered) we escaped from the cafe to the beach, and found a desolate stretch of sand, and there, in the violet shadow of some red rocks forming a kind of cave, had a brief session of avid caresses, with somebody’s lost pair of sunglasses for only witness. I was on my knees, and on the point of possessing my darling, when two bearded bathers, the old man of the sea and his brother, came out of the sea with exclamations of ribald encouragement, and four months later Alan Johnson resigned as Shadow Chancellor, citing personal reasons.

4

I leaf again and again through these miserable memories, and keep asking myself, was it then, in the glitter of that remote summer, that the rift in my life began; or was my excessive desire for that Labour Shadow Chancellor only the first evidence of an inherent singularity? When I try to analyze my own cravings, motives, actions and so forth, I surrender to a sort of retrospective imagination which feeds the analytic faculty with boundless alternatives and which causes each visualized route to fork and re-fork without end in the maddeningly complex prospect of my past. I am convinced, however, that in a certain magic and fateful way Ed Balls began with Alan Johnson.

I also know that the shock of Alan Johnson’s resignation consolidated the frustration of that nightmare summer, made of it a permanent obstacle to any further romance throughout the cold years of my youth. The spiritual and the physical had been blended in us with a perfection that must remain incomprehensible to the matter-of-fact, crude, standard-brained youngsters of today. Long after his resignation I felt his thoughts floating through mine. Long before we met we had had the same dreams. We compared notes. We found strange affinities. The same June of the same year (1919) a stray canary had fluttered into her house and mine, in two widely separated countries. Oh, Ed Balls, had you loved me thus!

I have reserved for the conclusion of my “Alan Johnson” phase the account of our unsuccessful first tryst. In a nervous and slender-leaved mimosa grove at the back of his villa we found a perch on the ruins of a low stone wall. Through the darkness and the tender trees we could see the arabesques of lighted windows which, touched up by the colored inks of sensitive memory, appear to me now like playing cards. He trembled and twitched as I kissed the corner of his parted lips and the hot lobe of his ear. A cluster of stars palely glowed above us, between the silhouettes of long thin leaves; that vibrant sky seemed as naked as he was under his business suit. I saw his face in the sky, strangely distinct, as if it emitted a faint radiance of its own. His legs, his lovely live legs, were not too close together, and when my hand located what it sought, a dreamy and eerie expression, half-pleasure, half-pain, came over his politician’s features. He sat a little higher than I, and whenever in his solitary ecstasy he was led to kiss me, his head would bend with a sleepy, soft, drooping movement that was almost woeful, and his bare knees caught and compressed my wrist, and slackened again; and his quivering mouth, distorted by the acridity of some mysterious potion, with a sibilant intake of breath came near to my face. He would try to relieve the pain of love by first roughly rubbing his dry lips against mine; then my darling would draw away with a nervous toss of his hair, and then again come darkly near and let me feed on his open mouth, while with a generosity that was ready to offer his everything, my heart, my throat, my entrails, I have him to hold in his awkward fist the scepter of my passion.

I recall the scent of some kind of toilet powder – a sweetish, lowly, musky perfume. It mingled with his own biscuity odor, and my senses were suddenly filled to the brim; a sudden commotion in a nearby bush prevented them from overflowing–and as we drew away from each other. But that mimosa grove–the haze of stars, the tingle, the flame, the honey-dew, and the ache remained with me, and that Labour Shadow Chancellor with his seaside limbs and ardent tongue haunted me ever since – until at last I broke his spell by incarnating him in another. His successor.

5

The days of my youth, as I look back on them, seem to fly away from me in a flurry of pale repetitive scraps like those morning snow storms of used tissue paper that a train passenger sees whirling in the wake of the observation car. In my sanitary relations with women I was practical, ironical and brisk. While a college student, in London and Paris, paid ladies sufficed me. My studies were meticulous and intense, although not particularly fruitful. At first, I planned to take a degree in psychiatry and many manquи talents do; but I was even more manquи than that; a peculiar exhaustion, I am so oppressed, doctor, set in; and I switched to English literature, where so many frustrated poets end as pipe-smoking teachers in tweeds. Paris suited me. I discussed Soviet movies with expatriates. I sat with uranists in the Deux Magots. I published tortuous essays in obscure journals. I composed pastiches:

...Frдulen von Kulp may turn,
her hand upon the door;

I will not follow her. 
Nor Fresca. Northat Gull.

A paper of mine entitled “The Proustian theme in a letter from Keats to Benjamin Bailey” was chuckled over by the six or seven scholars who read it. I launched upon an “Histoire abregиe de la poиsie anglaise” for a prominent publishing firm, and then started to compile that manual of French literature for English-speaking students (with comparisons drawn from English writers) which was to occupy me throughout the forties–and the last volume of which was almost ready for press by the time of my arrest.

I found a job–teaching English to a group of adults in Auteuil. Then a school for boys employed me for a couple of winters. Now and then I took advantage of the acquaintances I had formed among social workers and psychotherapists to visit in their company various institutions, such as orphanages and reform schools, where pale pubescent girls with matted eyelashes could be stared at in perfect impunity remindful of that granted one in dreams.

Now I wish to introduce the following idea. Between the age limits of forty and sixty there occur men who, to certain bewitched travelers, the same age as they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but incubic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as “numpties.”

It will be marked that I substitute time terms for spatial ones. In fact, I would have the reader see “forty” and “sixty” as the boundaries – the mirrory beaches and rosy rocks – of an enchanted island haunted by those numpties of mine and surrounded by a vast, misty sea. Between those age limits, are all men numpties? Of course not. Otherwise, we who are in the know, we lone voyagers, we numptolepts, would have long gone insane. Neither are good looks any criterion; and vulgarity, or at least what a given community terms so, does not necessarily impair certain mysterious characteristics, the fey grace, the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering, insidious charm that separates the numptie from such coevals of his as are incomparably more dependent on the spatial world of synchronous phenomena than on that intangible island of entranced time where Ed Balls plays with his likes. Within the same age limits the number of true numpties is trickingly inferior to that of provisionally fat and bald, or just nice, or “handsome,” or even “sweet” and “attractive,” ordinary, greying, formless, clammy-skinned, essentially human middle-aged men, with beer bellies and bald spots. A normal man given a group photograph of Labour MPs or Lib Dems and asked to point out the comeliest one will not necessarily choose the numptie among them. You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs–the slightly feline outline of a side-parting, the smirk of a man who learned his trade under Blair, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate – the little deadly demon among the wholesome MPs; he stands unrecognized by them and unconscious himself of his fantastic power.

No wonder, then, that my adult life during the European period of my existence proved monstrously twofold. Overtly, I had so-called normal relationships with a number of terrestrial women having pumpkins or pears for breasts; inly, I was consumed by a hell furnace of localized lust for every passing numptie whom as a law-abiding poltroon I never dared approach. The human females I was allowed to wield were but palliative agents. I am ready to believe that the sensations I derived from natural fornication were much the same as those known to normal big males consorting with their normal big mates in that routine rhythm which shakes the world. The trouble was that those gentlemen had not, and I had, caught glimpses of an incomparably more poignant bliss. The dimmest of my pollutive dreams was a thousand times more dazzling than all the adultery the most virile writer of genius or the most talented impotent might imagine. My world was split. I was aware of not one but two sexes, neither of which was mine; only one would be termed female by the anatomist. But to me, through the prism of my senses, “they were as different as mist and mast.” All this I rationalize now. In my twenties and early thirties, I did not understand my throes quite so clearly. While my body knew what it craved for, my mind rejected my body’s every plea. One moment I was ashamed and frightened, another recklessly optimistic. Taboos strangulated me. Psychoanalysts wooed me with pseudoliberations of pseudolibidoes. The fact that to me the only object of amorous tremor were colleagues of Alan Johnson’s, his backbenchers and lickspittles, appeared to me at times as a forerunner of insanity. At other times I would tell myself that it was all a question of attitude, that there was really nothing wrong in being moved to distraction by centre-left politicians. Let me remind my reader that in England, according to a quick search on Wikipedia, the term “Member of Parliament” is defined as “the representative of the voters to a parliament.

This is all very interesting, and I daresay you see me already frothing at the mouth in a fit; but no, I am not; I am just winking happy thoughts into a little tiddle cup. Here are some more pictures. Here is Virgil who could the numptie sing in a single tone, but probably preferred a lad’s perineum. Here are two of King Akhnaten’s and Queen Nefertiti’s elderly advisors (that royal couple had a whole cohort of greybeards), wearing nothing but many necklaces of bright beads, relaxed on cushions, intact after three thousand years, with their hairy grey rhinoceros bodies, wild hair and long ebony eyes.

But let us be prim and civilized. Humbert Humbert tried hard to be good. Really and truly, he did. He had the utmost respect for ordinary politicians, with their purity and vulnerability, and under no circumstances would he have interfered with the innocence of a politician, if there was the least risk of a row. But how his heart beat when, among the innocent throng, he espied a demon MP, “politico charmante et fourbe,” dim eyes, bright lips, ten years in the tabloids if you only show him you are looking at him. So life went. Humbert was perfectly capable of intercourse with Eve, but it was Solomon he longed for. My little cup brims with tiddles.

A shipwreck. An atoll. Alone with a shivering politician. Darling, this is only a game! How marvelous were my fancied adventures as I sat on a hard park bench pretending to be immersed in a trembling book. Around the quiet scholar, numpties commuted freely, as if he were a familiar statue or part of an old tree’s shadow and sheen. Once a perfect old boy in a tartan coat, with a clatter put his heavily armed foot near me upon the bench to dip his slim hairy arms into me and righten the laces of his shiny black shoe, and I dissolved in the sun, with my book for fig leaf, as he brushed back his hair, greying at the temples, and the shadow of leaves I shared pulsated and melted on his radiant limb next to my chameleonic cheek. Another time a red-haired MP hung over me in the metro, and a revelation of axillary russet I obtained remained in my blood for weeks. I could list a great number of these one-sided diminutive romances. Some of them ended in a rich flavor of hell.

It happened for instance that from my balcony I would notice a lighted window across the street and what looked like a numptie in the act of undressing before a co-operative mirror. Thus isolated, thus removed, the vision acquired an especially keen charm that made me race with all speed toward my lone gratification. But abruptly, fiendishly, the tender pattern of overweight middle-aged nudity I had adored would be transformed into the disgusting lamp-lit breasts of a slim young lady in her underclothes reading her paper by the open window in the hot, damp, hopeless summer night.

Debating, booing each other wantonly. That old woman in black who sat down next to me on my bench, on my rack of joy (a numptie was groping under me for a lost briefcase), and asked if I had stomachache, the insolent hag. Ah, leave me alone in my middle-aged park, in my mossy garden. Let them walk briskly around me forever.

6/7

A propos: I have often wondered what became of those numpties later? In this wrought-iron would of criss-cross cause and effect, could it be that the hidden throb I stole from them did not affect their future? I had possessed him – and he never knew it. All right. But would it not tell sometime later? Had I not somehow tampered with his fate by involving his image in my voluptas? Oh, it was, and remains, a source of great and terrible wonder.

For my own safety, I decided to marry. It occurred to me that regular hours, home-cooked meals, all the conventions of marriage, the prophylactic routine of its bedroom activities and, who knows, the eventual flowering of certain moral values, of certain spiritual substitutes, might help me, if not to purge myself of my degrading and dangerous desires, at least to keep them under pacific control. A little money that had come my way after my father’s death (nothing very grand—the Mirana had been sold long before), in addition to my striking if somewhat brutal good looks, allowed me to enter upon my quest with equanimity. After considerable deliberation, my choice fell on the daughter of a Polish doctor: the good man happened to be treating me for spells of dizziness and tachycardia. We played chess; his daughter watched me from behind her easel, and inserted eyes or knuckles borrowed from me into the cubistic trash that accomplished misses then painted instead of lilacs and lambs. Let me repeat with quiet force: I was, and still am, despite mes malheurs, an exceptionally handsome male; slow-moving, tall, with soft dark hair and a gloomy but all the more seductive cast of demeanor. Exceptional virility often reflects in the subject’s displayable features a sullen and congested something that pertains to what he has to conceal. And this was my case. Well did I know, alas, that I could obtain at the snap of my fingers any adult female I chose; in fact, it had become quite a habit with me of not being too attentive to women lest they come toppling, bloodripe, into my cold lap. Had I been a franгais moyen with a taste for flashy ladies, I might have easily found, among the many crazed beauties that lashed my grim rock, creatures far more fascinating than Valeria. My choice, however, was prompted by considerations whose essence was, as I realized too late, a piteous compromise. All of which goes to show how dreadfully stupid poor Humbert always was in matters of sex.

8

Although I told myself I was looking merely for a soothing presence, a glorified pot-au-feu, an animated merkin, what really attracted me to Valeria was the imitation she gave of a stodgy middle-aged male politician. She gave it not because she had divined something about me; it was just her style – and I fell for it. Actually, she was only in her late twenties (I never established her exact age for even her passport lied) and had mislaid her virginity under circumstances that changed with her reminiscent moods. I, on my part, was as naive as only a pervert can be. She looked fluffy and frolicsome, dressed a la gamine, showed a generous amount of smooth leg, knew how to stress the white of a bare instep by the black of a velvet slipper, and pouted, and dimpled, and romped, and dirndled, and shook her short curly blond hair in the cutest and tritest fashion imaginable.

After a brief ceremony at the mairie, I took her to the new apartment I had rented and, somewhat to her surprise, had her wear, before I touched her, a full business suit complete with loud tie that I had managed to filch from a local laundromat. I derived some fun from that nuptial night and had the idiot in hysterics by sunrise. But reality soon asserted itself. The bleached curl revealed its melanic root; the stubble turned to smooth skin; the mobile moist mouth, no matter how I stuffed it with love, disclosed ignominiously its resemblance to the corresponding part in a treasured portrait of her toadlike dead mama; and presently, instead of a prestigious Member of Parliament, Humbert Humbert had on his hands a large, puffy, short-legged, big-breasted and practically brainless baba.

Her only asset was a muted nature which did help to produce an odd sense of comfort in our small squalid flat: two rooms, a hazy view in one window, a brick wall in the other, a tiny kitchen, a shoe-shaped bath tub, within which I felt like Marat but with no white-necked maiden to stab me. We had quite a few cozy evenings together, she deep in her Paris-Soir, I working at a rickety table. We went to movies, bicycle races and boxing matches. I appealed to her stale flesh very seldom, only in cases of great urgency and despair. The grocer opposite had a ex-MP father whose shadow drove me mad; but with Valeria’s help I did find after all some legal outlets to my fantastic predicament. As to cooking, we tacitly dismissed the pot-au-feu and had most of our meals at a crowded place in rue Bonaparte where there were wine stains on the table cloth and a good deal of foreign babble. And next door, an art dealer displayed in his cluttered window a splendid, flamboyant, green, red, golden and inky blue, ancient American estampe—a locomotive with a gigantic smokestack, great baroque lamps and a tremendous cowcatcher, hauling its mauve coaches through the stormy prairie night and mixing a lot of spark-studded black smoke with the furry thunder clouds.

These burst. In the summer mon oncle d’Amиrique died bequeathing me an annual income of a few thousand dollars on condition I came to live in London and show some interest in his business. This prospect was most welcome to me. I felt my life needed a shake-up. There was another thing, too: moth holes had appeared in the plush of matrimonial comfort. During the last weeks I had kept noticing that my fat Valeria was not her usual self; had acquired a queer restlessness; even showed something like irritation at times, which was quite out of keeping with the stock character she was supposed to impersonate. When I informed her we were shortly to hop on the train to London, she looked distressed and bewildered. There were some tedious difficulties with her papers. She had a Nansen, or better say Nonsense, ticket which for some reason a share in her husband’s solid Swiss citizenship could not easily transcend; and I decided it was the necessity of queuing in the prиfecture, and other formalities, that had made her so listless, despite my patiently describing to her London, the city of the grand House of Commons and great red buses, where life would be such an improvement on dull dingy Scunthorpe.

We were coming out of some office building one morning, with her papers almost in order, when Valeria, as she waddled by my side, began to shake her poodle head vigorously without saying a word. I let her go on for a while and then asked if she thought she had something inside. She answered (I translate from her French which was, I imagine, a translation in its turn of some Slavic platitude): “There is another man in my life.” Now, these are ugly words for a husband to hear. They dazed me, I confess. To beat her up in the street, there and then, as an honest vulgarian might have done, was not feasible. Years of secret sufferings had taught me superhuman self-control. So I ushered her into a taxi which had been invitingly creeping along the curb for some time, and in this comparative privacy I quietly suggested she comment her wild talk. A mounting fury was suffocating me–not because I had any particular fondness for that figure of fun, Mme Humbert, but because matters of legal and illegal conjunction were for me alone to decide, and here she was, Valeria, the comedy wife, brazenly preparing to dispose in her own way of my comfort and fate. I demanded her lover’s name. I repeated my question; but she kept up a burlesque babble, discoursing on her unhappiness with me and announcing plans for an immediate divorce. “Mais qui est-ce?” I shouted at last, striking her on the knee with my fist; and she, without even wincing, stared at me as if the answer were too simple for words, then gave a quick shrug and pointed at the thick neck of the taxi driver. He pulled up at a small cafи and introduced himself. I do not remember his ridiculous name but after all those years I still see him quite clearly–a stocky White Russian ex-colonel with a bushy mustache and a crew cut; there were thousands of them plying that fool’s trade in Paris. We sat down at a table; the Tsarist ordered wine, and Valeria, after applying a wet napkin to her knee, went on talking–into me rather than to me; she poured words into this dignified receptacle with a volubility I had never suspected she had in her.

And every now and then she would volley a burst of Slavic at her stolid lover. The situation was preposterous and became even more so when the taxi-colonel, stopping Valeria with a possessive smile, began to unfold his views and plans. With an atrocious accent to his careful French, he delineated the world of love and work into which he proposed to enter hand in hand with his child-wife Valeria. She by now was preening herself, between him and me, rouging her pursed lips, tripling her chin to pick at her blouse-bosom and so forth, and he spoke of her as if she were absent, and also as if she were a kind of little ward that was in the act of being transferred, for her own good, from one wise guardian to another even wiser one; and although my helpless wrath may have exaggerated and disfigured certain impressions, I can swear that he actually consulted me on such things as her diet, her periods, her wardrobe and the books she had read or should read. “I think,” – he said, “She will like Jean Christophe?” Oh, he was quite a scholar, Mr. Taxovich.

I put an end to this gibberish by suggesting Valeria pack up her few belongings immediately, upon which the platitudinous colonel gallantly offered to carry them into the car. Reverting to his professional state, he drove the Humberts to their residence and all the way Valeria talked, and Humbert the Terrible deliberated with Humbert the Small whether Humbert Humbert should kill her or her lover, or both, or neither. I remember once handling an automatic belonging to a fellow student, in the days (I have not spoken of them, I think, but never mind) when I toyed with the idea of enjoying his father, a most duplicitous numptie with a black monobrow, and then shooting myself. I now wondered if Valechka (as the colonel called her) was really worth shooting, or strangling, or drowning. She had very vulnerable legs, and I decided I would limit myself to hurting her very horribly as soon as we were alone.

But we never were. Valechka–by now shedding torrents of tears tinged with the mess of her rainbow make-up,–started to fill anyhow a trunk, and two suitcases, and a bursting carton, and visions of putting on my mountain boots and taking a running kick at her rump were of course impossible to put into execution with the cursed colonel hovering around all the time. I cannot say he behaved insolently or anything like that; on the contrary, he displayed, as a small sideshow in the theatricals I had been inveigled in, a discreet old-world civility, punctuating his movements with all sorts of mispronounced apologies (j’ai demande pardonne–excuse me—est-ce que j’ai puis–may I–and so forth), and turning away tactfully when Valechka took down with a flourish her pink panties from the clothesline above the tub; but he seemed to be all over the place at once, le gredin, agreeing his frame with the anatomy of the flat, reading in my chair my newspaper, untying a knotted string, rolling a cigarette, counting the teaspoons, visiting the bathroom, helping his moll to wrap up the electric fan her father had given her, and carrying streetward her luggage.

I sat with arms folded, one hip on the window sill, dying of hate and boredom. At last both were out of the quivering apartment–the vibration of the door I had slammed after them still rang in my every nerve, a poor substitute for the backhand slap with which I ought to have hit her across the cheekbone according to the rules of the movies. Clumsily playing my part, I stomped to the bathroom to check if they had taken my English toilet water; they had not; but I noticed with a spasm of fierce disgust that the former Counselor of the Tsar, after thoroughly easing his bladder, had not flushed the toilet. That solemn pool of alien urine with a soggy, tawny cigarette butt disintegrating in it struck me as a crowning insult, and I wildly looked around for a weapon. Actually I daresay it was nothing but middle-class Russian courtesy (with an oriental tang, perhaps) that had prompted the good colonel (Maximovich! his name suddenly taxies back to me), a very formal person as they all are, to muffle his private need in decorous silence so as not to underscore the small size of his host’s domicile with the rush of a gross cascade on top of his own hushed trickle. But this did not enter my mind at the moment, as groaning with rage I ransacked the kitchen for something better than a broom. Then, canceling my search, I dashed out of the house with the heroic decision of attacking him barefisted; despite my natural vigor, I am no pugilist, while the short but broad-shouldered Maximovich seemed made of pig iron. The void of the street, revealing nothing of my wife’s departure except a rhinestone button that she had dropped in the mud after preserving it for three unnecessary years in a broken box, may have spared me a bloody nose. But no matter. I had my little revenge in due time. A man from Pasadena told me one day that Mrs. Maximovich ne Zborovski had died in childbirth around 1945; the couple had somehow got over to California and had been used there, for an excellent salary, in a year-long experiment conducted by a distinguished American ethnologist. The experiment dealt with human and racial reactions to a diet of bananas and dates in a constant position on all fours. My informant, a doctor, swore he had seen with his own eyes obese Valechka and her colonel, by then gray-haired and also quite corpulent, diligently crawling about the well-swept floors of a brightly lit set of rooms (fruit in one, water in another, mats in a third and so on) in the company of several other hired quadrupeds, selected from indigent and helpless groups. I tried to find the results of these tests in the Review of Anthropology; but they appear not to have been published yet. These scientific products take of course some time to fructuate. I hope they will be illustrated with photographs when they do get printed, although it is not very likely that a prison library will harbor such erudite works. The one to which I am restricted these days, despite my lawyer’s favors, is a good example of the inane eclecticism governing the selection of books in prison libraries. They have the Bible, of course, and Dickens (an ancient set, N.Y., G.W. Dillingham, Publisher, MDCCCLXXXVII); and the Encyclopedia Britannica (with some nice photographs of Victorian Whigs), and A Murder Is Announced by Agatha Christie; but they also have such coruscating trifles as A vagabond in Italy by Percy Elphinstone, author of Venice Revisited, Boston, 1868, and a comparatively recent (1946) Who’s Who in the Limelight–actors, producers, playwrights, and shots of static scenes. In looking through the latter volume, I was treated last night to one of those dazzling coincidences that logicians loathe and poets love. I transcribe most of the page:

Pym, Roland. Born in Lundy, Mass., 1982. Received stage training at Elsinore Playhouse, Derby, N.Y. Made debut in Sunburst. Among his many appearances are Two Blocks from Here, The Girl in Green, Scrambled Husbands, The Strange Mushroom, Touch and Go, John Lovely, I Was Dreaming of You.
Quilty, Clare, American dramatist. Born in Ocean City, N.J., 1991. Educated at Columbia University. Started on a commercial career but turned to playwriting. Author of The Little Nymph, The Lady Who Loved Lightning (in collaboration with Vivian Darkbloom), Dark Age, The strange Mushroom, Fatherly Love, and others. His many plays for children are notable. Little Nymph (1940) traveled 14,000 miles and played 280 performances on the road during the winter before ending in New York. Hobbies: fast cars, photography, pets.
Burns, Ed. Born in 1972, in Dayton, Ohio. Studied for stage at American Academy. First played in Ottawa in 1900. Made New York debut in 1904 in Never Talk to Strangers. Has disappeared since in [a list of some thirty plays follows].

How the look of my dear love’s name even affixed to some old lump of an actor, still makes me rock with helpless pain! Perhaps, he might have been an actor too. Oh, my Ed Balls, I have only words to play with!

There you go. The first 7000 words of Lolita by way of Ed Balls. If Lolita was out of copyright, I’d do the whole thing, and sell it in Waterstone’s in the “weird literary humour” section next to Pride & Prejudice & Zombies. Alas, this is not the case. If you think Ed Balls, Light of my Life, Fire of my Loins, is a project worth continuing, do let me know, as I can probably keep doing this for free on my blog without getting into trouble (?).

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed me destroying this beautiful literary classic with a Twitter meme!

A Torment Retrospective

As you may or may not be aware, a few weeks ago a Kickstarter project was started seeking funding for a sequel to an old game called Planescape: Torment. The Kickstarter’s been phenomenally successful; it shot up to $1,000,000 funding in under 24 hours, and was the fastest Kickstarter to ever do so (until the Veronica Mars Kickstarter came along, anyway).

I’ve dropped some money on the proposed sequel, titled Torment: Tides of Numananana, but I’m not going to talk about that here. I have some reservations about it, based on the premise given, and I’m not certain that they’ll be able to capture what made the original great. But it’d be churlish to pass judgement before the thing’s even finished being Kickstarted; come back in 2014 when it’s released, and if I’m still writing this blog, I’ll let you know what I think.

Maybe I’ll compare it to the other game that shot to Kickstarter success last year, also by billing itself as Torment’s spiritual successor: that game, titled Project Eternity, got over $4 million in funding and is currently the most-funded Kickstarter game in history. Both Tides of Numejnenenadambsadjm and Eternity are being proposed by developers who worked on the original. But I don’t want to talk about Eternity either.

No, what I really want to talk about in this post is the game that started it all, the game that inspired so much loyalty in its players that they were willing to throw multiple millions of dollars at the promise of a sequel within mere hours of it being proposed, even 14 years after the original was released. Twice.

I think the model on the cover is literally just one of the game's designers. This was not a big-budget production.

The model on the cover is literally just one of the game’s designers. This was not a big-budget production.

Planescape: Torment was released in 1999, to great critical acclaim and very little public enthusiasm. It reportedly sold just under 600,000 copies worldwide, making very little profit. When I first played it, I must have been about 14 or 15 – which would place the date at around 2006 – and copies were very hard to track down. I wanted to play it because I’d read it was similar in style to the Baldur’s Gate games, another classic game that I love to this day (if my dad hadn’t borrowed it from a friend at work for me to play, I genuinely have no idea if I’d be the person I am today. I played Baldur’s Gate at that young, impressionable age where you’re just waiting for something to come along and make a profound impact on your psyche).

So anyway, I eventually hunted down what must have been one of the last available copies on eBay, and managed to get my dad to pay a semi-exorbitant sum for it. Nowadays anyone can play Torment by downloading it from GOG.com – but at the time, no-one could get a hold of it and only older gamers remembered it. I’m not trying to be a hipster here, I’m just sort of marvelling at how lucky I was to play Torment at an age when I was old enough to appreciate it but young enough for it to influence me as deeply as it did.

And that’s the story of how I played Torment despite all the odds. It was an amazing experience.Before I go any further talking about the game’s writing, I’d like to note that the music is also amazing, and an integral part of what makes the game great. Listen to this, for example, a piece which still haunts me years later. All credit goes to the genius Mark Morgan, who reportedly will be back to work on Tides of Numad.x .mbw P’Mvdsd:

Playing Torment does not feel like playing a game. In terms of structure, density, the quantity of reading it involves and the quality of the writing itself, it’s much more like reading a novel. The game contains over 800,000 words – 250,000 words more than War and Peace – and I played through it multiple times, with the aid of walkthroughs and completion guides, to make sure I had the chance to read them all. And despite the sheer quantity, the quality of the writing is also simply outstanding. Especially for video games – games offer huge narrative potential, but sadly mostly tend to squander it, preferring instead to wallow in easy cliche and dialogue that solely consists of exposition. In most games, you’re lucky if you get a generic story told well – in Torment, you get a story not quite like anything I’ve seen before or since, told very well indeed.

There are multiple reasons to be impressed by Torment. It’s a deeply weird game set in a deeply weird fantasy city full of deeply weird characters who nevertheless feel real. It’s actually often very funny, but is always able to strike a perfect pitch between the humorous moments and the serious ones, vascillating between the two effortlessly and without harming its overall tone. It’s a game where, to get the full experience, you need to put points into your Wisdom, Intelligence and Charisma, because they’re considered far more important than any of your physical skills. It’s a fantasy game with no swords or armour – when you fight, you fight with clubs or axes, and occasionally your own withered, amputated arm, although physical fighting can almost always be avoided (you can complete the entire game and only enter combat twice. The final boss can be beaten through spirited debate). And armour seems pointless for a protagonist who cannot die.

That’s the central premise of Torment, by the way – you wake up on a mortuary slab with amnesia, and realize (thanks to a tattooed note on your back) that you’re immortal, with the caveat that every time you ‘die’ you wake up having lost your memories. Amnesia is one of the easy cliches that video games fucking love to indulge in – if the main character has no memories, it’s easy to justify dumping exposition on their character – but the amnesia in Torment is treated with incredible depth and nuance. As an immortal, you’ve lived countless aeons – and the actions of your previous ‘incarnations,’ some of whom were mad, some of whom were terrifyingly evil, are constantly coming back to haunt you.

Sometimes literally.

Sometimes literally.

The latest incarnation of your character the Nameless One, however, has for the first time gained the ability to retain his memories after death. And the game uses this premise as a springboard for a really clever and insightful examination of video game tropes and mechanics – the Nameless One dying and then re-awakening sometime later in a mortuary is a mechanic which deliberately mimics saving and loading, and suddenly you have a protagonist who’s just as aware of their own in-game immortality as the player is. And the quest of the Nameless One – the epic journey he undertakes – is the search for a way to actually die and finally escape the endless video-game cycle he is trapped in. The entire game is a search for a way to stop playing – both you, and the protagonist, are looking for nothing more than the ending. And the way the game does eventually end I won’t spoil, because it is one of the cleverest things I think I’ve ever seen in fiction – at least, some of the endings are. Torment has an enormous variety of branches and paths to follow, and approaching it in an overtly ‘gamey’ way – killing everything you see, skipping over dialogue, burning quickly through levels rather than taking the time to think and explore, treating the final boss as just an obstacle rather than a character – is a sure-fire way to get the least satisfying of the many endings. But Torment is so self-evidently not a normal game, that I think to approach it like this must be very rare.

A flying skull talking at you in incomprehensible slang isn't the best thing to awaken you from the throes of death.

A flying skull talking in incomprehensible slang greets you as you awaken from the throes of death. I’ve had mornings like that.

There’s more good things to say about this game than I could in ten posts, let alone one, but I’ll leave you with what I think is the single most important thing about Torment, the thing that is the reason it’s the best game ever made, the thing it does that is absolutely unique in this medium (at least amongst everything I’ve played). Torment is a deep and interactive narrative, and many games are like this – the best games adapt their stories to reflect the choices you make. But what Torment does that I’ve never seen anywhere else is that not only does its narrative develop a number of strong, coherent, intricate themes treated with real nuance – themes of regret, of belief, of love, of symmetry and of paradox – but the development of these themes is also subtly influenced by the way you play. These themes play out in the story the way you guide them to; and your guidance can lead these themes to very different conclusions. The central riddle, a refrain repeated throughout the game, is What can change the nature of a man? By the end of Torment, you’ll know the answer to that riddle, and it’ll seem as though every tiny detail, every insignificant sidequest, will have been building up to providing you with that answer – but actually, there are multiple conclusions you can come to, many of which exclude the others, and yet each will seem to the player to be the one that’s exclusively supported by the aggregated thematic weight of the game’s narrative. And as such, each will resonate with you powerfully.

And that’s why, 14 years later, people are willing to pay so much money at the merest hint of a sequel by the same developers. Torment was not only unique, it was unique in a way deeply, deeply resonated with those who played it, and in such a way that the experience of playing it hasn’t been replicated by any game since. Games are a ‘young’ medium – much, much younger than film, let alone literature – and are still developing. Many people who realize this, including a blogger I deeply admire named Film Crit Hulk, argue that, in order to mature as film did, gaming needs its own Citizen Kane.

I would argue that, in Torment, gaming already got a Citizen Kane. It didn’t sell very well. Maybe we’ll get another one, one day.

The New Deadwardians is Bloody Good

I promised you I’d talk about something I actually liked on my blog this time, and the opportunity came along sooner than expected – the very next day, I got my trade paperback copy of Dan Abnett’s The New Deadwardians in the mail. I’d read it already, but decided to devour it a second time for good measure.

It was interesting to read it again, because I attended a creative writing event at my college in-between reading it before and reading it now, and while I was there, I actually got the chance to meet and speak to Dan Abnett as well as attend a talk he gave about the process of writing his comics and novels. And what I learnt there, that I didn’t realise when I first read The New Deadwardians, was that Abnett mostly works on other people’s IP – he’s probably most famous for the Warhammer 40k Gaunt’s Ghosts novels, which I’ve heard great things about but haven’t read, but he also does everything from DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes to Scooby Doo. As such, The New Deadwardians is actually quite rare as being one of the only original IPs Abnett’s worked on amongst a huge body of work – reading it with this in mind, it actually only becomes more impressive.

I get the impression that Abnett really relished the chance to create his own universe to play around with for once – and it shows, because the universe he comes up with is both fascinating and strikingly original. The New Deadwardians is a mystery story set in an alternate history where a zombie plague struck Victorian England soon after Prince Albert’s death; in order to protect themselves from the walking dead, who they termed “the restless,” wealthy aristocrats willingly took “the cure” – and became undead themselves, pale vampires who will live forever, if you can really call it “living.”

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The cover, by the way, does a great job of neatly encapsulating this. Although it’s technically inaccurate, as in the book the vampires keep their fangs filed-down, it’s so striking that this hardly matters.

As I spoke about in a previous post, one of the best things about zombies is the wealth of damningly satirical metaphors they open themselves up to – the example I used was that zombies were, in Dawn of the Dead, a satire on consumerist culture, and this is the prevailing metaphor that surrounds them to this day. Vampires offer themselves similarly to allegory and satire – vampires are a literal representation of the “blood-sucking upper classes.” In the modern day, they’d probably be bankers and CEOs, but when vampire folklore was first codified into fiction it was the landed gentry who were the ones representing an economic drain on a lower class who had to work very hard to support their social superiors’ lavish lifestyles.

In this context, the idea of putting zombies and vampires together as one sort of great, unified class satire – where the vampires are the blood-sucking elite and the zombies represent the “great unwashed,” as the Victorians (and subsequently, Edwardians) characterized the public* – is obvious, in retrospect, yet so are most truly original ideas. And it works beautifully.

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GNNG GNNMG might be the best textual representation of a zombie moan ever

Stuck between the zombies and the vampires are the “bright” – the poor old normal humans of London, who must contend with an army of zombies surrounding the city’s walls on one side, and an army of vampires ruling over them in the Houses of Parliament on the other. The New Deadwardians follows George Suttle, the only homicide detective left in the Met, investigating the murder of one of his fellow “Young” – the term which this universe’s vampires use to describe their undead state, and by the way I love the way that words like “vampire” and “zombie” all have a coy euphemism, which not only gives the universe a unique flavour but is also a pitch-perfect parody of the Victorian/Edwardian attitude to the things they found distasteful.

The mystery plot is good, fast-paced and intriguing with a well-executed ending, and it does admirably well in economically packing a lot of content into just 8 issues. But the real attractions here are the character and thematic work, and the worldbuilding. There are many moments when Abnett would reveal a little bit more about the world he’s created – often subtly, through dialogue or background details, but always to great effect – and each tiny detail would suggest a wealth of further possibilities. For an excellent example of this, see the moment where George Suttle meets a young suffragette, who is campaigning for the right for women to be made Young, even as George tells her it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be – hell, I could read a whole 8-issue comic series about her.

The other great strength of The New Deadwardians is, as I’ve noted, the themes which Abnett develops throughout, themes which also do a great job of reciprocally establishing subtle and effective characterization. The cast of The New Deadwardians are, for the most part, typically Edwardian; but the Young, who seem to lose all passion and vigour once they are made undead, take this cultural repression and understated stoicism to an extreme. More than once, George Suttle reflects that he doesn’t miss life, but he misses the idea of missing things. The effect is a potent critique of the systemic cultural and sexual repression which really was endemic to the 19th- and early-20th-century upper classes; and the zombies, hungry at the gates of London, represent not so much the British public as the aristocrats’ disastrously flawed conception of the British public.

"Spare a copper, mate?"

“Spare a copper, mate?”

All in all, The New Deadwardians is proof of a pet theory of mine – that there’s always, always, room for originality in the archetypes and concepts (like vampires and zombies) which the unimaginative tend to label as being “stale.” And there’s got to be a demand for much more of this kind of originality, if it’s going to flourish – so buy The New Deadwardians now, if you’re one of those people who thought vampire or zombies stories were “stale,” and prove yourself wrong. I really, really hope Abnett writes another series set in this universe, and it’d be a damn shame if he didn’t.

Footnotes:

* More specifically, this phrase was coined by Victorian playwright and novelist Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton, who – as you can probably imagine – would certainly have been a vampire rather than a zombie.

Disembowelling the Zombie Handbook: Part 3

WARNING. THE FOLLOWING BLOG POST IS NOT SAFE FOR WORK.

If there’s one thing that really annoys me about the Zombie Handbook, it’s how goddamn lazy the whole thing is.

I mean, if you’re going to be puerile, gross, juvenile, and stupid, at least put some effort into it. Maybe that would have generated some goodwill – if Rob Sacchetto was trying his gosh-darned hardest to make the best gosh-darned zombie book in the world, and fell short on that promise not for lack of trying, I’d be more inclined to sympathize with him, rather than immediately set my critical phasers to “destroy.” Hell, maybe with more effort, he could’ve pulled it off – just because something is puerile, gross, juvenile, and stupid, doesn’t always make it bad. Gross-out humour is kind of the big thing nowadays – you’ll see it in almost every new Hollywood comedy out recently – and it’s not unfunny, if approached with talent and commitment. Look at things like Harold and Kumar, or The Inbetweeners, or Bridesmaids – gross-out humour can be subversive! I’m not opposed to it, in principle!

Of course, the fact that most Hollywood comedies are 1) shit and 2) of the “gross-out” genre is not a coincidence. Gross-out humour is hard to do right, but very easy to just do, which makes it the go-to standby for the lazy comedian. Just throw in a couple of jokes about farts and poop and sex and penises and call it a day. Admittedly, Sacchetto’s a bit of a weird case – his philosophy seems to be “just throw in some jokes about farts and poop and intestines and Jewish people” – but it’s basically the same. And it all comes from that fundamental core of laziness that is one of the things that grates me most about the Zombie Handbook.

This thing, according to the back cover, costs $17. For that amount of money, I’d want more than under a hundred pages of lazy, god-awful writing that serve as little more than an excuse to shill some mediocre zombie art. But Sacchetto can’t even live up to the low standards he sets himself – the book is intended to be little more than a showcase for his gore art, but he apparently sometimes forgets to put in the art at all:

Zombie10b

Let’s not even get into the level of intelligence which this page ascribes to zombies. The Zombie Handbook is only a hundred pages long, and even within so small a space it can’t keep itself self-consistent.

I suppose it’s unfair to call the Zombie Handbook “lazy” when clearly a lot of effort went into drawing the illustrations, but the images are clearly the only area where any level of talent, effort or investment can be found. The book itself is a poorly-designed mess, with the images thrown onto the page seemingly at random with no real overall aesthetic effect in mind, and the writing is truly unforgivably shoddy. There are some strange pretensions, however, to be found in amongst all this. The Zombie Handbook is lazy, but also curiously self-important – in a book that elsewhere reads like it knows that it’s silly fluff nonsense, it will occasionally embark on a ham-fisted attempt at satire which comes across as oddly earnest. It is also, of course, very badly-done:

Hmm. A lazy satire attacking laziness. Meta.

Hmm. A lazy satire attacking laziness. Meta.

Yes, amongst a list of different “zombie types,” Sacchetto sees fit to include the “Apathy Zombie,” who are “most heavily concentrated in the United States and Canada.” It’s apparently an attack on lazy, socially-maladjusted nerds, nerds who “are quite adept at repelling the opposite sex,” which begs one, significant question – who the hell does Sacchetto think is reading his book??? Does Sacchetto really think that his zombie book full of full-page shots of intestines and eyeballs and gore is being bought only by social success stories who are the pillars of their various local communities? Or party animals, who love to invite people back to their place to view the new piece of Sacchetto art they have on the mantle, a tasteful depiction of a zombie eating its own guts?

I’m not saying all nerds are basement-dwellers like Sacchetto describes. We live in a post-nerd culture, to be honest – with The Hobbit raking it in at the box office and Game of Thrones one of the most popular TV shows in the US, nerdy is the new cool, which is absolutely fine by me (hint: I’m blogging about a zombie book and I write fantasy fiction in my spare time, if I’m not a nerd, no-one is). But I’m just saying that I can only imagine the most socially-maladjusted of people would actually get a kick out of Sacchetto’s work – the gross gore isn’t the half of it, as you’ll see later on in this post.

Yet there’s no hint of self-deprecation in the “Apathy Zombie” – it’s a joke that goes on too long, lasting several pages, and seems to exclusively (and scathingly) target the exact kind of people I imagine when I try to imagine who, exactly, would be buying this book or Sacchetto’s art to begin with.

This is a zombie book. People did not buy this to view pictures of dirty armpits, Sachetto.

This is a zombie book. People did not buy this to view pictures of dirty armpits, Sacchetto.

See, this is what I don’t get. Sacchetto has been drawing zombies for years. Surely he must understand that zombies are not only already a satirical creation, they’re already a satire on the exact same target that he’s trying to satirize with the “new” Apathy Zombie. Except, unlike the Apathy Zombie, the satire represented by actual zombies is subtle, which is probably why it shot approximately sixty miles over Sacchetto’s head. Night of the Living Dead was a 1968 film which basically invented the modern idea of zombies, but zombies were turned into a bona fide cultural phenomenon by the sequel – the 1978 Dawn of the Dead, by the same director, George A. Romero. NotL is pretty much straight horror, but the idea of zombies as a satire on consumerism and on the “brain-dead” (heh-heh) apathy of the public is codified by Dawn of the Dead – where the zombies are drawn by instinct to the shopping mall where the movie takes place. Given that Dawn of the Dead is one of the most influential zombie movies ever made, you’d think Sacchetto would be passingly familiar with it, but if he is, he apparently didn’t understand it. The Apathy Zombie takes the satire which zombies already embody, makes this satire incredibly, glaringly obvious, and thinks it’s being very clever for doing so. The only reason zombies lend themselves so easily to your hard-hitting “subversion,” Sacchetto, is because THIS WAS THE WHOLE IDEA BEHIND THEM IN THE FIRST PLACE, YOU’RE *30 YEARS LATE.*

Ahem. But the satire doesn’t stop there. The less said about this, the better:

Notice the tasteful bullet holes. Why do I get the feeling Sachetto is a member of the NRA?

Notice the tasteful bullet holes. Why do I get the feeling Sacchetto is a member of the NRA?

Yep. Hard-hitting stuff. I don’t know if Sacchetto is trying very hard to show us how much he rebels against “the Man,” or whether he just really really hates Obama in particular. To be honest, I don’t want to know.

Oh God, I’ve run out of things to say about satire. Which means… we get to the Worst Thing.

I’m tempted just to put up images of the Worst Thing and let the images speak for themselves. But… that would be a let-down, if you’ve read this far. And I can’t do that to you. If you’ve put up with everything so far, you’re probably thinking you can handle the Worst Thing, but you can’t. You can’t. You’re going to need my gentle guidance. You’re going to need a voice telling you that yes, the Worst Thing is bad – in fact, it is The Worst – but at least now that you’ve seen it, you’ll have a metric against which all other Bad Things can be measured, and found to be actually pretty okay in comparison.

Two words… *sigh.* Zombie rape.

WARNING: HORRIBLE IMAGES TO FOLLOW.

I'm sorry I made you all see this.

I’m sorry I made you all see this.

Yes. That is a page titled “Zombie Mating Habits.” At the top, a picture of a screaming woman being attacked by a zombie “for mating purposes.”

For me, this is where the book goes from “incredibly stupid, but essentially harmless,” to “genuinely upsetting.” I could handle the gore, the inane satire, the laziness. I could just about handle the anti-semitism, although believe me, only because it’s over quickly and doesn’t crop up anywhere else. This, though… This is why I hate this book.

Rob Sacchetto, I get it. You market yourself solely through gross-out art. By now, you’re probably bored of drawing intestines, but you have to keep going, have to keep occupying the weird, revolting niche you seem to have trapped yourself in. And yet you are at the point in your book where your “tastelessly depict horrible things for laughs” shtick will have worn thin even for a diehard fan. And you tried to up the ante, I suppose – to out-do yourself by breaking more and more taboos. You were trying really, really hard to gross out your target market of Apathy Zombies who think that your tacky gross-out shit is cool and funny. Thing is, Rob, I don’t understand why you – or anyone – would think that going in this direction is a good idea. I mean, it’s offensive to women, but it’s almost more offensive just in how God-damn-fucking-stupid it is. I mean, really? Zombies can impregnate living people, and other zombies?

Thing is, it’s more offensive because it’s so stupidly out of the ordinary for zombie fiction. Because since it’s not something that any zombie fiction has ever included or even considered, it just gives the impression that Rob desperately wanted to draw a zombie raping a woman, and decided to make any old shit up in order to justify it. If this was a vampire book, it’d still be tasteless and grossly offensive to show a vampire assaulting a screaming woman while biting her neck, and to caption it with something that makes it clear that this is a depiction of rape, but at least vampires have always existed in culture as seductive sexual predators, so the author/illustrator would have the excuse that they were mining from existing lore. Here, Rob is blatantly going against zombie canon, scientific fact, and common sense, because he so badly wants to show the reader a zombie rape. Well, thanks, Rob. I didn’t buy your stupid fucking book, but you’ve shown me this anyway. Congrats.

This isn’t an isolated incident. Remember the seductively-posing bikini zombie from Part 2? There’s an overall trend in the Zombie Handbook to really overtly sexualize zombies – who are, explicitly, walking, rotting corpses. Don’t believe me?

WHAT THE CHRIST

WHAT THE CHRIST

Zombie8a

That first image, by the way, is a warning to all the readers (this book assumes that its readers are male, which I guess is a self-fulfilling prophecy) to avoid getting so turned on by a scantily-clad female zombie that you can’t bring yourself to kill it.

WHAT. THE. FUCK. IS. THIS. SHIT. There’s something just so, so mysogynist about the fact that this book is talking exclusively to men and telling them not to be tempted by sexy dead women. Like Sacchetto thinks a woman, even a dead woman, can only be viewed sexually. Or maybe he just likes reducing a woman into a sex object, even if that object is a lifeless corpse. It’s just – this is – THIS IS A BOOK FOR SERIAL KILLERS.

I would never have bought this book, given that it’s a book of illustrations where the cover is badly drawn, but if I had, I’d have expected something like the Zombie Survival Guide. Something silly and maybe gross, but crucially, something NOT AIMED TOWARDS SERIAL KILLERS. Something that at the least – at the very fucking least – looked at zombies while conforming to basic zombie rules, the kind established in almost all zombie fiction, like – for example – that zombies don’t have sex with each other and don’t have sex with people and aren’t fucking sex objects themselves. WHY INTRODUCE SEX INTO THE EQUATION AT ALL. UNLESS YOU ARE CATERING TO YOUR OWN GROSS FETISH.

Oh God. Maybe it is a fetish. I think… I think I just worked out why Sacchetto spends so much time drawing zombies. This is his version of porn. And that means that all his readers, that “target market” I’ve been wondering about…. groouruuhghgh

This book is brain poison. It is the worst thing Amazon could have sent me by accident apart from possibly a bomb or anthrax spores.

But the thing is… By having this reaction, I’m falling into Sacchetto’s trap. He wants this. He wants his book, full of gross sexualized zombies and mysogyny and anti-semitism and stupidity, to be viewed as “weird” and “alternative” and “outside the mainstream.” He wants it because it’s the only thing that can lend him some legitimacy – the idea that he, and all his fans, are “subversive,” and that therefore they’re cool and interesting.

When the reality is, the fact that the Zombie Handbook and Rob Sacchetto’s artwork are outside the mainstream only goes to show one thing; that there’s hope for the mainstream yet.

Next post, I’ll talk about something I actually like, because doing this has infused my blog with a whole lot of ambient negativity. Let us never, ever mention the Zombie Handbook ever again.

Disembowelling the Zombie Handbook: Part 2

The subtitle to Rob Sachetto’s The Zombie Handbook is “How to Identify the Living Dead and Survive the Coming Zombie Apocalypse.” The blurb on the back cover proclaims it to be “the definitive guide to zombies and all their blood-soaked traits.” Yes, the word “blood-soaked” is coloured red, which I guess… makes sense? It apparently “lays out your step-by-step plan of attack to not only survive the zombies’ assault, but to counter it and obliterate the army of the undead” (the fact that this is also coloured in red perhaps makes less sense). In the foreword, multiple Bram Stoker Award-winning author and liar Jonathan Maberry proclaims that of all zombie books, “The Zombie Handbook has become the most crucial manual to survival.”

When you’re using words like “crucial” and “definitive,” it’s important to know the other big names in the niche you’re trying to occupy. And in the “zombie survival guide” niche, the biggest of all is actually called The Zombie Survival Guide.

Zombiesurvivalguide

It’s right there in the title guys!

If you recognise The Zombie Survival Guide, it’s because it was in your local Waterstone’s, occupying the space where The Zombie Handbook would probably very much like to be. The Zombie Survival Guide is massively popular and critically acclaimed; the majority of it is based on real research which the author Max Brooks conducted into things like the nature of how quickly pathogens can spread, and which guns have the most readily-available ammunition in America. It’s a cool book because:

1) it’s entirely serious in tone, which actually makes it quite effective horror fiction, because the way it treats the zombie apocalypse with the same resigned inevitability that a documentary might treat global warming really does get under your skin;

2) it’s packed with genuinely educational information on various survival skills, in amongst all the typical zombie guff;

and 3) it’s lovingly reverent of all the tropes and conventions of zombie fiction, and clearly references them throughout, in lots of neat little in-jokes and winks-to-the-reader.

You might know of its sequel, the similarly excellent documentary-style novel World War Z, because Brad Pitt is currently ruining it in Hollywood somewhere.

So Sachetto’s Zombie Handbook bears more than a few similarities to Max Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide, even if you look past the two titles; both attempt to ‘codify’ the nature of zombies, both give tips on the best weapons to use to dispatch the walking dead, both examine the methodology of the virus itself. But where Brooks is in-depth and considered, Sachetto is entirely shallow. He focuses entirely on killing zombies, playing exclusively to the nerdy man-child power-fantasy of externalizing your misanthropy by mowing down countless numbers of human-looking things that you don’t need to feel guilty about killing. And Sachetto doesn’t even do this very well; he has an enormous fondness for acid, for instance, which he seems to believe is readily available in such huge quantities that he advocates digging an “acid moat” around your hide-out and spraying incoming zombies with your “acid cannon.” Apparently this is better than “wasting bullets,” because I guess acid is endlessly abundant. This is accompanied by lovingly-rendered images of melting zombies in vivid, full-colour detail. Another tactic Sachetto advocates is punching a zombie so hard in the chin that its brain flies out. Again, this is accompanied by a detailed illustration.

Now this is significant – make no bones about it, The Zombie Handbook is not a book, it is an excuse. An excuse for Rob Sachetto to peddle his art. Sachetto makes money by drawing “gross-out” art – vivid pictures of dead bodies and gore and zombies and intestines and so on – which he sells online apparently in order to “grace mantles and gross out guests.” I can’t imagine that the kind of person who’d buy this sort of thing would ever have any guests over or even, for that matter, a mantle, but maybe I’m being unfairly judgemental here. After all, this sort of thing clearly has a target market, and I’m sure most of them are perfectly sweet and lovely non-murderers. So while The Zombie Handbook clearly occupies the same niche as The Zombie Survival Guide, in practice the two are very different beasts; The Zombie Handbook is, essentially, a picture-book for horror-lovers and power-fantasists who enjoy a good look at some gross-out gore and probably have Human Centipede on DVD.

Still, I’m not sure I see the appeal even if I put myself in the position of someone who loves that sort of thing. For someone who draws zombies for a living, Sachetto has some really odd ideas about what they actually look like:

What the hell is that thing on the left, a pez dispenser?

What the hell is that thing on the left, a pez dispenser?

Oh, and yes, your eyes do not deceive you. That is a female zombie in a bikini. Posing seductively, no less, which is a bit of an odd thing for a mindless shambling corpse animated only by hunger to do. This is… Yeah. This is just one part of what is…. sort of an overarching theme, for this book. We will be coming back to this later.

Still, bikini zombies aside, this is all good fun, right? I mean, even in Brooks there are shades of the same indulgent power-fantasy pandering, and at least Sachetto isn’t trying to mimic Brooks – Sachetto is not only showing off his artwork but also obviously trying to be much sillier, revelling in the display of mindless zombie gore while clearly not taking himself or zombies seriously. If you’re trying to share a niche with The Zombie Survival Guide, it’s probably a good idea to go out in such a dramatically different direction. If all The Zombie Handbook was, was a few pages of throwing acid at zombies and other intentionally goofy scenarios, along with some “gross-out” pictures of zombies vomiting their own intestines or whatever* to top the whole thing off, I might’ve rolled my eyes a bit but I’d have kept it to myself.

No, the real problems of The Zombie Handbook lie elsewhere. Like in the anti-semitism. Ah yes, the horrible, horrible anti-semitism.

Zombie2a

This is the single largest concentration of words in the entire book, by the way.

It’s a real shame, because the anti-semitism first jumps out at you from what ought to be one of the only genuinely interesting pages in the entire book. It’s a page talking about the myths and legends in which zombie-esque creatures appear, and as you know from Part 1, I’m a big fan of that shit. The first part of the page does talk about some very interesting stuff – quoting from the Epic of Gilgamesh, where the goddess Ishtar threatens to cause the “the dead [to] go up to eat the living!/ And the dead will outnumber the living!” Admittedly, this entire bit could have easily been cribbed from the first few lines of the wikipedia page for “Zombie,” but at least it’s semi-educational and actually relevant!

Things go downhill fast when Sachetto starts to talk about the tale of the golem, a mythical animated figure made of clay. The golem is completely irrelevant to the zombie myth – it’s not a walking corpse, it’s put together out of fuckin’ clay, it’s further from being a zombie than a vampire is! Why not talk about the legends of ghouls or the craquehhe or jikininki, the actual legends of cannibal corpses from which the zombie mythos typically cribs? It’s possible that Sachetto decides to mention the completely irrelevant golem because, in the most famous golem myth, a golem was created by a Rabbi in order to defend the Jews of Prague from antisemitic attacks. This allows Sachetto to get in an antisemitic attack of his own:

Here it is at a readable size. I lied. I am not merciful.

Ha ha, about time someone took the Jews down a peg, amirite

No words.

Now, I suppose it’s exaggerating to call this an “antisemitic attack,” but it’s certainly deeply, deeply troubling. Firstly, as I’ve already said, the entire thing is pointless; anyone with half a brain can see that the legend of the golem has basically nothing to do with zombies. With this in mind, the entire paragraph reads as though Sachetto wrote it in order to build up to the “punchline” – as there’s no other purpose to the thing apart from the joke at the end. And the punchline it builds up to is, I guess, a Jewish man saying Yiddish things, accompanied by a Jewish caricature? As a joke, it’s poor – it’s awkwardly and half-assedly inserted into the text. More importantly, the only basis of its comedy is the idea that stereotypes are inherently funny. That’s why it’s anti-semitic – there’s no subversion or original thought here, just a lazy propagation of a harmful cultural reductionism that was last popular in comedy sometime in the 1930s. There’s no punchline beyond that, unless you consider the idea of a Jewish person cowering in fear inherently funny, but even I would like to think better of Sachetto than that.

And we still haven’t managed to get to my main complaints about this deeply weird, somewhat unsettling book. I guess for now, we’ll wait until the third and final part of this series.

Rest assured, though – the anti-semitism is just a taster of things to come. Up next: despicable misogyny, stomach-churning sexualization of corpses, and… satire.

God help us all.

Footnotes:

* There are about six pictures of this.

Disembowelling the Zombie Handbook: Part 1

Over the last few months I’ve been increasingly interested in myths. Not the kind of epic Greek, Norse or Egyptian myth that involves the various misdeeds of deities whose drama-fraught immortal existences seem to more closely parallel a typical episode of Eastenders than anything else; although I do find that interesting too, to a lesser extent. No, what I’ve gotten really interested in recently is the kind of much lower-key folklore that used to keep 13th-century peasants huddled in their huts on the long winter nights, shaking salt onto the damp earth outside and hanging iron horseshoes on their door. I’m talking household myths about the Alp-luachra, the Joint-eater, the evil shape-shifting fairy-creature that crawls down your throat to feed on the food you’ve already eaten; or the Noppera-bō ghosts, who impersonate one of your friends or family, then slowly let their face melt away into a blank mask.

As far as I can tell every ancient culture, from the Celtic to the Japanese to the Aboriginal Australians, has built up a fascinating rogues’ gallery of monsters. It probably wasn’t hard, back in the days before street-lights, to look out into the vastness of the night and feel supernatural eyes staring invisibly back at you. Giving a name and a shape to those eyes probably made the nightly terror worse in some ways, but must at least have made it seem manageable; sure, the Manananggal is scary, but keep some salt and crushed garlic about your person and you’ll be safe. At least the fear of the unknown had been replaced by specifics – you just had to make sure to tell your sons and daughters about it as well, so they knew what they were up against and how to deal with it! It was an oral tradition not necessarily kept alive by poets, but by concerned mothers. The most famous modern stock types to emerge from this kind of ancient monster-lore are probably zombies and vampires.* About 2 weeks ago, on Amazon, I ordered a book on the latter and ended up with a book on the former.

The book I had wanted was very hard to track down, so I was forced to order it online from the USA. It was a work cited almost everywhere that talked about vampire mythology; by all accounts, it was academic and in-depth, clocking in at 686 pages and featuring an exhaustive catalogue of vampiric myths indexed by culture. It was also saddled with the slightly campy title The Vampire Slayers’ Field Guide to the Undead, but I wasn’t going to hold that against it.

When I finally received my package after weeks and weeks of waiting – remember, this had been sent to me across the Pacific via the cheapest delivery option Amazon had to offer – it felt oddly light-weight. I opened the envelope and was greeted, not by a 700-page tome, but by this:

Doesn't this just scream "academic" and "scholarly"?

Exhibit A, your honour.

Yeah. That alien-looking thing on the front is a zombie. It’s 95 pages long, though every page is mainly taken up by similar big, cartoony illustrations, with maybe a paragraph to accompany them.

Suffice it to say, I was not very impressed. As I opened the book, I became even less impressed, and grew less and less impressed as I flicked through, until I think it could safely be said that I wasn’t impressed at all.

Now, I’m actually a big fan of zombie fiction. It’s one of my favourite kinds of horror, in fact, and I can safely say I’ve consumed (no pun intended) far more zombie stuff over the years than I have vampire stuff. Sure, the cover of this thing is goofy, but it could still be fun! In fact, I believe there is a very specific saying about books, covers, and the judging thereof! And although this wasn’t the book I ordered, and although it’s much shorter, much less thorough and by a completely different author than the book I ordered, that still doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad. It could be fun!

It was not fun.

Hopefully, in a few weeks the nice people at Amazon will send me the book I did order, and maybe I can review The Vampire Slayers’ Field Guide to the Undead here then. For now, I am going to systematically eviscerate Rob Sacchetto’s The Zombie Handbook. I am going to go to town on this thing like I’m a zombie horde and it is any character in a zombie movie who stands too near a window. There is so much stuff in The Zombie Handbook that I need to unpack. In those 100 or so pages there are so many bizarre decisions, so much shameless pandering, so much ickiness, that all I want to do at this point is try to make sense of it all.

Look out for Part 2, upcoming probably later today. Now that I’ve got the preamble out of the way, I’ll skip straight to the book itself and start rummaging around elbow-deep in its guts, pulling out the most disgusting parts and holding them up to the light. And if that analogy was a little too much for you, you might want to consider skipping Part 2 entirely, because there will be scanned images from the book itself that you will not be able to unsee.

Footnotes:

* Although the term “vampire” would have rarely been used, and the term “zombie” never.

I begin my blog by immediately questioning its existence

Hey. My name is Harry, and I have no idea what I’m doing writing a blog. I tend to not know what I’m doing in everyday life either, so I guess this terrifying existential dread has a certain familiarity to it, but it does feel weird to just plant my flag on this tiny corner of the Internet and proclaim it Mine. This is My Blog. I own it. You want to write a comment? Fine, but I can delete it AT WILL. I have staked my claim to these green and fertile pixels, I have undergone the ancient test of Finding An Unused Domain Name That Isn’t Dumb As Fuck, and I have been deemed worthy by the WordPress gods. Now I am the undisputed dictator within the land known as Ink and Trickery, and none may question my authority within these borders. These tiny, tiny borders.

What are you even meant to do when you “have” a blog? I guess I’m here to – what – market my writing ability? Peddle my opinions? Do what I seem to do on my Twitter, which is to shout meaninglessly into a gaping void? All of the above?

I’m fairly sure that this is a self-destructive route to go down. This is my blog, there are many like it but this is mine, and what I’m going to do here is talk about the things that interest me and, most likely, irritate me. This is going to be a wholly self-indulgent exercise, which feels weird because I write a lot of essays and a lot of stories, and in both I constantly think about the target audience. I’m constantly wondering if the person reading will understand the point I’m making, or whether I need to go back and make things more clear – or maybe I’m trying too hard to make things clear, and patronizing them! I wonder how character x will seem to the reader – I want them to be snarky and caustic but ultimately likeable, but what if they just come across as a detestable douchebag?

This blog isn’t the place for that. Ink and Trickery is going to be a wholesale exercise in self-indulgence, and hopefully it’ll be entertaining for others along the way – but that’s merely a neat by-product. This blog is for me, and if that means I’m shouting into the void, so be it. At least here, unlike when I’m on Twitter, I’ll have room to shout into the void at length.

On the off-chance someone is actually reading this, though, here’s 5 things you probably ought to know about me:

1) I go to Oxford University, but I’m in my final year. Assuming this thing is still active, expect a lot of gibbering anxiety about employment in 3-4 months.

2) My degree is English Literature. Hence both the wanky self-analysis and the aforementioned employment-related gibbering anxiety.

3) To paraphrase Pratchett, I think that creative writing is the most fun it’s possible to have on your own. I’ve wanted to be a published author since I learned to write (note: if you think I’m exaggerating, I can show you the multi-page illustrated storybooks I wrote when I was 3 years old). Maybe some of this blog will focus on that. Maybe not!

4) I started this blog because I received an erroneous package from Amazon which turned out to be comedy gold. I decided a blog would be the perfect place to share my bemusement with the world.

5) I am basically a cultural omnivore. I will happily watch, read, or play pretty much any form of entertainment. There are two exceptions – when it comes to music, even I am forced to acknowledge that I have incredibly bad taste. A good 50% of the music on my iPod comes from movie trailers. I also have no idea about the sports. I have been known to enjoy playing the sports, but I have never been able to enjoy watching them, apart from occasionally tennis I guess. So yeah, this will not be a sports blog, and if I talk about music, know that I speak from a position of profound ignorance.

So enjoy reading my blog, I guess. If you’re wondering about the name – the non-pretentious answer is, I chose it because it sounds cool. The pretentious answer is I chose it because I’m a writer, this is my blog where I write stuff, and all writing is – essentially – an exercise in trickery.