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.

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:

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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

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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.

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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.