I spent much of last week sitting around a swimming pool in the sun (wish I was back there now…). As well as making me realise I’m writing for the wrong market if I ever want to make serious money from books (I was the only one reading horror while a huge volume of chick-lit and formulaic pulp fiction was being continually consumed all around me), it was a great opportunity to read a few books because I wanted to, not because I’d been asked to or I’d promised to. Don’t get me wrong, I’m always happy to blurb whenever I can, but there’s something supremely satisfying about choosing a book from your shelf and reading it because you’re in the mood to read it, no other reason.
The book at the top of my pile last week was ONE by Conrad Williams.
“This is the United Kingdom, but it’s no country you know. No place you ever want to see, even in the shuttered madness of your worst dreams. But you survived. One man.”
ONE blew me away. Beautifully written (I am supremely jealous of Williams’ descriptive skills), it’s the story of Richard Jane, a diver working on a rig in the North Sea. As Jane and his colleagues rise to the surface, dead fish and bodies sink the other way – the first indication that something terrible has happened. By the time he makes it back to dry land several days later, it’s clear that the world he remembers is gone forever. The land around him is scarred beyond recognition, every living person dead. The rain burns like acid, and the sky is a constantly swirling mass of browns and reds. Bewildered and terrified, Jane has no option but to walk virtually the entire length of the devastated country back to London, back to his son.
Another book from the catch-up pile… This should have been posted before Christmas(!) so apologies to Mat from Quirk.
What’s the definition of good summer holiday reading? Escapism? Humour? A collision of two disparate but well loved genres in a story about a convention full of science-fiction geeks being devoured by bloodthirsty zombies controlled by an alien intelligence?
I’d heard about Night of the Living Trekkies (by Kevin David Anderson and Sam Stall) at a convention, strangely enough, and I was intrigued. I’m not a huge fan of the idea of mash-up books – it often seems like a lazy way of making a quick buck (although there are exceptions, of course). Even though this book is an original story rather than a mangled classic, I approached it with trepidation. Could zombies and Star Trek be successfully combined? The answer… just about.
I think I pretty much summed up the plot in my first paragraph. It’s simple and uncomplicated, and that’s okay. The by-the-numbers zombie action at the heart of the book is really secondary to the characters and setting. To get the most out of NOTLT, you need at least a working knowledge of Star Trek because it’s crammed with references and in-jokes. Characters, locations, and dialogue are filled with nods to Trek with even the chapters being named after episodes. It’s actually done extremely well, as is Anderson and Stall’s handling of that most deep-rooted of science-fiction rivalries – the conflict between Star Trek and Star Wars fans.
I’m off on holiday next week (providing the volcanic ash blows the other way), and I’ll be taking a stack of books to catch up with while I’m away. I’ve actually managed to get through a few books recently (unusual for me) and I thought it would be good idea to share some of them here over the coming weeks. First off, Adam Nevill’s The Ritual.
Four old university friends take a short holiday to escape from the pressures of their lives and rekindle fading friendships. As you’d expect, things don’t go to plan. A short cut proves to be anything but, with the men soon heading deep into inhospitable, uncharted territory. Tensions rise, but the group’s internal conflicts prove to be the very least of their concerns.
“And on the third day things did not get better. The rain fell hard and cold, the white sun never broke through the low grey cloud, and they were lost. But it was the dead thing they found hanging from a tree that changed the trip beyond recognition.”
I really enjoyed The Ritual. It’s a beautifully written book which has a deeply ominous and foreboding atmosphere from the outset. The initial premise may sound like by-the-numbers stalk and slash horror, but that’s far from the case. The story takes a few wild and unexpected turns. It’s a book of two halves, but both halves are wonderfully gruesome and unpredictable. Awesome.
The Ritual is out now in the UK, with a US release to follow in 2012. Moderately interesting fact of the day: Adam and I actually grew up within a couple of miles of each other, but it took our mutual US publisher in New York to get us talking. There must have been something unpleasant in the water in Birmingham forty years ago…
I thought it had only been a few weeks, but it’s actually several months since I last posted an entry in my ‘Post-Apocalyptic Movie Club’. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s an (increasingly) irregular look at some of the post-apocalyptic movies I’ve seen, particularly those which have gone on to have an impact on my work. You can read previous entries here. No in-depth analysis or anything heavy here, just a recommendation or two.
Today I’m writing about Peter Watkins’ The War Game, a BBC drama made in 1965, but not shown until twenty years later, despite winning the Best Documentary Oscar in 1967.
The War Game depicts the build up, impact and after-effects of a global nuclear conflict, concentrating particularly on the people of Rochester, Kent, who are hit by an off-strike weapon originally aimed at Gatwick airport.
The film was commissioned by the BBC as part of a weekly drama series, but was withdrawn from transmission as it was adjudged to be “too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting”. I watched the film again several weeks back, and despite its age and having seen it several times before, it still shook me with its power. It’s little wonder that it wasn’t shown on British television until 1985. I can only imagine what audiences in the 1960’s would have made of it.
Remember those ‘choose your own adventure’ books which used to be hugely popular? Many a wasted hour was spent back in the day, working my way through the stories… getting killed, going back a few pages, taking another option until I’d finally been through all the alternatives and fought my way to the finish. It seems the popularity of these books declined proportionally alongside the rise of the Internet, and they do feel dated now, but they’re still a lot of fun.
Now someone’s had the bright idea of setting a choose your own adventure book in the world of the zombie apocalypse, and that someone is Max Brallier. Max, coincidentally, works for Thomas Dunne Books (my US publisher), and my editor, Brendan Deneen, hooked us up just before Max’s book – the superbly titled Can You Survive the Zombie Apocalypse? – was released. I approached reading it with trepidation, knowing that ideas like this usually only go one of two ways: they’re either superb or awful. Fortunately for all concerned, this book is a blast.
Once you start reading CYStZA?, you’ll be hooked. Max has crowbarred in a huge number of zombie scenarios – some cliched, some hilarious, some downright bizarre – and there are a vast number of wildly different potential outcomes. I mentioned working my way backwards through ‘choose your own adventure’ books when I was younger. With this book I found myself ferociously flicking back and forth through the pages, not wanting to miss anything. From gangsters to baseball, zoos to sewers, George Lucas to George Romero, CYStZA has pretty much everything you could imagine coming across in Manhattan when the dead rise.
I took the opportunity to ask Max about the book, and also about his bizarre novella VATICAN ASSASSIN WARLOCK – co-written with Brendan and inspired by the recent exploits of Charlie Sheen…
I feel particularly bad about this, but it’s illustrative of how busy the last year has been: this post is horrendously overdue. I met Remy Porter back in March 2010 and I was sent a copy of DEAD BEAT in June last year. I promised to give the book some exposure here but, unfortunately, it took me until this January to get to read it, and another few months have now passed before I’ve finally been able to sit down and write this. Apologies to Remy for the delay!
By now I guess many visitors to this site will have already read DEAD BEAT or at least will have heard something about it. I hope Remy won’t mind me describing it as a ‘typical’ zombie novel to an extent. It has pretty much everything you would expect: a mysterious outbreak, a flawed hero with a beautiful girlfriend, a no-good waster who smartens up and proves himself when the sh*t hits the fan, a family of foul villains who’s depravity knows no bounds, and as much blood, gore and zombie action as you could want. Set in a quiet, rural area, the distinctly British tone and atmosphere makes a refreshing change from many other stories in the genre today.
I’ve not been able to post here much lately, but I’ll be back next week with plenty of Autumn: The City related stuff. In the meantime, here’s another entry in the Post-Apocalyptic Movie Club.
In May 1980 the British government distributed a leaflet called ‘Protect and Survive’ to all homes in the UK. It (along with a series of public information films like the one embedded below) was designed to provide homeowners with practical advice on how to protect themselves in the event of a nuclear attack. The original intention was to have them distributed only in time of a national emergency, but the media interest and ensuing public debate was such that they were given a general release. Fat lot of good they’d have done if the shit really had hit the fan! Shoving a few doors against a wall and covering them in mattresses and cushions might have offered some protection from the initial blast, but such a shelter, like the government publications themselves, would have done little to help the post-attack population cope with fallout, hunger, fear, desperation, cold, devastating injuries, lawlessness, etc. etc. etc.
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Several months late, but here’s the second in my series of looks at classic (and not so classic) post-apocalyptic movies.
Picture the scene: late-1983 – a very different, pre-Internet world where news comes almost entirely from the daily papers and scheduled radio and TV bulletins, where information isn’t available ‘on tap’ like it is today. It’s a world which feels like it’s permanently on the edge; split into east and west by two opposing superpowers with their respective leaders’ fingers hovering over the buttons which, it seems, will inevitably release a nuclear Armageddon sometime very soon. In school playgrounds, kids talk nervously about things like Mutual Assured Destruction and what they’re going to do when the four-minute warning sounds. There’s an uneasy feeling of impending doom, and the lack of readily available information makes the playground chatter that much more frightening… ‘your eyes melt if you look at one of them exploding’, ‘they’ll aim at least three at our city, we won’t have a chance’, ‘I heard Dad talking to one of his mates about the missiles at Greenham Common’…
As a writer, I’m regularly approached by people who want to tell me about the incredible new book they’ve just written. I try to be accommodating and look at as many manuscripts as I can, and I’m always happy to share my experiences of publishing with anyone who asks. You’ll probably appreciate though, it takes time to read a book properly and provide the author with constructive, useful feedback, and that’s part of the reason a). why I’ve got a backlog of such books right now (apologies to all who’ve sent books to me in 2010 – I will get back to you), and b). why I’ve had to start saying no to new approaches. Please don’t contact me for blurbs etc. until I post something to the contrary here: it’s not that I don’t want to help, I just can’t right now…
Another problem with agreeing to read books like this, is that you never know what you’re going to get. I’ve had long and involved conversations with writers about their fantastic sounding ideas, only to eventually receive an incoherent, uncorrected mess of a manuscript. However, that’s the exception, and I’ve read some truly great books from people who’ve started out as either readers, friends or both.
Today – very belatedly (sincere apologies, Craig) – I want to tell you about one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. If you’re a lover of zombie fiction in any way, shape or form, I urge you to pick up Tooth and Nail by Craig DiLouie.
On the face of it, Tooth and Nail looks like any one of a hundred other zombie stories. The plot sounds standard, almost clichéd: a mutated form of the rabies virus is causing chaos around the world, and a battle-hardened Lieutenant must lead his men (recently back from Iraq) across New York to protect a research facility which may just hold the cure…
Right; forget all your preconceptions. Tooth and Nail is about all of that, but it’s so much more too.
This is the first film in my ‘Post-Apocalyptic Movie Club’ – a series of regular features, essays and discussions about films which depict the end of the world in one way or another. I know it’s not right, but I’m addicted to this stuff! Please check out the movie, read my thoughts, then join me to talk about it in the forum or on Facebook, Twitter etc.
Threads, a BBC TV production, was first broadcast in September 1984 and subsequently repeated the following August to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It wasn’t shown again on UK TV until 2003 and despite owning a VHS copy since the early 1990’s, it had been more than 15 years since I’d watched the film when I sat down to watch it again recently. Looking back, I think I may have set the bar too high by selecting Threads as my first film for discussion. I’ve yet to find a more harrowing or thought-provoking PA movie.