The Troop by Nick Cutter

Did not finish: 21 April, 2018

This is my first “did not finish” in quite a while! I normally know within a page or two if I’m even going to bother with a book, but I made it a whole 240 pages with this one.

The writing is fine – the gross-outs are legitimately gross, and the characterisations are solid if pessimistic. But then there are the intrusive flashbacks. The characters see something. What do they see? Well, it looked like the balloons they make animals out of at the fair. Little Timmy could remember the last time he went to the fair, it was… Oh my ghawd, just tell me what they see!

The plot reminded me a lot of Lord of the Flies. It had the same savagery.

Which was part of the reason why I didn’t finish. I’m in the beginning stage of one of my week-long anxiety attacks, and I just can’t handle the total lack of likeable characters. Especially combined with the contagion threat, which just hits every single one of my buttons. So it’s not that this is a bad book – as I said, I did make it about 2/3rds of the way through – it’s just a difficult book. And that’s just not something I’m up for these days.

A few content notes: One of the characters is a violent psychopath who literally gets off on causing pain to others. He kills animals (including a kitten, in a rather graphic scene), and deliberately manipulates other characters. Also, Big Bad of the story is a worm-like parasite, so there’s all the content warnings about contagion, infestation, parasitism, and the body-horror that accompanies these things. Also, it’s set in Canada.

Series: The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman

I’ve read sixteen of these things now, so I think I’m ready to comment on the series as a whole.

This graphic novel series is about Rick Grimes – a police officer in a past life, but now simply trying to survive in a world overrun by the walking dead. Early on in the series, he is reunited with his wife and son, as well as a small group of survivors, and they travel around the Atlanta/Washington area trying to find a safe home.

There’s some good character development in the series. It’s not an easy thing to take a reader who feels reasonably safe and secure, and make them believe that someone is, if not justified, at least understandably turning into a monster. Rick’s progression is slow, and – at first – his increasingly unhinged decisions seem justified. And maybe they are in book 16 as well, but it’s sure clear enough that he’s lost that wide-eyed innocence that made him so compelling in the first few books of the series.

The plot is quite interesting. There are many twists and turns, and there’s no holding back on killing off main characters so there’s a real legitimate fear of main characters dying when things get hairy. Taking the survivors through a number of different locales keeps in interesting and allows us to see all the different ways that the people in Kirkman’s world have found to survive. There are some overly convenient bits – such as when the group is separated and then just happen to stumble on each other later on – but it’s easy enough to ignore.

The big issue with the series is the dialogue. It lacks flow, people say painfully artificial things (particularly the monologues, but this happens in conversation too), and the phrasing is very stilted. Some of the errors could be solved easily with an editor, but this seems to have been bypassed. The central theme of “humans are the real monsters” is spelled out over and over again, which is terribly unnecessary given that a) it’s an easy enough theme to convey through subtle means, and b) anyone familiar with the zombie genre is already going to be expecting it since wowzers, can anyone say “overdone”? I’m not really into graphic novels, but given that Kirkman’s only job is to write plot and dialogue, I’d expect him to do the latter much better.

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The Undead and Philosophy edited by Richard Greene and K. Silem Mohammad

Read: 17 December, 2012

When I reviewed Game of Thrones and Philosophy, I complained that the book was just out to explain philosophical concepts, and it’s tie to the ostensible subject rested solely on using a few names and events for illustrations. In The Undead and Philosophy, on the other hand, the subject matter is much more integrated in the articles – each chapter using the Undead to discuss things like issues of personhood, or the relationship between desires/impulses and civilization.

In some cases, it worked really well and I felt that my consumption of the Undead genre was enriched by the thoughtfulness of the article (such as “Heidegger the Vampire Slayer: The Undead and Fundamental Ontology” by Adam Barrows). Others were just uninteresting. And still others were simply hilarious – such as the article that argued that zombies are giant erections with vagina mouths (“The Undead Martyr: Sex, Death, and Revolution in George Romero’s Zombie Films” by Simon Clark).

I can’t really think of the right audience for this book. I think that anyone with an interest in philosophy will either already be familiar with all of the concepts or will be able to find a much better introduction. Zombie and vampire aficionados may well be enriched by some of the new perspectives, but I don’t think it’s worth the price of the whole book. Maybe this is just one of those books that libraries were made for.

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Best New Zombie Tales, vol. 1 edited by James Roy Daley

Read: 24 November, 2012

Introductions are supposed to either hook the reader or provide additional insight into the work(s) to follow. This one, however, was just an absurd, juvenile fantasy in which Daley defends his choice to put out yet another zombie book to H.P. Lovecraft, while Lovecraft holds his hand in a blender. It adds nothing to the book save for a really poor first impression.

As for the collection itself, the goal is, as Daley puts it, “To put together the best zombie tales ever written. Don’t care what year the story was written. Don’t care who wrote it. Don’t care if the story follows Romero’s un-written rules of what a zombie is supposed to do. Don’t care if it’s offensive, or filled with naughty language. All I care about is High Quality Fiction. Simple.”

To his credit, what Daley lacks as a writer of introductions, he’s made up for in story selection. A few fell flat (such as “Fishing”), but most were quite interesting. For the most part, the writing quality was decent (except for issues like in “Muddy Waters” where a boy rides a moose “like a demented cowboy” on one page, and then “like some demented junior range rider” on the next).

There were also quite a few issues with the editing/proof reading of the stories. Words would be omitted (“I didn’t kill my all [sic] of these people,” writes Gary McMahon, and “He knew him. I could that [sic] by the look on his face…,” writes John L. French). I found the editing sloppy enough to distract me, but only a little, and someone less anal may not even notice.

I did like that Daley didn’t just pick Romero zombies, so there’s quite a variety of imaginings of the animated dead.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this anthology, and it certainly served its purpose as entertainment. But it’s nothing particularly special. Good for a lazy afternoon, anyway.

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World War Z by Max Brooks

Read: 14 June, 2012

I’ve been reading a lot of zombie stuff recently, so I picked up World War Z after a YouTuber (I think it was Hank Green?) made a comment about being really freaked out by the book. So, knowing absolutely nothing else about the book, I decided to check it out from the library. The result was that I went on vacation with three books in my bag, two about zombies (Rise of the Governor and World War Z) and one about bunnies (Watership Down, which my dear gentleman friend has decided to read). Only slightly embarrassing.

All zombie stories that I’ve read/watched to date have followed the Rise of the Governor model: Small group of people are hit by the zombie apocalypse, and the story follows their efforts to survive. From the subtitle of WWZ (“An oral history of the zombie war”), I assumed that it would follow the same general format from the perspective of a character narrating her/his survival story from some point in the future.

That’s not what WWZ is about at all.

Rather, WWZ is presented as the “human stories” behind a report written by the United Nations Postwar Commission. These are presented in a collection of first person accounts, written by a wide variety of people from all over the world, offering a global perspective of the zombie apocalypse.

Because each POV character gets only a couple pages, the reader doesn’t have the chance to bond with them. This directs the focus more towards a sense of shared humanity that, in some ways, made the tales even more emotionally powerful.

I really can’t stop raving about WWZ. It was alien yet relatable, entertaining yet thought-provoking, horrifying yet uplifting. This isn’t just an excellent zombie book, it’s an excellent book, period. I ended up buying a copy as soon as I got back from vacation, and I highly recommend that you do the same!

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The Walking Dead #3: Safety Behind Bars by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard

Read: 17 February, 2012

We love zombie stories  because it feeds into our destructive impulses. The zombies destroy the daily stresses and struggles of our modern life. No more bills to pay, no more 9-to-5, no more damn kids on mah damn lawn… And then there’s the possibility of building anew from the ashes of society, a clean slate on which the survivors may impose their will in a way that many of us feel too helpless to do in our real lives.

We had a few false starts in this direction in Miles Behind Us (such as the discovery of the Wiltshire Estates), but the immediacy of survival kept the characters’ attention. But in Safety Behind Bars, the survivors find a respite in a prison. Zombies are no longer a threat, there’s no lack of food, and there’s even working showers. This is where the lesson comes in.

Zombie stories generally teach the same lesson. They wipe away the society that gives us so much stress and ennui, and they give us the opportunity to rebuild, to make it different, to make it good. But we’re doomed, says the zombie story. Given every chance to make a society, we will still be our petty selves, we will still play power games, we will still destroy ourselves. We are flawed, so flawed that the dreary world of rules we live in now is preferable to the freedom zombies give us. The zombie is never the monster in the zombie story – people are.

Kirkman didn’t do a terrible job at exploring this theme, but it’s just been done so many times that it was somewhat tiresome to read through. From the opening of the volume, I knew that the survivors had reached a safe haven, and I knew that would mean trotting out the tired old “we’re our own worst enemy” trope. Unfortunately, he did not disappoint.

That’s been my impression of the series so far, really. The dialogue is so-so, and the plot is basically just running through the standard zombie story plots. It’s enjoyable insomuch as I enjoy zombie stories, but it’s nothing special. Even as far as zombie stories go, the fast pace of the comics means that I don’t feel like I’m getting to know the characters, or to care about them. I’m hoping that it will get better as the series trods on, but so far I’m not impressed.

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The Walking Dead #2: Miles Behind Us by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard

Read: 14 February, 2012

In Miles Behind Us, we follow Rick and the other survivors as they hunt for food and meet some other people. There’s the standard story of the survivors who keep the zombies captive rather than kill them (which has never, in the history of zombie stories, ended well), and a few other adventures.

This volume has a different artist from the first, although it’s not necessarily obvious to someone like me who isn’t really familiar enough with the graphic novel medium to know what to look for. I did start to notice a difference in feel about halfway through, though. I commented in my review of Days Gone Bye on the way that the use of detail helped to highlight elements of the story. That’s still the case in Miles Behind Us, but the details are used to express emotions rather than to create the ambience of fear. In particular, the new artists use shadows very deftly to convey brooding, sadness, anger, menace, etc.

The plot is interesting, but I feel like the dialogue itself could have used more polishing. There were a few instances of fairly awkward phrasing that a good editor could have fixed. And as I complained in my review of Days Gone Bye, the fast pace makes it difficult for me to feel for the characters. The artwork helps somewhat, but I still feel like the story is kept at a very superficial level.

I found the use of bold in the dialogue to be fairly distracting. Maybe this is just a graphic novel convention that I’m unaccustomed to, but it made it difficult to read because I was putting emphasis on the bold words, even though this disrupted the natural cadence of what was being said. I was unable to find any pattern or sense to the selection of bolded words. If anyone here is more familiar with the conventions of this genre, I’d appreciate an explanation!

Overall, I enjoyed the book. I enjoy the zombie/apocalyptic setting, and the graphic format makes this series a very quick read. so far, it’s nothing special, but it’s certainly good enough.

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