Jess Peacock returns with a new pair from The Crawlspace. First up . . .
Review: Go, Mutants! by Larry Doyle
As a kid growing up in central Ohio, the weekends were a very distinctive time for me. There was no school obviously, but Fridays and Saturdays throughout my childhood also provided a specifically unique education. With horror host instructors such as Big Chuck and Little John on channel 8, Super Host on channel 43, and the Ghoul on channel 61, I was emotionally raptured into an otherworld filled with monsters from the farthest reaches of space and beyond. Others could have their football games and Wide World of Sports; I was more concerned with blithely living in a universe filled with giant lizards, Ro-Men, She-Creatures, and horrors on various party beaches.
Perhaps this nostalgic affinity for classic horror and science fiction fare has unduly influenced my enthusiastic opinion of Larry Doyle’s novel Go, Mutants!, a delightfully brilliant masterpiece that successfully pays homage to classic creature features and space operas, while brutally skewering both high school and national politics (let’s face it, sometimes there’s no difference) with equal wit and genius.
Set in an alternate history where both iconic and obscure 1950’s & 60’s genre aliens and beasties have been integrated into society, Go, Mutants! tells the story of an alien teenage outcast, J!m, looking for his place in life. More akin to Exeter from This Island Earth, J!m hangs out with a green motorcycle riding ape and a love hungry glob of goo named Jelly while pining after Marie, the earth girl of his dreams.
“After the success of the book I Love You, Beth Cooper, the publisher wanted to know what else I had,” author Larry Doyle recalls. “Go, Mutants! was it. It was a notion I had been kicking around for a few years, but hadn’t figured out a thematic underpinning until the events of the past few years, when I realized that politically and socially, we were reliving the fifties. That gave me a reason, and excuse, for using all these cool aliens and mutants in a story.”
“I wanted to show them living on the periphery of society, objects of derision but also fear and desire,” Doyle says. “And I wanted to do it without being as obvious as what I just said.”
Troubled by his bewildering passion for the human Marie (not to mention the merciless bullying he experiences daily at school), J!m must deal with his Rebel Without a Clue-ish high school existential funk while simultaneously coming to terms with an unwanted legacy as the son of Andy, a brilliant, British accented alien allegedly killed during his diabolical pursuit of world domination. “The aliens and mutants represent the Other, in the way that Communists, blacks, Muslims and now illegal aliens do in our society,” explains Doyle. “The events of 9/11 propelled us back into a Cold War mentality, only with radical Islam replacing Communism as a boogieman, with all the attendant hysteria, witch hunts and loyalty tests. As in the fifties, it’s not that no threat exists; it’s that our reaction to the threat probably does more damage to our underlying principles than the threat realistically poses.”
Avoiding the numerous literary pitfalls that such politically metaphoric material can present, Doyle, a former writer for The Simpsons, spins a frenetic sophomore effort that deftly avoids heavy handed proselytizing in exchange for wicked smart dialogue, colorfully rendered characters, and a world that many of us have fantasized about since adolescence.
Fortunately for those of us who look fondly upon the days of wild eyed mad scientists, stop motion beasts from the deep, and radiation giving life to, well, just about anything, Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment has purchased the rights to Go, Mutants! “I just handed in the second draft of the screenplay,” Doyle reports. “A lot can happen between that and a movie coming out, including a movie never coming out. It will depend, to a certain extent, on how well the book does. So please buy 10,000 copies.”
I bought mine…
Review: The Loving Dead by Amelia Beamer
The entertainment industry has been overrun with zombies, a veritable undead tidal wave flooding everything from movies, to television, to video games, and, yes, literature. Particularly literature. Bookshelves are buckling under the weight of apocalyptic horrors focused on the walking dead, the running dead, or just really angry people who want us dead.
This is not a complaint, necessarily. I love the zombie sub-genre, however I nurse a growing concern that the glut of flesh eating stories will ultimately warrant a backlash that could force the sub-genre underground, or worse, into becoming a self-parody. And let’s be honest with ourselves, there is a lot of garbage out there produced by people who simply view zombies as an opportunity to cash in on the craze.
I hate to say this, but I think I just need a vacation from the whole zombie thing.
Because of this, I initially balked at reading Amelia Beamer’s surprisingly fun debut novel The Loving Dead. To my discredit, the book sat face down on my desk for at least a month, Beamer’s spectacled eyes framed in golden dreadlocks on the back cover, willing me to partake of its bloodied contents. I finally relented, based solely on the notion that an author with such a kick ass hairstyle wouldn’t dare steer me wrong.
“People like to predict the death of genres or sub-genres, but I like to see it from the other end,” Beamer explains of her initial foray into the scene while addressing fears about the state of the subject matter. “Zombies are everywhere: that means that everyone is familiar with them. What matters are the stories we can tell using this tool. Since everyone knows what zombies are, we can really play with the material.”
The Loving Dead may be the world’s first hipster zombie tale with its cast of young, ironic, culturally savvy characters (“I’d like to think that my friends would get along with them”) who probably spend a considerable amount of time reading cooler-than-thou websites like Pitchfork.com. The story follows Kate and Michael, two friends struggling not only to come to terms with who they are, but what they mean to each other as a slow-burn zombie apocalypse descends upon San Francisco. “My characters work at Trader Joe’s; they have real people problems and joys,” she says. “All of my characters come out of me and the people I’ve met.”
Beamer, whose day job involves editing the science fiction magazine Locus (“It’s a great job for a writer”), effectively transcends the typical survivalist end of days tropes of zombie fiction by focusing on the relationships and interactions of the characters. “I spent the few years before I wrote The Loving Dead mostly working on literary fiction, the kind where two people meet and discuss their failed relationship,” she explains. “Nothing happens in them! And the trick is to make somebody feel something, but there isn’t a massive readership for this kind of fiction outside of The New Yorker. So I figured, throw some zombies in, and bam, we’ll have a plot! Readers like plot.”
“Ultimately, plot and character are the same thing,” Beamer continues. “Plot is what happens to characters, and characters exist only in relation to what’s happening to them. If I’d forgotten to put in the zombies, my characters would still have problems figuring out whether they’re dating the right person: the zombies just make survival a big concern, too.”
More akin to Shaun of the Dead than the grim nihilism of most zombie fare, The Loving Dead is often genuinely funny amidst the horrific violence and destruction that surrounds the protagonists. “Humor and horror are very closely related,” the author points out. “Horror, as a genre, is when we see a tragedy unfolding and we identify enough with the people involved that we don’t laugh at them. And at the same time, people make terribly dark jokes about the things that scare us. We have to in order to stay sane.”
Stylish and clever, although slightly uneven at times, The Loving Dead provides an original take on the zombie sub-genre (infection as STD), with enough requisite carnage and relational missteps to appeal to a wider reading audience. Beamer has succeeded in adding a fresh voice to undead fiction, and will be returning in September with her contribution to The Living Dead 2 anthology entitled Pirates vs. Zombies.
Thanks to Beamer, I’ll be rethinking that vacation.