[Alan Kelly returns with a new installment of his dark fiction review column.]
Editor Jeff Conner has brought together some of the best horror and fantasy writers in the genre to pen stories for the mind-blowing, genre-blending Zombies vs. Robots franchise, which, since its comic book origins, has become something of a pop cultural phenomenon. If Sony’s upcoming film adaptation, which promises to be the mother of all monster mash-ups, doesn’t have you slobbering like the living dead, you’re bound to find some meaty morsel in here to whet your flesh-rending appetite. Due out this spring from IDW publishing, the prose anthology spin-off Zombie Vs. Robots: This Means War delivers eleven enjoyable pieces, with each story accompanied by fantastic artwork courtesy of Fabio Listrani.
Right off the bat I’d like to warn readers, expect to be a little bewildered by some of the frustratingly standalone entries if you have less than a nodding acquaintance with the comic-book line created by Chris Ryall and Ashley Woods. With little to no ZvR mythology overlap to tie the tales together, some familiarity with the original narrative arc would have offered a bit of much-needed story cohesion for newcomers to the series. A brief recap of what set the catastrophic events in motion would’ve been sufficient, though this is a minor quibble for a wonderful collection. With mythology so broad and epic in scope, each individual writer has plenty of breathing space on ZvR’s blood-soaked canvas.
The opening title from genre writer/star Brea Grant, “Pammi Shaw: Creator of Gods and Also Blogger,” investigates loneliness and the inevitable communication breakdown in the apocalyptic aftermath of the robot/zombie global massacre. By reaching out to what’s left of the hive mind and desperately clinging to what’s left of her sanity, web mistress Pammi Shaw writes succinct and sinister blog entries about a virtual deity she is developing called System. Pammi’s detached reportage of the carnage and the nearly insurmountable odds she has faced to survive make her interactions with the supercomputer terrifying and poignant in a solid, if somewhat open-ended contribution. Lincoln Crisler’s “Kettletop’s Revisionary Plot” features a hapless protagonist who travels through the space/time continuum to rescue a former girlfriend and save the world from extinction, with dire consequences. Timeline manipulation is a staple of science fiction storytelling (in all mediums), so an inventive approach to this particular generic story device is always appreciated. Nancy A. Collins takes us into the heart of darkness in her intriguing Anime-esque coming-of-age story “Angus: Zombie-vs-Robot Fighter,” a pitch-black examination of the consequences of Transhumanism, while Nicholas Kaufmann skilfully scrutinizes notions of exile and captivity with a supernatural twist in his sci-fable “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice Bot.”
Zombies VS Robots: This Means War is a must-have for die-hard fans of the serie s. The illustrations have spurred on the authors to write with a pared-down, fast-paced cinematic flair, free of the superfluous prose and stock characters which are often ubiquitous in media tie-ins. One or two of the stories move at a glacial pace, Joe McKinney’s family saga “Jimmy Finder” could’ve been tightened up with a word cut, and the flashback segments in “Farm Fresh” from Sean Taylor were unnecessary – the constant time-hopping between two storylines was confusing, and packing so much character exposition into any short story will lead to much off-putting head-scratching.
If readers decide to pick the book up, newcomers will need to brush up on their knowledge of the ZvR universe. This collection is definitely one for die-hard fans.
Next off the shelf is the brand-new horror anthology Home Improvement: Undead Edition, the fourth collaborative effort from Charlaine Harris, the internationally best-selling author of the Sookie Stackhouse series, and award-winning writer Toni L.P Kelner. After sharing the editor’s chair on Death’s Excellent Vacation, Wolfsbane and Mistletoe and Many Bloody Returns, the pair has commissioned work from some of the finest horror/fantasy writers working in the field for a supernatural/DIY-themed compendium.
Those suffering from True Blood withdrawal symptoms will be pleased to know that Sookie Stackhouse returns, albeit briefly, in a never-before-seen story. In Harris’s own “If I Had a Hammer,” the plucky telepath is pitted against a spiteful spectre who has taken over her BFF Tara’s charming new cottage. It’s an endearingly frothy piece which will please fans waiting for Harris’s forthcoming Stackhouse novel Deadlocked. Wizards have more to worry about than your run-of-the-mill thieves in Victor Gischler’s “Wizard Home Security.” The frugal protagonist learns that an expensive padlock simply won’t cut it, so he installs a zombified bear in this magical satire. In “Gray,” Patricia Brigg’s subversive, sado-masochistic tale of undead real-estate watching, a beguiling lady vamp revisits an old haunt she once resided in which is now undergoing renovation. Rochelle Krich mines Jewish folklore with a neat Hitchcockian bent in “Squatters’ Rights,” about a couple of newlyweds who find their dream home – at a reduced rate – following a murder/suicide which took place on the property. Pretty soon they’re plagued by demonic entities known as the Shedim, but is it the supernatural occupants or the human ones behind the wife’s psychological deterioration? Heather Graham’s bloodless “Blood on the Wall” sees a voodoo-vampire wannabe cult leader bite off more than he can chew when he takes on a werewolf.
Harris and Kelner have assembled a kick-ass group of writers who’ve delivered fourteen mostly impressive short stories. Home Improvement: Undead Edition is a fun, hugely entertaining and quirky combo of the perils of home improvement with a cast of not-quite-ghastly monsters. It’s a terrifying tome that will delight readers who like their urban fantasy just a little bit darker than usual.
And finally, combining gothic horror with edgy noir, grim social realism and a strong anti-war message is The Faceless (Solaris) by Simon Bestwick. This author has crafted a novel which will be a strong contender for one of the most unsettling British books published this year. Honestly, this book is unputdownable!
The story follows multiple characters: Anna, a historian who is supporting her grief-stricken brother Martyn and his daughter after the grisly death of his wife; Joan Renwick, a no-bullshit detective investigating a number of disappearances; and Vera and her psychic sibling Allen Cowell, two survivors of sadistic child abuse who are summoned back to Kemptforth by an otherworldly message regarding the Spindly Men, monsters with malevolent intentions who lurk in the mist on the outskirts of the town – creatures which can kill or drive someone insane with a single touch. When the various subplots converge, it sets the stage for a violently epic showdown between Renwick’s troops and the Spindlies. To reveal anymore of the plot would spoil it for the reader.
Bestwick deftly changes perspectives between his different character’s narrative threads while maintaining a fatalistic tone (and moving at a galloping pace) which echoes Ramsey Campbell at his most punishing. Every character is a well-rounded and sympathetic creation; even the origins of the primary villains elicit sympathy from the reader. The author also makes great use of the Northern setting; his evocative descriptions of the landscape – the place is akin to Stalin’s Russia – are so visceral that you can almost hear the death rattle of the dying town. Definitely a book for a cold, dark night.
Alan Kelly is the author of the pulp fiction novel Let Me Die a Woman and the European Liaison for the Viscera Film Festival. A horror and alt.cult fanatic, he has worked for many print and online magazines, including GCN (Gay Community News), This is Horror, Planet Fury, Film Ireland, Butcher Queers, and Bookslut. He lives in Wicklow, Ireland and is hard at work on his second book.