Zombies are a delicate topic in the Moseley household, while pregnant with our first born son my wife had a series of nightmares, each night she had to defend herself against zombies, each night the zombies got smarter, faster and the situations more dire. These nightmares installed in her a completely understandable, if still irrational, ‘Kinemortophobia’ – that’s a fear of the moving dead.
We’re not talking girly squeamishness here, she originally trained as a medic and unlike most people has removed and dissected a human brain, but it meant that Zombies went off the viewing and reading menu (even the excellently silly Shaun of the Dead is considered too terrifying to consider) – which leads me to my point in bringing this up, which is that I am a little behind the times on my zombie movies and books.
I follow MG Mason’s excellent blog Sweat, Tears and Digital Ink and saw that he was working on a zombie novel, and when he posted the blurb and cover I offered to tidy the cover image and give it a read.
It’s the sort of thing that can really help an Indie Author out, and I got to read the book before any of you for free, which is always nice.
It’s an ebook (which I honestly prefer as a format as I not only can carry thousands of books at once, but have multiple available screens to read on) for kindle and is available from here for £3.25.
The book is a Novella length, which means it could fill an afternoon or a few days of piecemeal reading, but I wish it was longer. Because of the restrictions of length we barely scratch the surface of a zombie apocalypse, or eldritch uprising, and the short length can make the pacing feel accelerated and a little hurried, but with story being about a zombie run that takes a sharp turn into the Twilight Zone that pace works brilliantly.
The story follows a trio of guys who are running in a zombie run on a small British Island (we’re technically an archipelago of over 6,000 islands don’t you know) as part of a “Team building exercise” – which sounds horrific enough, but then their day gets a whole lot worse.
I’m trying not going to post spoilers as that would ruin the surprises and funnies that claw their way through the text like a Zombie through freshly dug earth. Instead I’ll talk about briefly about structure, characterization, the conflict and why I have problems with Comedy-Horror generally.
Novellas are fast-paced, they rarely have much of a side-plot and try to focus on a single plot. In survival horror that plot is a very simplistic one, simply for one or more characters to not die as something tries to kill them over and over again. Survival horror usually passes through three phases/acts and Dead Heat is no exception. First we meet our characters, then all hell breaks loose and they start dying occasionally adding another survivor to extend the story, before finally they are either all dead (rarely), or someone survives and escapes (more normally).
Our heroes are a trio of friends, all from the same town and working in the same export company, this gives them similar voices, although they quickly differentiate themselves through their reactions to the events.
Tony is a horror-geek (or Zombie-nerd, if you prefer), but he’s dour and hurting (a bit) from a failed relationship. He gets some emotional growth, but is important early on for his Zombie-knowledge.
Jim is a joker, that blokeish, single, slightly-leery joker that you know down the pub, irreverent, sarcastic and sceptical, but he mellows later.
Mike is the last of the gang, he starts out as a bit of an enigma, but soon reveals that he’s a level-headed thinker and is the most sympathetic character for me.
Once the zombie shuffle gets going, the friends inevitably pick up other survivors, first is Kate. Kate has insider knowledge of the island as she’s done a few of these runs, and acts as a ‘love-interest’ of sorts and as a foil for Jim. She’s sharp-witted character and has much of the funniest dialogue.
Later there are other changes in the group that lead to moments of pathos and tragedy appropriate for the character’s growth and the plot. But this is a comedy-horror novella so we don’t really see in-depth character development, but just enough to keep it interesting from that point of view.
In this case the central conflict conforms rather nicely to Man vs The Supernatural. The Supernatural in this case are ancient eldritch horrors that are hungry and animate the dead to sate that hunger.
Zombies are hungry, but lack the romance of the more sexualised vampiric hunger, and as human-shaped (mostly) monsters their beast is within, in an inversion of the accursed pathos of the werewolf which preserves the humanity (and its guilt) within the beastial form. If the vampire is the embodiment of deadly sin of lust and the werewolf the embodiment of wrath, then modern zombies embody gluttony, greed and avarice at once, or consumerism as the marketeers have rebranded them).
Individually they are less threatening, easily outwitted, outrun, and due to their rotting state are often easily disabled (although how ‘skeletal’ zombies hold together is a mystery that has yet to answered), the real threats of the zombie are inevitability (they never sleep, they never tire, they never get bored, they don’t drown, they have glowing red eyes — wait, that’s terminators), contagion (those who are killed by a zombie, rise as a zombie, for some reason) and therefore strength of numbers.
Dead Heat‘s restless dead tick all these boxes, they are unsanitary rotting flesh walking about, if they get you then blood poisoning is almost inevitable even if they don’t eat you alive, zombie skulls and necks don’t stand up well to a good crack from a willow bat, and they tend to finish a meal unless you do something that looks particularly appetising, or the meal goes too limp and uninteresting.
In terms of the Man vs Supernatural conflict though there is rarely real resolution in survival horror, you can get away, escape, but only rarely is the Eldritch power defeated, in Dead Heat the eldritch antagonists are not even directly confronted, but lurk on hungry ever after.
The Problem With Comedy-Horror
Comedy-Horror is one of those genres that often for me, usually doesn’t work. The two parts of the genre are constantly undermining each other. Horror builds tension, it requires it for atmosphere, it needs to put the reader on edge. It thrives on dark emotions, tragedy, and certainty. Comedy is its opposite, it relieves tension — the moment we laugh we relax — it thrives on light emotions, jokes and confusion. This makes comedy-horror really tricky to get right, movies find it easier, because you can build tension with background music and lighting, toss in a quick sight-gag to break that tension and then blind-side the watcher with a sudden jump-scare. The audience can laugh-scream their way through the ordeals and be entertained. It’s a lot harder to do in a book, where jump-scares are never going to make someone jump, in fact I can’t recall ever hearing anyone jump or scream while reading, but I know a horror story is good when I’m not sure I want to go to bed yet…
Laughs on the other hand, do happen when reading something funny, but don’t think that makes comedy easier to write. Comedy is possibly the hardest thing to write, as it’s easy to resort to situation comedy and over-emphasised slapstick moments, that never really work like they would in a visual media. Horror tensions and sensibilities can reduce the effectiveness of humour too, reducing what could be a laugh out loud moment to a wry amusement. So writing Comedy-Horror really is a potential minefield with your comedy ruining your horror and vice-versa, the genre can veer from trying to be funny to trying to be spooky without ever managing to be anything but trying.
Dead Heat avoids most of the problems, the tension that builds is sometimes defused by the jokes, but as often it uses it to good effect as creepy horror. There are some issues caused by funnies (which tend to be pop cultural references, subverted tropes, or satirical devices rather than one-liners or puns) defusing tension, but they never detract from the enjoyment, although there is more of an issue with the horror reducing the humorousness there are still really good LOL moments and running jokes. Especially the comedic use of a cricket bat to end more than one undeath, seriously that cricket bat is so much a part of the story that it practically needs a name and an entry in the Dramatis Personae, and I don’t count that as a spoiler.
Also Comedy-Horror isn’t big on exposition, you might found out a few creepy facts about why this is happening, but its not about resolution of the apocalypse or even really explaining why it’s going on. Dead Heat is not an exception here, we get creepy, disjointed passages that fill in some of the blanks, but ultimately we never get a real sense of the actual antagonists, and if that’s going to bug you then you’d better wait, as later in the year the “Mirror Story” to Dead Heat is going to be released, set on the same island, only in an alternate universe where the events centre is now a prison, Dead Lock will be a darker version of the same tale. Where I hope the few problems that the Comedy-Horror genre has brought to Dead Heat will be washed away by a cocktail of real creepiness, gore, hyper-violence and some probing of the dark enigma of the zombies’ existence.
Dead Heat is a great comedy-horror novella, avoiding most the problems of its genre. It’s high-speed and humorous, fast-paced and fun throughout.
It’s packed with good stuff, it has the ‘feels’, the ‘Lols’ and the ‘creeps’ but somehow for me (perhaps because I haven’t been getting my fix of rotting, inevitable, metaphors for consumerism for a decade or so) it could have pushed harder, the dark parts could have been darker, and the funny parts consequently more ridiculous, but the balance is there and the pace is excellent (it might have cost pacing and swollen into a short novel, but it would have been nice to see a few more comedic-deaths of characters we had come to know, as well as more comedy zombie dispatches). I can’t wait to see what MG Mason does with Dead Lock when it comes, with a grimmer look at the same.