Author Archives: demonheadclash

The People of Sand and Slag – Paolo Bacigalupi

Mark Swain – friend of Leeds Book Club and writer of short fiction HERE – is a huge fan of the horror genera, and will be providing us with some reviews!
 
Feel free to drop him a line on twitter – you’ll find him @DemonHeadClash
 
As always, thanks very muchly to Mark!
* * * * * HERE BE SPOILERS* * * * * 

THE PEOPLE OF SAND AND SLAG
PAOLO BACIGALUPI

This story is about 3 biologically engineered humans who, whilst guarding a mining operation, discover a normal household dog and decide to look after the animal.

This tale is set in a distant future in which there appears to be have been a massive environmental disaster which has practically destroyed the planet. Despite this disaster – the cause of which is never explicitly explained – mankind has managed to survive by bioengineering themselves to adapt to this harsh new environment.

Without these advancements; other animals have become a rarity hence the discovery of the dog being an interesting event to the humans.

The humans depicted in this story are not required to breathe oxygen; can instantly repair their bodies to the extent of regrowing severed limbs and can eat basically anything. The most shocking part of this bio engineering is that the humans regularly eat sand, slurry and mining by products. This obviously makes reference to the way our food is processed now compared with decades again when most foods were grown locally. The recent horse meat scandal has just underlined our lack of understanding about modern food production and whilst this tale takes this point to an extreme it is certainly a relatable one.

What is also interesting about the three humans in the story is that they are clearly biologically engineered to no longer feel pain but it also seems to have taken away their ability to feel any kind of emotion. The dog, rather than being seen as something
that can be loved and respected is instead viewing as a curiosity. When one character teaches the dog to shake hands the others view this with an almost scientific reaction rather than one of affection. This lack of affection is not just limited to the dog, we understand there is a sexual relationship between 2 of the main characters but we never got the feeling this was anything more than sexual. One of act of love making in the story takes place in front of another character and the dog, underlining this emotional disconnection from what should be a very private experience.

It is not surprising that the dog quickly becomes a burden to the characters and, following the dog getting injured on some barbed wire, they decide to kill and eat it.
Earlier in the story they are informed that eating proper meat is a real delicacy but having cooked and consumed the animal they decide it was just okay and had tasted slag that was better. It is easy to see how the tale could be interpreted as an allegory
of domestic pet ownership especially as they decide to keep the dog on a whim and part of the decision to eat it is based on the characters preferring to spend money on themselves rather than the dog. Animals in post apocalyptic fiction usually are used
as a metaphor for the way our emotions are changed by an end of world event, in this story the animal serves no purpose for the humans other than being a burden and is quickly destroyed.

This story begins with a very heavy military science fiction slant in that in describes HEV’s and exoskeletons but as the tale continues it becomes a piece on the disposable mindset of our society and a warning on the potential outcomes of our modern love affair with fast, scientific progression.

The People of Sand and Slag is available for free online HERE and is part of excellent ‘Wastelands’ anthology as edited by John Joseph Adams.

Read more of Mark Swain’s writings here!

Tweet Mark @DemonheadClash

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Under St Peter’s Review – Harry Turtledove

Mark Swain – friend of Leeds Book Club and writer of short fiction here – is a huge fan of the horror genera, and will be providing us with some reviews!

Feel free to drop him a line on twitter – you’ll find him @DemonHeadClash
* * * * * HERE BE SPOILERS* * * * * 

UNDER ST PETER’S
HARRY TURTLEDOVE

This story is about the newly anointed pope who, in attending one final ritual, discovers the Vatican’s oldest and darkest secret.
 
I would warn any person reading this review that it is difficult to discuss the story in any great detail without giving away the major secret which forms the main plot point. Therefore anyone wanting to avoid spoilers should immediately stop reading this and read the story and then come back to the review.
 
Given this story forms part of a vampire anthology, is set in the Vatican and refers to frankincense in the opening paragraph its not hard to see where the author is going to be taking the reader with this tale.
 
The ‘secret’ can be guessed by most readers fairly early on but this tale is not a Stephen King-esque twisting, turning yarn but the rather the personal journey of the pope in accepting what is put before him and also deals with the feelings of the vampire during his captivity.
 
This tale slightly deals with that well trodden horror theme of supposed monsters being imprisoned and who is truly evil; the prisoner or the guard. What separates this from other tales on that theme is that this vampire is captured and held in the story
not due to him being perceived as dangerous or to be experimented on but rather to keep the status quo of a philosophy. If the existence of the vampire is revealed to the public then the whole of Christianity would collapse but at the same time they can not
destroy him, this juxtaposition of ideals is at the heart of the story and I feel the theme is very well discussed without getting too involved in religious rhetoric.
 
The author does go to quite extensive lengths to describe the look and feel of the Vatican in the story. This is incredibly important as the tale is quite short and takes place in small area. Getting this right is critical as the reader should view the environment as another character, especially for someone like myself who has never visited the Vatican. For the most part I feel the author does pull this off but at times get bogged down in unnecessary detail, my discovery that he has a Ph.D. in Byzantine History goes some way to explain this tendency for the over detailing.
 
The one criticism I would have is that the story does suffer from some structural issues which makes it harder to read than it should be. The tale only involves 3 characters but the main storytelling switches from each of these characters very suddenly without much warning and can also slip back in time and then forwards to the present again with little explanation. This leads to the reader becoming confused on a couple of occasions as to who is speaking and from what perspective.
 
I enjoyed Under St. Peters immensely. It is a very solid and, structural issues aside, well written tale. However the subject matter is an emotive one and anyone who has strong religious beliefs, particularly of the Catholic faith, should stay well clear of this. The author has not gone out of his way to be offensive but dealing with what this deals with it is easy to see how sacrilegious it would be perceived.
 
Under St. Peters by Harry Turtledove is available for free online HERE and is part of John Joseph Adam’s excellent vampire anthology By Blood We Live.
Read more of Mark Swain’s writings here!
Tweet Mark @DemonheadClash

Death and Suffrage by Dale Bailey

Mark Swain – friend of Leeds Book Club and writer of short fiction here – is a huge fan of the horror genera, and will be providing us with some reviews!
Feel free to drop him a line on twitter – you’ll find him @DemonHeadClash

* * * * * HERE BE SPOILERS* * * * * 

 

This story is about how a race for the American presidency is deeply impacted by the dead returning to life to cast their vote in the election. It also focuses on the personal story of one of the campaign runners.
This story follows two very distinct arcs but obviously both intertwine with each other on a regular basis. The first aspect deals with how the undead walking among us affect the day to day lives of the living people but also how governments around the world would deal with a non-threatening zombie outbreak.
 
The other arc follows the main character as he tries to piece together his past but also gives us an insight into the presidential candidate’s campaign to the White House.
This story was originally completed just after the infamous Al Gore and George Bush presidential election; so at the time the presidential run in would have been a very hot topic. I wouldn’t say the tale has lost any of its power over the last decade; the issues the author writes about are still being faced today and that is very much the point of the story. Nothing changes in politics.
The zombies demand change in gun ownership laws which is clearly a very American problem, but the point being made by the author is that governments often pass laws based on the opinion of the very vocal minority even if the law is not popular with the majority. I am sure a large percentage of Americans would rather have tighter gun controls but despite almost yearly school shootings and hundreds of gun related deaths nothing changes. It appears only a zombie invasion is the way for a real change to happen.
The main character could also be described as a zombie given he has sold out his own personal ideals to toe the party line. It is only when a voice within him demands the destruction of all guns that he starts to question who he has become and the choices he has made. This is a staple of zombie fiction, as often the living are more dead than the zombies. That being said you do genuinely care about the protagonist and having characters such as his grandmother and aggressive fellow campaign runners around him really does give weight to the personality of the protagonist
The reveal near the end of the story can be pieced together by observant readers before the actual finale but the sequence is well written and delicately handled all the same. I would probably have preferred it if the protagonist dreams had not been entirely explained at the end of the story but that is just me.
This story proves the zombie is a versatile monster, these are not the flesh eating terrors which are portrayed in so many B movies but rather representing the unheard masses especially when it comes to elections where turn out is often between 50% and 60%.

The tale is well written with real, dense characters and the political message never gets in the way of the story being told. The author is fortunate that very few people would be on the opposite side of the gun control debate but it would still have been easy for the author to get bogged down in rhetoric but he neatly avoids this with thoughtful story telling.


Death and Suffrage is available for free online here and is part of ‘The Living Dead’ anthology as edited by John Joseph Adams.

Read more of Mark Swain’s writings here!

Tweet Mark @DemonheadClash

 

Some Zombie Contingency Plans by Kelly Link

Mark Swain – friend of Leeds Book Club and writer of short fiction here – is a huge fan of the horror genera, and will be providing us with some reviews!
Feel free to drop him a line on twitter – you’ll find him @DemonHeadClash

* * * * * HERE BE SPOILERS* * * * * 

 

Some Zombie Contingency Plans is about a guy called Soap who – whilst gate crashing a house party in the suburbs – recalls to a girl he has just met his past including how he ended up in prison following his theft of a painting.
The opening line in the story is ‘This is a story about being lost in the woods’ but the story isn’t about lost in the woods at all. Throughout the tale woods are only mentioned again in respect to the painting and I don’t see the theme of being lost or loss in general within the story. This sets the tone for the rest of tale which is difficult to follow in places and certainly requires a re-read to grasp fully.
That isn’t to say the story is confusing in a frustrating manner, the characters are all well rounded with no confusion as to who is who and there are also no shuddering shifts in time or location. However the story is defiantly fantastical in terms of the way the characters interact with each other and also the language used.
Deceit is a major theme in the story, not only from the main character but also from the supporting players. The main character’s name is Soap at the start of the story but then informs people that his name is Will. We later discovered that his name isn’t Will at all. The other character in the story, Carly, also deceives the main character firstly by lying about the fact that the house is her parents and later on hiding her true eye colour with contacts. Based on this we can not take anything that any of the characters say as being an accurate reflection of events; therefore we must doubt that Soap’s tale of how he ended up in prison and, as a consequence, doubt the whole content of the story.
Soap refers to Art in the beginning of the story and upon first reading we take these statements as merely his opinion on the subject. Here a few handpicked quotes:
‘Art was why Soap was in prison’
‘He hadn’t know much about Art’
‘Art and prison were the kind of things that you had opinions about, even if you didn’t know anything about them’
‘This was why people got pissed off about art’
It is only later in the story when we discover the main characters real name is Arthur that these comments take on a whole different level of meaning. I have only selected a handful of lines but the theme is plain to see once you know the characters name.
It is also worth noting that there are no actual zombies in the story. The character refers to zombies being simple and seems to make a connection being the uncomplicated way zombies are and uncomplicated way his life was in prison. Since leaving prison Soap appears to have wandered from one place to the next with no real direction; when he was in prison he was unable to make any decisions for himself; even wishing that zombies would attack the house so that his life could once more be simple. 
He makes a plan in the story of how he would survive the attack and who he would save which seems to indicate he wants to change his life but only if drastic circumstances forced him into this change. 

I enjoyed Some Zombie Contingency Plans but putting my finger on exactly why I enjoyed it has been difficult but I know I liked it, a bit like art.

Some Zombie Contingency Plans is available for free online here and is part of ‘The Living Dead’ anthology as edited by John Joseph Adams.

Read more of Mark Swain’s writings here!

Tweet Mark @DemonheadClash

 

Sparks Fly Upwards by Lisa Morton

Mark Swain – friend of Leeds Book Club and writer of short fiction here – is a huge fan of the horror genera, and will be providing us with some reviews!
Feel free to drop him a line on twitter – you’ll find him @DemonHeadClash

* * * * *HERE BE SPOILERS* * * * *
Sparks Fly Upwards is a story about Sarah. Following the zombie apocalypse, she now lives in a fortified community. When she becomes pregnant she is informed that the community can’t afford another mouth to feed and she must have the pregnancy aborted at an outside clinic. Unfortunately the undead corpses of those who – when alive – protested the clinic await her there.
As you can no doubt tell from the description this tale revolves around the question of abortion which is by definition a social hot topic and has been for quite a long time. Having read this story I am in no doubt that the author has a very heavy political and moral bias towards pro choice and unfortunately that message quite regularly interferes with the story telling. The author’s decision regarding the severity of how hard she pushes her point of view makes the tale more of a personal political statement than the thought provoking horror tale it might have been.
This is a great shame as the picture the author paints of a fortified community one year on from ‘the end of the world’ is interesting and delving into the issue faced by such a community is the best part of the story.
Another criticism I would have with the story is that it is written in a diary format and told strictly from the protagonists’ point of view. Any conversations she has with other characters are only seen from her perspective and of course, given this is a diary, these conversations are being remembered rather than taking place in front of the reader, so to speak. I am not a huge fan of this format for short story telling as the reader does not get much information regarding the main characters background and how other people view her which can lead to the reader failing to connect with the character. Also the lead being a bit of an ‘every women’ with no defining characteristics doesn’t help with this lack of connection either.
As previously stated this story does quite often read like a propaganda piece for pro choice, which I haven’t an issue with in of itself. After all I believe horror and science fiction, when used correctly, are excellent at taking what is going on around us and extenuating these problems – which in turn can make us view the world around us differently. 
However such subtext should always be both subtle and open to the reader’s interpretation. This author has an agenda towards the abortion question and she sets her stall out fairly early on in the piece but never lets go of it. 
Subtlety is not this story’s strong suit especially in the final third where the point is rammed home to such extent that the description of the main character leaving the clinic, which could have been a fantastically tense and nervy affair, is instead constrained to 3 short paragraphs. This totally destroys any atmosphere which might have been building up in that sequence and seems to have been heavily shortened to articulate more pro choice rhetoric.
I have no personal strong feelings regarding abortion and can understand the author wanting to make a point with the story but occasionally this is pushed far too hard. 
I would like to read more of the author’s work which is out and out story telling but if this piece is an indication of her overall style that I can’t say I was that impressed.

Sparks Fly Upwards is available for free online here and is part of ‘The Living Dead’ anthology as edited by John Joseph Adams.

Read more of Mark Swain’s writings here!

Tweet Mark @DemonheadClash

Dead Like Me by Adam Troy Castro

Mark Swain is a friend of Leeds Book Club and writes short fiction here! A huge fan of the horror genera, this is the first time he’s reviewed for us – hopefully the first of many!
You can also drop him a line on twitter as @DemonHeadClash

* * * * * HERE BE SPOILERS * * * * *

 

In this story the author deals with his protagonist surviving a zombie outbreak by acting like one of the undead. Although it slightly reads as a list of instructions in how to act and, more importantly, how not to react, the writing style is never done in a matter of fact manner and therefore the reader connects with the protagonist.

Whilst this might sound a difficult style to follow – given the author is the narrator but also story teller – it works well here and allows the writer to give us an insight into what is going on around the protagonist and also his back story.

Clearly given the main character is acting like a zombie in order to ‘fit in’ and survive then this story does have it’s fair share of visceral imagery but none of it which I would say is over the top and actually adds to helping us paint a picture of this person’s desperate situation. Anyone who doesn’t get a slight pain in their legs when reading the line about rotted away tendons isn’t human!

Having read the story I can see a great deal of themes emerge which are the staples of zombie fiction – loneliness; dealing with loss and facing death to name but three. However this story deals with other issues which are unique to this tale.

I certainly got the feeling that the author was trying to convey a warning regarding how changing yourself for others can force you in difficult positions. Obviously in this piece the character wanders from horrible situation to horrible situation but the
same message could be applied to our modern, faceless society.

The other aspect is the character’s approach to the zombies. He has clearly been through, and seen, a lot since he discovered he can pretend to a zombie and in doing so seems to identify with them, a sort of Stockholm Syndrome if you will. In the beginning of the tale the character points out that the zombies are never referred to as zombies simply as ‘those Bastards’. However half way through the story having described a particularly nasty bus explosion he states ‘you’d feel that the Living were silly bastards’ which seems to indicate the character feels the same about the zombies as he does about the living, we see another indicator towards this mind set when the character states later on that he might eat rat poison by mistake one day and he might
not even notice his own death or ‘maybe it has already happened’. However close to the end the author again refers to the zombies as ‘Bastards’ indicating there is a battle going on within this person; the part of him which is prepared to do anything to
survive and the part which wants to admit his own humanity.

The brilliance of this story is that it deals with a lot of the themes that we see in zombie fiction without pushing any of them too much and allow the reader to not only enjoy the story but also have an insight into this person’s psyche.

The story makes the point that, put under pressure, we are prepared to do anything to survive and after a while that behaviour becomes normal and acceptable. And that is the real horror.


Dead Like Me is available for free online here and is part of ‘The Living Dead’ anthology as edited by John Joseph Adams.

Read more of Mark Swain’s writings here!

Tweet Mark @DemonheadClash

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