Deep Ice: And if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian; it’s Halloween (Eric S. Brown’s The War of the Worlds Plus Blood, Guts and Zombies)

God damned third-party seller on Amazon. The DVD I needed to finish my scheduled post was due to arrive no later than last Thursday. Yet here I wait without it. So instead, here’s the post I was going to put up on Halloween.

It's like they took every stylistic element of every rendition of the tripod and slammed them together without any appreciation for how these things should go together.

It’s like they took every stylistic element of every prior rendition of the tripod and slammed them together without any appreciation for how these things should go together.

It is April 30, 2009. Chrysler declares bankruptcy. South Korea has created transgenic fluorescent dogs. Tomorrow, Carol Ann Duffy will become the first woman, first Scot, and first openly gay person to be named Poet Laureate of the UK. X-Men Origins: Wolverine opens tomorrow as well. Navy cop drama NCIS launches its spin-off NCIS: Los Angeles. We continue to mourn Bea Arthur, who died last week. We’ll lose Dom Deluise in the coming one. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation this week is “The Gone Dead Train”, about a tattoo parlor that gives people rabies. Hugh Jackman is Jon’s guest on The Daily Show. Ethan Nadelmann is on Colbert. A few weeks ago, the BBC aired the first Doctor Who of the calendar year, “Planet of the Dead”. Saturday’s Power Rangers RPM is “Ranger Blue”, a focus episode for The Tribe alum Ari Boyland, which has the disappointing resolution that the solution to this week’s problem (he’s left unable to summon his spandex due to an overload) is to pull the battery out of his morpher and reinsert it backwards.

The Billboard charts are stable this week; “Boom Boom Pow” by the Black Eyed Peas is number one for the third week in a row, and they’ll stay there until October because “I Got a Feeling” is coming out soon. There’s been no movement in the top three since they bumped Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” down a notch. Flo Rida follows them in number 3 with “Right Round”. Everyone else in the top ten has been jocking for position for weeks, aside from Eminem’s “We Made You” which enters the charts this week at number 9.

Ever since George Romero and Mike Russo invented the modern zombie horror genre in 1968, the popularity of tales of the risen dead has waxed and waned as they caught the zeitgeist of whichever assortment of cultural fears ruled the day. When their popularity started to peak again in 2007, things were different on the pop culture scene, though. The larger horror genre was, like all of geek culture, somewhat less marginalized and film storytelling had become more sophisticated. At the same time, the wider culture was becoming more polarized. There was a growing cultural angst, a sense of impending apocalypse. The Cold War had long-since ended, paradoxically making us feel less secure since we no longer had the comforting thought of sudden nuclear annihilation to stop us from worrying about things like the fact that there was a limited amount of oil and most of it was in a part of the world basically synonymous with violent political instability. There was a major housing crisis on the horizon, the catastrophic effects of global climate change were getting harder to ignore, international terrorism seemed — accurately or not — like a bigger threat than ever, and both Gilmore Girls and The West Wing had been canceled. The world didn’t feel especially sustainable, and we couldn’t really say why. The reason we couldn’t really say why was mostly because “Actually what it feels like is that white Christian heterosexual men are not going to have a monopoly on power much longer and ‘working-class white man’ isn’t going to be the cultural notion of ‘default human’, and as far as I’m concerned, that is the literal end of the world,” is not something it’s socially acceptable to cop to.

While geek culture was becoming more mainstream, another thing that was starting to become more normalized and less, “I’m already preparing my ‘He kept to himself and always seemed like a quiet, non-threatening man,’ speech for when the reporters interview me after he goes postal,” were the militia and doomsday prepper subcultures. People who were increasingly convinced that any day now, human civilization would collapse and their survival would rely on them having been prepared with a stockpile of canned goods, gold bullion purchased from an infomercial during Glenn Beck’s show, and many, many guns.

And I’ll confess here that I’ve got maybe just a touch of doomsday prepper mixed into my hoarder sensibilities. Mine’s a little different from most; I don’t expect the actual literal collapse of human civilization, nor do I presume that I could actually defend myself from it, since my diabetes meds aren’t shelf-stable. But the knowledge that I’ve got enough freeze-dried food to outlast a hurricane does a little to offset my general paranoia. Mostly I’m interested in it for the MacGyver aspect.

But I think there’s another aspect to the prepper/survivalist boom and the not unrelated zombie revival at around the same time that people don’t like to talk about, and it’s where I start to bring us back around to The War of the Worlds. There are exceptions, obviously, but earlier zombie fads seem to have focused more on running away, holing up somewhere, and shepherding resources to find a way to improvise around the absence of civilization. This isn’t absent in the more recent fad, but there’s something else: a much greater emphasis on the visceral thrill of zombie-killing. Where in earlier films, the survivors go on the offensive only rarely, usually just for a climactic scene that ends either in a tragic downer ending or at best a Pyrrhic victory, more recent films take considerable joy in showing their heroes hunt down and dispatch the undead.

I think that maybe in a culture that’s increasingly polarized, that anticipates the collapse of society with a kind of perverse eagerness, there’s a certain fascination in this one angle of zombie stories: that they are stories in which your neighbors, your coworkers, your countrymen have become something which it is morally acceptable to shoot in the head. It is a chance to live out your every dark fantasy about murdering hobos. It is exactly what David Essex was singing about: imagine the destruction of all that you despise. And even more the radio play version of the artilleryman: get a bunch of strong men together, no weak ones; that rubbish, out. Get yourself a heat ray and turn it on the Martians and the men. Bring everybody down to their knees.

So I was into the zombie thing for a while around this time, but I eventually lost interest, a little bit before the fad crested and zombies became the big hit pop cultural thing, which makes me sound like a hipster, but really I just kinda peaked too soon and had burned out before The Walking Dead happened.

I have wandered well away from my point, and you’re probably wondering what I’m doing way out here in the woods, assuming you did not read the title of this article, which gives the game away. The Literary Mashup is a recently popular fictional genre which, if it wasn’t created outright created by Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, was certainly popularized by it. The genre varies considerably, from telling mostly original stories that introduce modern horror genre tropes into historical settings, such as Grahame-Smith’s 2010 Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, adaptations of modern works into classical styles, like Adam Bertocci’s Shakespeare pastiche, The Two Gentlemen of Lebowski, or adaptations which simply append a new subplot to an existing work. Jane Austin seems popular for this one, as Grahame-Smith’s seminal work was followed up a few months later by Ben H. Winter’s fantastically named Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Winters would go on to produce Android Karenina, which warms my heart.

Now, I am familiar with the works of Eric S. Brown from my own zombie-fanboy days. I generally found his short stories really good. So I’m not going to pass judgment on the fact that no one was really doing these mashups before Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was published on April 1, 2009, and by April 30, 2009, he had his own literary mashup in print. War of the Worlds Plus Blood, Guts and Zombies is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. It is the complete text of The War of the Worlds with fairly modest additions amounting to a side-plot in which a side-effect of the Martian invasion is that while the Martians are shooting up the south of England, the dead also start rising to feed on the living.

Don’t get me wrong. I bought this book because I dig War of the Worlds and I dig (or dug, at the time, I guess) zombies. But these are really two great tastes that do not taste great together. Like steak and ice cream. The Austen pastiches at least have going for them that the introduction of supernatural horror provides a sharp contrast to the tone and style of Georgian romance in revelatory ways. There’s a tension that arises from the fact that people are still acting like really uptight, proper eighteenth-century Englishmen in the face of the existential horror of dead people getting up and eating folks. Heck, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is largely based around an extended metaphor comparing the antebellum southern gentry to blood-sucking demons, which is apt because that is exactly what they were.

But adding zombies to War of the Worlds doesn’t have the same, if you’ll pardon me, bite. That new MTV show put me in mind of how much The War of the Worlds fits into the mold of a modern post-apocalyptic series, where an unstoppable, unknowable force tears down civilization, and the narrative centers around how people survive in the resulting world. Adding the undead to Austen changes everything. Adding them to War of the Worlds just doesn’t. War of the Worlds doesn’t need zombies: it’s pretty much already got them. In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the presence of the zombies changes things. You can’t kill off characters in a character-driven romance and not have it change things. But none of the characters in War of the Worlds have any impact on the unfolding of the plot, so it doesn’t actually matter if the zombies eat them.

So it’s pointless, ill-conceived, and unnecessary. But is it bad? Well, no. Not really. It’s fine. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I find the concept of The War of the Worlds far better than the actual execution of the original novel. I just don’t like H. G. Wells as a writer rather than an idea man. I don’t think you’re liable to worsen War of the Worlds by adding to it. It’d be nice if the additions amounted to an actual plot or characters which consistently served a purpose beyond being vessels for exposition.

But Brown’s additions to the text are modest. The content he adds boils down, in almost every case, to, “and also there were zombies.” But the pleasure in reading a book shouldn’t be down just to the content of the ideas. And Brown is very good at making these modest insertions carry a tone of powerful horror.

Ironically, though, this is kinda the project’s downfall. Because Eric S. Brown does a fine job of inserting little snippets of a modern zombie apocalypse being told in a style that can reasonably pass for nineteenth century horror. But H. G. Wells can’t. There are moments in The War of the Worlds Plus Blood, Guts and Zombies which evoke Lovecraft (The Call of Cthulhu and Also Zombies is probably way too obvious to be worth doing), or Shelley (Frankenstein, or the Modern Undead Prometheus might possibly work, but again, too obvious), or Stoker (Been there, done that), even at times Henry James (The Turn of The Screw Into The Brain of The Living Dead could probably work, now that I think of it), but his style never actually matches the style of the person he’s actually imitating.

The first insertion, for example, is a single sentence on the second page, interposed in the large opening exposition dump about how Mars is dying and the Martians really didn’t have much choice but to go invade their neighbors. Just before Wells calls us to not judge the Martians too harshly in light of the fact that humans had, for example, wiped out the dodo and indigenous Tasmanians [1. Anyone else uncomfortable that the dodos come first in this list? 2. Happy ending: turns out that after Wells’s time, it was discovered that ethnic Tasmanians weren’t quite extinct. Though the last full-blooded Palawa, Truganini, died in 1876, there were a number of survivors of the genocide of mixed native and European descent], is this observation:

I imagine that even they did not realize the full effect their war with us, the dwellers of this bright blue and green orb of light, would bring about, or the utter terror it would unleash. (Page 6)

It’s a really nice sentence all on its own. Spooky and foreshadowy, but stilted in a distinctively Victorian way. The sentence works. But when you look at the surrounding text, it just doesn’t fit. The rest of the chapter is clinical and dispassionate with no sense of terror. Besides, it jars rather badly with the paragraph which follows it. Because “Hey, sure it sucks for us, but before we judge them too harshly, remember that they invaded because it was their only chance to survive, whereas the British Empire committed genocide purely for profit,” seems a bit hollow when the other thing the aliens did was cause the dead to rise as cannibalistic revenants.

Later, even as Wells’s tone does start to include elements of horror, it doesn’t approach the horror in the same way. Worse, Brown’s zombie horror is in tension with Wells’s alien horror. Consider the narrator’s reaction to his first sight of a tripod:

It was an elusive vision—a moment of bewildering darkness, and then, in a flash like daylight, the red masses of the Orphanage near the crest of the hill, the green tops of the pine trees, and this problematical object came out clear and sharp and bright.

And this Thing I saw! How can I describe it? A monstrous tripod, higher than many houses, striding over the young pine trees, and smashing them aside in its career; a walking engine of glittering metal, striding now across the heather; articulate ropes of steel dangling from it, and the clattering tumult of its passage mingling with the riot of the thunder. A flash, and it came out vividly, heeling over one way with two feet in the air, to vanish and reappear almost instantly as it seemed, with the next flash, a hundred yards nearer. Can you imagine a milking stool tilted and bowled violently along the ground? That was the impression those instant flashes gave. But instead of a milking stool imagine it a great body of machinery on a tripod stand.

To a modern audience, it’s an oddly abstract kind of horror. “Problematical” is just intensely weird adjective in context. The one I use to describe when some piece of media I like turns out to be steeped in sexism or something. He tells us it is “monstrous”, but Wells’s style remains largely clinical. I mean, he compares it to a milking stool. But there’s no ambiguity about it being intended as a moment of terror.

Unfortunately, in this adaptation, the scene occurs right on the tails of a close call with the living dead. In the original, the narrator is in the process of returning a horse and cart he’d borrowed to evacuate his household, and stops suddenly at the sight of the tripod. Brown inserts a longish paragraph here in which the narrator is instead stopped by a “decaying man” in the road, who attacks him.

I whipped the Remington from my pocket to take aim, but his hands were already upon me. He pulled me out into the roadway and we wrestled in the dirt. His yellow teeth snapped at me as I pressed an arm under his chin to keep his mouth at bay. I felt his hands clawing upon the shoulders of my coat as I forced the pistol up and pressed it to his forehead. I squeezed the trigger and the gun bucked in my hand, discharging its brand of death into his skull.

Three sentences after that, we’re somehow supposed to be scared of a big metal milking stool? It is, again, a perfectly good bit of horror, but look at how it compares to Wells’s text. It’s intimate. It’s specific. It’s visceral, in a way that Wells isn’t. It’s also action oriented. The narrator gets into hand-to-hand combat with a zombie, and dispatches it with his gun, which is, not for the first time, referred to specifically by make, in a story where people rarely get names (Most of the characters Brown adds also get names, for what it’s worth). The gun even has a backstory. Back in chapter 9, he mentions retrieving it in light of the threat of aliens and zombies. It’s described as an inheritance from a “long-dead relative”, which means we’re probably talking about a Remington Model 1858, maybe Model 1875 depending on how long “long dead” means. There’s a tidbit about him never having had any use for it, and his wife occasionally pestering him to get rid of it, a conceit that seems a little modern. My minimal research suggests that a Remington Model 1858 is a slightly odd gun for this time and place; it wasn’t a hugely common gun in the British Empire. If the deceased relative had gotten it from military service, it would more likely be a Beaumont-Adams or a Tranter, maybe a Webley, depending on the era. If it was simply a gun the relative had bought for personal use, a British-made gun would still be more likely than a gun mostly associated with the Wild West. Certainly, some aficionados might acquire an American-made gun, but even among those, I gather the Colt had a lot more popularity among overseas buyers. The only scene that really comes close in the original novel is when the narrator brains the curate later, and that’s far less detailed.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The hook for introducing zombies into this world occurs at the beginning of chapter 2, and seems to be the result of a mistake on Brown’s part. Wells describes how, on approaching the first cylinder, Ogilvy hears sounds of life and approaches the cylinder to help, but, “The dull radiation arrested him before he could burn his hands on the still-glowing metal.” “Dull radiation” here means nothing more than “heat” — it was giving off enough heat that he couldn’t get close. But Brown takes the word “radiation” in the sense that silver-age comic books used it. “Who could know the effect that such exposure would bring about in a human being? Would it kill as surely as the heat would […]? Would it change the very cells of his flesh?” Strictly speaking, it’s not entirely anachronistic here. Radioactivity, in the sense used here, was discovered in 1896 by Henri Becquerel, though the term itself was first assigned to the phenomenon by Marie Curie, and I’m not sure when exactly. Fears of such radiation having a health impact is prescient, though. The dangers of radiation exposure were sort of famously overlooked by early researchers, and the association of radiation with cellular mutation wasn’t discovered until the 1920s.

Sure enough, though, a chapter later, Ogilvy is described as pale and feverish from his exposure. Chapters four and five are untouched by Brown, and events play out as they always do, with the Martians emerging from their craft and launching their first, devastating attack with the heat ray. It’s the night after that first attack that we finally get to the zombies. Now, some of the text here actually does sound like Wells’s style, but only in bits in pieces. “How the Martians reacted to this unnatural occurrence, who could say?” he offers.

We also have the first example of a recurring weakness in the augmentations to the story: for reasons the narrator never learns, the Martians entirely ignore the undead. Yes, it’s as though the Martians and the zombies aren’t actually in the same story. Because they’re not. The Martians’ plans aren’t affected by the zombies, and the zombies do nothing meaningful to alter the course of the war. The next morning, when humans return to the pit for the second Martian attack, no one notices the absence of dead bodies, and Brown even hangs a lampshade on this, with the narrator mentioning how strange it was that no one cared. This will come up again in the next chapter, where Brown takes advantage of the dissociated fugue in which the narrator finds himself after his panicked flight from the Chobham Road to have him largely suppress memories of the zombies so that they become only a minor afterthought in his conversations with others, which are focused almost exclusively on speculation about how the British army will deal with the Martians (Adaptations often rush over this, but it takes quite a long time even after the aliens start attacking before anyone takes them seriously as a threat, instead assuming that, sure, the aliens are dangerous, but nothing the army can’t take care of. In fact, even the epilogue of the novel assumes that the routing of humanity was largely due to the aliens having the element of surprise, and if they ever try it again, we’ll see them coming and just blow them up before they can unpack their heat rays). That’s probably the weakest thing overall: the horror of the zombie segments is really compelling, but then they’re over and we’re back to Wells’s text, in which the aliens are the greatest existential threat humanity has ever faced and have nothing to do with the walking dead.

Another stylistic incongruence here is that, “No one was there to see poor Ogilvy rise to his feet with the other slain men.” Brown goes on to give a good deal of terrifying detail about the, “mindless, soulless monsters,” despite the fact that there are explicitly no witnesses to the resurrection. The dead are eventually met by a pack of men, come to check on the Martians in their landing pit, and a massacre ensues. There are no survivors, not even a named personal friend of the narrator, who is the only one with enough presence of mind to ineffectively shoot the undead in their torsos. Which we know because reasons.

Chapter six sees a good deal of new content, half a page at the end of the chapter where a horde of the undead attack a crowd that’s already fleeing the Martian heat ray — the Martians, for obvious reasons, are polite enough to stand back and not interfere with the carnage. The dead return in chapter eight, in a passage that is exciting as long as you don’t notice some issues in the logic. Here’s Wells’s original text:

About eleven a company of soldiers came through Horsell, and deployed along the edge of the common to form a cordon. Later a second company marched through Chobham to deploy on the north side of the common. Several officers from the Inkerman barracks had been on the common earlier in the day, and one, Major Eden, was reported to be missing. The colonel of the regiment came to the Chobham bridge and was busy questioning the crowd at midnight. The military authorities were certainly alive to the seriousness of the business. About eleven, the next morning’s papers were able to say, a squadron of hussars, two Maxims, and about four hundred men of the Cardigan regiment started from Aldershot.

Even in the original text, there’s something awkward about a paragraph that both starts and ends with things happening “About eleven”. The second one is clearly “the next morning”, due to midnight being mentioned in the middle, but it still scans awkwardly. Wells seems to like that time of day, since there are six places in the novel when the time is said to be “about eleven”. Brown inserts an entire page of new content between the two “About eleven”s. And in what is either a serious fumble or some gentle ribbing of his posthumous co-author, the insertion begins, “Around eleven, a series of howls arose from the commons.” A battle between the zombies and Her Majesty’s finest ensues, led by Major Eden. Maybe Brown meant for Eden, who Wells mentions as being missing, to have suddenly returned from the common with news of the zombies, but that doesn’t come across. Rather, it seems like Brown just misunderstood the previous paragraph and missed the fact that Eden had disappeared, apparently killed some hours earlier.

It’s Eden who discovers the vulnerability of the zombies to the classic head-shot. Once the discovery is made, the battle is surprisingly easy, dealt with in two sentences. The tension is maintained a while longer, though, when the casualties of the latest round of battle rise up, revealing that the zombie plague extends beyond those to encounter the Martians directly. However, these too are dispatched eventually: “The newly risen monstrosities were put down with great haste and no withholding of ammunition,” which is possibly the most Victorian sentence in the entire novel, including the bits Wells wrote. Major Eden imposes a policy of burning all bodies. About eleven.

This is a really interesting twist, I think, and strange in context. I don’t know if it works, mind you, but it’s a strange break with convention. I have so far said that there’s a serious tension in the book where we’re expected to be scared of a giant “milking stool” when dead people are getting up, walking around, and taking bites out of folks. I’ve also talked about the odd tendency of the narrative to “forget” about the dead when they’re not convenient, lest they derail Wells’s story too badly. In this scene, we get something in that vein, but it’s more in-your-face. Because you know what never happens in zombie stories? A scene where the first time the military faces off against the dead, it’s tense for a bit but the military ultimately maintain discipline and prevail, then go on to make the necessary preparations to slow down the spread of the undead. Seriously, I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen it. But in this story, where the Martians are the ultimate inhuman, implacable, unstoppable foe, the risen dead remain a side-show. A zombie story where the zombies play second fiddle is a strange conceit, but here, at least, Brown owns it. And the upside is that we get an angle on the zombie story which I haven’t seen before.

And in this respect, we might actually find a way that the zombies might actually add something to the story: Wells’s dry, exposition-heavy presentation of the terror of the Martians is juxtaposed with the more visceral terror of the zombies, and it’s Wells’s horror that “wins”: zombies are scary, but manageable.

For now…

  • War of the Worlds Plus Blood, Guts and Zombies is available from amazon.

One thought on “Deep Ice: And if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian; it’s Halloween (Eric S. Brown’s The War of the Worlds Plus Blood, Guts and Zombies)

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