Deep Ice: Mad Distortions of Humanity (Eric S. Brown’s The War of the Worlds Plus Blood, Guts and Zombies, Part 3)

Previously on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging…

Book two opens with the Curate and the narrator holed up in an abandoned house in Halliford, where they’d retreated to avoid the black smoke. This looks promising. House under siege is the number-one archetypal zombie horror story. And indeed, chapter one of book two starts right in with the dead breaching their defenses in the night, leading to a pitched fight scene with the narrator and the curate turning action-heroes temporarily. No explanation is given for how they’re able to defend themselves in the dark; Brown seems not to have accounted for the lack of artificial lighting. Even with the dead forced back and the door barricaded, cabin fever sets in quickly, with perhaps a bit more justification than in the original. Brown elevates the narrator’s despair to the point that he considers suicide a good fifty pages early. He is stayed by the thought that, “God was still present. The Father in Heaven watched over us or we would surely not have been alive now,” a somewhat more overtly religious sentiment than you’d expect in a Wells novel.

The dead disperse along with the black smoke — they are unaffected by the smoke, it seems, but are presumed to have moved on due to the scarcity of living humans in the area. They return to their usual status as an ominous, liminal presence in the narrative as the companions make their way toward Sheen: head wounds mentioned on the corpses they pass along the way, and the remains of a pyre where casualties of the Martians had been burnt by human survivors to prevent their reanimation.

Upon taking refuge in a well-stocked house in Sheen, we find the most hilarious addition Brown’s made so far:

As we gathered our bounty, a noise sounded from the house’s back room […] I reached the back room and cautiously peeked inside it. Something black leaped at me from within and I staggered backwards, swinging the hatchet’s blade through the air. My back made contact with the hallway wall, bringing my retreat to a halt as I looked down to see a black cat racing away through the house.

That’s right, folks. A legit, for-reals literal cat scare. With an actual literal cat. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen one of those in prose before. Later, when the greater part of the house is demolished by a landing cylinder, the narrator inexplicably waxes philosophical for a paragraph, contemplating the forces which have reanimated the dead. He concludes that it could not be a deliberate act by the Martians, who view the zombies as a nuisance. He considers the possibility that it is divine judgment, but dismisses the notion as unbiblical, another odd example of Brown projecting far more specific (and, frankly, modern) religious inclinations onto the narrator than he ever displayed in the original. It comes up again when he considers murdering the curate, but his hand is stayed by thoughts of God, and he prays instead. All the same, where Wells merely has the narrator “resort to blows” to silence the curate during his reckless lamenting, Brown has him knock out several teeth.

We have not, so far, gotten a solid explanation for the dead. There’s a strong implication that the Martians caused it, not deliberately, but as a side-effect. The dominant theory, the narrator will later explain, is that the Martian cylinders gave off a form of radiation which caused the effect — this is clearly assumed in the early chapters. But the narrator goes on to note that this explanation does not account for the spread of the “plague”, which was more rapid and more global than the Martian invasion.

Not giving us an explanation would be fine in most zombie stories. Lots of them lack one. Romero’s zombies are never explained canonically, and lots of stories which do give an explanation do it terribly. I recall one particular story which asserted that if you mixed a whole bunch of non-biological toxins together, they would turn into a virus. But this is primarily an H. G. Wells novel, and it would be bizarre for the resurrection of the dead to go without long, boring passages of exposition to justify it. The bulk of chapter two of book two is spent with the narrator giving his observations about Martian technology and biology from his vantage point in the partially-collapsed house beside a newly-fallen cylinder. It’s here that he foreshadows the Martian weakness by describing what he observes of their biology, and takes time out to slam Warwick Goble for the illustrations he did for the original Pearsons serialization of the novel.

Brown uses this exposition-dump to present an explanation for the zombie menace. He nails the expository style, mimicking the way that Wells’s narrator doesn’t fully get the details, but manages to work out the basic gist of things, with a good bit of his own speculation. The revelation is a little more intimate than really fits, but it’s not too far off. The narrator witnesses an “argument” between two Martians, and watches as they review what’s essentially the flight recorder video from their capsule in the form of, “A small box that projected patterns of light.” I don’t know why, but the insertion of a hologram projector here feels somehow un-Wellsian. Given that Wells himself frequently described the heat rays as resembling cameras, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with a Wells story including an advanced form of movie projector. The technology was cutting-edge when the story was written. Maybe it’s just Brown’s choice of words that puts me off: it’s written as if by someone who hasn’t heard of a zooipraxiscope or a magic lantern or a film projector, and so has a kind of steampunk air to it that feels not like a nineteenth century author speculating about something futuristic, but like a twenty-first century author describing something that exists in his own time, trying to sound like he doesn’t know what it is and has to re-derive vocabulary for it.

In any case, the narrator deduces from the flight recorder footage that the walking dead are linked to purple flakes, described as being similar to mold, which ablated from the Martian craft as they entered Earth’s atmosphere. He concludes that the contamination was accidental, caused by a space-borne “fungus” that had hitched a ride with the Martians. The dead are a serious problem for the Martians not as a threat to their invasion, but to their food supply. The handling machine which the Martians build as the narrator watches is armed against the dead, equipped with, “A beam of light brighter than the hottest fire,” that could cut, “With the sharpness of a surgeon’s blade.” That is, a laser. Described with the same steampunkish, “Audience, do you get that I’m describing a laser? Only I can’t say ‘laser’ because it would be an anachronism?” style as the hologram projector. Never mind that the Martians already had a heat ray. There are references earlier to the Martians being reluctant to use the heat ray at times, implying that it might be a limited resource, so I don’t have a problem with the idea that they’d use something different here, but you’d expect the narrator to at least draw a comparison — call it a “precision heat-ray” or something.

I do like the explanation of the cause of the zombie plague, though (Even if it leaves unexplained the fact that Ogilvy seems to be afflicted by exposure to the cylinder directly, since it’s clear in the additions that he’s dying of radiation sickness). It’s ridiculously common, almost universal, for zombie plagues, when explained, to be blamed on a virus. I recall one particularly amazing sentence in a story I read: “Scientists have no clue what is causing the phenomenon, but say that it is definitely a virus.” A viral explanation would be an out-and-out anachronism here, as the discovery of viruses is roughly contemporary with the publication of The War of the Worlds, and by “discovery” here, I only really mean, “They determined that there were infectious agents that might not be bacteria.” I don’t think this is the first time zombie plagues were explained as the result of a fungus (or really, “something like a fungus”), but it’s certainly an early one, four years before The Last of Us gave us cordyceps zombies. Besides, there’s some lovely symmetry in the aliens unknowingly bringing a contaminant to Earth that, in essence, does the opposite of killing humanity while they themselves are killed off by the same sort of contamination. It elevates extraterrestrial cross-contamination from a Deus ex Machina to a recurring theme, and one that prefigures NASA’s real-world concerns about our own spacecraft accidentally destroying any alien ecosystems they might encounter. Strangely, perhaps to avoid the need to return to the subject later, the narrator reveals that in the aftermath of the war, he kept these observations to himself, so that the scientific community remains in presumed ignorance about the origins of the zombie plague.

The death of the curate is entirely unchanged. Bit of a surprise here, since you’d certainly expect Brown to do us the courtesy of having the curate rise as a zombie. In the original, remember, it’s not entirely clear even to him whether the narrator kills the curate or simply disables him. This remains ambiguous in spite of Brown’s changes. The narrator does speculate on the possibility of the curate rising up and avenging himself, but it doesn’t happen. The only other change to the chapter is that the curate’s final speech as he descends into complete madness references the Romero motif of the dead rising because, “sinners have overflowed the depth of Hell and have now spread to the face of the Earth in the from of demons and monsters of rot.”

In the wake of the curate’s death, the narrator waxes philosophical again, musing on the souls of the risen dead, whether they proceeded, “To Heaven and Hell, or were they trapped inside the rotting bodies, like cages, witnessing their actions with no control over their Earthly forms.” He again contemplates suicide. Chapter five is greatly expanded by Brown, its length nearly doubled. As is implicit in the original novel, Brown takes for granted that the Martian invasion was limited to England rather than global. The plague of the dead, on the other hand, spread worldwide. In a tremendous break with zombie story tradition, though, this doesn’t lead in short order to the collapse of civilization. Without the distraction of the Martians, the military forces of the world are able to concentrate on containing the dead. Without the massive casualties of interplanetary war, the numbers of the dead grow more slowly. New laws about the handling of dead bodies rendered zombies into a survivable menace: an ongoing danger, but one which could be managed.

Brown’s narrator speculates that even in England, both the undead and the Martians might have been repulsed at this point, were the country not already plunged too far into disarray and despair to organize a large-scale resistance. To illustrate the point, he relates the story of “Becca”, a woman who’d been a newspaper editor before the war. She gives her life rallying the remnants of the army to hold the line against the dead in a battle for which no location is given (Which would be unusual for Wells, who rarely gave characters names, but was usually detailed in his geography). I reckon that the named characters Brown inserts are inside jokes, shout-outs to friends. Wouldn’t surprise me if the female editor whose name was an “odd shortening” for 1898 was a direct reference to his own editor.

It’s at this battle that the Martians engage themselves in sorting out the problem of the walking dead. Brown gives the Martians a new tactical capability here, his second counting the “I can’t believe they’re not lasers” on the handling machine. The Martians abandon the use of black smoke: it’s pretty much a weapon that turns humans into zombies, and that’s not at all what they want. They replace it with a new blue variety, which is corrosive to organic material, rendering the dead into “mounds of thick, goopy, corroded flesh.” It does the same to any of the living it happens across, too, as well as plants and animals. The narrator claims that it works on anything organic, regardless of whether it’s alive, but does not specify whether this extends as far as, say, melting wooden buildings (I won’t even go into my usual rant on what the word “organic” actually means). This seems like a dumb sort of weapon to use if your goal is to kill the zombies in order to preserve the humans as a food source.

Martian intervention takes care of the large zombie hordes, leaving only small, scattered packs of the undead. Consequentially, the dead have only a minimal presence for the rest of the invasion. The narrator has to beat the red weed with a stick as he hikes through it to avoid any zombies lying in wait, and the artilleryman is noted to carry a sword caked with dried blood, but there’s no more detailed encounters for some time. The narrator’s trek to Putney Hill and reunion with the artilleryman are mostly unchanged. The artilleryman’s brave new world makes no provision for dealing with the dead, and there’s only two places where their existence does something interesting. Once by accident. In the original, the artilleryman says, “We won’t be exterminated. And I don’t mean to be caught, either.” It’s a statement of defiance. Brown inserts, “The Martians won’t let that happen,” between the sentences, changing the first statement into one of resignation. Similarly, there’s a line later, unaltered by Brown, where, musing about how, “The useless and cumbersome and mischievous have to die,” the artilleryman says, “Moreover, dying’s none so dreadful.” I’m surprised that Brown felt no need to qualify that in his edition, since it takes on a considerably more sinister bent.

The extent to which the artilleryman scene is unchanged from the original is one of this book’s biggest disappointments. The artilleryman was practically a zombie movie character already, so I was expecting something more here. Heck, I think there’s like three characters from The Walking Dead that are basically him. So it’s a let down that we don’t get anything new here. Give him a barbed-wire-wrapped baseball bat or something.

It’s also awkward that no comment is made in the next chapter when the protagonist attempts to commit suicide-by-Martian, which is strange given that Brown had placed suicidal ideation into the narrator’s mind several times earlier. The lack of even a single sentence along the lines of, “Once again, the insane resolve possessed me, and at long last I yielded to it,” would have done a lot here — it might even improve the original passage by depicting this final decision as the culmination of a process that he’d been resisting for some time, finally overcoming him. It could have been powerful to explicitly depict that even the threat of the risen dead was not so traumatizing as the haunting silence that falls over London with the death of the Martians.

But that would have required remembering the zombies were even around, which the narrative doesn’t at this point. The Martians die, as they always do, from common Earth bacteria, and the dead don’t enter into it until we get to the aftermath…

To Be Continued

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

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