Why Monsters Matter and Trends Don’t

As any aficionado will tell you, horror is cyclical. Not only does the broader genre have spates of wider popularity followed by dormancy, but the appeal of subgenres within it seem to vacillate. As much as it nauseates me to use marketing lingo, there are two things that are “hot right now” in horror: vampires and zombies. Most of the influx of new material that follows any smash hit (Twilight, The Walking Dead) is usually thrown together to make a quick buck and thus usually holds no interest for me.
Enter, Night by Michael Rowe (a vampire story) and Zombie Bake-Off by Stephen Graham Jones don’t exist because their authors were trying to ride any kind of wave, they exist because these monsters are great vehicles for storytelling. They’ve existed long enough to be the thing trends are made of, because they talk to something primal in us and because they allow room for infinite variation. Yes there are bad books with vampires, yes there are bad books with zombies, but that doesn’t matter. These two would be great no matter what monster had an endcap at Barnes & Noble this month.

Michael Rowe’s been writing professionally for a long time, so it should come as no surprise that his first novel doesn’t much feel like a first novel. By which I mean: it rocks.

A diverse ensemble of characters converge on a small North Canadian town that serves as the resting place for an ancient vampiric evil, the evil is unleashed and our characters make there stand. Plot synopsis doesn’t sound groundbreaking? When you squish it down into a sentence, it isn’t, but that’s not what’s important and vital about this novel. What we have here is very much a traditional vampire story. In an age of deconstructions, recontextualizations, and post-modern reinventions, the traditional elements of the story are refreshing.

Where Rowe’s work sets itself apart is in the three-dimensionality of his characters and their struggles. We care about our protagonists lives way before the vampire shows up. Some of the human antagonists(Adeline, a manipulative and hypocritical old woman, is scarier to me than any monster that ever does show up) are so compelling, that it’s of little consequence that the supernatural elements wait until the latter half of the book to kick in.

Rowe’s portrayal of small town life has drawn comparisons to Stephen King, but I personally find Parr’s Landing a more intriguing setting than Salem’s Lot or any of King’s other communities. Parr’s Landing isn’t meant to be a stand in for any North American town, it’s a unique, foreboding place with a history, a history explicitly tied to the story to the point where the town is as indispensable as any character.

Enter, Night isn’t just a great vampire tale, it’s a compelling exploration of family, religion(there’s some great commentary about the Jesuits that “civilized” large swaths of Canada), and history written with beauty and intelligence. I can’t recommend it enough.

As an aside, if you read into one young character’s obsession with Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula comic book series, you could make the case that Rowe is very much a proponent of the importance of re-examining our monsters under different lenses. The vampires in Tomb share all the ‘rules’ as those in Enter, Night itself, but the works could not be more different. We’ve been using the same elements for a hundred years, but with different, valid results every time.

I’ve written about the work of Stephen Graham Jones here before, and probably will be doing so well into the farflung future. The guy is good. So why was I hesitant to pick up Zombie Bake-Off?

Well, part of it has to do with that trend thing. I’m tired of zombies. There, I said it. I feel better.
Before you get out your knives and cricket bats, let me explain.

My all time favorite film is Dawn of the Dead, so maybe it’s less that I’m tired, more that I’m just a demanding zombie snob. I’m constantly comparing things back to Dawn, and if they don’t attempt to do something new, I’m nonpulsed. Dawn is the pinnacle of Romero’s socially conscious zombies (which he admittedly derived from Matheson’s vampires in I Am Legend) and most everything since then has explored the same themes and then run them into the ground.

The Romero zombie is no longer able to tell us anything about society that we didn’t already know (or that George hasn’t already told us), and the stories we tend to tell with them are usually pretty samey. There are some notable exceptions to this, but see The Walking Dead as an example for what I’m getting at here: “Humans are the real walking dead!” “Ya don’t say? Interesting. I wonder what else is on.” It’s not bad, it just doesn’t hold my interest.

Lucky for us, Jones opts to follow the zombie progressivist path of Dan O’Bannon. In 1985 O’Bannon made Return of the Living Dead, and introduced a punk-rock riff on Romero’s creatures. Smarter, faster, and nigh-unkillable O’Bannon’s zombies munched brains and sometimes looked like Linnea Quigley. The film took a complete tonal departure from its predecessors and thereby made zombies viable again.

Bake-Off is the story of what happens when you lock pro-wrestlers and baking enthusiasts in the same coliseum and then introduce some zombified donuts. Jones’s characters and situations are big and broad (in the case of one plus-sized Andre the Giant-esque wrestler, they’re enormous), but he packs his chapters with enough wit and heart to make this more than just a bloodbath.

Jones’s voice is at once stripped-down and folksy, a blend all his own that suits the story well. He’s unafraid to apply a screenwriter’s shorthand, and it helps to keep the frenetic action moving while maintaining a clear sense of geography.

Zombie fans will enjoy Jones’s unique O’Bannon 2.0 version of the undead, while anyone who’s ever enjoyed wrestling will get a kick out of how he explores the archtypes of that very particular brand of storytelling/performance. I haven’t watched wrestling since I was a youngin, back when the WWE was the WWF, but I still giggled at some of the wrestlers and their gimmicks (The Village Person: an amalgamation of all five Village People. Classic).

Leagues sillier than the rest of his work that I’ve read, Zombie Bake-Off delivers the goods and turned this skeptic into a believer. It’s everything you could hope for from a book dedicated to Tarman. During the final lines of the epilogue, I swear I heard the first chords of “Party Time” by 45 Graves. Highly recommended.

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