Zombies? In My YA? It’s More Likely Than You Think

February 12, 2012 § 5 Comments

Awkward confession time: I didn’t finish Under Heaven this week. So sad, but I was busy. And, I have a back-up. Two weeks ago, I finished two books in one week, and that second one is what I’m going to talk about now.

Rot and Ruin, by Johnathan Maberry

Rot and Ruin is a YA book set in a post-Zombie Apocalypse scenario and follows our young protagonist as he becomes a “Zom” hunter. These people have clearly read the Zombie Survival Handbook and are no fools when it comes to rebuilding society or handling zombies. When the inevitable “stormy night and the walls are down” scenario arises, it’s handled competently (albeit with panic among those not used to such things) and professionally. As well, Maberry does the zombie plague right. No-one knows why it happens, but people who die, in any way, come back as zombies. There is hand-waving involved where he says that they don’t rot for some reason, but that’s appreciated. For a teen, it makes life simpler, and for me, well, I shouldn’t be looking so deeply into it.

"Why aren't we affected by freezing temperatures and cell damage? And your depiction of the authoritarian state ignores human nature and the totalitarian need for repression! I mean...Brains!"

That said, zombies are a tough topic for me. On the one hand, I love them when they’re done right (see 28 Days Later, for a particularly good example), but if they’re not done well, then they’re just a crutch for bad storytelling. I don’t care that it was a John Romero flick, Land of the Dead sucked so hard it hurt.

Aww, they're using tools! They think they're people!

And don’t give me the “But John, they reflect the poor underclass that’s ignored and exploited by bourgeois society and who will inevitably rise up in an orgy of self-destructive social cannibalism,” because the movie still sucked. Also, this guy did it better.

In any case, I bring up this book because I have a weird relationship with the horror genre. I love it and hate it, and I’m only half-certain why. When I looked at Rot and Ruin and saw zombies, I expected horror but this book is, and may I be emphatic, not horror. The zombies are a framing device for the real conflict of the plot, which relies more on jerkwads being jerkwads than it does on zombies being zombies.

Think this but with less of, well, everything.

Horror, as I like to define it, is one of those genres that plays a lot with the 4th Wall. By this I mean that while they tell their story, they’re doing so with half an eye on the audience. The scene where the monster jumps out of the closet is included, not because it moves the plot along, but because it scares the crap out of the audience.

"Oh no. I am in danger. Help."

That’s why I adore both Stalker and Signs. They manage to make things scary through atmosphere alone. True, there’s place for the monster as well, which is why Signs works as well as it did. Right up until M. Night went all…M. Night on it, it was wonderful. I’m being a little unfair here, as I’m not driving a hard and fast distinction between “good” and “bad” horror beyond “some are good and some are bad”, but I feel that how much the director looks at the audience matters a great deal.

I wonder if the author/director can ever fully ignore the audience when making horror and still be scary. I think it’s possible, but it’s tough. Let’s review something together: this is a trailer for a game called S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow over Chernobyl. It’s not exactly NSFW, but it’s certainly not pleasant. If you watch it, think about the difference between the characters in the game who would view this, and how the audience views it.

I would advise that you turn the lights off when you watch this.

Little creepy, no? I love that series to pieces, as it were.

First, the atmosphere is set at a distance, both physically and personally. The helicopter and the person viewing it are not in danger, so the audience doesn’t feel mounting, personal panic. The avatar, the person in the helicopter, is not threatened by whatever danger is out there. But the language barrier and the thermal imaging also create distance. We don’t know what’s going on because we don’t understand Russian, so we have to guess. The characters, however, know precisely what’s going on. We have immersion because the audience lacks comprehension, not the characters, and this lets us grow worried without pandering. No creepy music, no 4th Wall allusions: the worry is our own devising.

Second, the human element. The other voice, the one that’s not droning on, obviously feels some emotion. Not quite panic, but it’s there at the edges, waiting to break through. Then you have the human figure on the ground, who though is obscured by the thermal camera, is clearly running for his life. We can connect with that, even if it’s difficult.

Gas masks make everything cooler

Third: the chase! Some thing is chasing the guy on the ground. We still don’t feel a connection (the distance is too great), but we know instantly that he’s threatened. The awkward jerks of the camera and droning of the helicopter also remind us that we’re not there in person. It’s a nod to the 4th Wall without actually winking at it and allows us to stay in the moment. The ante is upped by the introduction of more things. Not only is he now being chased, an evolutionarily scary thing for humans, he is also outnumbered. Further, the one expression of his power, the gun, is useless. He fires, but misses, or worse, it has no effect. Some would say powerlessness is the most important part of horror, and though I don’t always agree, in this case it works. When bodily threatened by monsters, who wouldn’t want a gun? And who wouldn’t be pants-wettingly terrified when that gun failed?

As the figure is surrounded, the avatars inside the helicopter finally feel emotion. The audience can now see and feel the effect, despite the distance. Something bad is about to happen, and when it does, the emphasis is still on immersion. The other voice, likely the pilot, starts panicking and screaming. The droning voice shouts him down (I can practically guess what he’s saying) but itself shows strain. It returns to a strained normalcy as it reports the event, but in the background the vomiting pilot and the glistening blood-stain remind us of what happened.

Now, this video only works because it’s short. The distance is too much for us to invest in the characters and the fear is too localized. The audience isn’t threatened because the avatar isn’t threatened, which means the total fear is reduced. As a set-up, however, it’s fantastic. The audience knows exactly what they need to know to be scared when the character, whoever it is, actually goes into the wild, something that must eventually happen.

Did someone say Avatar? Oh, zombies? Um. No thanks, really.

So, for all this rambling on distance and the horror effect, what does this have to do with Rot and Ruin? R&R doesn’t break the 4th Wall because in fiction, it’s almost crippling to do so. There’s a line in Under Heaven where the third-person omniscient narrator says “We humans,” and it just wrecks the paragraph. Guy Gavriel Kay starts talking and the flow is ruined by preaching. But because R&R isn’t interested in breaking that wall, it’s not very frightening. I’m not threatened, I’m not worried, I’m not breaking out into a cold sweat. Sure, the character might be in danger, but that’s his problem.

Perhaps fiction isn’t really the place to feel the same type of horror as film, which is a convenient answer, if also a bit of an escape. Now I don’t have to try because I’m doomed to fail? Maybe, but maybe I’m just inured to horror in fiction form.

Non-fiction, however, is plain terrifying sometimes.

Next week: finish Under Heaven, and try to get ahead on another book. It’ll be a mystery! And I suppose I should, y’know, finish that contest or something? Yeah. I’ll get on that.

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§ 5 Responses to Zombies? In My YA? It’s More Likely Than You Think

  • Nova says:

    Knee-jerk post before reading the rest of the article:

    28 Days Later is not a zombie movie.

  • 28 Days Later owes as much or more to George Romero’s THE CRAZIES (1971) than it does to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. The Crazies is the model for the ‘murderous infected’ storyline. Oddly, the remake of THE CRAZIES seems to give a strong nod to 28 Days Later. Go figure.

    • Calamanas says:

      Oh goodness. I just saw that I had a new comment and expected it to be one of my friends, and not the damn author of the book I just wrote about.

      You actually commented on my blog. You, sir, a published author, commented on my blog.Excuse me while I squee for awhile, and then go gush at work tomorrow. THERE WILL BE SO MUCH GUSHING. YOU ARE SUDDENLY MY FAVORITE PERSON EVER.

      Also, thanks! Now I need to go see the Crazies. I trust I won’t be disappointed, in that case!

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