Thursday, April 20, 2006

Book: Monster Island by David Wellington

As part of my effort to reinvigorate my own creative process, I'm making a concerted effort to read more. I typically read before I go to bed - in fact, it's so habitual that I typically can't fall asleep unless I've read a few pages of something - but lately I've gotten lazy and have simply re-read some of my favorite RPG books and/or comics. Which is not to say that those things aren't interesting or valuable, but it wasn't really expanding my literary horizons to read about Ravenloft for the umpteenth time.

My first book was Monster Island by David Wellington, a novel that interests me for two reasons. First, it's a zombie novel. Second, it was published online first, and then found a traditional publisher and is now available in any bookstore in the US.

I admit, it was surprisingly good. Wellington uses short, stacatto sentences and typically doesn't waste a lot of words. There aren't a lot of words to waste, either; rather than a long Stephen King book, I'd be surprised if monster Island topped out over 90,000 words. That being said, it's certainly gripping enough in its storytelling, and if anything Wellington's writing style adds to the sense of urgency and dread that pervades the novel.

The story follows two people: Dekalb, a former UN weapons inspector who ends up in Somalia. As the world crumbles around him, Somalia remains one of the last vestiges of civilization because it was so close to barbarism before the zombies came - having guns and armies of children willing to fight certainly helps when you're facing masses of the undead. Dekalb is sent to New York (Manhattan is the island in the title) where he meets Gary, a medical student who realized he could beat becoming a zombie by sustaining bloodflow to his brain during the conversion proccess. The result is that Gary is a thinking, talking zombie.

If not in prose and length, Monster Island does resemble Stephen King a bit in that the protagonists and antagonists follow a fairly formulaic plot: they meet, they rassle a little, they go their seperate ways, they consolidate, they meet again, shit goes down, and no one really comes out very well. That's fine, because where Wellington's novel really shines is in its explorations of the zombie genre, which I suspect may have been his intention. Similar to Romero's recent Land of the Dead, Wellington compares survivors to the zombies, and the survivors don't always appear in the most flattering light. But his addition of the thinking zombie provides an even more interesting exploration that segues nicely into apocalyptic themes. In a day when we no longer fear mass-scale nuclear war like we used to (and I mean "we" as in popular culture as a whole, rather than you or I specifically), zombies are just as good a vehicle as any other to touch on the "red in tooth and claw" themes of apocalyptic breakdown and barbarism.

The one aspect that ruined the book's verisimilitude in places was the way Wellington couldn't seem to decide on a timeframe for the events in the book. Although the action is supposed to take place a month (or two, max) after the apocalypse, things occur that shouldn't happen for much longer (soda cans completely faded from the sun and elements, gasoline turning to jelly in fuel lines, and so on). While not awful, these bits were distracting enough that they forced me out of the story, at least for a sentence or two.

On the whole, there's enough here to interest horror fans, and Wellington's book certainly stands as a great example of a commercial success in the brave new publishing world the Internet has created.

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