After the End (2009)


I reviewed these two books in one piece. Sometimes we do that in magazines, it’s interesting to draw parallels between similar items, and it saves space, honestly. I mean, you would not believe how hard it is to try to cover all the SF, Fantasy and Horror that comes out in one month, alright?

My authorial chum Adam Roberts liked The Forest of Hands and Teeth rather more than I did. I’ll leave that as a reminder that reviews spring only from personal opinion, rather than some kind of objective vision of  creative truth.

From Death Ray #20.

After the End

Two stories from beyond the end of civilisation and all that, a source of perennial glee to pessimistic SF writers.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth

Carrie Ryan/Gollancz

TWO STARS

One

One/Conrad Williams/Virgin

FOUR STARS

Here’s a brace of tales from the world post apocalypse. The first, The Forest of Hands and Teeth, is a cross between M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village and Day of the Dead. Yep, it’s another zombie story.

Zombies are surfing high on zeitgeist, why we’re not sure of exactly, their enduring popularity baffles, and all the weaknesses of the zombie genre are apparent in The Forest.

Set well after your typical plague-of-undead, survivors persist in a handful of fenced-off enclaves, living like pioneers. It’s the timescales that are the problem here: Where do the zombies come from, if people are so few? This illogicality is par for the course in a book that too often tries to have it both ways, like she writes often of putrefaction, but then specifically tells us her ‘Unconsecrated’ do not decay; protagonist Mary is breathtakingly selfish for a woman brought up in a village that relies on self-sacrifice, and the plot depends on complete isolation for the village, yet still having fenced paths linking it to others.

The book trips on the narrative problems posed by these paths – it says the chain link fences are maintained, but where do the raw materials come from? Why do maintenance crews from different villages not meet when out repairing the path fences? If, on the other hand, they only maintain them sporadically, why do the fences not rust away or get breached by falling trees? There are other unanswered questions: Why don’t the villagers hunt the zombies out? If they have access to supplies of wire, why don’t they make armour? Why do the characters not get other infectious diseases after being raked by rotting fingernails? Details are iffy too: crossbows fire bolts, not arrows; arrows are nocked, not notched; and a scythe – taken up by the heroes instead of a couple of handy swords – is next to useless as a weapon. Ryan is replaying magpie-gathered bits of popular culture here, she’s not bringing any fresh flesh to the dining table.

For all that, The Forest… is diverting, its mixing of romance and zom-conventions oddly engaging. Expect sequels.

Despite featuring yet more flesh-eaters, these grown from ET spores borne to Earth in the wake of some cosmic disaster, One is an entirely different kettle of fish. It’s a typically bleak UK vision of the post-apocalyptic future, almost grim as Simon Clarke’s blood-drenched tomorrows.

Written by up-and-coming author Conrad Williams, One presents the most horrifying of horror through the most poetic of language. If at times Williams’ prose overpowers the story, in the main his richly phrased sweeps of language hit the mark, laying bare the bittersweet joys of parenthood. That is what One is really about. Williams twists together a neat braid, juxtaposing the sanctity of human reproduction against the vile way the alien Skinners both breed and feed. Not since Alien has the dual dismay and joy of birth been tapped so well.

The force of Williams’ catastrophe is such that there seems to be little hope on his irradiated Earth, blasted by a stellar gamma ray burst, but there is, and he nurtures it in the reader as skilfully as he builds tension. With a mastery of language and theme rarely seen in the genre, Williams’ manages to bend the unsavoury trend in modern horror to disgust (and it is disgusting in places) to his own ends, and the result is gripping.

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