A little while ago I received an ARC of Stefan Petrucha's latest novel, Dead Mann Walking, and I had fully expected to have it done and have a review of it up on the blog prior to its October 4th release date. As of this writing, I'm about half way through the book and at least a day late on the post.
The best laid plans of mice and men.
Still, not wanting to stay entirely silent on the subject, I figured I'd post some general thoughts, anyways, and maybe do a wrap up post when I do finish the book.
I've actually been a fan of Petrucha's work for a few years, now. I've enjoyed much of his comic book work, dabbled with some of his novels, and still consider his run on The X-Files with Charlie Adlard for Topps Comics a crowning example of how a licensed comic should be done. So, when I received my copy of Dead Mann Walking I felt like this was a known quantity. In all fairness, I didn't expect to not like it and, so far, I haven't been proven wrong.
The story revolves around a private detective named Hessius Mann, who was put to death for the murder of his wife but was later returned to life when supressed evidence was discovered and he was cleared of the crime. Yeas, that's right, he was brought back to life using a process called a Radical Invigoration Procedure developed by a company who expected to cash in on rich folks who would want to bring back their loved ones. What they ended up with was a new sub-class of 'people' (zombies) that nobody wanted around, but once you've brought them back you can't just get rid of them again. Not unless they go all George Romero feral. They call them chakz instead of zombies, and the chakz (those who can speak) call the living livebloods.
Anyway, in typical noir fashion, Hessius is approached by a client find a deceased person who has been named in his father's will. Since Hessius is still a high-functioning member of the undead community and knows the world of the chakz, he is uniquely suited for the task and takes the job. Then things get interesting.
For what it's worth, I'm really enjoying what I've read so far. Petrucha does a really good job of balancing the noir elements with the horror bits, and most of the humour in the book derives from the combination of the two. The plot appears to be pretty straightforward with all the hallmarks of a good mystery/thriller story, but Petrucha breathes new life into the old tropes by approaching them with an undead perspective. Everyone knows how these detective stories work but when you expect the familiar scenes to play out, you get them, to be sure, but slightly askew, and that's where the charm of this book, ultimately, lies.
There's also an oddly amped up tension to the proceedings. You would expect to not worry about your protagonists life when he has already lost it once, but as Petrucha makes it abundantly clear in the first chapter, there are fates worse then death when your a chak. Death itself has some finality to it, but those who have been through the RIP go on after limbs are detached and bodies decay. It's also a chore-and-a-half for these guys to maintain themselves on a daily basis because they're constantly fighting rot, memory loss, and the fear that at any time they may go feral. Oh, and they also have to deal with a living population who generally views chakz as not deserving of any rights and routinely enagage in violent attacks on undead communities.
This is probably a good place to mention that the world Petrucha's created here is really well thought out and there's a lot of interesting things he could mine here, if he wanted to. I'm sure there's a lot of backstory he could explore but he wisely shies away from it, for the most part, in favour of advancing the plot. In fact, Petrucha recently posted on his website an excised chapter, or portion of a chapter, that served this exact purpose but found that it slowed down the plot enough that it had to go. For anyone interested, I'll be posting that excerpt at the end of this review.
Overall/so far, I'm really digging Dead Mann Walking. I'm engaged, I'm interested, and it's a great October diversion.
I've also heard that a sequel may have been approved, so it may not be too long before we're discussing A Hessius Mann Novel #2. Me? I'm looking forward to it.
If you're curious, Petrucha has the first chapter previewed at BoomTron, and the following is the aforementioned excerpt discussing some zombie history according to Hessius Mann:
Dead Mann: The Missing Chapter
Crowded, surrounded, attacked, the chakz gave the people what they wanted, proof that they were dangerous. It was as though that group-mind the LBs worried about had actually kicked in. Maybe the ferals just never had the numbers before, or maybe you had to be far enough back to see the patterns. I saw them now.
Flashes of chak-bodies moved in elegant waves, like flocks of migrating birds. The livebloods, for all their higher functions, fled without grace. The big picture pulsed and throbbed. But the personal tragedies played out in tiny spaces, as if the two had nothing to do with one another. In the center of the swirls stood the fair-haired cop I’d seen from the window, bullets spitting from his AK-47. They tore some dead flesh. Mostly, he was hitting livebloods before the ferals took him down.
So was this Ezekiel and his dry-bones rising in the valley of death? Was it then, or later, now, or the future? The edges were arbitrary, the beginnings and endings likewise. But as I watched, this was the shit I remembered.
In 1929 W.B. Seabrook wrote about voodoo cults and resurrected slaves in a novel called The Magic Island. It made sense that Haiti, whose population had recently thrown off their shackles, would have plantation slaves for their monsters. White Zombie
In 1932, Victor Halperin’s White Zombie took it to the white Europeans. The island lust of Murder Legendre, played by Bela Lugosi, put a white virgin’s virtue at risk.
But these were early, proto-forms. There was no blood yet, not like there was on the Fort Hammer plaza. My eyes singled out a male teen, all buff and dressed to shock with Mohawk, tattoos and piercings. He ran half-heartedly, grabbing at the side of his head where his ear had been once. Red liquid dripped between his fingers. Eventually, he slowed and then, simply stopped.
In 1943 Jacques Tournier’s I Walked With a Zombie gave us a dead-eyed scarecrow. It was more a symbol. No savagery, just foreboding. It was Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend in 1954 that took it up a notch. The book was sort of about vampires, but they were so much like zombies that the 1964 Italian film version with Vincent Price, The Last Man on Earth, became the prime inspiration for George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
1968, the zombie had arrived. Romero was the first, really, if you don’t count Ezekiel and all the others. What took so long? Well, in those days, the dead moved slowly.
On the plaza, groups formed and collapsed like cauldron bubbles. I watched two families band together. The mothers carried the little ones, forcing the older children ahead. Weirdly, the fathers carried doors, using them as shields. Two danglers and a gleet banged at them. They even tried the knob.
Romero made it biblical again. Cannibal corpses, old friends and lovers among them, children chewing on parents. The condition spreading like plague, and no one knew why or who to shoot. His sequel, Dawn of the Dead, used the same idea, but more directly as social critique, played out in comic-book colors so gaudy you had to get the joke.
I hoped the family made it. Something should survive, and it didn’t look good for anyone else. The elegant swarms had surrounded the LBs, and as they squeezed in, began to lose their pretty shape. Together now, ferals and livebloods pushed and pulled en mass, so many, so close together, they could barely move. Limbs tangled, the center of the blob tumbled, all together, all at once, like football teams in a joint tackle.
Romero, what could you say? A horde of lesser efforts followed, Fulci’s Zombi 2 notable for an underwater battle between zombie and shark. Then decades passed. 28 Days Later brought some class back to the movies. That was more about plague than the dead, but close enough, and its monsters were fast. The Dawn of the Dead remake followed suit. The books and comics got better – Monster Island by David Wellington, The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and later Charlie Adlard (now on TV!). By then people played video games like Rebel Without A Pulse and Left4Dead, shooting and being shot, eating and being eaten. The great democracy of mass media.
The mob in the plaza had formed a single creature, like one of Colby Green’s orgies, many limbs, many mouths, some screaming, some chewing. Stray Livebloods and ferals tried to pull the bodies free, but for different reasons.
The cop with the flamethrower stood at the edge of the mass and stared, unsure what to do. He tried to help, used his free hand to grab a hand and yank, but when a feral came free, a chunk of dripping meat in its mouth, he’d had enough. He let loose with the thrower, turning it on the writhing pile. Before the cop could barbecue the lot, a liveblood clonked him with a crowbar, then dived into the smoldering mess, screaming that he had to find his girlfriend.
I’d like to say all the books and movies fade against the reality, but maybe it’s the reality that fades. After all, who could forget the surprise hit, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? This is the shit that gives us shape, that let’s us understand the world, even build it from scratch. Shakespeare told us. We are such stuff as nightmares are made on, and our little life is rounded with a scream.
The plaza had reached critical mass. The blob broke and scattered. Bodies, some moving, spilled across the street, then onto the long black hospital entrance ramp that had kept the scene arms distant. The tide was coming in.