David J. Schow, |
(Subterranean Press, 2003)
When the standards of horror fiction are assembled and thrust onto film or paper, zombies are often overlooked. I have no idea why. Vampires may be more glamorous, werewolves easier to write, ghosts cheaper to portray. But nothing is as disturbing, as truly frightening, as a good zombie. David J. Schow has an army of them lined up and ready to go for Zombie Jam.
Zombies are frightening because they're close to human, almost recognizable, and so can hide among us even while eating our brains. That similarity lets them slide in among living people, spreading like a disease or an allergen. Their vague source of origin adds to the threat. Werewolves and vampires need a specific beginning, but zombies come from nowhere, or from human pollution, which is everywhere. Schow captures the entire insidious, mocking menace of zombiekind in Zombie Jam, four increasingly grim tales, punching through the jaundiced observations of a hardened survivor.
"Blossom" combines a cynical office worker and a maniacally selfish older lover for a sex scene that could take the place of a dozen abstinence classes. They're both so repellent that it's almost a relief when the zombie plague spreads to their dark corner of the city. The tourist fighting for brave ignorance in "DON't/WALK" is considerably more likeable, trying to maintain a faŤade of normalcy in a city that is overrun with an unmentionable problem. By the time "Jerry's Kids Meet Wormboy," civilization has fallen apart like the rotting invaders, and only the mad survive. "Wormboy" again features two wonderfully disgusting non-heroes, the pragmatic and food-obsessed Wormboy and the zealously insane Jerry. The ending suggests another layer to the zombies, and makes the first three stories provide ever more disturbing snapshots of the world as it vanishes into the wave of undead.
"Dying Words," the finale, provides another glimpse into the mid-apocalypse time of "DON't/WALK" with a grim author's collaboration. "Dying Words" is the only story to pull back from the narrow world of its leads and show some of what is happening around the city, adding a disturbing sense of futility to the author's efforts. Wrapped around the main tales is a four-section glimpse of survival in the days after the zombies come; in "Incursion," "Infection," "Epidemic" and "Assimilation," an embittered survivor walks through a human encampment. The narrator's intent is not revealed until the last segment of tale, and leaves a disturbing question as the final note of the book.
Schow's style, with a usual obsessive focus on the world of one or two characters, makes the spread of undead seem even more overwhelming. There is never any suggestion of human optimism or triumph, only a shambling march of corpses. There is some extremely black humor, perfect for the situation, and a joyous exultation in descriptions of the grim and gory. Those descriptions still can only go so far, and horror is rather visceral, so even a book as compellingly repellent as Zombie Jam benefits from the addition of Bernie Wrightson's violently colorful illustrations.
Even if you've read all the stories of Zombie Jam in the original release -- and you're probably lying if you say you have -- you need this book. Besides the Wrightson illustrations, there's also an afterword that reveals Schow's own flirtation with the zombie lifestyle, and the grim framing tales. Zombie Jam is the perfect testament to the horror of these voiceless eating machines, and offers grim comfort in its subtle hint that the world as it is may not be all that different. Just don't read it before dinner.