Welcome to the Flaming Faggot

Callovia is called "the boundless empire" yet you have managed to find its northern border - a notorious roadhouse deep within the Madrasan Marches on the edge of the wilds of Llanvirnesse. The sign above the door reads "Flaming Faggot," which would suggest a cozy, homey inn with fresh biscuits served at teatime if not for the severed troll heads mounted on pikes at the gate.

As you cross the threshold the raucous din quiets momentarily as all eyes dart to the door and calloused hands drop instinctively to well-worn sword hilts. The threat, instantly assessed, is dismissed and roadhouse patrons go about their business hardly missing a beat.

Grim, hard-eyed men huddle around tables in close conversation thick with conspiracy; caravan guards gamble away their earnings; Caemric rangers sit close to the fireplace cooking the damp of the Black Annis from their clothes as they warm their innards with Red Dragon Ale; minstrels play and buxom wenches dance for the pleasure of men who pay them little attention - until they need a companion to warm their bed.

As you approach the bar, a huge, bald barman with a greatsword slung across his back slides a mug of freshly-pulled ale towards you, its frothy head dripping over the rim.

"Pull up a seat, lad," he says, "and let me tell you a tale of high adventure."

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Halloween Book of the Week: The Rising

The Rising, copyright 2003 by Brian Keene
published by Dorchester Publishing Co.
I've always enjoyed horror fiction and I've read a lot of it by masters of the genre both past and present.  But while I enjoy the genre and admire many of its writers, particularly Lovecraft's evocative imagery and King's characterization, I've never really been frightened or disturbed by any horror novel.  Indeed, it is so difficult to evoke feelings of fear in a reader that it is becoming increasingly less common for authors and publishers to refer to the genre as 'horror,' preferring instead to use less loaded terms, such as dark fiction, or supernatural thriller.

That said, The Rising is the scariest damned book I've ever read.

The dead scrabbled for an entrance to his grave.  His wife was among them, as ravenous for Jim in death as she'd been in life.  Their faint, soulless cries drifted down through ten feet of soil and rock.


The kerosene lamp cast flickering shadows on the cinder block walls, and the air in the shelter was stale and earthy.  His grip on the Ruger tightened.  Above him, Carrie shrieked and clawed at the earth.


She'd been dead for a week.


With these opening lines, Keene sets the scene in media res, of a world gone wrong.  The protagonist, Jim Thurmond, is hiding in an underground shelter he'd built in his back yard during the height of the Y2K scare.  Scared and alone, and slowly going mad, Jim is startled when his cell phone starts to ring.  Half afraid of what might be on the other end, he doesn't answer, but is surprised to find that the caller left a message.  It was from his little boy, Danny, who lives halfway across the country with Jim's ex-wife, and is hiding in his mother's attic afraid of what is moving around the house below and crying out for his Daddy to save him.  Jim tries to call back, but having forgotten to bring a cell charger into the shelter, his phone dies.  Galvanized into action, thus begins Jim's cross country odyssey through zombie-infested territory to try and save his son, joining up with an elderly preacher, and ex-prostitute, and a guilt-ridden scientist along the way.

The premise of the story is nothing new, but it's in the execution and his visceral use of language and imagery that Keene shows his brilliance in telling a truly scary and disturbing story.  Playing upon topical fears associated with Large Hadron Collider experiments, which can hypothetically go wrong by a) creating a miniature black hole that could expand and devour the Earth, b) produce strangelets that absorb all particles they come into contact with, converting them into strange matter, and inevitably transforming the Earth and all living things into an inert blob, and c) creating a vacuum instability in the space around the Earth that could trigger a high energy phase transition that could destroy the entire universe.

In The Rising, Keene imagines a Large Hadron Collider experiment tearing the bounds of reality and freeing demonic alien spirits that seek corporeal existence by inhabiting the bodies of the dead.  There are limitless spirits waiting in the void, and the newly risen dead seek to create more vessels for their brethren to occupy.  Unlike a Romero-esque brainless shambling corpse, these zombies not only possess malign alien intelligence, but also possess the memories of their host.  Furthermore, since the spirits can inhabit any corpse, anything can be a zombie - dogs, deer, birds, even insects, and they all act with a singularity of purpose that is truly frightening.

To me, though, the truly scary thing about this book is not the zombies, it's Keene's commentary on human nature that, sadly, I find all too believable.  Once society collapses, Keene paints humanity in the unkindest light, wallowing in cruelty and selfishness, culminating with a National Guard army led by a psychotic officer, Colonel Schow.  Schow and his men use any means to obtain their ends, and demonstrate little regard for civilian life.  They forcibly conscript all citizens they find, forcing women to serve as sex slaves and men as manual labourers and expendable zombie bait to lure the undead into ambushes.  The army consists of two types of men, those who relish the chance to embrace their basest desires, and those too afraid to speak out.  Any soldier who objects to the Colonel's methods is subjected to a unique brand of discipline: bungee jumping out of a helicopter hovering over a zombie horde.  As the offender bounces up and down into the zombies he is very slowly torn apart.

Make no mistake, this is an intensely disturbing book, but well worth the read.  Keene's pacing keeps the tension level high throughout the entire story and his no-holds-barred story telling, much like that of George R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice series, promises no fairy-tale happy endings.

The Rising gets four out of five pumpkins as an entertaining seasonal read, and five out of five as a gut-wrenching thriller that might just give you nightmares.

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