Cornholed by a thematic devil wombat, and other writerly observations

“If you dance with the Devil Wombat, you get cornholed by the Devil Wombat.”

This is an example of a theme, as espoused by Chuck Wendig over at his blog: there are 25 superb points about the importance of theme to a story, and some have got me totally cracked up. Laughing and learning at the same time: gold. Plus, what’s not to love about a devil wombat?

In other news:

  • From theme to suspense: Ian Irvine, whose website I’ve recommended before due to his insightful advice on the publishing industry, has offered a whole bunch of summaries about building suspense in a story. There’s a bit of crossover, but overall, it’s good stuff.
  • The Australian Horror Writers Association, which fell into something of an open grave this year, looks as if it’s scrambling out, announcing a dedicated page for its mag, Midnight Echo (subs for issue 7, theme of ‘taboos’, open Oct 1 — OMG that’s tomorrow, where has the year gone?) and promising rejuvenation in the new year. The mag is having a subscription drive: you can win stuff.
  • Speaking of zombies, Cam Rogers has expressed his love here. And Chuck McKenzie’s Necroscope is still shambling along nicely, nom nom nom.
  • And Michael Pryor is, for those patient souls looking for almost guilt-free procrastination, has listed a vid of ‘how writers write‘.
  • And then there’s this (reported at the Guardian UK — where, non-writerly, you can listen to the whole new Zola Jesus album, Conatus, but having done so, I think it might be a slow burner, a bit like her Stridulum II which has great tracks but kind of wears all at once…): Amazon’s new line of Kindles, including the Touch and the Fire. Resistance to the juggernaut is becoming futile with the plummeting price point, restrained only by geography, it seems.

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  • Stake Land: getting its point across

    stake land vampire movie poster

    This is the apocalypse with fangs, indie-style, as envisaged by director and co-writer Jim Mickle. Stake Land tracks young Martin, orphaned by a ravaging vampire, who is taken under the wing of solitary hunter Mister (co-writer Nick Damici). Shotguns, arrows, spears and stakes (no fire) are their arsenal against a zombie-like plague of vampires who have turned the USA and, it is suggested, the world, into a wasteland. The pair have a plan — to drive to New Eden, an idyllic, vampire-free zone (once again, the American fascination with Canada as a haven is front and centre).

    Along the way, they pick up passengers including a nun, a pregnant singer and an ex-marine. The group scavenge food and fuel on their way north via a series of fortified towns, which try to maintain the conventions of society amidst the carnage.

    A map of America reveals a number of zones of control, each posing dangers to travellers, and none moreso than the realm of the Brotherhood: a fanatical bunch of religious nutters who not only think the vampire plague is a sign of the apocalypse, but revel in it, seeking to make it worse, not better. Rape and murder are their tools of trade and they pose the greatest obstacle to the travellers.

    The story meanders a bit, struggling to find a high level of suspense and direct conflict. This is largely due to it being a road journey linking various separate set action pieces which don’t always serve the plot. The characters do make some overly stupid mistakes towards the end. However, it does carry a mood of melancholy and desperation you’d hope to find in such a bleak scenario, and is pleasantly understated — there isn’t too much chatting and the performances are restrained.

    Stake Land is a gritty, realistic film where the vampires are very much monsters, essentially zombies with a vulnerability to sunlight and dicky tickers, if you can get a hunk of wood through their reinforced rib cage. The actual rules by which the vampires are created remain obscure, and this does weaken the credibility of the premise a little. While a degree of confusion about the origin of the plague is to be expected in a world gone to hell, and it isn’t necessary within the context of the film, I’d have liked a clear indication as to how the vampirism spreads so I could better appreciate the threat to the characters, who do engage in a lot of hand-to-hand combat.

    There is a suggestion that there are different generations — some are too tough to stake and can only be stopped by a stake to the back of the head, for instance — and indeed there is mention of mutations of vampire — some are capable of higher thought, most seem to be little more than animals. But yet, a bite appears to be a likely way of making a vampire, which suggests vampirism as contagion.

    But this movie is not about the vampires; in fact, a zombie plague would’ve worked just as well, and there is little difference between the two as depicted here.

    No, the sharp end of the flick is aimed at the religious right as Mickle tests society’s thin veneer when it’s brought under stress, and vampires were just a handy critter for some cool effects and fight scenes. All that blood, and there is something cool about an ornery mysterious stranger riding into town and popping a bag of extended canines on the bar, isn’t there?

    In some ways, the story has the mood of The Road, but that slice of post-apocalyptic America has far more intensity. Stake Land does, however, deliver a well-acted, good-looking and above-average adventure where the humans can be just as inhumane as the monsters. Tasty, but not overly filling.

    Feed by Mira Grant: the flavour really hits you

    feed by mira grant

    Feed is a clever zombie novel from pseudonymous Mira Grant, right down to its title: not only does it refer to the famed zombie appetite, but to western society’s appetite for connectivity – hence the RSS symbol on the cover.

    In the world of Feed, the zombies reign. Created by a little-understood man-made contagion, the reanimated dead roam the wilds while an underpopulated and “uninfected” society lives in communes rated by risk. Travel has been reduced to a bare minimum, and the media – a major focus of the story’s plot – has suffered a severe reversal. Traditional news providers now face serious competition from bloggers, who have organised into their own corporations vying for ratings and the dollars they bring with them (I’m sure Rupert Murdoch would be fascinated by their income model!) to feed the connectivity needs of a largely sedentary and isolationist population. The bloggers are broken into distinct zones of interest: fictionals, who write stories that may or may not be based on current events (including slash); newsies, who act as journalists; and Irwins, nicknamed after Australia’s croc hunter Steve, who are the daredevils of the blogosphere, risking life and limb for the sake of entertainment.

    Feed’s core characters comprise one of each: sister Georgia (George, newsie) and Irwin brother Shaun and their tech-savvy fictional “Buffy”. The Morgans are rather special, having been, Bindi-like, raised in the spotlight of the blogosphere since the zombie outbreak was hijacked by their parents as a fame platform. This, and the zombie death of their infant brother, informs the pair’s relationship. It’s a lovingly rendered co-dependency and one of the book’s great strengths.

    The story is told primarily from George’s point of view, with neat quotes from various blog posts by her and others.

    We are given the history of the outbreak and how the world has changed since, how technology and society have evolved to deal with the new circumstances. It’s very clever and quite believable (insomuch as you can make a zombie plague believable).

    The story follows the trio as they are invited to join the election campaign of a US senator running for the presidency. And here is where it goes slightly off-track, with opposing forces acting in not entirely logical ways to achieve their outcomes, and the reactions of the public and officialdom likewise conforming more to authorial need than real-world likelihood. That a key piece of evidence required to trigger the story’s conclusion is handed over on a platter further diminishes the trajectory.

    And yet these are small things that could’ve been overlooked were it not for the most annoying factor of all: the Morgans. Georgia is 22 but already jaded and cynical, the bearer of a noxious self-importance that erodes her likability as the story progresses. She and her team know more about everything than everyone they meet: politicians, security staff, experienced journalists are all minnows by comparison. Even their technology is superior to that of the American secret service. Her single-minded dedication to the ‘truth’ puts her into the category of fanatic, and fanatics are by their very nature, unreliable, unsociable and boorish. Not really what you want for a main character, and one who espouses her own virtues with such cocky assurance for more than 550 pages.

    From what we see of Shaun, he suffers a similar ego-centric view of his place in the world.

    There is an element of self-delusion that Grant reveals, most tellingly when George sets out to rip into a candidate whose policies she doesn’t like. Vowing to ask the hard questions and take it up to the man, what she actually does is present a set of standard, largely non-reactive questions which he answers in sound bites according to his platform. Nothing new is revealed, no pressure is brought to bear, and yet she proclaims it a victory, even though she is forced to add an op ed piece to reinforce the win. More of this approach, showing that just maybe the kids aren’t up the spotless standard they think they are – that just maybe someone else also knows what they’re doing — might’ve helped to humanise them to the point of being sympathetic heroes.

    It’s easy to appreciate their youthful cynicism: America’s news services, particularly of the broadcast variety, are by and large woeful, little more than a dull amalgam of reality television and opinionated commentary slavishly devoted to domestic introspection. And in fairness, Australia is following a similar route, blurring the line between entertainment and information, reportage and commentary, in electronic, print and online media.

    All of which isn’t to say that the characterisation isn’t good or even realistic: the Morgans are of an age and possess a background that make their self-absorption perfectly understandable, and it is certainly a fair call to tell a story through the eyes of obnoxious characters (in fact, I’m sure the very character traits that I found off-putting will probably endear the Morgans to other readers). I just wish that such a beautifully drawn and considered post-zombie apocalypse world could have been explored through the experiences of more likable characters.

    Dead Set: zombies and Big Brother

    I’ve always though the Big Brother artificial reality shows were daft, but finally, here they are in a context I can appreciate. The Brits have done a gorgeous job of setting up a bunch of BB cast and crew (some real, such as host Davina McCall) caught up in a zombie apocalypse in Dead Set. It’s gritty, visceral viewing, well crafted and superbly acted, and very clever. And in true British fashion, short and sweet and to the point. Tasty indeed! Here’s a trailer.

    How to write a novel (the Justine method)

    In her acceptance speech at the World Fantasy Awards ceremony this year, Margo Lanagan paid tribute to a blog post by fellow Aussie writer Justine Larbalestier about how to write a novel. Given I’m meant to be doing just that at the moment (writing a novel, that is), I looked up that post, and found it helpful indeed. Here it is. I’ve used the spreadsheet tracking method and it’s uncomfortably illuminating!

    I also thought her expurgated version held quite a lot of truth.

    Enjoy, and then get to it…

    Zombies have their day … and night

    The indominitable Chuck McKenzie, his glee barely contained by the electrons, points out this piece in Time magazine proclaiming that the zombies’ day has come. If it means less twee Twilight and more actual, you know, horror with something to say, bring it on. Though Chuck, the vampire will never die, my friend 😉