DISCLAIMER: This column is full of my opinions and musings; it is in no way meant to disparage – or validate – one genre over another. It is completely and utterly subjective – I am speaking only about how I react to something, not about its overall value, nor to suggest that anyone else should or should not react the way I do.
I was reading a book the other day, The Girl With All The Gifts, by M. R. Carey. It was a very well written book, great characters, great setup, a wonderfully moody atmosphere. I knew what I was in for, I knew this book was (to greatly simplify) a zombie tale. But about a third of the way through the book, when the human flesh eating aspect of the story came to the fore, I simply closed the book and returned it to the library. I didn’t want to read any more.
While I don’t regret making that decision (so many books, so little time – why spend time reading something you aren’t enjoying?), I did wonder just what it was that caused me to so quickly abandon something that didn’t disappoint in style or content. I mean, it was a really, really well written book! But once we got to the graphic undead bits, I wasn’t willing to bank on the writing carrying me through the gore and the carnage.
It’s not that I don’t like horror writing, even though I will admit it’s not my go-to genre. Sure, there are a lot of crappy horror tales out there, but there are crappy fantasy works, too, and crappy science fiction, crappy memoir, crappy historicals, crappy self-help books, crappy romances, crappy literary fiction. Horror certainly does not have the corner on the crap market.
And there’s some really fantastic horror writing that I’ve been privileged to experience. Brady Allen’s Back Roads and Frontal Lobes slapped me up the side of the head, swore at me from the corner of my eye and did mad, stupid things while I couldn’t look away – and I loved it (even the undead parts). Kealan Patrick Burke’s The Tent made me scared to go camping, perhaps ever again (okay, not really, but I’d better not be too far away from civilization – or at least a manned ranger station). American Elsewhere from Robert Jackson Bennett, although it has no zombies as we tend to think of them (I was going to say it has no undead, but that would not be so), makes me not to want to ever visit a little place if it goes by the name of Wink, New Mexico, no matter how pretty it is. Not Ever. Mira Grant’s Parasite satisfied my science fiction and horror cravings, at least for a while (until I wasn’t afraid to come out from under my covers) even with its zombie-like iterations, as did the linear anthology World’s Collider. Steven Novak’s Megan left the metallic smell of blood on the bottom of my shoes without leaving a trail (or even without me leaving my chair), but I still enjoyed it. Well, most of it. Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown and Paolo Bacigalupi’s Zombie Baseball Beatdown made it abundantly clear that the undead ain’t just for adults anymore (and kudos to Mr. Bacigalupi for marrying zombies and The Great American Pastime – had you spoiled baseball for me, sir, I would have had to have found you and killed you, but luckily you made it fun and heroic, not merely squicky). And let’s just say that I have Stephen King and Doctor Sleep to blame for having developed an irrational fear of RVs.
But I have to admit that I don’t seek out horror stories, especially if they have zombies or the undead (including vampires) or other icky creatures or gore at their core. Pretty much something has to come recommended to me in order to get it into my hands.
Maybe I’m just burned out on flesh eating, rotten, putrefying gross out gore fiction (and there was no solid indication that The Girl With All The Gifts would have turned in to that – I didn’t stick around long enough to find out). Maybe there’s been overkill after pop culture has inundated us with zombies and other vile, mutant malevolence not just in literature, but in television, cinema, gaming.
Or maybe, perhaps more honestly, I’m just so much of a Pollyanna that I find it too hard to read about a bright, hopeful child who turns into a mindless slavering creature when exposed to the scent of human skin (or rather a group of such children – the central character of Melanie already had started to figure out how to overcome those destructive urges) regardless of how well it’s written. Or again, perhaps it was the political hatred of the military vs the scientific vs the “Junkers” (re: survivalists) to the detriment of all that put me over the edge – because it was well written and therefore that much more believable. Bottom line, I guess I’m too much of a soft thing to even wait it out to see if there was redemption at the end.
Regardless of genre, I find it hard to read a book where negativity (even understandable negativity) and hardship are constant, such as one would find if the world were in the grips of a zombie apocalypse. Or a massive epidemic. Or a global environmental catastrophe. Or an untenable alien invasion.
Not that I don’t read such things. Not that I don’t enjoy them, even. I confuse myself sometimes. (Ha! I often confuse myself when I stop and think about things.)
Maybe that’s why I like reading fantasy, and science fiction – the negativity and hardship are somewhat removed from my reality. That way, even if the odds seem impossible, or it seems like every character I grow close to ends up either dying or being compromised or dealt a harder hand than expected (hello, Game of Thrones?) I can hang on to the hope that everything – or at least substantial things – will be all right in the end. I can better take the disappointment, or even the despair, if it is once or twice or three times removed from my own foreseeable situation. I mean, if the zombie apocalypse should break out tomorrow, I’ll be one of the first to go. I don’t need a Facebook quiz to tell me that. Or if a nuclear holocaust were to change the landscape in which I live, where the very air itself were to be a poison and civilization were to devolve, if comforts that I’ve been inclined to rely on disappear, then I will as well. I’m not a survivor, or at least I can’t see myself being one, even though I desperately would want to be. I just don’t have the skills.
But thousands of years into the future? I’m not gonna be there anyway. In some sort of alternate world, some other universe or history than my own? Why not? It’s not like I’m going to find myself living there. Even in the more accessible stratums of corporate board rooms or elite policing precincts or heck, even wizarding schools, I can relate on some level, but not place myself there. My feet will never trod those boards, except in my imagination.
So I want stories that, if they are dire, if they are outside my ability to relate a positive outcome were I plopped into the middle of them, at least would be stories where it would take a radical shift in reality to have me hanging out there. Preferably without human flesh eating monsters, at any rate.
Does that make me a wimp? Perhaps it does. (Here’s the part where I give a literal shrug.) Ultimately, I don’t mind if it does. There are so many books out there, if I miss a few, even if they are really well done, because they make my world too dark?
Well, unlike being in the midst of the zombie apocalypse, I can live with that.