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Typical Zombie fare

If you are a fan of the apocalypse movies that are currently common fare in American theaters, you will immediately recognize the landscape of Season of Rot. From Cormac McCarthy’s classic, The Road to the endless clones of the “Mad Max” and George Romero’s “Day of the Dead,” this is a world of rusted wreckage, starvation and the smell of decay. There are still pockets of life — terrified colonies of beleaguered humans who spend each day in a desperate search for food and shelter. The prevailing atmosphere in these “latter days” epics is a kind of sustained despair plus paranoia. Eric Brown’s message, like the signs held aloft by the crazed prophets in cartoons is, “The End is Near.”

In Season of Rot, humanity is defenseless against the legions of “the undead” — millions of mindless, rotting corpses that suddenly, inexplicably crawled from their graves as though responding to a mysterious summons. Now, they shuffle through abandoned buildings, deserted homes and the barren countryside searching for food: living flesh. Earth’s survivors are dwindling while the ranks of the undead are growing. Eric Brown, the author of Season of Rot and a Haywood County resident, frequently notes (with ill-concealed glee) that humanity doesn’t stand a chance.

Much of the action in Season of Rot resembles the plot of a graphic novel without the graphics (In fact, according to this book’s gutsy self-promotion, one of Brown’s novellas, “Dead West” is destined to become a graphic novel — It would make a good one). In most of the stories, the action has a “computer-game” quality with each plot presenting a series of predictable and interchangeable episodes and characters: (1) Beleaguered survivors flee; (2) find a temporary safe haven; (3) plan an escape to permanent safety (another country or an island), (4) are invariably attacked (hopelessly outnumbered), (5) die heroically, usually firing AK-47s as their intestines, hearts or heads are ripped away.

The majority of Brown’s characters suffer from minimal development since in “zombie world,” the emphasis is on action, not introspection. Male characters are limited to: handsome and muscular or “scientific and eccentric” or military and short-tempered. Women are well-developed, manipulative, sensual or nurturing. Everyone is well-armed. The weapons of choice are AK-47s, shotguns and flamethrowers. Slaughter reaches epic proportions with the majority of characters in Season of Rot barely having time to acquire names and a presence on stage before they are swept away in a flood of gore.

Readers are rarely given the opportunity to learn anything about the background of the people who inhabit Brown’s five novellas. It may be that in this grim world where all humanity is as ephemeral as mayflies, their personal dreams, hopes and aspirations are irrelevant. Sooner or later, everyone is “grist for the mill.”

Brown’s five novellas consist of the following: The title piece, “Season of Rot,” which is set in a besieged hospital (with the obligatory snipers on the roof) “The Queen” which is the name of a ship — the crew of survivors are in search of an uncontaminated island; “The Wave” provides an original explanation for the “rising of the dead” — a wave of energy originating in outer space, that creates and manipulates the dead; “Dead West” which is set in the Midwest following the Civil War and presents “an alternate version of history;” and “Rats” in which infected rodents, in conjunction with “the dead,” have taken over the world, except for a secret military installation ....

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Two of these novellas, “The Wave” and “Dead West” actually contain viable characters, and in both stories, the plot unfolds with an imagination and a sense of suspense that is largely missing in the other tales. However, all of the stories suffer from stilted, awkward dialogue that is invariably delivered by characters that sound like posturing teenagers, ill at ease in the role of adults. Sexual activity seems more functional than erotic, and the occasional introduction of gay and/or lesbian characters lacks credibility, depth or warmth. Possibly, they were added in an unabashed attempt to suggest sophistication and maturity.

What then, is the appeal of Season of Rot? Why are impressive numbers of teenagers addicted to “zombie land” novels and film? Well, to quote one of R. Crumb’s characters, “It was ever so.” The excesses of violence and horror found in Brown’s novellas (disembowelments, beheadings, and an abundance of gore — geysers of blood, savage rapes, raining body parts and bone fragments and numerous intestinal tracts that are continually springing from ruptured bodies like Jacks-in-the-boxes — all of these shocking images have a famous precedent: The Grand Guignol Theater in Paris in 1897 which became notorious for enacting scenes of graphic, amoral horror on stage. Due to the graphic realism of the action, members of the audience frequently fainted and/or vomited. Since that time, any work of horror (film, paintings, novels) that stresses excessive bloodshed over plotting, good writing and character development is called “Grand Guignol.” Season of Rot definitely qualifies.

Season of Rot (Five Zombie Novellas) by Eric S. Brown. Permuted Press, 2009. 240 pages.

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