Saturday, September 03, 2016

Reading for Vampires, Zombies, Apocalypses

So I'm reading wide and deep for my Popular Lit Spring class in Apocalyptic Lit. So far I am mostly finding books that I'm not going to include, for one reason or another, although I did find another short story to include, Naomi Kritzer's "So Much Cooking."

(That was sort of cheating, though. I'd already read it, it just slipped my mind when I was making up my list. But then when I was doing my Google Trawl, there it was. This is one of the stories that should have been nominated for a Hugo this year, had the troll pups not been up to their usual griefing.)

Here's what I've read so far, and why I probably won't have them in the class:

Stephen King, Salem's Lot.

Obviously had to be a candidate, at least. And our pitiful local library (pitiful because of lack of funding, not due to the librarians, who are amazing) had a copy, so I got it and read it. It's King, so it's readable. But other than that, meh.

I hate to say this, but the big problem is that the vampires are dull. I can see that King is trying to make them scary. His whole gig is that the vampires are scary not because they kill you, but because they take your immortal soul. That's more convincing when you believe you have an immortal soul, I suppose, but also the book does nothing to show us that there's anything particularly evil or scary about the vampires. Well, I mean, yes, they go around killing people; but so do other humans.

By which I mean, King's humans, the ones we meet in this small town, are almost all as evil and scary as the vampires. Why are we supposed to think vampires are an evil when we have a man who beats, rapes, and keeps his wife a prisoner as one of our townspeople -- or a teenage mother who beats her infant, or the parents of our young hero who beat him for coming home late?

Worse, the vampires are cartoon vampires, straight from the pages of a 1950s comic book. I know that's King's source material, but it doesn't translate well to 2016.

J.L. Bourne, Day by Day Armageddon

I really want to use this one, and I still might. First, it's written by a guy from Arkansas. Second, it's the sort of book we don't often see, here in the English department -- written by a military officer, not a guy who came up through the literary path.

So it's an interesting perspective, is what I am saying.

On the other hand, it's written by a guy who knows nothing about how to write a book, and holy hell does it show. Forget the grammatical issues, and the clumsy diction -- we can put that down to characterization, since this is supposed to be a first person narrative. But the structure is just a mess. Bourne has no idea how to plot. This happens, and then that happens. Then something else happens. Then he just stops the book, because... well, I have no idea why. Maybe he had something else to do. (He claims in the afterward that he had to go fight the Global War on Terror. So, you know.)

There's also problems with characterization, by which I mean he doesn't bother to have any. His concept -- a world overrun with zombies, and the diary of a military pilot who bunkers up and manages to survive this zombie apocalypse -- is a good one. His knowledge of guns and tactics is (as far as I can tell) good, and an obvious plus. But he can't write people, and doesn't bother to try.

Why I am halfway tempted to include it anyway: the gun stuff, the military stuff, and the attitude toward the zombies that comes through very clearly. Our main character Others the zombies more and more as the narrative progresses, turning them first into objects, and then into evil villains, ascribing motives and agency to them.  We can see this happening as the narrative progresses, though it's not at all clear that the character (or even Bourne) knows that this is occurring.

It's almost worth teaching the novel just for that one aspect of it.

Colson Whitehead, Zone One

Colson Whitehead won a McArthur Genius Grant, so you know I had to look at this one. And this, in contrast to Bourne's novel, is highly literary. Some very nice writing, and excellent characterization here.

On the other hand: maybe too literary for a Popular Lit class. Because it is really literary.  It's got one of those structures where we move back and forth through time constantly, so we're never sure where we are, or what is happening when. And then the ending seems to come out of nowhere, although when you look back you can see that Whitehead had telegraphed it all along.

Again, though, I'm thinking about using this one, for a couple of reasons. One, this is one of the few books I've seen that deal with after the apocalypse -- it starts years after the zombies have swept over the world.

Second, it uses the military and the government in its plot, which almost no other books do. All the other books assume that governments collapse immediately, and anarchy reigns. Here, we see a government and the military working to defeat the zombies. In a country that just assumes governments never work, it's nice to see a more realistic take on the situation. (And I do mean more realistic -- I'm not forgetting the ending.)

The main reason I'm hesitant is the overly literary nature of the text, and the extremely depressing ending, I guess. But this is on my maybe list.

I thought about Connie Willis' Doomsday Book.  It's so long, though.

Reading next: Rot and Ruin, Jonathan Mayberry.

ETA: I just remembered Terry Bisson's The Left Left Behind. I wonder if I can get away with that one, in this Evangelical town...


Rosa said...

Have you read Robin McKinley's book Sunshine? Or The Girl With All the Gifts? Those are my favorite recent vampire & zombie books, respectively.

delagar said...

I *love* Sunshine. It's not very apocalyptical, but I might include it anyway. Just because how can I leave it out?

Girl With All the Gifts is (almost) definitely in!

Rosa said...

just out of criteria, how do you choose? On general quality, obviously, but what are the things you're trying to hit with the reading?

I never know how people who haven't read a lot of SF experience it when they do. Like, I love Doctorow's When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth but partly it's the connection in my mind to the operative but barely used data terminals in Always Coming Home in my brain, and then when I read newer stuff (like So Much Cooking, which I'd never read - so glad you linked it!) part of my mind is thinking about the folks invisibly keeping things running, and how bloggers in Syria and Palestine get connected or do laundry or whatever. Coming in cold like some of your students must is a completely different thing.

delagar said...

Oh, good question.

We've got two aims with this class (Popular Literature). The first is that it's a gen ed elective that acquaints non-majors with how to read and write about literature. So for that purpose, I'm looking for popular work that is also accessible to the general audience on the sophomore/junior level.

The second aim has to do with our Education students. Plenty of English Ed and English students take this class as one of their "bin" requirements. Many of them will be moving on to teach in the high schools and junior highs. For *them*, I want to pay attention to things like diversity of the writers and of the characters. This second aim is why I'm looking for non-American/non-white male works. Your average high school canon is already heavy on the white (male) Europeans/Americans -- introducing a broader spectrum of texts is one of our goals.

Also I'm looking for books and stories that are both readable and popular. They don't *necessarily* have to be popular in 2016, so long as they were popular at the time they were written, or at some point.

And yes, quality! It's popular lit, but I also want it to be literature (whatever that means, except, you know, I know it when I see it).

Rosa said...

It's funny, I LOVE post-apocalyptic books but I really don't like many zombie or vampire books. My recent favorites are all pretty literary for SF, or seemed that way to me - Station 11 and The Country of Ice Cream Starr are so great and have so much to say about culture and memory and what an education is for, but they're both plague books, not zombies or vampires. I'd be interested to see your syllabus when you have it all decided.

delagar said...

I haven't read Country of the Ice Cream Star -- I'm not sure I've even heard of it! Though it sounds vaguely familiar.

(Off to look it up!)

Rosa said...

it's excellent, if you ever get time to read for fun during the academic year. I think it might have been marketed as YA? Standard "mysterious disease kills off everyone above a certain age" trope but done really well. I feel like that might be a whole subgenre by itself, if you looked hard enough, at least in my memory it seems like it was a thing in YA when I was a middle schooler in the '80s.