Writing a negative review just sucks. A writer dedicates months, sometimes years to writing the story you just read; outlines, first drafts, second (third, fourth, whatever) drafts, line editing, etc. He devotes his hopes, his time, his blood and guts to that love child of his inspiration. So the writer who actually finishes a novel gets all kinds of mad props from me. He deserves my respect just for enduring the marathon, no matter how crap the eventual end product. Repaying that devotion and hard work with a bad review makes me feel like I’m kicking a puppy or something.
But here’s the thing: once that book passes through the publishing process and is delivered to my trembling-with-anticipation hands, I can’t let my empathy for the writer’s sacrifices and dedication influence me. In the end the story must survive on its own merits, not the author’s. And, though it pains me to say it, some stories don’t bear up under their own weight.
So what brings me to this seemingly random rant? Because last week I had the misfortune to read two books that did not deliver what they promised. I seriously debated whether or not to blog about them; I want this blog to be a positive experience for all of us. Getting all ranty about pet peeves and/or bad writing is not a positive experience. But in the end, I owe it to you, Dear Reader, to be honest, which means I can’t always be positive.
Okay. I’ve stalled for three paragraphs. Time to bite the bullet. FAIR WARNING: These reviews are spoilerific, so if that sort of thing bugs you, best skip the rest.
Shadows in the Mist
by Brian Moreland
Shadows in the Mist is a Dieselpunk horror story set in the Battle of Huertgen Forest in World War II. I am a shameless junkie for Weird World War stories, so I was excited to read this one. The basic story is that this old man, retired veteran, witnessed something horrible during his time in WWII. It’s tormented him and finally, after all these years of silence, a nightmare persuades him to give his diary — with the secret inside it — to his grandson, Sean. He tells Sean to take it to a General Briggs, a friend. There’s some goes-nowhere-and-serves-no-purpose intrigue during the journey (which takes about four pages), but finally Sean hands over the diary. Now we get to find out what’s in the diary, as one long flashback.
And herein lies my first whinge. First, I hate flashbacks. Unless they are done very well indeed, they tend to suck all the suspense out of the story. Kinda hard to feel that the danger in the story is real, when obviously the hero survived long enough to flash back on it, right? A gifted — or lucky — writer can pull off a flashback well (for an example of a flashback handled very well, I recommend Delores Claiborne, by Stephen King; it has an almost identical frame-and-flashback structure as Shadows in the Mist, but to much better effect). This was neither gifted nor lucky, more’s the pity.
My daughter — who knows the novel as well — pointed out something that I didn’t immediately think of. Her point is, why do a flashback at all? It serves no purpose: it doesn’t give us insight into the characters, it doesn’t advance the theme or narrative of the novel, it doesn’t enhance the experience in any way. It’s just kinda there. Wouldn’t it have been easier just to start the story at the beginning of the flashback? Just ditch the frame altogether; the only thing it adds to the story is word count.
Okay, moving on. Jack’s nightmares stem from his time in the Battle of Huertgen Forest, a very famous battle that prefaced the larger Battle of the Bulge. This was a terrible time, definitely nightmare-inducing. And I have to take a moment to give respect to the author: he did his research quite well. He has the language right, the setting has been meticulously described, rank, clothing, the stuff men carried, the background and progress of the battle itself, the lot, he got it down cold. Maybe it’s a little juiceless and flat at times, but I can forgive that. It’s not easy to describe the hellishness of battle, and better men than Mr. Moreland have failed to achieve that immediacy in prose.
Where was I? Oh, right. Jack and his platoon are tapped to do a recon mission deeper into German territory, joined by a special elite squadron. There is some nice character development here, as Jack and the leader of the elite squad know — and loathe — one another from before the battle. Moreland plays it a bit coy with why this loathing exists, which I found annoying, but for most part, I’m willing to roll with it. The elite squadron have a further mission once they get into the territory, which is not revealed to Jack. Again, playing it coy.
They go on the mission, and encounter an abandoned town, and, lo and behold, zombie Nazis. You can pretty much guess what the rest of the story is like: people die at the hands of the hungry undead, hide and survive, strike down as many as you can, and get word back to the rest of the army. That is the elite squadron’s mission: find out how the Nazi’s are creating undead. (spoiler: they’re not zombies, they’re golems. The Nazis using the Jewish Kaballah to raise golems to fight for them. Oh. My. God. Where do I start with describing the wrongness of this? I can’t; I just can’t.)
Now comes the bit that kept me from finishing the book. So they encounter the zombies, fight them, a couple die, they find a refugee — a young French girl — and take her along with her while they hide. They’re camping out in a cave, trying to decide their next move, and somebody asks what exactly is going on. And Jack starts talking about the history of zombies, particularly the Haitian variant, and how the infamous “zombie powder” is made, what effects it has, etc.
WHOA! Hold it! The setting of the story is 1944. The writer has given NO indication that this is an alternate world at all, beyond the existence of the walking dead. So I have been operating on the assumption that the timeline for this world and our world are essentially the same. And therein lies the problem.
First: the zombies in this story are very similar, though not identical to what we nowadays call “Romero style zombies,” ie, essentially undead ghouls that eat human flesh. The word zombie was not unheard of in 1944, though it probably wasn’t common knowledge. However! The word was NOT associated with Romero style zombies. It was associated with voodoo, Haiti, mind control and slavery, not dead guys eating human flesh. For that matter, George Romero’s ground-breaking original “Night of the Living Dead,” never used the word zombie anywhere in the script, nor did he describe them as such at any time. He called them “the living dead” or “ghouls.” Fans of the movie attached the word “zombie” to Romero’s creatures long after the movie was made, which means sometime after 1968.
1968 is nearly a quarter of a century in the future for Jack and company. He should not have connected the word “zombie” and the creatures they’re dealing with in the Huertgen Forest.
Second: Mr. Moreland has obviously done his homework on how Haitian zombies may have worked. According to the research of ethnobotanist Wade Davis, Haitian practitioners used a cocktail of powerful naturally-occurring hallucinogens — including the tetrodotoxin mentioned in this novel — to create a drug that allowed them to “create” zombie slaves (basically induce coma, and a state of suggestibility to control a superstitious person).
Now granted, tetrodotoxin was first isolated and named in 1909, which fits our timeline. But the only people who had any sort of scientific knowledge of it were botanists, biochemists, and the occasional doctor who had to treat patients for exposure to it. A WWII front-line grunt in 1944 is unlikely to have any knowledge of such an esoteric substance.
Furthermore, Wade Davis didn’t do his groundbreaking (and controversial) research until the 1980’s (his book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, was published in 1985). Until Davis’s book came out, NOBODY associated zombies — Haitian style or Romero style — with tetrodotoxin. Not scientists, not anthropologists, not doctors. Certainly not street-level army sergeants from World War II.
That little nugget of anachronism was enough to knock me out of the story, and I never could get back in. I just couldn’t get past it. You may call me nitpicky or pedantic, and I won’t deny it. But, Dear Reader, you know too well how precarious and delicate the suspension of disbelief can be. And once that is shattered, it’s pretty hard to get it back.
To Moreland’s credit, there some genuinely scary moments in the story, particularly when they are moving through the mist-shrouded forest and encountering the walking dead there. And, for the most part, his characterization is solid. But the anachronisms, the flashback, the little annoyances added up until I just couldn’t go on. I haven’t read any other work by Brian Moreland; maybe this book is a fluke and he’s got better stuff out there. But if you’re wanting my considered opinion, I say give this book a pass.
Okay, I said I was gonna give you two reviews. But I’m rapidly running out of space. So I’ll save the second review for Monday. In the meantime, Fun Friday is creeping up on us fast! If you have something you’d like showcased on Friday, contact me at the email addy listed on my About page. The About page also shows where you can find me on Facebook and Twitter. And please feel free to comment, tweet, share this post. I’m dying to hear from you!