The Last Weekend: PS Publishing hardcover, February 2014, 214 pages, cover art by Pedro Marques. The Last Weekend takes place after the zombie apocalypse strikes America——and, inexplicably, only America. Our narrator, Billy or Vasilakis (depending on whether you're Greek) lives in San Francisco, which handled the rise of the dead fairly well, since hardly anybody is actually buried there. Billy thinks of himself as an aspiring writer, although he didn't really write anything even when a publishing industry still existed, but scrapes out a living as a "driller," someone you call to come drill a hole in a recently deceased person's head before they can get up and chase you around.
Nick Mamatas has been nominated for the Stoker Award for his writing, and has won the Stoker and received Hugo and World Fantasy Award nominations for his editing. He has written seven novels and two collections of short fiction to date, with emphasis on horror and dark fantasy, as well as a whole lot of acerbic commentary on the Web.
Motherless Child: Tor hardcover, May 2014, 269 pages. The progratonist of Motherless Child is Natalie, a single mother in her twenties in North Carolina. She allows herself a rare night out with her friend and fellow single mother Sophie. They go to a tavern where a musical icon known as "the Whistler" makes a surprise appearance. They wake in a car with hazy memories and tattered and bloodied clothes but no obvious injuries. Natalie at first feels exhilirated, but soon realizes something is wrong. Experienced readers (and anyone who read the back of the book) knows what: she has allowed a vampire into her life.
Glen Hirshberg is an author of literary horror, producing three novels and three collections of short fiction so far. He has won the International Horror Guild Award and Shirley Jackson Award. In the small world department, he was a friend of my ex-wife's in high school.
The Battle: Zombies and vampires have been done to, um, death in recent years, but Mamatas and Hirshberg are very talented writers. Let's see which of them can take an overused trope and find a way to get me interested in it.
The Last Weekend does not read like a typical zombie novel, for good and not-so-good. Through the first 25 pages, Mamatas only gives us one confrontation with a zombie, and he plays it not for scares but strictly as a gross-out. The only moment of brief tension comes when a zombie-hunting solider bursts down Billy's door. This is San Francisco, so the soldier has a social worker in tow. They ask if Billy wants to come with them, and when he wonders if he has a choice they say, "It's a free country." I like that exchange. It's funny with a touch of irony and lets the reader know that we won't be following a standard zombie apocalypse storyline here. Expect instead a lot more references to Nietzsche and Dostoevsky.
Unfortunately, Mamatas isn't satisfied with simply writing a different sort of zombie novel. He wants to explain to us that he's doing so, while distancing himself explicitly from the rest of the subgenre:
I am, in general, not a fan of single-sentence paragraphs. Even worse are one-word paragraphs. And yet our national dilemma lends itself to the poetaster strum of that one tedious chord. . . .No, really, don't. Dude, if you hate zombie stories, if zombie stories are beneath you, then don't tell a fucking zombie story.
You know exactly the sort of asinine bullshit I mean. The zines are full of it, as is the Internet and all the mimeographed and hot-glue gunned "novels" that anyone can publish these days if they want to put the work into it. All the greats are dead, and that was so even before the outbreak. "Zombies" are ubiquitous these days, as overwhelming to auctorial understanding of America as was the Vietnam War or the settling of the West. That the rise of the dead was so inexplicable and yet, down deep in our cultural DNA, was so profoundly anticipated has created immense problems for American letters.
But you want to hear a zombie story? Fine, I'll tell you a zombie story.
The Last Weekend starts out witty and clever, but the "auctorial" 'tude has me quite ready to put it down after 25 pages.
Meanwhile, Motherless Child has completely pulled me in after 25 pages. The first trick was getting me to sympathize with the main character right from the opening scene:
Natalie started, caught the eyes of one bespectacled, boots-sporting pretend-cowboy who'd gone straight past Sophie to her, and felt herself blush. Did she really look decent in this dress anymore? Twenty-four years old and she already felt like a mom who'd donned a cheerleader costume in the hopes of feeling sexy again. Except Sophie'd been the cheerleader. And Johnson & Johnson wasn't sexy, no matter what dress it was wearing. Only the mom part was right.Natalie is struggling to redefine herself as a single mom. Getting involved with a vampire is not going to help. It's easy to empathize with her conflicting emotions at feeling suddenly energized but also fearful, and that makes me want to keep reading.
"I'm going to check on our children," Natalie said.
THE WINNER: Motherless Child by Glen Hirshberg
Motherless Child moves on to the second round, to take on Mentats of Dune by Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson.
To see the whole bracket, click here.