Deep Ice: Life Begins Again (Eric S. Brown’s The War of the Worlds Plus Blood, Guts and Zombies, Part 4)

Previously on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging…

The dead are entirely absent from chapter eight. It goes entirely unremarked that the Martians themselves, having proved vulnerable to “putrefactive and disease bacteria” turn out to be unaffected by the reanimation fungus. There are only a handful of stories I can think of where a zombie plague isn’t specific to humans, but you’d think it would at least merit a mention. It isn’t explicit whether terrestrial animals are affected, but doesn’t seem to be the case, and the absence of any comment on this feels at odds with the thoroughness of Wells’s exposition.

For the most part, Brown doesn’t fall into the common trap of having his characters intuitively know what kind of story they’re in — that’s a common enough foible for zombie horror writers, not so much with characters intuiting the “rules”, but more often with characters intuiting the “boundaries” of their world. Most zombie stories have a scene where the characters learn of the efficacy of head-wounds or the infectious nature of bites (curiously never established in The War of the Worlds Plus Blood Guts and Zombies), but it’s rare for characters to “learn” that animals don’t reanimate, that humans don’t turn directly into zombies without dying first (In the rare stories where they do, that also doesn’t come as a surprise), or that plants can’t be zombies (Has anyone ever done a zombie plant story? Like, not “plants turn into carnivorous monsters”, but just “Dead plants reanimate and are evil, but still constrained by the basic biology of plants. So you’d have to be careful you didn’t accidentally eat a zombie apple and get infected).

The lack of curiosity about the mechanics of the zombie plague is the one area where Brown gives in to this tendency. We already know that the narrator, for reasons he never explains, doesn’t share his inside knowledge about the origins of the plague to the scientific community, and as a result, they never work out its cause. But there’s not even any mention of scientists studying the dead in the epilogue, trying to work out, if not the cause, the mechanism. No mention of anyone trying to develop an inoculation, no mention of anyone rounding up zombies for study. It would be very Wellsian to insert a paragraph about scientists discovering the presence of some element or energy that acts upon the pineal gland or something to stimulate movement in the absence of whatever, and that it only works on humans because of the unique something of the whatsit. But no. The dead only come up at the very end to mention that they’re still around, a persistent threat to all humanity, but kept at bay by sensible precautions.

But the dead do put in one meaningful appearance near the end of the book, and it’s the one place where Brown meaningfully diverges from Wells’s plot. It’s the only place where Brown deletes significantly from the original text rather than appending. Chapter nine ends, in the original, with the narrator returning home, depressed to find no sign of his wife, until:

…A strange thing occurred. “It is no use,” said a voice. “The house is deserted. No one has been here these ten days. Do not stay here to torment yourself. No one escaped but you.”
I was startled. Had I spoken my thought aloud?

In the original text, he turns to discover his wife and cousin just outside, leading to tearful reunion in the novel’s one moment of genuine human tenderness. But this is a zombie story now, and will brook no such happy ending. In Brown’s version, the narrator did indeed speak his thought aloud without realizing it. For he turns to find not a pair of survivors, but the reanimated corpses of his wife and cousin, drawn home by, “Some lingering aspect of their lives before death,” after dying at Leatherhead (Brown mistakenly says “Leatherwood” here). Despite his horror, the narrator manages the grisly task of dispatching his late wife with a kitchen knife and flees the house. His cousin is granted, “Peace I knew I would never find again in this life,” thanks to a pair of patrolling soldiers who happen conveniently by.

It is an odd segue, even in the original, to jump from the reunion into several pages of exposition, mostly about how many mysteries remained about the Martians: though the previous chapter noted that examination of the Martian machines were quickly yielding scientific wonders, such as powered flight, the epilogue notes that the principles of the black smoke and heat ray remain impenetrable (and research on the latter seems to have fizzled out after an obliquely referenced disaster that sounds like a research lab blowing itself up), that indeed the Martians’ cause of death is only broad speculation. The jump is even stranger in Brown’s version, given the gruesomeness of the preceding scene.

Moreover, the impact of the ending is somewhat weakened. The last paragraphs of the novel, in its original form, muse on the basic strangeness, the haunting sense of unreality, to life beginning again and returning to its normal pace after the trauma of the war. I wonder if that bit was hard for the 1898 audience to accept, that after something so destructive as the invasion, people could rebuild and go back to living the same kinds of lives they’d had before. I wonder mow much stranger the concept must have seemed in a world that had never experienced the large-scale mechanized warfare of the twentieth century. But in this edition, of course, life does not return to its old pace: this is a world where the reanimation of the dead is now a permanent fact of life. There’s one line in particular, a line from the original text which I suspect did more than its share of inspiring this literary mashup:

Of a night I see the black powder darkening the silent streets, and the contorted bodies shrouded in that layer; they rise up upon me tattered and dog-bitten. They gibber and grow fiercer, paler, uglier, mad distortions of humanity…

In the book, he’s describing a nightmare, a fancy invented by his imagination from what in our time we’d recognize as post-traumatic stress disorder. But what a lucky break for Brown that way back in 1898, Wells would describe a nightmare that sounds a whole lot like a zombie apocalypse! And yet, in Brown’s book, this isn’t the fantasy of a man dealing with trauma: it’s the ongoing reality of a man dealing with trauma. His narrator doesn’t wake up and realize that the the dead rising up, “fiercer, paler, uglier” is a mere dream: he wakes up and it’s still real.

In the original, the narrator wakes from his nightmare to face a world rebuilding, returning to normal, even hopeful in the face of its lucky escape. The novel ends with the image of him holding his wife’s hand, reflecting how strange, “To think that I have counted her, and that she has counted me, among the dead.”

Brown, instead, inserts a single paragraph of exposition, saying that it will be impossible to completely eradicate the dead, but, “We are safe from them so long as we follow the new laws […] Only in the most rural areas do they exist in any kind of real numbers.”

He ends on a note that is not so much optimistic as cautionary: “As long as we stay vigilant, we shall not see such horrors as those of days gone by.”

It isn’t bad, this book. There are lots of nice turns of phrase and some great horror imagery. Brown’s prose is at times a nice respite from the slog: his big scenes tend to be timed conveniently in the big spans where very little happens in the original. This does undermine the original’s recurring theme of wretched, desperate waiting, but frankly, I don’t really miss them.

And Brown does some interesting things with zombie mythos here. Positioning the zombies as also-rans is almost unique, the fact that they remain the less-serious threat something you never see. It’s rare to see zombies reduced to the status of a persistent, manageable threat, rarer still when Brown first wrote this. And the zombie threat seems even more manageable in this story than in the handful of other long-term-zombie-non-apocalypse stories of recent years, such as Fido or Land of the Dead, as those stories depict small human strongholds in a world otherwise overrun (The only similarly “There’s still zombies but we’ve got it sorted” ending I can think of offhand is, of all things, Shaun of the Dead).

Moreover, because Brown retains and amplifies the original’s implication that the invasion is localized, they address aspects of zombie lore that often go unaddressed. One thing that frequently drives me crazy in almost all mainstream zombie fiction is the tendency for survivors to wander around an abandoned landscape, then suddenly be set upon by thousands of zombies, hordes which utterly belie the starting population density, and presume that randomly wandering zombies instantly converge on anyone with steadicam pointed at them. You’d expect zombies to either approximate the original human population density, or else spread out evenly across the globe, and neither of those is compatible with a world where literally anywhere you are, at any time, you’ll spend a few scenes with nary a zombie in sight, then instantly, you’re in the middle of a mob a thousand deep.

Instead, in Brown’s apocalypse, the zombies increase in number far more slowly. There’s none of the usual “90% of humanity is wiped out before anyone works out what’s going on,” business that plagues zombie eschatons: people are reluctant to accept rising of the dead only until they’ve actually seen it, and once they do, they get with the program quickly. We only reach the level of a zombie horde due to the influence of the Martians, particularly when they use the black smoke to rapidly kill large numbers of humans without destroying their bodies. Since the Martians are present only in England, the rest of the world has time to adapt to the new status quo with zombies appearing only a few at a time. Though outside the scope of the book, this does leave the tantalizing question of how society would move forward with the risen dead as an ongoing concern, now that any major disaster could carry such a second order cost: would Victorian factories need to station armed guards to headshot small children when they got mangled by machinery? Would the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire destroy all of Manhattan? What of the Spanish Flu epidemic? And would the zombie threat put an early stop to Europe’s habit of falling into ever-more destructive wars every thirty years? Neither Wells nor Brown had the narrator muse at all on the implication of the Martian war for the future of terrestrial warfare — whether in light of the greater threat, man would find a new sense of brotherhood; or instead, would England, armed with salvaged alien technology, decide that there was no good reason to check their colonial expansion?

The big problem for the book as a whole is that all of Brown’s additions don’t add up to much. It is, as I said before, mostly just, “And also there were zombies.” What zombies in particular add to the story, I can’t really say. Certainly, the addition of horror isn’t unwelcome, breaking up Wells’s more analytical style. But this one-sided collaboration could just have easily been “War of the Worlds Plus Gore”, replacing the zombies with a bit more bloodthirstiness out of the aliens, and it would have worked just as well. They’re in there because Eric S. Brown likes zombies. Fair enough.

In editing one of the classics of science fiction, I think Brown may have erred on the side of modesty. He shows substantial reluctance to “get in the way” of the original plot, only really doing it once right at the end with the death of the narrator’s wife. Otherwise, the zombies remain steadfastly a side-plot. They’re never depicted as a really serious threat in the way the Martians are. And this is all the stranger considering that the rising dead are pandemic, striking the whole world, while the Martians are localized to England. On a global scale, it’s the Martians who are the side-plot: this novel could have been “World War Z Plus Also Aliens Invade England”, and the fact that it isn’t both introduces some logical problems, and also requires a significant amount of audience goodwill if we came here for the zombies. Which probably everyone who read this book and isn’t me did.

To tell you the truth, I was not expecting to really like this book. I mean, it’s not clever the way Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is. It was clearly churned out in a hurry to catch the rising wave. My copy is the first edition, so maybe this got fixed later, but there’s a lot of typographic errors. Incorrect capitalization, line breaks in weird places, and some significant mangling of accent marks. The idea is a little flaky, and the execution doesn’t go all in. Also, I’m fairly confident that Brown initially intended the Zombies to really be the result of radiation from the Martian cylinders (Could this have been a reference to the Japanese release of Night of the Living Dead, which adds opening narration explicitly blaming the dead plague on aliens?), and the ultimate fungal explanation was a retcon.

But I found myself enjoying the read a lot more than I’d expected to. The content itself is no big deal, but just having a break every once in a while from Wells does the story a tremendous favor. It’s a flawed attempt to be sure. A few interesting variations on zombie mythology mixed in without the desire to see them all the way through, and no real meaningful interplay between the new material and the plot of the original novel. That said, though, Eric S. Brown is a fun enough read that I don’t feel my time or money was wasted, which is no small chore given that I had to pretty much reread the original novel in parallel to work out where all the changes are. In some ways, Brown is a kind of anti-Wells: where Wells is interested in a methodical, clinical, detailed exploration of ideas to the detriment of storytelling, Brown is all about style, and rarely gets very deep into the complicated thinky parts. If this were a legitimate collaboration between living minds, rather than a mashup between one living author and one dead enough to be out of copyright, you can imagine the two of them putting a really solid novel together. This particular novel, though, will have to remain just a tantalizing hint of what that could have been.

Tantalizing enough that it’s got me kind of interested in what would happen if you tried this experiment another way around. What if you didn’t try to match up a new story with Wells’s style, but rather tried to match up the same story with a different style. I wonder…

  • War of the Worlds Plus Blood, Guts and Zombies is available from amazon.

3 thoughts on “Deep Ice: Life Begins Again (Eric S. Brown’s The War of the Worlds Plus Blood, Guts and Zombies, Part 4)

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