Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Wormwood: A Review

Michael James McFarland's Wormwood is a zombie apocalypse set on a small cul de sac in a small bedroom community in (likely) Central Washington State.

Cover art "The Visitor" (circa 1980) was by author. I kind of like it.

Michael James McFarland (1963-) was born in the small town of Colfax, Washington. He lives in the small Central Washington State town of Selah, with his high-school sweetheart wife, and two children.  The novel appears to be based on a small suburb/bedroom community in Central Washington: much like where the author lives.

In an interview, the author sites Stephen King's The Stand for his fear of pandemic viruses and John Skipp and Craig Spector’s (editors) short story anthology Book of the Dead (1989) for its structure. To continue:
My fears of epidemic, of social breakdown, come out of its pages, and that’s what my novel ‘Wormwood’ is chiefly about. Zombies linger about the edges and then jump in with both feet around the halfway mark, but for me, the most frightening aspect is the panic generated in anticipation of the plague. People are capable of doing the most terrible things to one another, especially when they don’t think there’s any future.
Fairly typical for these apocalyptic novels, a lot of action takes place in somewhat rural surroundings.  Yet also typical of these novels, the author, writing about an area he is very familiar with, doesn't think to give us much of an idea about the topography, vegetation, or ground cover. If you look at some birds eye views of central Washington state, he area is hillier and dryer than I understood from the author's description.  The lack of trees means that site lines are going to be a lot further than I understood.  Although maybe not as important, I have also noticed that a lot of residential structural styling has a very different look throughout the country.  When he talks about nice, upper-end suburban homes, I tend to think of traditional east coast, two story homes. But even on the east coast there is a lot of variation.  My guess is that, because it is so much taken for granted,  a lot of authors don't have a huge vocabulary at hand for describing their own environment to outsiders.  But the hills and woods where they live, aren't likely to  be the hills and woods I live in.  And if your running around in them, it will make a difference.

Orchards near Selah, WA (from Wikipedia here)

The novel is a fairly "typical" zombie story.  Through a government accident a weaponized U.S. satellite has released a toxic yellow cloud over the United States.  The cloud, for some odd reason, is moving West (reverse of usual weather pattern), and it has the full cinematic "Romero" zombie effect of raising the otherwise innocently dead to life, and of course those bitten by these animated folks will also become walking dead.  The folks catch the news reports from Chicago, and now what is headed their way.
Now within the novel, there are some pretty well thought out zombie attack scenes.  Nothing to exotic, but solid mayhem. As such,  it does a fairly good job of soothing that fix for zombie survival action.
There is a nice realistic element to this novel.  The folks of our story live in a tiny, slightly remote cul de sac, just outside of town. Just far enough that folks on foot would have to make an effort to get to you.  There is a creek along one side of the road with only one bridge, and a high blocking hill on the other side.  So the folks decide they are going to batten down the hatches and try and ride out the storm.

The realistic element, what the novel does extremely well, is to explode all those cul de sac preeper fantasies (examples: Lights Out, Holding Their Own) of fighting off the barbarian hordes. In these  fantasies, a little out of the way neighborhood, with the insistence of one dedicated in-the-know (aka prepper) neighbor rallies his little group of suburbanites into a some 21st century version of a colonial settlers blockhouse, and rides out the oncoming hordes (zombies, bikers, United Nations, inner city evil-doers) as the spear tip effort into rebuilding a new and better civilization. This zombie-fest does a pretty good job of highlighting the weaknesses of the scenario. 
Modern Americans are about as far from being in a combat mindset as you can possibly get.  Our neighborhood does board up the houses (all individually), and even have a safe house fallback planed. They setup a watch on the roof of one of the homes, and they make the plot-required one adventurous quick run into the edge of town for some last minute supplies.  A pretty normal setup, and some of this helps them a little bit.  But they simply have no capacity to think in life and death terms.  Even in the pre-Zombie looting period, they run into some grave difficulties.  Kids get to wandering around.  Major breakdowns in security occur. It is a high casualty environment, and almost from the start there are hints that group survival is going to come down to individual survival much sooner than later.
So did I like it?  Yes, it was up and down at times.  I am not a huge fan of the revive the already dead version of zombie action, particularly when the scenario is described in pseudo-scientific terms. But the characters were well drawn out, aven with all the mayhem, there is some redemption.  It's not perfect, but it is entertaining, and actually even a little thoughtful at times.
We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.
The author seems to understand weapons far better than most.  Folks know that they are supposed to go for headshots, but that is easier said than done. That along with the fact that we have medium speed zombies, who will typically at least injure someone if they get into a scuffle with them, and you have a high casualty count.  The author does shift the protagonists viewpoint throughout the story, which allows him to kill off any and all major characters as we go along.  So, while the dead coming back to life doesn't make for high realism, it is in some way more realistic than some of the prepper style novels which are written (supposedly) with an idea toward education.  For a zombie novel, a very high 5 in realism.
Readability is straightforward.  For a listed 333 pages, it moves pretty fast.  A little too much early contemplation and commiserating to call it a page turner throughout.  It is geared slightly more toward a horror novel than an action-adventure story.  The wormwood reference comes from the Bible (KJV Lamentations 3:15 "He hath filled me with bitterness, he hath made me drunken with wormwood"), so the external to the story symbolism is laid out fairly obviously:  it's a 6.

No comments: