Review – “Slowly We Rot” by Bryan Smith

0

I love an apocalypse road-trip, but even some of the ones I’ve enjoyed can be rather derivative. Every now and then one breaks the surface to actually deliver an experience rather than just a story, and “Slowly We Rot” is very much one of those.

Slowly We RotIt’s more than 6 years since a zombie infection destroyed the world and we meet Noah, a young man who lives alone in a mountain cabin. Self-sufficient, he spends his days hunting, reading, smoking weed, yet always battling against the loneliness of his existence. It’s an age since he’s seen another human, and even the occasional zombies that drag themselves up to his cabin have rotted away so much that they pose little physical threat. Isolation is his real enemy. With so much time for introspection, fantasy and guilty memories, his thoughts weigh heavy with suggestions of suicide.

But his hermit existence is interrupted when his presumed-dead sister Aubrey turns up with Nick, an ex-military hardcase. Uprooted from his mountain sanctuary, Noah decides to try and find Lisa, a woman with whom he had an intense and troubled relationship at college. With nothing but an old California address to go on, several states away from his current location, Noah is aware that the chance of a happy reunion is microscopic. But deciding he has nothing to lose and glad of a purpose in a world gone to hell, he embarks on his sprawling mission.

“Slowly We Rot” has an immediately engaging voice that ensured I was absorbed from page 1, and builds on this with convincing characters. Noah is the perfect guide for this kind of tale. He’s flawed, full of guilt, regret and bitterness, but has just enough stoicism and survival instinct to stop him from ever pulling that suicidal trigger. And even at the times when we get frustrated or annoyed with him, he’s all we’ve got, and it’s impossible to leave his corner. This lack of choice creates the right vibe for a tour of this sparse and deadly world.

Noah’s sister Aubrey and her companion Nick are also investable, the big man being a foil of common sense to her emotional impulsiveness. The author manages to keep their actions unpredictable but still believable, which is no mean feat.

I also like Bryan Smith’s vision of the apocalypse. The format and consequences of the plague are fairly standard, but the time lapse makes it interesting. There are very few survivors left, and the original zombies have decomposed to the point where you’re more in danger of being bitten by an unseen rotten head in a footwell than a shambling humanoid. Other survivors are also a threat and Noah is naturally suspicious of those he meets, especially as the years of numbing solitude have left him socially inept. While people are few and far between, Noah covers some serious miles on his journey and meets thrill-killers, slavers, and other damaged souls of all kinds.

He also has a problem with alcoholism and with no-one to talk him out of it – and plenty of liquor to be scavenged from derelict shops and homes – he hits it hard. As he makes his way across the country, Noah loses himself to fantasy. The back story is filled in perfectly and we slowly learn why he’s obsessed with Lisa, the problems they had, and other memories that have made him the man he is today. There are subtle links to what has gone before, and plenty of wise insight into the human condition.

Like any quality apocalypse fiction, this novel is not actually about zombies, which is where so many fall into mundanity. This is a character drama that just happens to have a brutal and grisly setting, and what we’re actually carried by is a man’s struggle for survival against his own capsizing mental health. And boy does he capsize. Noah starts to lose track of fantasy and reality, and things get very strange in the second half. His booze-addled, deteriorating brain layers fiction and memory over the tangible reality, and we end up just as lost as he is, truly joining him on his journey. There’s a superb sense of displacement as he unravels, though he never loses sight of his mission to find Lisa. The moments of numbing drudgery and loneliness are just as powerful as when he actually encounters other survivors or gets attacked, and when a zombie does show up, its rarity just adds to the alien atmosphere.

There are plenty of violent shocks and shivers, but I found that the truly standout scenes were of the quiet variety. One night at the cabin when Noah hears laughter out in the pitch-black woods gave me a genuine chill, and I’ll never forget a vignette in which he dances with a weak and snapping zombie. The two of them pirouetting in the middle of a deserted town is the most haunting and darkly beautiful thing I’ve read for a while.

Overall, this book is much less sick than Bryan Smith’s “Depraved” style stories, focusing more on Noah’s internal destruction to keep us turning the pages. But it still packs a punch when it needs to, and there’s enough gruesome violence to give the extreme fans their kicks.

I spent much of the story wondering if Noah would complete his almost-impossible quest to find Lisa alive, and even if so, how would that pan out? A happy ending would surely be unconvincing, but at the same time, a complete fail would be disappointing. How would the author avoid presenting either a contrived or frustrating finale with a plot such as this? Of course I won’t spoil anything, but I will say that I found the conclusion muscular and very satisfying. So just relax. Bryan Smith’s got you.

An engrossing adventure through both a zombie holocaust and a man’s disintegrating psyche “Slowly We Rot” is pleasingly grim and familiar, yet injects some real substance and humanity to keep it all fresh. Recommended.

Review – “Depraved 2” by Bryan Smith

0

The original Depraved is a masterpiece among its particular kind (my old review here), and I was looking forward to another fix of depravity and madness. The sequel certainly steps into the dock with a machete in one hand and its erection in the other, and while less lurid in tone and not quite as much fun (if that’s the right word), this is an ice-cold and intense read.

depraved 2Four years have elapsed since the events of the first book, which concerned a family of perverted mutants in the rural community of Hopkins Bend. We meet Jessica again, the heroine and survivor of the first story, who managed to escape their microcosm of rape, murder and religious sacrifice. Having been ignobly discharged from the military, she finds herself on the run having being framed for a murder set up by powers much bigger than her. Drawn back to Hopkins Bend, now a ghost town having being cleaned out in some hush-up sweep by the army, she discovers that it’s not quite deserted as it initially seems.

The story also follows Sienna and Jodi, sisters from the old family, who are now living in nearby Bedford and no less fond of torture and all things nasty. While Jodi attempts to keep her wild and crumbling family together, Sienna fancies herself a witch and wants to bring her monstrous father back from the grave.

The other main player is Daphne, a gutsy but entitled girl who falls foul of Hopkins Bend on a country drive with her lover. Having been captured and imprisoned by a pair of murderous rednecks, she realises that unless she can think fast, her fate looks like being a life of sex-slavery or becoming the main course for a cannibal feast.

Like the first, this is a very slick and well paced novel. There’s no padding before the action gets going and while it’s not quite the breathless rollercoaster of Depraved, it gives you time to take stock.

The prose is seamless and unintrusive, and one of Bryan Smith’s talents is to make the reader care immediately about people in jeopardy, even if we’ve only just met them. While that is the case here, things aren’t clear-cut and the actions of some characters really tests our loyalties. Perhaps this might be too much for some readers, but it’s well handled, and riffs on the old human-capacity-for-atrocity idea. The descent of some characters still seems a little swift, but I personally liked how it forces us into an experience devoid of comfort zones.

Speaking of which, although the original Depraved is more gruesome and sick, I found its nastiness to have a knowing twinkle. The horrors of Depraved 2 are darker, more sobering, and its very rare that this extreme horror veteran is rattled. There are several powerful scenes of sexual violence and psychotic cruelty, and although any graceless hack can write a no-holds-barred torture scene, it takes a skilled scribe such as Bryan Smith to make it really hit home. I’ll never look at a commercial restaurant grill the same way again.

This is superbly evocative writing and the menace of the backwoods is nailed, providing the familiarity you want from a sequel. I also liked the gentle conspiracy theory angle. It’s not rammed down our throats, but with larger forces at work regarding both Hopkins Bend and the price on Jessica’s head, it allows us to wonder who watches the watchers? It suggests that anything might happen next and that nobody is safe, lead protagonist or otherwise.

I don’t really have any complaints. At first, I found the character of Sienna – although a pleasingly sociopathic villain – to be rather out of place with her black magic and goth teen angst. Perhaps this is because the novel harbours a primitive, rural vibe: the kind that doesn’t normally flirt with either the supernatural or “street” kids. But I was still carried by her story and she provides some of the twists that the later chapters have in store. The finale itself is somewhat bleak, but there’s a definite shade of black humour which serves to temper the grim tone and allows you to close the book with a wry smile.

If you enjoyed the first instalment, then get your blood-sticky palms on Depraved 2. While perhaps not quite scaling those ghastly heights overall, I’m very glad this isn’t just a franchise-style rehash. There’s a refreshing lack of predictability, it moves the plot in new directions, and still finds time to pile on the mood and forcefeed us horror by the bucketload.

The story notes mention that Depraved 3 is a possibility. Although this sequel is nicely tied-up (don’t worry, no annoying cliffhangers or blatant dangling threads to see here) I’d be more than happy to see another. Hopkins Bend can’t have exhausted its potential for degradation and debauchery just yet. Those folks are just too damned good at it.

Review – “Depraved” by Bryan Smith

1

Upon picking up Bryan Smith’s latest Leisure release, I expected the oft-trodden path of innocent folks blundering into the backwoods and falling foul of snaggle-toothed hillbillies. But I discovered very early on that Depraved also has plenty of tricks up its filthy little sleeve.

depravedCentred around the isolated town of Hopkin’s Bend, the hideous inhabitants are preparing for their annual holiday feast, and no prizes for guessing what, or who, is on the menu.

This book has all the genetic mutation, cannibalism, murder, dismemberment, rape and torture that you could hope for, but the impressive bodycount doesn’t stifle a dark sense of humour. The story itself moves at a breathtaking rate. Within minutes of the off, the main characters are all in terrible jeopardy or running for their lives, and it’s very much to Bryan’s credit that I cared, despite having only just met them.

It’s also an extremely visual read – colourful and evocative – as we travel from the dirty, forest shacks and their inbreeding families, to the grim, sound-proofed rooms and glistening flesh of the town’s strip-joint. The Sin Den is an inspired creation, a horrific and lurid gem; think Porky’s meets 8mm.

Like much of Richard Laymon’s work, Depraved strikes upon how normal people, in certain circumstances, are capable of extreme violence and will even stoop to unnecessary atrocity. The transformation of the protagonists did seem to occur a little too quickly here, although I suppose the hook is that we’re all only a gentle push from savagery. However, I prefer this possibility insinuated, and at times the story explains it too clearly. But overall, this is a minor gripe.

The second half is an assault, and never stops twisting as we discover more about Hopkin’s Bend and the corruption, sex slavery and ancient evil in which it is steeped. Yes, there’s a good old-fashioned curse. I found this supernatural angle less interesting at first, but its execution and resolution is fiendish, and it also delivers a snippet of extreme bizarro so debauched that I didn’t know whether to laugh or put the book down in disgust. I suspect that either reaction would have pleased the author.

This book is a genuine page-turner, an overused phrase I don’t particularly like to apply, but one that is too appropriate in this case. There are truly gripping moments and Bryan is a master of edge-of-your-seat chases and escape attempts. It’s also been a while since I’ve read a novel epilogue so satisfying, and I put the book down with a low, slightly nasty chuckle.

Depraved is noisy, sick, and certainly not for all, but if it sounds like your cup of blood, then get ready to clink glasses with the devil. You’re going to have fun.