Thursday, October 25, 2007

Autumn by David Moody (A)

AutumnAutumn is the story of post-apocalypse England, and it opens with these blockbuster lines:
Billions died in less than twenty-four hours.
William Price was one of the first.
A brief, terrifying prologue follows, and like lightning it augurs a story of a world after a calamity. The first chapter plunges us into the world of Carl Henshawe as his ordinary routine is slowly being disrupted by the epic disaster at work in the world at large. I was instantly gripped by the way that the disaster seeps into Carl's world. We are eased slowly, one small incident after another, into something incredible.

The writer takes his time drawing us in, and this creates a great deal of suspense as to what is happening, and why Carl seems to be unaffected by the apparent plague that strikes down everyone around him. Slowly, the creepiness and horror of the events sink in as Carl proceeds down the motorway, discovering cars crashed or stopped abruptly, their occupants suddenly dead.

There is something of Hitchcock here in the way that an existential terror is evoked by the action of a lone character going down the highway, discovering dead drivers in their cars. By the time he reaches Norwitch, his hometown, he has seen about fifty bodies. By now, dreadful tension fills the story as we watch Carl proceed toward his home, he only just becoming aware, because of the shock he had already suffered while discovering the bodies on the motorway, that his family is probably dead. When he reaches home, he finds his wife, baby, and mother dead. We're glad for Carl because he didn't have to watch them suffer as Price did in the prologue. But the effect on Carl is shattering:

I spent hours stepping through the bodies just shouting out for help.

This ending to the first chapter is simply awesome - in one sentence the author has reveled the humanity of the tragedy and bound our sympathy to Carl's plight. But what Carl went through is only a tease of things to come, a foretaste of the horror that Michael Collins witnesses as he speaks before a class.

What is happening to the world? The question arises as one reads about the events. Any number of answers are possible, creating a degree of tension and suspense. But the ultimate explanation is hidden, only to be revealed latter one cold morning.

Autumn is the story of Carl, Michael, Stuart, Emma, four among a number of survivors of the plague that turns the dead into zombies. I like the way that the author shocks the reader—first presenting the survivors in the community center, trying to cope with the loss of their loved ones, trying to decided what to do next in the unimaginable situation—then ups the ante as Michael ventures outside one morning and discovers that one of the dead is apparently alive.

The living dead are made believable because the author develops horror from the ordinary slowly turning into the terrifying. This is the true method of horror and it works well in Autumn. A less skilled writer would have had us witness some violence and gore, but that would only make the story unreal and indistinguishable from the cliché. In Autumn, the reality of the vision is reinforced because the author stays, wisely, away from the violence motif that permeates zombie stories, and focuses on what might, arguably, happen in such a situation. Instead of immediate violence and flesh eating, there is a more nuanced approach here as the survivors try to learn more about what is happening rather than immediately reaching for the gun to defend themselves. By once more focusing on the ordinary reaction-the curiosity of the survivors-the story maintains realism and horrific tension. Here the survivors approach one of the living dead and try to get her inside to study her in the hopes of figuring out what's happening:

Emma jogged the last few steps and moved round to stand in front of the body. She looked up into her glazed eyes and saw that they seemed unfocussed and vacant. Her skin was pale and taut, as if it had been stretched tight across her skull. Although she was sure that the body couldn't see her (she didn't even seem to know she was there) Emma respectfully tried to hide her mounting revulsion. There was a deep gash on the woman's right temple. Dark blood had been flowing freely from the wound for some time and had drenched her once smart white blouse and grey business suit.

"We want to help you," she said softly.

Still no reaction.

I think that this is much more terrifying and the horror is so much greater than what would have been had with simple violence. A tense situation results as the corpse interacts with the survivors. The scene is developed with humanity and objectivity that enhances the scary nature of the situation, creating a creepy sense of calm.

After a while, Emma, Michael, and Carl set out on their own, find a house tucked out of the way and the tension drops as the biggest threat seems to be boredom. But it becomes clear in the days that follow that the undead are becoming increasingly more alert and aggressive, roused somehow by the noise that the survivors create. But the challenge that the undead pose to the living comes across as a kind of nuisance rather than a genuine danger, and this make the tension and suspense evaporate. A sense of foreboding is created, however, by the knowledge the characters have that there seems to be no place where the undead cannot find. I am a bit disappointed by the way the undead behave, and the consequent loss of tension and suspense in the story. Tension and suspense should mount, and here it seems to evaporate. Another thing that is disappointing is the lack of a clear resolution—the question whether there is a place where the characters can lead a semblance of a normal life remains unanswered at the end of the volume.

The author has a website where you can find this and his other work. Autumn is being made into a movie.

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