As you know, Bob, I’ve recently started to review a few books for Locus magazine. Not everything I review, though, makes it into the magazine. Case in point: Nick Mamatas’s zombie novel, The Last Weekend, which I greatly enjoyed but which was originally published a couple of years ago–and reviewed in Locus at the time by the estimable Tim Pratt. That doesn’t change the fact, though, that it’s a fine novel that deserves a look. Here’s what I had to say about it:
The Last Weekend, Nick Mamatas (Night Shade Books 9781597808422, $15.99, 244 pp, tpb)
Billy Kostopolis, the narrator-protagonist of Nick Mamatas’s innovative, gripping The Last Weekend, deals with monsters, specifically, zombies. When a resident of San Francisco sights one of the undead flesh-eaters, they place a call to an emergency number, from which a second call goes out to Billy. He arrives to deal with the zombie. His instrument of choice for doing so is a battery-powered drill, the tip of whose bit he positions at the base of the zombie’s skull before squeezing the tool’s trigger. Billy is able to employ this method because the zombies he’s summoned to deal with are newly reanimated, unsteady creatures, often barely aware of their circumstances. Occasionally, too, he’s called upon to deliver a pre-emptive drilling to the recently deceased, to prevent their return. A functioning alcoholic, Billy is happy to take tips in the form of alcohol.
The narrative he relates consists of two alternating strands, one set in post-zombie-apocalypse San Francisco, the other set in pre-zombie-apocalypse Youngstown and Boston. Each half of the novel is a variation on the quest story. In the pre-apocalyptic chapters, Billy (née Vasilis), then a college student, chases Yvette, a young woman who embodies the white, upper-middle-class Amercian ideal, which he, the son of Greek immigrants, both aspires to and despises. His pursuit of Yvette is paralleled by his desire to succeed as a writer, which leads, when he follows her from Ohio to Massachusetts, to him enrolling in a certificate program at Emerson College. In contrast, in the book’s post-apocalyptic chapters, Billy resists any quest beyond that for the next drink—and the larger pursuit of self-annihilation it represents. But he cannot help continuing to write, even now, and despite his best efforts, he is drawn into a search for the origins of the zombie outbreak. His pursuit of knowledge, however, is as fraught and filled with frustration as his search for love.
Indeed, frustration of various stripes is one of the Billy’s fundamental experiences of the world pre- and post-apocalypse. Self-lacerating, compulsively honest, his voice is perhaps the novel’s most significant achievement. A blend of mid-to-late twentieth century naturalists John Fante and Charles Bukowski, Billy brings to the familiar material of both the novel’s narrative strands an unforgiving clarity that is bracing. Mamatas has always been an experimental writer, and the technique of bringing together a prose style drawn from the literary mainstream with material drawn from the horror field is one he has employed successfully in the past, in novels such as Move Under Ground and The Damned Highway (co-written with Brian Keene). It’s a strategy that works here to particular effect.
The novel’s title is, of course, a play on William Wilder’s 1945 film noir, The Lost Weekend, which focused on an alcoholic writer. Where Wilder’s film is ultimately optimistic, however, Mamatas’s novel is not. Indeed, in an afterword, Mamatas notes that The Last Weekend had its origin as part of a proposed series of books set in the world of George Romero’s zombie movies. Although the larger project did not come to fruition, the novel Mamatas produced evokes the bleak spirit of Romero’s best work. The Last Weekend might be thought of as a companion piece to Colson Whitehead’s excellent Zone One, a ground-level vision of the zombie apocalypse that sacrifices neither literary ambition nor quality.
Some time ago, Ted Grau asked me if I’d take a look at his forthcoming collection of stories, The Nameless Dark, and, if I liked what I read, maybe write a blurb for it. I said sure. I read it, and kept reading it, and liked it very much, indeed. This is what I sent him:
–John Langan, author of The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies
For reasons having nothing to do with Ted, the blurb never made it to the printed book. That’s fine: I still got to read his stories, so as far as I’m concerned, I came out on the winning end of things. Ted sent me a copy of the finished book, which was very generous, but he included with it something even more generous, a piece of Ray Bradbury’s stupidly-demolished home (a few fragments of which Ted managed to save before they were carted away).
Talk about being bowled over. I’ve written a little bit about Bradbury’s importance to me as a writer, but there’s much more to say on the subject. For the moment, suffice it to say, one of the nicest compliments my fiction has received came from a reader who compared it to Bradbury’s and T.C. Boyle’s, by which he meant that he never knew what he was going to get when he sat down with one of my stories. For this little piece of his house to arrive felt positively uncanny. It was like something out of a Ray Bradbury story. Of course, some of those end…less than ideally for their protagonists.
Before I open my front door and find myself in the southern California of fifty years ago, however, I wanted to take this opportunity to thank Ted for his gift publicly, and to share what I wrote for his book with a wider audience. If you don’t have a copy of Ted’s collection, do yourself a favor, and pick it up.
I had run across several, generally-positive references to Marisha Pessl’s second novel online, but it wasn’t until Night Film made the shortlist for this year’s Shirley Jackson Awards that I decided to pick up a copy of it. I’m glad I did; it’s a highly-entertaining book whose narrative gathers momentum as it goes, until it’s roaring along like a mile-long freight train careening downhill, its screaming wheels barely holding on to the rails, throwing off showers of sparks. The plot is relatively straightforward: an investigative reporter is drawn into an exploration of the suicide of the daughter of a famous, reclusive director. Complicating matters is the fact that the reporter already investigated the director once, five years before, essentially ruining his journalistic career in the process. Yet he can’t resist taking a second run at Stanislas Cordova, and the rest of the novel relates his effort to uncover the circumstances surrounding the death of Cordova’s daughter, Ashley. This leads in ever-darker directions. Pessl skillfully manages what her protagonist–and by extension, we, the readers–learn about Cordova, his films, and those associated with them. I was reminded of Stoker’s handling of Dracula, especially, the amount of tension he generates by keeping the Count offstage. Gradually, Stanislas Cordova emerges as a kind of cross between Roman Polanski and David Lynch, with a bit of Aleister Crowley thrown in for good measure. It seems increasingly possible, even probable, that Cordova was involved in some type of black magic, and that it affected his daughter, and that it may be affecting our protagonist. There’s a long, nightmarish scene at Cordova’s upstate New York estate that’s worth the price of admission, alone. Throughout the novel, Pessl incorporates a variety of fictional documents into her narrative–newspaper clippings, webpages–in a way that calls to mind Danielewski’s House of Leaves, bringing us that much closer to her protagonist’s quest.
So: a book that’s definitely worth checking out. Kudos to Marisha Pessl.