Tag Archives: Apocalyptic Fiction

Rag Men

If you’ve read my reviews before, you know that I love apocalypse stories. My favorite way to end the world is with zombies, but any disaster will do. I was under the impression that Rag Men, by Rocky Alexander, was going to be a zombie story, and it sort of was. However, I realized it concentrated more on the survival of one main character and the revenge seeking of the other.

Colin Ross is grieving for his wife, who became ill with the “QILU” virus while overseas. As the virus spreads throughout the world, turning normal people into savages, Colin at first contemplates suicide, then decides to ride out the end of the world at his uncle’s cabin. He just needs to get there in one piece. He grabs supplies from the gym he owns, and sets out with one of the gym kids, Andre.

Rooster has just gotten out of prison, and drops in on an old dealer friend, Timbo. Timbo is glad to see Rooster, until Rooster murders the rest of the losers in the house. He tricks Timbo into helping him get supplies, then takes off after killing Timbo as well. Rooster is on a mission just as Colin is; but he is after revenge where Colin just wants to survive the madness plaguing the world.

Rag Men follows these two characters as they make their way to their goals. They must do awful things to survive, but Rooster actually enjoys the brutality in the new world, resorting to it even when it’s unnecessary. Be forewarned—the violence in this story is graphic and disturbing. But it’s not gratuitous; Rooster would be a lesser character without it.

The “zombies” in the story are secondary; the apocalypse is just the background. But it works great. Rag Men is not your average end-of-the-world story, but it’s a great read. The two main characters come together in a way that is both satisfying and unsettling.

If zombies aren’t your thing, or you’re tired of the zombie apocalypse trope, you will definitely enjoy Rag Men. But zombie lovers will love it, too. The story is action-packed and quite the page-turner. Don’t miss it.

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Bottom’s Up: A Conversation with Bill Braddock

Bill Braddock is a man of many talents, one of them writing. Brew is his debut novel and let me tell you, it’s an ass kicker. Full of enough grue and gore and ridiculous violence to sate the biggest horror hound appetite, and yet peopled with strong and real characters you can relate to…and others you wish you couldn’t.

Bill was kind enough to run out to Shock Totem Manor for a chat. (I say run as he is in shape enough to do that and still kick all of our asses without getting winded.)

John Boden: Brew is set in a “college town,” and growing up a stone’s throw from State College, PA (Penn State), it held an awful lot of obnoxious truth. The mentality of those football-headed folks, the fact that ALL can and will be sacrificed for the sake of that game…I could go on, but I fear it would be fairly negative. I know you hail from the same state as I, so I have to ask: how much “real life experience” found its way into this book?

Bill Braddock: Well, first of all, you nailed it…College Heights is my take on State College/Penn State, where I went to school and worked as a bartender. Virtually every place in Brew is based on a real spot, and some of the names are fairly obvious parallels—“Short Ridge” vs. “Shortlidge,” for example. I had great fun, traveling back in time and walking around my memories of these places, then prettying them up with plenty of chaos.

I considered simply setting the story in Penn State, but the town has gone through so many changes since I lived there twenty years ago, I either would have had to become the Michener of horror, doing extensive research and killing the fun, or I would have received an avalanche of e-mails pointing out my errors. While streets and stores change, however, I was confident that mass drunkenness and football mania still ruled. No need to change those.

The insanity that grew out of those football Saturday nights—that crackling weirdness, everybody hyped-the-eff up, looking for fun, looking to get laid or get in a fight or maybe overturn a car—all that, paired so incongruously with the ubiquitous laughter and hooting and celebration, weirded me out, resonating until it finally triggered this book.

All this being said, I love that town, insanity and everything. It ruined me on college ball forever, but I had a blast there, an absolute blast.

JB: I adored the fact that the heroes were all sort of “unlikely” in that they were the misfits and shadow people that are never on the scope of popularity. Was this a conscious choice or just how it turned out?

BB: Brew was a situation-first-characters-second story. I knew the central event, knew I wanted to tell a story like Richard Laymon’s One Rainy Night or Jack Ketchum’s Ladies Night, but I didn’t know the characters until I started writing. Herbert arrived first, then Steve, then Cat, then Demetrius, I think…and it wasn’t until I’d gotten well into Demetrius’s side of things that I realized all my heroes were outsiders.

Later on, I discovered that this is a recurring thematic concern of mine, the idea of people whose native strengths, due to societal circumstances, end up becoming paradoxical liabilities… until something big comes along, turns polite society on its head, and yesterday’s outcasts become today’s heroes.

JB: As gloriously over the top as this novel is, it is not entirely unfeasible. I mean, instead of the shambling undead, you give us mobs of ourselves, stripped of all objective reason and hyped up on animal aggression. I found this much more terrifying. Also the fact that in an isolated college town in central Pennsylvania, some shit like this could go down and linger for days before anyone really caught on and showed up to do anything about it, which amplifies the horror.

BB: Brew is far-fetched, but yeah, it’s not entirely impossible. Even the synchronized insanity, which is probably the least feasible aspect, isn’t completely out of the question. I had fun researching the book, and after gathering what I could on my own, talked to a chemist, a paramedic, and a pharmacologist. The more I learned about less-than-lethal technologies, brain science, and pharmacology, the more frightening (and frighteningly plausible) this all seemed.

I love traditional zombies. The inexorable slow shamble of their mindless mass attack seems to me the perfect metaphor for tireless pressure of the mundane world. Busy work, pointless job duties, paying bills, applications and permits, stuff that only rolls around once or twice a year, like remembering to shut off and drain the hose bib before winter hits, things that kill us not because they’re difficult in isolation but because they just keep coming, keep coming, keep coming…

And what do they want? Your brains.

Z-apocalypse stuff is fun because it takes all those mundane tasks that worry at our brains, solidifies them symbolically as a monster—a physical threat—and allows the strong individual to shrug off the maddening trivialities of day-to-day existence and get down to some this-shit-actually-matters-and-therefore-my-performance-actually-matters activity. Refreshing.

Despite my love of the walking dead, however, I wanted something different, something more in step with both the real-world madness I’d witnessed at Penn State and the cultural fears of the moment. In the 21st century, random violence, whether you’re talking about terrorism, school shooters, or the “knockout game,” rules headlines. Personally, I am frightened by violence outside logical cause-and-effect, from a beer keg I once saw tossed from one of the upper floor balconies of a high rise apartment at Penn State to the cancer that took my mother to bullets fired from shooters unseen.

You also mention isolation. When I was a kid, one of the coolest things about Penn State was its isolation. Forty-thousand people roughly twenty years old, most of them scuffing around without a full-time job. I decided to employ the other side of that particularly shiny coin by telling an apocalyptic tale versus a post-apocalyptic one. That’s why the whole story takes place in a matter of hours rather than days or months or years. I didn’t want the cavalry to get there in time to solve the problem. I wanted to leave that up to my outcasts-turned-heroes.

JB: It was a very cinematic read, in that I could totally see it playing out in film form. I would imagine there may be some interest in that. Is this something you would be on board with?

BB: Thanks. I’d really dig seeing Brew on the big screen, and I think it would make a fun movie. My excellent publishers have been talking to some absolute rainmakers on the West Coast, but I’m not holding my breath. It hasn’t even been optioned yet, and these things are a long shot. Still, even long shots do work out from time to time, and that would be really cool, so one of these midnights, I might have to sacrifice a goat or something.

JB: Have you always liked horror? What was it, if any one thing, that lured you to the dark side?

BB: I’ve always loved horror. As in always. I blame my brother, who was six years old and tended a tall stack of horror comics. My brother wouldn’t share, and my mother didn’t allow me to read them, since I’d been having night terrors all the way back to the crib, so I made it my daily mission to sneak in there and read those things. My brother, who went on to earn a degree in mechanical engineering, went so far as to rig up a homemade alarm built out of a screaming toy motorcycle. All too often, he would catch me in there, and he was merciless, as protective of those comics as a mother wolf with its pups. Other horror writers can pontificate all they want about the genre, but I’ve taken countless ass whippings in the name of horror. I’ve bled for horror. And I’m cool with that.

JB: What is on the horizon for Bill Braddock?

BB: I’m always writing, man. Right now, I’m mainly pounding away at a mainstream thriller, but I also have a couple of short stories I’m dying to write, a horror novel I’ve planned and can’t stop thinking about, and about 1,000 pages of work piled up on my long-time pet project, Perils of the Road. Given the positive response to Brew, however, I’m thinking of writing a collection of stories set on that same apocalyptic night. I’d call it Microbrews.

JB: That would be brilliant, the Microbrews thing. You aren’t messing with me, are you? Anyway, I don’t care. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me a bit. You’re the bee’s knees!

BB: Thanks so much, man. I’ve had a blast talking with you, and it’s awesome to find myself in the Shock Totem camp. You guys really know how to throw a party! As to Microbrews, not messing with you at all—and your enthusiasm just pushed me one step closer to writing the thing. Thanks!

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The Infection

The sub-genre of apocalyptic fiction has really taken off as of late. It seems that everyone and their mother are now penning a book dealing with the End of Days, and I’ve read my fair share of them—particularly when it comes to the subject of zombies. I’ve had a love affair with the meandering undead since I was a wee frightened lad, and ever since then I’ve torn into whatever material I can when it comes to this subject matter.

I have found, however, that with the sheer quantity offered, many of these novels blend into one huge, intestine-chewing lump in my brain. It takes a special sort of zombie novel for me to remember not only the plot (if there is one; many zombie tales end up being nothing but expositions on gore), but the emotions I felt while reading; which, to me, is undeniably more important than anything.

The Infection, the wonderful new tale of woe and man-eaters by Craig DiLouie, is one of those “special” books.

In DiLouie’s world, the end starts with a strange malady that causes one-third of the world’s population to break out screaming, suffer massive seizures, and then fall into a state of catatonia. Then, three days after the event, these “Screamers” wake up. They are violent, fast, and driven to both eat and spread their infection, which fully afflicts its victims after a rather sparse three-minute incubation period.

Society breaks down in a matter of days, leaving roving bands of survivors to try and seek a safe haven. It is at this point that The Infection begins, introducing us to a varied group (including a preacher, a school teacher, a cop, three soldiers, a sixteen-year-old boy, and a rather tainted homemaker), who traverse across greater Pittsburgh in their Bradley (basically a tank with a smaller turret designed to be a quite-deadly armored personnel carrier) in search of somewhere, anywhere, that they can rest their weary bones for a night, perhaps longer. The Infected are always at their heels, as well as a few other (rather ingenious) beasts, which, when added together, create a nice little mystery as to why this outbreak happened in the first place. Is it the wrath of an angry God? Aliens seeking to eliminate the local inhabitants so they can re-populate with their own kind? The text offers clues, but never says the answer outright, which makes for a nice little mystery in the middle of all the madness.

The plot of the book is rather simple—folks run from monsters, find shelter, run again, find shelter again, discover they don’t know how to live like real people anymore, and go destroy a bridge to stop the Infected and friends from crossing the river. As I said, not the most complex plot in the world.

But plot isn’t where The Infection gains its significance. Yes, there are zombies (or pseudo-zombies) and other assorted baddies, but this is a book about them as much as The Telltale Heart is about a fancy puzzle box.

DiLouie does a cut-up job of presenting what it would really be like if everything were to fall apart. The human element is on full display here—the longing, the despair, the paralyzing fear. There is sadness aplenty, and much longing for loved ones lost. The book’s structure is excellent in presenting this—it is told in present tense (which adds to the tension), with constant flashbacks pertaining to the individual journey of each character. Every one of them has lost something important—some more so than others—and all must come to grips with the fact that no matter if the planet recovers or not, they, as individuals, will never be the same again.

To say that I found The Infection to be astute and poignant would be an understatement. It’s inventive and fresh, offering an insider’s perspective on pain and terror. The characters are wonderfully flawed and likeable, and I felt for them whenever I discovered what horrible events had played out in their pasts. The action scenes are concise and easy to follow, and DiLouie seems to have done his homework when it comes to the more technical aspects of modern warfare.

This is a really good book, folks. It made me edgy, sad, joyous, and angry—sometimes at the same time. DiLouie is an author who knows his voice, and he uses it to near perfection. I will definitely be reading more of him in the future, and if you have any appreciation at all for tales of the apocalypse, this small-press offering is just about as good as it gets.

Originally appeared in Shock Totem #4, July 2011.

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