Nuclear Family, Exploded: Ward Moore’s ‘Lot’ and ‘Lot’s Daughter’

Mr. Jimmon even appeared elated, like a man about to set out on vacation.

“Well folks, no use waiting any longer. We’re all set. So let’s go.”

So begins the saga of David Jimmon, the focal point of Ward Moore’s post-nuclear novelettes Lot and Lot’s Daughter (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, May 1953 and October 1954) and thematic successor to Albert Weener, the antiheroic protagonist of Moore’s free-market doomsday satire Greener Than You Think (William Sloane Associates, 1947). Jimmon is introduced in medias res, as he finishes packing his family (wife, daughter, two sons) and a bulky assortment of hunting gear and non-perishables into his station wagon. It could well be the beginning of a typical American vacation, as the opening lines allude, were it not for the strange overtones that surround it. The utilities have been cut, and the Jimmon’s second car sits idly in the garage, “the air thoughtfully let out of the tires and the battery hidden.” The wagon’s FM set belches Mexican radio, Civil Defense broadcasts, and channel after channel of static.

The implications are clear. The atom has struck the greater Los Angeles area, though Moore leaves the attack itself tantalizingly off page. The reader is left to deduce it’s full scope from fragmentary quotation of Civil Defense reports and Jimmon’s questionable deductions. He balances the official assurances of a limited attack (“. . . panic will merely slow rescue efforts. Casualties are much smaller than originally reported . . . “) and a capable emergency response with grimmer observations; civilization is cooked by his estimation, and only those (like himself, conveniently) with the foresight to prepare and the ingenuity to put such preparation to action are deserving of survival.

Therein lies the crux of Lot and its sequel Lot’s Daughter. Speculative fiction is ripe with tales of man’s efforts to survive in the face of some great cataclysm or other, and Moore’s stories themselves served as uncredited source material for scenarist Jay Simms’ Panic in Year Zero! (American International Pictures, 1962), a film that positively revels in its chauvinist post-apocalyptic excesses. The similarities are only skin deep, however, and one would be remiss in lumping Lot or Lot’s Daugher together with the bulk of libertarian survivalist fantasies. David Jimmon is certainly no self-made doomsday hero, as is Ray Milland’s Harry Baldwin in the filmed version, protecting his family against an inevitable post-nuke social decline and taking up arms to fight for life, liberty, and the American way against black market profiteers and doped-up hot-rod hoodlums. Jimmon is a fundamentally broken character in the best of Moore’s writing tradition, a meek and cowardly perennial malcontent and a festering amalgamate of middle-aged resentments; he is a Harry Baldwin only in his own delusions, and deluded enough to believe himself superior to all.

Jimmon hates many things. He hates his neighbors, the Warbinns (“. . . incompetent borrower, bad neighbor, thoughtless, shiftless, criminal . . .“), who provide an early stumbling block to his station wagon exodus from A-bombed Los Angeles. He hates the family pet, a spaniel Jimmon leaves to fend for itself in the hills of Malibu (“. . . Should have sent the dog to the humane society; more merciful to have it put to sleep. Too late now. . .“). But most of all David Jimmon hates his own family, and the civic-minded responsibility that binds him to them.

Dependent. Helpless. Everything on him. Parasites.

But as the station wagon barrels wrong-way down a divided highway the ties that bind him to his pre-disaster responsibilities begin to fray. The prospect of abandoning the long-engrained habits of good-natured civility invigorates David Jimmon.

What, after all, does he now owe to those for whom he was responsible? His wife Molly, whom he wishes were fat and supine, and whom he suspects of cheating while simultaneously refusing to believe she has the independent agency to have done so. His two sons, David Jr. and Wendell, in whose youthful recalcitrance he sees the germ of violent hooliganism. Before merely a burden, now an existential danger to his individualism, and the final barrier to the shedding of his civility. His predilections and prejudices, presentiments and perversions simmer, barely sublimated, tenuously restrained by the eroding bonds of family.

Parasites.

A gas station break. Jimmon pays the attendant’s extortionate rates, bemused. Wendell rushes to the restroom. David Jr. ponders catching a movie. Molly wonders about the local hotel accommodations. Jimmon slips a wad of cash into her purse, $20,000 in hundred dollar bills- the sum of his life savings, and suggests she take David Jr. and find a telephone.

Parasites.

Jimmon orders his teenage daughter, Erika, into the station wagon. She complies. He slides behind the wheel, starts the motor, and shifts the wagon into low gear . . .

. . . he thought Erika turned to him with a startled look. As the station wagon moved forward, he was sure of it.

“It’s all right, Erika,” said Mr. Jimmon, “I’ll explain later.”

He’d have lots of time to do it.

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Cover detail from Urania #375, published in March of 1965, which collects Italian translations of both ‘Lot’ and ‘Lot’s Daughter’.

Set some six years on from the events of Lot, Lot’s Daughter finds Jimmon struggling to exist in his brave new world, the initial post-attack excitement having long-since subsided and the invigoration of his grand social trespass supplanted by the tangible consequences of the same. Jimmon and Erika are alienated from whatever may remain of the America they left behind, isolated in a patch of otherwise unpopulated woodland near Monteray. The station wagon is hidden, its battery dead, its radio silent. Whatever has become of his abandoned wife and sons is unknown.

Jimmon’s fantasy of survival has collapsed under the weight of the realization of his own crippling weaknesses. The sum total of his achievements in six years are a single ramshackle shelter, an incongruous collection of cut logs and moss in constant need of repair. His carefully collected supplies have been lost to careless exposure to the elements, his best-laid plans now but a string of dismal personal failures. A roof not boarded. A dam not built. Local foodstuffs are either depleted or beyond his minimal skills to hunt them down, and he falls upon a dwindling population of shellfish, gleaned from the coastal waters nearby, for his subsistence. He has a four year old son, fathered through an incestuous union with his own daughter (a relationship “. . . of almost mystic propriety . . .“), and both have become wholly dependent on Erika for their ongoing survival.

Parasites.

As her father before her, Erika holds her resentments at bay through the dull persistence of her familial responsibilities. She patches the walls of their shelter, keeps the fire burning through the night, collects ever-smaller abalone from along the coast, and reminds David Jimmons to shave. The sum of her existence is consumed and defined by the needs of others, those of the father who abandoned her mother and brothers, and of the child born of their indiscretion.

Then, one day, change. A set of jeep tracks headed southbound along a stretch of sand-swept highway. People. A chance. Hope.

Parasites.

Lot and Lot’s Daughter make for compelling, even shocking, reads more than sixty years after they were originally published; Moore’s prose remains pointed, stark, deliciously sardonic and surprisingly provocative. Comparison with Panic in Year Zero! is too tasty to resist. Where Simms’ screenplay and the resulting film delight in their derivative exercise in anarchic post-disaster fantasy1, Moore’s novelettes serve as pre-emptive rebuke of the same. The speculative aspect of Lot is not, after all, to ask what would happen should atom bombs fall on America – film and fiction alike are replete with such narratives. Lot inquires instead of those who would wish for such catstrophes, and of what might become of them should they get precisely what they asked for.

In the end, in keeping with the Biblical allusion of the title, Jimmon reaps what he has sown. He sits with his son (grandson?) in his deteriorating shelter, now empty save for the two of them, having abandoned the people he had grown to despise and been abandoned by them in kind.


Print copies of Lot and Lot’s Daughter can be a bit tricky to pin down. The stories were last published together in a handsome edition of 400 (300 soft-cover and 100 leather-bound, the latter signed by author Michael Swanwick, who provides the introduction to the edition) from Tachyon Press in 1996, but copies can be quite expensive to obtain (I found instances of the desirable 72-page tome selling for anywhere from $98 to $1500). It’s much easier to procure each separately. Lot is regularly reprinted, and most recently appeared in A Science Fiction Omnibus (Penguin Modern Classics, 2007). Lot’s Daughter is less often revisited, but was collected as part of A Decade of Science Fiction (Doubleday, 1960). That collection saw numerous reprints through the middle-1960s, and used copies of it are both readily available and quite affordable.

1 Panic in Year Zero! is so similar in its events that it points to a second, and obvious, uncredited source in addition to Moore’s set of stories – John Christopher’s The Death of Grass, which had been released to significant commercial success in 1956. That novel remains strangely out-of-print in the USA, and the Penguin Modern Classics reprint from 2009 offers one of the few reasonable options for reading it here.

Craig Harrison’s The Quiet Earth (1981)

“The pull of the earth took hold of my spine, my limbs spread over space. There was the breath-beat of falling, spiralling, the air pushing hard for a moment and then letting go. The light split open my eyelids. It was brilliant, drained of colours, painful. An immense silence rushed around me. My throat was trying to make a noise, to beat it back. The light pulsed redness. Then the silence expanded.”

John Hobson awakens from a dream of falling, exhausted and confused, to find that his watch has stopped at 6:12. The power to his room – indeed, to the entire motel – has cut out, and a view from the window shows no sign of human activity outside. A venture into town reveals that the curious phenomenon extends well beyond Hobson’s motel room. Everywhere he turns the power is out and the clocks have stopped, all reading the same impossible time. Baffling as it is, a more dreadful realization awaits:

Aside from John Hobson all of human kind appears to have vanished from the face of the Earth.

So begins The Quiet Earth, a novel by adoptive New Zealander Craig Harrison originally published in 1981 and, until very recently, long out of print. Though best known for the loose 1985 film adaptation of the same name, those approaching Harrison’s source novel may do best to forget the film entirely. Connections between the two are largely superficial – a handful of names, a smattering of events, and the same high-concept last man premise. Only scraps of Harrison’s work made it to the screen, and precious few of them reach beyond the film’s excellent first act. There are no love affairs to be found here. There are no redemptive heroics. No alien world rises ambiguously over the horizon.

The Quiet Earth is told entirely from the perspective of Hobson, a geneticist on leave from an experimental research station when the phenomenon he dubs the Effect occurs. His approach to the problem follows a predictable scientific methodology. Hobson’s investigations of abandoned residences and automobiles evidence an instantaneous and unexpected event – a knife half-sliced through a loaf of bread, seat belts soundly buckled, bed sheets still showing the impressions of their vanished occupants. Animal life appears to have been effected as well, and on a massive scale. There are no cats or dogs, no livestock, no birds. Arthropods have all but vanished, a writhing earthworm their only representative. The world has become suddenly and horribly silent. From the small town in which he first awakes Hobson travels to cities ever less isolated, but the effects of the Effect remain unchanged. Even Auckland is still and quiet. The smoldering remnants of a crashed airliner, its passengers and crew gone with the rest, is the only point of action.

As Hobson investigates the Effect in search of some causality or meaning to his plight the reader is made to investigate him. His sleep is burdened by dreams un-remembered, his waking hours by fragments of an incomplete past – memories of a nameless left-handed Maori boy, pieces of conversation with his fellow researchers, the face of a child, drowning, and a small hand slipping from the edge of a bathtub. The more the reader learns of Hobson the more tenuous his reliability as a narrator becomes. As silent days bleed into intolerable nights he becomes increasingly paranoid of some unknown presence lurking just beyond his own senses – noises in a darkened parking lot, unnatural howls from across a lake, the hideous form of a beast glimpsed in the headlights. How much is real, and how much is of Hobson’s own delusional making? With only his unbalanced perspective as a point of reference hard facts are few. Still, as the mysteries of both Hobson and the Effect begin to unravel one truth becomes abundantly clear: Hobson’s past and the apocalyptic present are inexorably linked, two fractured halves of the same nightmarish puzzle.

The Quiet Earth eventually preoccupies Hobson with fellow human characters (as in the film, there are other survivors), but their appearance serves less to rehabilitate than to hasten his steady decline. Shallow trust quickly erodes, passions flare, and guns are drawn. As its second and third acts unspool the tale pushes towards a grim and inevitable convergence of madness and clarity. In the end Hobson finds himself alone once more, his character laid bare, his guilt irrevocable. The ultimate nature of his reality is left purposefully, perhaps unavoidably unknown, but its personal implications for him are incontrovertible. Whether it be tangible or delusional Hobson is imprisoned in a silent world of his own breaking, and there is no exit.

Harrison’s novel unfolds in spare prose, rancorous and elegant, and transfigures a rote exercise in apocalyptic survival (fiction is lousy with last man stories) into something far more potent, affecting, and personal. Through Hobson Harrison tests the limits of audience sympathies, compelling us though steady revelation towards understanding for a character who is the very embodiment of the worst of human potential. Hobson is a spiteful paranoiac, cowardly, egotistical, and genuinely, dangerously mad, but even in his ugliest moments I found him impossible to hate, my disgust and outrage dwarfed by the tragic significance of it all. Here is a man who would destroy the world and who gets what he deserves, but The Quiet Earth grants no satisfaction in its feedback loop of cosmic justice. There is only a palpable sadness, and pity for a doomed and desolate man.


Long out of print, with prices for used copies ranging well into the hundreds of dollars, Craig Harrison’s The Quiet Earth is now available once more courtesy of the Text Classics imprint of Australia-based Text Publishing Company. A physical edition will make its US debut in May, but a digital edition is already readily available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other eBook retailers.

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Robert Moore Williams’ The Second Atlantis (1965)

TSA_CoverIt shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with my taste in film to learn that I have something of a soft spot for the garbage literature peddled by publishers like Monarch and Ace Books in the early half of the ’60s, particularly the science fiction potboilers that earned them so much of their keep. With its stilted prose, paper-thin plot and utter lack of literary aspiration, Robert Moore Williams’ (The Day They H-Bombed Los Angeles) The Second Atlantis comfortably dwells inbona fide guilty pleasure territory, fighting the good fight for cultural degradation and brain damage right with the best (worst?) of them.

Offering up very, very little in the way of plot (basically it’s ‘a bad thing happens and people walk away from it’ for 120 pages), The Second Atlantis presents readers with a singular horrific event and then bombards them with unnecessary characters until the feeble, New Age-y conclusion is within sight. At least the event in this case is a good one, a massive chart-topping earthquake that just keeps rolling, turning the greater Los Angeles area into a crumbling, fiery ruin before unceremoniously burying it under the Pacific. The improbable catastrophe is of Emmerich-ian magnitude, baring no small resemblance to that director’s destruction of L.A. in the recent mega-budget mega-disaster flick 2012. It’s not particularly well conveyed, with Williams’ awkward nested metaphors proving more distracting than illustrative (see the example below), but it offers up enough in the way of trashy thrills to keep the page turning.

The whole mountain seemed to lean forward as if it were bowing in deep reverence to some ancient god of the planet it saw coming toward it; then, at the sharp command of the god, the mountain returned to its former position like a soldier snapping to attention at the approach of his commanding officer. (p. 33)

The author seems to have realized early on that the earthquake was all that was keeping the pages turning and milks the cataclysm for practically all it’s worth, stretching the disaster (and its credibility) across a solid half or more of the story. While this works well enough from an exploitation angle, keeping readers guessing as to which poorly introduced piece of humanity will have their head smashed in by the crumbling edifices of civilization next (Will it be the gas station attendant, the happy drunkard, the smiling secretary? I’ll never tell!), but it forces the quality of characterization to basement levels, even with regards to the story’s would-be protagonists.

In fact, it becomes a bit difficult after a few chapters to discern just who the protagonists of The Second Atlantis are. Ostensibly filling the bill are the Gray family, the head of which spends his days thinking at a ‘space age factory’ in Santa Monica. When the disaster arrives on his doorstep Mr. Gray hits the road, leading his wife and young child down a nearby car-clogged freeway towards the presumed safety of the San Fernando Valley. From the moment the Gray’s begin their escape the author begins to assault his reader with superfluous side characters – a rich womanizer, an enterprising Cosa Nostra hit man, a prophet creatively named Propher – who serve only to distract from the lack of a central narrative and to bolster the left-field conclusion.

That’s not to say that these characters don’t offer something in the way of entertainment value despite their near pointlessness. The Cosa Nostra hit man, for instance, goes on an earthquake-inspired quest to usurp his boss and spends the rest of the book wandering a scorched countryside with said boss’ head in a sac (a fact the author tries, and poorly, to keep a surprise). Meanwhile, Propher entertains with random visions of the lost civilization of Atlantis, of which he is sure he is a reincarnated citizen:

The city before his inner vision was a jewel, a holy place, a city devoted to the arts and to healing and to the correlation between art and healing 
 Around the jewel city, in the grain fields, were twisted towers that rose like strange ropes into the sky. Propher knew these towers were part of a complex system of collecting various energies from the great vault of heaven, including an energy that was prior to both electricity and magnetism.  (p. 65)

But the prophet and the hit man don’t get all the fun. One of The Second Atlantis‘ most memorable moments revolves around Mrs. Gray, who finds herself in the midst of her own crazy vision during the wonky finale. Rather than being haunted with visions of ancient Atlantis, Mrs. Gray is participant to a protracted philosophical conversation with her long-dead grandmother, actually a collective of all the long-dead grandmothers of Westward expansion. Granny Gray offers up tasty ponderings on such diverse topics as the woman’s place in the home and the spirit-driven force of evolution before dropping a bombshell – the real reason behind what the author calls ‘the westering’:

If you use the opportunity thus given to improve the heart and mind of the ape hidden inside you, then you will have taken a step toward the land where spirit intends us to live eventually – the region of the summer stars 
 We have been brought westward because it is here on the shores of the western sea that the first crude spaceships will be built.  (p. 116)

That’s right, kids, the whole point of Manifest Destiny, of Western civilization’s conquest of the last few unspoiled miles of the North American continent, was to put men in place to build space ships and set out to conquer the rest of the Universe. Perhaps most ridiculous of all is the counter-revelation that the massive disaster at hand, the sinking of the Los Angeles basin and the incalculable loss of human life, was a pre-destined event necessary to reveal the true purpose of Westward expansion and to thin the herd before right-minded men can set out into the depths of space! And just what sort of men are we talking about? It’s safe to say that minorities are probably not on the list, as several awkward instances of racism reveal:

(Granny Gray talking about her ancestors landing in Massachusetts) We were greeted by painted Indians who had never had a bath in their lives!  (p. 113)

(The author describes the hillside homes in Hollywood) Some were supported on steel poles that left their backsides hanging over nothing like a Mexican woman defecating into a ravine.  (p. 32)

(The author discusses how the West Coast was the end of ‘the westering’) Beyond this sea were the Japanese and the Chinese. To the people of the westering, heaven was not to be found on the ocean, and paradise for them was not an oriental garden inhabited by slant-eyed, thinly-clad beauties.  (p. 7)

The Second Atlantis ends on what was intended to be a hopeful note, with the vast resources of the Federal government and the Army descending upon the quake-stricken area in a response as unprecedented in its scale as the disaster itself. It’s a feel-good conclusion that can’t help but ring false, especially with hurricane Katrina so recently in our past. Mr. Gray’s thoughts on the subject seem especially timely in their irony:

If this had been done for strangers, then how much greater would be the response when the catastrophe was here in their own land! Hardly a county or village in all the nation but had sent a son or a daughter to the West Coast. Now that catastrophe had come, there would be hardly a county or a village in all the nation that would not have a personal reason for sending helpers here.  (p. 99)

Published for the first and as yet final time as Ace Book F-335 in 1965, The Second Atlantis debuted at an astounding suggested shelf price of 40 cents. As a testament to the story’s staying power, third party Amazon sellers are currently offering the title at the shockingly appreciated sum of … well … 41 cents. Gloriously oversold as ‘a prevision’ and ‘a prophetic novel with an unforgettable impact’ on its own back cover, The Second Atlantis is the kind of thing I could see myself plunking allowance money down for week after week (if only I’d been born a few decades earlier!). Out of print for almost half a century, this Ace paperback is still a pretty easy find – I found my copy was cluttering up the science fiction shelf at a local second hand book shop.

As literature The Second Atlantis is about as satisfying as a handful of Cheetos, and its low-grade paper left me with the same post-consumption sensation of needing to wash my hands. But nothing fills a trash craving like trash, and Williams’ story hit the spot for this reviewer. If you’re into this sort of thing, then The Second Atlantis comes recommended.

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This article was originally published at Wtf-Film in June of 2010. It has been (very) slightly revised for its reprinting here. For the present you can still find the original article here.

The Horrors of Spider Island: John Wyndham’s Web

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Going strictly from its premise, one might easily be forgiven for considering John Wyndham’s Web a bit schlocky. At face value his oddball tale of a small Pacific island whose cultivation as a new Utopia is cut short by a blight of intelligent spiders veritably demands comparison to some of the hokiest of sci-fi hokum, but judging things on first perceptions alone can be a dangerous business. Published posthumously a full decade on from the author’s death in 1969, the brief Web may never reach the same heights as the author’s greatest work – The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, Trouble with Lichen and so on – but it finds him in no less sound or contemplative a mind.

Unusually for Wyndham, the characters of Web are more just framing for its (considerable) fictitious history than any great narrative necessity, and the plot is rather scant indeed. The primary player, from whose perspective the novel unfolds, is one Mr. Delgrange, a man whose aimlessness in life following the tragic loss of his wife and daughter leads him to the Project, an effort by the aristocratic Lord Foxfield to establish a new freethinker’s empire (and a memorial to his own greatness) wholly independent of the distractions and humdrum of Western civilization. An uninhabited island in the Pacific is purchased just for the purpose, and Delgrave and a few dozen ill-fated fellow pioneers swiftly descend upon it in hopes of jump starting a new brand of society.

Unfortunately for Delgrave and his associates a new society has already sprung up on remote Tanakuatua, which has become a seeding ground for the imperial ambitions of a new species of highly social arachnids. Utterly ordinary but for their remarkable habits, the modest creatures (no giant mutants here) organize into pseudo-militaristic squads and conquer the island a bit at a time, enshrouding their swiftly expanding territory in an impenetrable pall of web.

The plot for Web is pretty thin, and dominated more by historical exposition than any degree of action. Indeed, those expecting even Wyndham’s typically subdued brand of thrills and chills may find themselves disappointed, as it is the island itself and not its creeping, crawling inhabitants that draws the bulk of the author’s attention.

With a history that spans from its earliest description by wayward mariners to its stint as a home for unruly cannibals to its conquest by a nomadic South Seas tribe (who see it as their promised land) and eventual subjugation under the British flag, the fictional Tanakuatua is Web‘s greatest asset, at once entirely plausible (how many tiny Pacific islands there must be that share a comparable history) and ready-made for Wyndham’s wry observation on the waning empire to which he belonged. For generations Tanakuatua is precisely the promised land its settlers had longed for, an eternal home for a tribe who took the spider as its emblem, and aside from the occasional hiccup of a World War little of cataclysmic import ever threatened to unsettle it. But as with Bikini before it, Tanakuatua finds itself embroiled in the Western world’s descent into atom-splitting madness, and its population forced to evacuate for fear of fallout from a nearby nuclear test. Only a lone witch doctor remains, sacrificing himself in a blood oath with the vengeful god Nakaa that the island might be cursed, and thereafter visit death upon any who dare venture upon its shores…

As with in Wyndham’s best work Web‘s central speculation, that the foibles of one empire might give rise to another less human, and wholly capable of toppling human kind from its Earthly domination, is a fascinating one. While certainly more fantastical in nature than the island that birthed them, even the spiders of Web aren’t so implausible as one might think, as a quick search on “social spiders” should attest – there are any number of varieties that have evolved social characteristics to varying degrees. Web‘s only truly fantastical notions are the scope of that socialization and its foundations in a brand of rational thought (conveniently sparked by fallout from man’s own supposed progress). On the latter point I have only to say, that spiders are perhaps smarter than you think.

While the concept is certainly ripe for exploitation, Wyndham unfortunately takes little advantage of it. The spiders are observed with a fearful curiosity by Delgrave and young biologist Camilla, who soon find themselves the only surviving members of the Project’s pioneers, but little is really made of any of it. The action of Web plays out in an almost footnote fashion, and while it frames the novel’s admittedly intriguing concepts well enough it’s glossed over to such an extent that it is only rarely satisfying. Delgrave and Camilla’s survival exploits could have formed the foundations for a book all their own, but are instead limited to a few scant paragraphs. The potentially epic struggle of two against a foe millions strong is thus rendered utterly perfunctory, just another brief, requisite step on the way to wrapping up the novel’s loose ends as swiftly as possible. It’s enough to make one wonder if the novel was ever really considered complete – Wyndham’s untimely death a decade prior to its publication would have put a swift end to any potential revisions.

I’m sure I’ll never know, as information on Web‘s pre-publication history is scarce indeed. Still, unsatisfying as it can be with regards to its lukewarm thrills it’s certainly not a bad book. Even the worst of Wyndham has plenty to offer, and Web‘s more interesting points are well worth investing what little time it takes to read it. One only wishes more could have been made of it, or its esteemed creepy crawlies.

Web is out of print for the moment (natch!), but is available cheaply enough through third party resellers on Amazon and elsewhere. Beware the various Penguin Reader editions, which abridge the novel for younger readers. I hazard to think what might be lost if Web were cut any shorter than its already modest 140 pages.

Virus – The Day of Resurrection

A handful of short stories and Japan Sinks. Until recently these were the only works by the late, great Sakyo Komatsu that had been accessible to those of us in the West, and in the case of the latter no printing has been available since the mid-90s. It’s a discouraging fact that’s always surprised me given both the enduring popularity of the sci-fi genre and Komatsu’s esteemed reputation within it, and it’s a shame that it took until 2012 – more than 35 years since one of his novels was last translated – for things to take a step in the right direction. Still, a step is a step, and we have Viz Media imprint Haikasoru to thank for the better-late-than-never appearance of one of the author’s first great science fiction novels in English. Originally published in 1964 by Japan’s Hayakawa Publishing Corp., Komatsu’s monumental disaster epicÂ ă€ŽćŸ©æŽ»ăźæ—„ă€Â (Fukkatsu no Hi / Day of Resurrection) has been the better part of half a century in coming to America, but it’s finally here, and under a title that should be instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with its filmed adaptation – Virus.

Virus begins with an irresistible grabber: The American nuclear submarine Neirid enters Tokyo Bay and launches an inflatable surveillance craft to observe the state of the city beyond. Yoshizumi, the only Japanese on board, watches intently as the results are relayed back to the submarine by video. What he sees is haunting. Tokyo, a metropolis once teaming with life, lies silent, its bustling avenues and intersections now littered with bleached bones and rusted automobiles. No commuter trains are running, no street lights flashing. Tokyo Tower still stands, quietly aging, now but a tombstone for the city’s dead millions. Air samples from the drone are tested and summarily discarded. It‘s still there, poisoning the atmosphere for all but the luckiest of warm-blooded things. The drone is retrieved and the submarine retreats, setting course for Antarctica – the only continent upon which human life still walks.

The year is 1973, and out of a population of three and a half billion only a few over 10,000 remain, cloistered away in the ice-bound sanctuary of Antarctica for so long as it remains. In the face of such cataclysm the novel asks, How did this happen, and why?…

What follows is a history of the near-end of us and a lamentation of humanity’s endless obsession with self-destruction. A sample is stolen from a British germ warfare lab, and a plane crashes in the Alps. Newcastle disease decimates the world’s poultry (and vicariously its vaccine-producing capabilities) while an aggressive new form of influenza – the Tibetan flu – creeps ever Westward from out of the depths of central Asia. Meanwhile the rate of heart attacks, most alarmingly those among healthy individuals, steadily rises. Unbeknownst to anyone each of these happenings is connected, but how will be a revelation too late in coming. Virus charts the progress of its mysterious, crushing pandemic from a variety of shifting vantage points, from the highs of the US Presidency to the lows of average commuters, graphically detailing just what it looks like when a civilization falls apart at the seams.

As the exceptionally virulent Tibeten flu spreads public services are hit hard, with basic necessities like running water and electricity growing short in supply as the workers who manage the systems that produce them are laid out in increasing numbers. As mystery heart attacks become more frequent the accidents caused by them do as well. Traffic piles up, and all air traffic is grounded. Perhaps the most illustrative example of the creeping calamity Virus offers is that of Tokyo’s commuter trains. It’s a system that runs like clockwork, a new train arriving every half minute, with attendants accustomed to bodily forcing the last few passengers into the packed cars. As the pandemic develops the number of trains is cut, from two a minute to one, to one every two minutes and on and on. The number of passengers summarily dwindles to the point where seats are regularly available on the typically stuffed express routes, and the quietest, stillest of travelers are often discovered to be quite dead – more casualties of those damnable heart attacks. As hospitals and emergency services are overcome with the sick and dying the human wreckage spills out into the street, and only too late do suspicions rise in those who might have had the power to help. This is no ordinary flu pandemic or even an extraordinary one, like the Asian flu of the latter 1950s or the Spanish flu before it. This is something else, something far more horrifying, and something perhaps of our own making…

Virus – The Day of Resurrection isn’t always Komatsu at his most elegant, rambling as it does from more relatable human passages to god’s-eye views of the billion year history of Earth and even a lengthy lecture on the failings of intellectualism, but among his works it is one of the most lasting, a consistently thought-provoking tale with ambitions well above those of the average sci-fi thriller. Virus is nothing less than a parable for the Cold War era and beyond, built around a central lesson that’s as timely now than it was in 1964. When Komatsu asked, “How did this happen, and why?” he was posing the question not just within his own fictional narrative, but to the mid-century civilization that inspired it as well. War in Southeast Asia, political assassinations, an arms race and policies of mutually assured destruction… How did this happen, and why?

The answer Virus provides is quite simple, even if the solution to the problem is not so much. Behind the germ warfare labs, the politics of nuclear exchange, and the madmen with their fingers on the button is a baser failing of the species as a whole – a failure of imagination, of reason against the unreasonable, that has left war to ferment instead of peace and allowed the perversion science towards destructive ends. In Virus it’s a failing that haunts the few thousand Antarctic survivors long after the rest of humanity is dead, courtesy of two bits of fully-mechanized doomsday insanity – the United States’ automatic nuclear response system and its Soviet mirror-image. When an unprecedented natural disaster (the thematic precursor to that of Komatsu’s later work, Japan Sinks) threatens to destroy an early-warning station in Alaska it leaves the last of mankind, protected from the world-killing pandemic by the virus’ weakness to extreme cold, susceptible once more to complete annihilation…

Komatsu’s Virus is still a chilling read half a century after the fact and well-deserving of classic status among apocalyptic fiction, but the most frightful thing about it is just how little things have really changed since it was written. Nations still conspire to become nuclear powers, our own stockpiles of such weapons remain, the threat of manufactured super-bugs still hangs over our heads, and there appears to actually be a doomsday machine. Hope though there may be, the day seems far-away yet that our species will finally leave behind such self-destructive principles. And so long as our pre-occupation with destroying ourselves continues, Virus will have its place.


Virus – The Day of Resurrection is out now from Haikasoru / Viz Media in a handsome hardcover edition with dust jacket, translated from the original Japanese by Daniel Huddleston. The text suffers infrequently from a handful of typographical bumps and other errors missed in editing (for example, a date of “around Showa 30” is accidentally written as 1966 instead of the correct 1956), but otherwise appears sound. Virus can be purchased from Amazon and others, both in print and digital editions, and comes highly recommended.

Right to Left: Housui Yamazaki’s Mail

Never let it be said that Housui Yamazaki doesn’t know how to grab a reader’s attention. The first frame of the esteemed illustrator’s (best known for his continuing work on Eiji Otsuka’s The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service) writing debut finds an attractive young woman sitting streamside, and tastefully in the buff no less. No worries, prudes among you. Any abjectly exploitative overtones are dropped with the next frame, when the click of a shutter reveals the photographers beyond. “Break!” is called, the shoot wraps and the model, frigid, emerges to a hot towel. It doesn’t take long, however, for something else to catch the photographers’ attention, and something far less lovely than their prior subject – a pile of well-worn human bones, unearthed by recent flooding but a few steps from the shoot and suspiciously sans head.

Still stranger things emerge when the day’s photos are developed, revealing something odd in the final image. Nestled in the scenery beyond the model is the faint shape of a childish figure, or at least what’s left of it from the shoulders down.

Where the photographers see only coincidence, a chance discovery of long-dead remains followed by a bizarre developing error, detective, medium and unconventional exorcist Reiji Akiba sees a message in need of answering – ‘mail from the afterworld’ as he calls it. Blessed with a keen investigative prowess and rare second sight, Akiba makes a strange career of rooting to the bottom of various supernatural troubles and solving them – permanently – with his sanctified sidearm Kagutsuchi (after fire kami of Shinto mythology, Honokagutsuchi). Hoping to use his unique talents to help them snag a scoop the photographers contract Akiba for a head-hunting expedition, but get more than they bargained for when the search leads them into the wine cellar of a collector with an especially troubling taste…

So goes Housui Yamazaki’s Mail, a too-short three volume collection of independent shorts that’s no less delicious for the consistency of its formula. Yamazaki’s tales are good old-fashioned spooks with a distinctly modern sensibility, and take the time to build real thrills and chills before their ultra-hip take on the classic exorcism inevitably takes center stage. While the action may be predictable I found the details of the individual stories to be anything but, from the nefarious circumstances that keep a little white Toyota’s trunk eternally shut to the deep dark secrets of that aforementioned wine cellar. Yamazaki’s writing generates the same terrific gets-under-your-skin feel as the hearsay creep-outs we heard in grade school, and so gleefully shared in hushed voices in the years before banal gossip took precedent. It’s the sort of stuff we knew was ridiculous even then, but still believed just might be true for fear of what might happen if we didn’t.

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For me Mail offers the very best kind of horror, that of the pure spine-tingling variety that isn’t found nearly enough in popular media these days, and as a downtown city-dweller Yamazaki’s exacting translation of said horror onto an urban landscape only doubles the appeal. His Hide and Seek, in which a young woman runs afoul of some of the lesser-known pitfalls of renting at below-market prices, proved particularly engrossing, if only for its keen twisting of the details of the renting life. Who would ever have thought that anonymous mailings and noisy neighbors might be hints that something demoniacal is afoot? The tale’s grimly comic conclusion was enough (along with my building’s strict NO NAILS policy) to leave me wondering just what lies within my own apartment’s walls. As Akiba remarks in his introduction, “It’s amazing how many people forget to check inside the walls…”

Of course where there’s horror, humor is never far behind, and Mail proves its author to be more than fluent in both. Yamazaki braces his urban legends and campfire tales with witty, often bleak observations and occasionally even outright jokes. “He said he was a medium?” quips a man in the first tale, reacting to a sleeping Akiba. “I think they gave us small instead.” It’s a delicate balance to maintain for material like this, with one extreme leading to dull sincerity, the other to loathsome self-parody. Yamazaki toes the line expertly, and keeps the entertainment potential of his little supernatural vignettes at sky-high levels – Mail is a hell of a fun read.

I made the mistake of picking up only the first volume of Mail, expecting to test the waters, so to speak, and tread (spend?) more deeply only if need be. Well, need be. Less than an hour after flipping open the first volume I was helplessly hooked, with no recourse but to order the other two volumes in the series, and sit… and wait. It seems that when it comes to ghosts the Japanese still do it better than just about anyone else. Yamazaki’s take on the tired topics of paranormal investigation and exorcism are refreshing to say the least, and his formula proved irresistible to my taste. More like this, please!


Mail was originally published by Kadokawa Shoten in 2004, and picked up for domestic distribution by Dark Horse Comics in 2006. All three volumes are still in print and readily available through Amazon.com and others. Digital editions are also available directly from Dark Horse.

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Right to Left: Shingeki no Kyojin / Attack on Titan

SNKAOTcoverI first published this article in June of 2011, and Kodansha has since begun offering official translations of the series in the US. The first three volumes are now available through Amazon and others, with more on the way in 2013.

From the city stomping of Godzilla and friends to the flatly apocalyptic scenarios of The Last War, Vampire Gokemidoro, Virus and beyond, the Japanese appetite for fictitious destruction on a near cosmic scale is insatiable. It’s a fact that’s unsurprising given that disasters of untold magnitude (from the aftermath of WWII to the omnipresent threat of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis) are as much a part of the country’s national identity as cherry blossoms and kimonos. I suppose that it’s likewise unsurprising to find, in the shadow of nuclear crisis and one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history, that Hajime Isayama’s bleak manga debut Shingeki no Kyojin (literally Advance of the Giants, and subtitled Attack on Titan) has become such a smash success.

I have to admit that while I’ve certainly been aware of the medium, I’d never actually read a manga, nor had I wanted to, until word of Isayama’s bestseller came my way, and the reasons for my interest are as transparent as can be. Shingeki no Kyojin, which concerns the last remnants of humanity and their fight for survival against an army of man-eating giants, just sounded neat, and the series’ status as a bestseller (its four volumes have sold more than 4.5 million copies in Japan to date) certainly helped its case. I never imagined that the story, or the manner with which it was presented, could ever be so engrossing, but so it was that I blazed through the first two volumes in a single pulse-pounding evening. Color me hooked.

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Shingeki no Kyojin reminds, and favorably, of John Christopher’s Tripods saga, in which mankind has grown complacent under alien rule after being blasted into the pre-industrial age. Kyojin follows a similarly complacent community, a multi-level fortification whose towering fifty-meter walls have protected the last vestiges of humanity for a hundred years – long enough for most of those within to forget the horrors lurking just beyond. Within the first wall dwells protagonist Eren Jaeger, who longs to put an end to the giants and reclaim the world beyond, and his adopted sister Mikasa, who just wants to keep her hot-headed brother from getting into too much trouble. On the day Eren decides to apply for the scouting division of humanity’s armed forces, disaster strikes – a spectacularly gargantuan giant appears, breaching the first wall of the compound and leaving the citizens within suddenly vulnerable to the advancing giant hordes


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To spoil any more of the story would be a shame, and that’s as much as you’ll hear of its specifics from me. Shingeki no Kyojin, with all its thrills and chills, deserves to be experienced firsthand. As for the latter, Hajime Isayama’s freshman effort is unexpectedly horrifying, with the author shying in neither artwork nor writing from exploring his ghastly premise’s unavoidable eventualities. The scares here are of the sort that tickle the reptile depths of the mind, bringing us face to face with the horror of being bodily consumed.

Isayama’s titans are reminiscent of the ubiquitous flesh-eating zombie, and in more than just their dreadful appetite. The towering creatures certainly appear human, save for their lack of sexual organs, and their regenerative properties make them invulnerable to most attacks, leaving our human armies with only a few weak spots to target (a modification on the classic ‘aim for the brain’). That said, the giants are also more sentient than the run-of-the-mill undead, and the awfulness of their acts is compounded by their motivation – they don’t need to eat people, but they choose to, relishing in the slaughter of those small things that so closely resemble themselves. The creepiest images of the story are those showing the look of satisfaction on the titan’s faces, their toothy grimaces stretched into fiendish smiles.

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Shingeki no Kyojin presents the classic idea of the strong against the weak, and the big against the small, in the starkest of possible ways, with the weak remnants of mankind forced into a fight for survival against a race that is every bit our superior in strength and stature. Isayama’s writing suffers from a few freshman blunders, from plot elements that are too obvious to characterizations that are too generic, but survives relatively unscathed thanks to a keen sense of pacing and a strong ‘us against them’ premise that’s calculated to have you rooting for your fellow man as you rarely have before. His artwork is as crude as it is direct – this is clearly an artist still finding his strengths and working through his weaknesses – but retains a visceral effectiveness throughout, plunging readers deep into Kyojin‘s world of uneasy peace and lurking horrors. It’s a hell of a place to be.

Since I first published this article in June of last year Japanese publisher Kodansha have begun releasing the series in a domestic English translation, a good thing indeed given the barriers of cost and language that come with importing. Copies of the early volumes are readily available from Amazon and others. As for the series itself, what else is there to say? Isayama has crafted one of the more satisfying reads in my recent memory and made a manga convert of me in the process (no small task, I assure you).  This is must-read material as far as I’m concerned, and comes highly recommended.

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The Bert I. Gordon Book Club: Empire of the Ants

“To your greater glory, Queen Mother.
That the whole jungle may know, Queen Mother.
Queen Mother, we have only just begun…”

So go the ants in this peculiar film novelization, a more-or-less faithful narrative adaptation of John Turley’s more-or-less unfaithful screenplay for Bert I. Gordon’s lovably dreadful 1977 H. G. Wells adaptation Empire of the Ants. Yes, you read that correctly. Penned by Lindsay West (seemingly an unknown save for this) and published by Ace Books to coincide with American International Pictures’ theatrical release, this is in fact a book-length take on the screenplay for a low-budget monster film based loosely on a short story by sci-fi pioneer Wells from some 70 years earlier. It’s a convoluted lineage to be sure, even by movie tie-in standards, and an amusing example of the lengths to which studios will go to put asses in the seats – even for something so marginal as a late career Bert I. Gordon picture. While I believe we’d all like to think things have improved in the decades since, they really haven’t. Forget the absurdity of Battleship: The Movie. How about Battleship: The Book?

It’s worth noting that, just like the film, similarities between West’s Empire of the Ants and Wells’ original story are more coincidental than substantive, amounting essentially to the presence of ants, people, boats, and a river in each, which leaves at least some room for justification for the later book’s existence. It’s something, eh?

“Mary Lawson’s head lay on the ground like some obscene fragment of an ancient ritual object hacked out of stone by a demon-crazed sculptor. The eye sockets were empty hollow. Her skull gaped through the blood-caked, torn-away flesh…”

Aside from some slight deviation in the details of events and a juicier approach to the frequent ant violence (example above) West’s Empire of the Ants sticks well to the story as it is presented in the finished film: A real estate con-artist lures a gaggle of easy marks to a nowhere development in rural Florida with every intention of bilking them for every cent they have, but runs afoul of a horde of giant man-eating mutant ants in the process. Lots of poorly-introduced characters die, all horribly, and the handful of survivors are routed through the Florida backwoods to a sugar-rich farming community whose local council has gone a little… buggy.

It’s not art, not by a long shot, but for his part (or is it her part?) West approaches the material with wry cynicism and a welcome humor. “Ants do not read,” begins the first chapter, a bland entomology mini-lecture in the film, which continues in the text: “This pronunciamento doesn’t exactly come as a shocker, right? Who expects to see an ant curled up with a good book?” It makes for quite a shift in tone compared to the dull sincerity with which the same material is tackled in the film, a shift that makes the book an easier read then the film is a watch. Gordon’s almost compulsive fondness for combination monster-vision shots and shock cues, a consistent fixture of his filmmaking style since 1957’s The Cyclops at least, gets a proper (and oddball) literary update as well. Gone are the film’s plentiful voyeuristic bug-vision interruptions, replaced with, of all things, talking ants (To thy greater glory, Queen Mother!). It’s enough, taken in total with West’s colorful style, to keep his Empire of the Ants a fun and digestible time-waster, and thus a much better read than it really has any right to be.

“The homicidal colossus howled out its final agony and stiffened in a grotesque death pose. What once had lived was now a bent and broken cylinder of flickering char, like a frankfurter left unattended on a suburban cook-out fire…”

First published in July 1977, like most movie tie-in publications West’s Empire of the Ants hasn’t seen the light of day since, but don’t let that keep you from seeking it out if you’re interested. In this case “out of print” hardly translates to a hot commodity, and West’s Empire of the Ants can be had for a few bucks or less through Amazon third parties. Meanwhile the Wells original has long-since lapsed into the public domain, and is readily available for free in this kindle collection and elsewhere.

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