Monday, August 25, 2014

Suburban Decay and the Zombie Insurgency

Shana Festa, Time of Death: Induction

Nursing student Emma Rossi thinks her world’s been turned upside down when she loses her first patient. But that’s nothing: when that patient awakens and attacks others, it’s the beginning of South Florida Armageddon. Soon Emma, her husband Jake, and dog Daphne find themselves manning the barricades against advancing hordes of rotting flesh. Turns out, the zombie invasion smells really, really bad in Gulf Coast humidity.

In reviewing this book, I must immediately acknowledge: it isn’t for me. I’m not Shana Festa’s target audience. I’m the analytical Puritan focused on issues like zombie epidemiology. C’mon, folks, this ain’t Captain Tripps moving silently on sneeze vapors; since zombies are loud, violent, and must physically contact victims to spread contagion, wouldn’t infection move according to geometric patterns? I’m constantly three pages behind Festa, scrutinizing something she wrote previously.

Festa, rather, lavishes in sensory detail and psychological dislocation. Her story, like the best Zombie Apocalypse fiction, invests normal situations with dark implications. Emma’s transition from nurse and suburban wife to guerrilla insurgent reveals the lingering savagery repressed under society’s learned limitations. Festa combines chase horror, family drama, military action, and gallows comedy into a remarkably engaging, stomach-churning tale… for the correct audience.

Following a brief explanatory prologue and some snapshots of domestic bliss, Festa plunges readers into a world bereft of common expectations. Emma, our first-person narrator, and her family face a zombie epidemic that coincidentally hits during a hurricane, meaning literary critics can butter their bread with Festa’s symbolism. Humanity, apparently taking nature’s cue, turns on itself, eating that which it has created. The Rossis abandon everything they know and run.

One suspects Festa injects herself into the story. Emma lives in Festa’s Florida hometown, is training for Festa’s job (registered nurse), and even has Festa’s dog. As Emma flees into Cape Coral’s spaghetti-like suburban streets, struggling to survive both weather and humanity’s devolutionary turn, her fears quickly become our fears. Who hasn’t gotten lost amid cul-de-sacs, wondering whether humanity will die finding its way out of our interchangeable built environment?

The popularity of zombie fiction isn’t as straightforward as Clinton-era vampire mania. I’ve often wondered why zombies enthrall America’s current imagination. Shana Festa clarifies it: we fear we’ve become undead ourselves, shambling through lives we didn’t create, reduced to creatures of mere appetite. We must resist, but one touch spreads the contagion. No wonder zombie mania has, ahem, heated up just as global warming has become imminent and inarguable.

How blatant Festa meant that message, we could debate. Surely it cannot be coincidental that one of her most horrifically affecting images features the Rossis crashing into a car sporting a “Baby On Board” placard. Investigating further, they find a zombie mama consuming her own infant. Festa’s best images, rife with sensory detail, feature such violent disruptions of ordinariness. Zombies don’t just kill; they shatter our market-tested illusions of stability.

I wish Festa had lingered over certain concepts longer. Early chapters imply the Stephen King School of Domestic Horror, the aesthetic that family and community have potential for shocking dread. Y’know, how Jack Torrance terrorizes his family, or how Margaret White’s controlling intolerance nurtures Carrie’s resentment. We get something similar here when an infection begins with the youngest daughter, then eats its way backward up the family tree.

However, by the one-third mark, Festa largely abandons this premise, favoring the survivors’ resistance movement over the initial upheaval. She doesn’t treat it badly, just briefly. Though critics disparage Stephen King’s wordiness, admit it, his domestic dramas wouldn’t feel nearly so horrifying if he didn’t linger over the details. Herein, protagonist Emma shoots her best friend, while a previously polite, bookish teen turns carnivorous, but once they’re over, they’re over.

But that’s my priggishly analytical side intruding again. Festa’s best work—and it’s remarkably good—happens in the present, not in maundering reminiscence nor impending dread. In her longest section, survivors re-enact the Siege of Rorke’s Drift in a suburban big-box discount store. Festa details the indignity of life without amenities, privacy, or imminent rescue, so thoroughly, I can imagine serving “toilet duty” while the soulless clamor outside the walls.

Shana Festa rewards active, engaged readers, but not over-analytical ones. She favors moments of shock and revulsion over creeping Lovecraftian dread, reflecting her extreme brevity: the story itself barely cracks 160 pages. Dedicated readers could devour this book in one rainy Saturday, but Festa’s grim, episodic, often surprisingly funny images will linger longer. She doesn’t transform popular zombie literature, but she certainly advances it.

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