Friday, January 30, 2015

World War Skeleton

Skeletons by Al Sarrantonio (1992): This wild, woolly, and marvelously imaginative novel takes the bare bones of the standard zombie epidemic narrative and makes them new. I've always viewed Al Sarrantonio as being a much more gifted writer of short stories than novels, but this dark fantasy novel is a real treat.

One day, all the dead on Earth rise from their graves. But they do so as skeletons held together by some inexplicable, translucent force field that resembles what they looked like (and what they were wearing!) when they died. Even if they died 3000 years ago. Even if they were dinosaurs.

And the skeletons possess their old personalities with one key difference: they're possessed of an almost-irresistable urge to kill the living. When the living die, their dead flesh vanishes and they, too, become Angry-Ass skeletons. It's the new circle of life! The skeletons can be killed, at which point they disintegrate into dust. But there are a lot of them. There are even insect skeletons. Ha ha whee!

With four first-person narratives telling the tale, Skeletons anticipates Max Brooks' multi-viewpoint World War Z in its structure to an extent, though certainly not in tone or content. We may start off with an apocalyptic war between the Living and the Dead, but the narrative soon starts building another narrative within that: a mythoreligious tale of a world periodically cleansed by a flood... of skeletons. It appears that God may have hit the reset button for humanity (not to mention most other species that aren't lucky enough to be plants). And not for the first time.

Sarrantonio's myth-building is faithful to the often unpleasant ramifications of myth and legend. There's a critique here of vengeful gods and chosen ones, of religious fanaticism and stories that reduce women to super-wombs. But that critique exists within a novel that scrupulously follows the ethos it creates to its logical end.

Though there's still room for a comical gorilla, a faithful wolf, and a drugged-out music promoter who somehow finds himself still human and stuck in the middle of things as the apocalypse heads to its end. Apocalypse, meaning 'the unveiling.' What's more unveiled than a person's naked skeleton?

And one first-person narrative consists of Skeleton Abraham Lincoln's story in the New World Order. Sarrantonio anticipates all those comic horror novels involving famous people, famous literary works, and newly added monsters. Though in this case, he's Abraham Lincoln, Human Hunter. It's a swell, bracingly comic novel. Highly recommended.

2 comments:

  1. Good to know! I bought a copy of this recently only because it was in like-new condition and I recognized the author's name. Sounds like a blast.

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    1. Yeah, I was pleasantly surprised. I like Sarrantonio's short stories (the best collection being TOYBOX, I believe), and apparently I liked his 999 anthology way more than a lot of other people, but the other novel I read by him (Halloweenland or something similar) seemed a bit of an undercooked mess.

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