Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Forget the candy—this was my Halloween treat!

The Zombies of Lake Woebegotten
by Harrison Geillor

I don’t remember when I’ve laughed as loud and as long as I did over the cover copy of The Zombies of Lake Woebegotten by Harrison Geillor. The concept is genius, and the fake blurbs are hysterical. At this point, I should probably admit that I’m not a fan of Prairie Home Companion, zombies, or literary mash-ups, making this book an unlikely choice for me. What can I say? I judged this book by its cover.

And that turned out to be a not-entirely-accurate way to judge the interior contents. As I mentioned, the cover copy was laugh-out-loud funny and just a bit stupid. Based on that first impression, I have to say that the book was all-around better-written, better-plotted, and a lot less stupid than I expected. Also, the humor was different. It was funny and satirical, but less “in your face” than I expected.

The plot is easy to summarize. In fact, one character does just that, “The situation is this. The dead have come back to life, and they’re dangerous. Just like in some kind of horror movie or video game. When the corpses rise, there’s nothing human left in them, as far as I can tell, just a terrible hunger.” Lake Woebegotten does not exist in a pop-culture vacuum. Another character has taken a course in “The Zombie as Metaphor.” He kept up a running dialog throughout along the lines of, “It seems to me we’re dealing with the classic George Romero Night of the Living Dead sort of zombies, just straight-up reanimated corpses hungry for human flesh, probably brought to life by some form of cosmic radiation. You heard about the meteor shower last night, right? Who knows what came flying down from space?”

Oddly enough, this book reminded me a lot of Stephen King’s recent doorstop, Under the Dome. Both stories are basically a look at an entire small town full of people coping with a dangerous and otherworldly stressor. The town is made up of individuals with secrets, hidden agendas, and various strengths and weaknesses. It’s a perfect setting for drama and (as even Mr. King knows) comedy. As in, “Julie’s eyes had a strange light to them, and Otto wondered about her past, who she was, really, where she’d gone when she left town, why she’d come back….” Or, “Eileen hadn’t exactly developed a taste for blood, like some kind of tiger that eats one little Javanese boy and can’t abide the taste of anything by sweet, sweet manflesh after that, but she’d discovered she could kill both deliberately and in the heat of the moment if the job needed doing.”

The novel is structured in three parts, and here’s a great example of the pseudonymous author taking a more sophisticated and interesting approach to telling the story. The middle section is entitled, “Twenty-some Odd Scenes from the Winter, in No Particular Order, Certainly Not Chronological.” And that, of course, is exactly what it is. But by presenting these short chapters jumbled and out of order, he does a great job of creating narrative tension. It was this section that bumped the book up to 5 stars for me.

The one area that may disappoint is if you’re looking for some real scares. I’m widely-acknowledged to be huge scaredy-cat, but not even I had a moment’s fright over these zombies. And that’s the way I like it. But I laughed a lot, and got a fast, fun story with a perfect ending. My determination to stay far, far away from Minnesota is firmly reinforced.

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