Monster Trilogy by Wellington, David, 2006

Monster Trilogy by Wellington, David - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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By now even those of you who only vaguely pay attention to me should know at least that I like zombie stories, although to be perfectly honest I think its best stated by mentioning that I have a debilitating weakness for zombie lore. I just cannot pass the stuff up in the store, so I have a big shelf of DVD's and movies way up high, so my young'uns do not find them and get completely freaked out. Now, I may be a complete sucker for any zombie story, and I may own everything that is available out there, but I do have a critical eye towards the stuff. In other words, I will happily tell you what is junk and what is not. In the subgenre of zombie tales, there is a lot of junk out there. For a long time there were a lot of movies and books published that did nothing but deliver a copy of what came before, only grosser. But since the 1990's there has been a huge upswing in interest in these kinds of stories, and some bigger brains with fresher ideas have taken a crack at adding something to our collective zombie myth. Movies like 28 Days Later and books like World War Z have remade the zombie tale from an exercise in disgust to a metaphor for the common man and the pathetic nature of our actual everyday existence. I have no real idea why this was done, though I suspect that like much of the madness that has plagued our society since the early 1990's it had something to do with the approach of the year 2000 and our ingrained fear of that number as a final one. Actually, I think that is generally why we have seen such an upswing in interest in apocalypse stories of all types recently. But zombie apocalypse stories have one integral attribute that other apocalypse stories do not. In, for instance, a nuclear war story there may be a post apocalypse side of the tale where the author tells you what happens to survivors, but zombie stories do one better than that. In addition to giving a good survivor story, a good zombie tale tells you something about life after death too. Granted, itís usually a story straight out of the ninth circle of Hell, but like it or not, that element is always there, even if it is just a tickle in the back of your mind.

These days in order to make a blip at all on the critical radar a zombie story must do one of two things: It must either add in missing elements of the hypothetical "complete" zombie story, or it has to twist zombie lore in some important way, just to see what happens. The Byole film 28 Days Later did the latter; it posited that zombies could arise as the result of medical experiments that were designed to distill the emotion of rage. The zombies were not there to feast on your brains per se. They did that because they needed to survive, but their primary motivation was to kill you merely because your existence pissed them off royally. Kirkman in his Walking Dead series of graphic novels has given a pure survival story. But his take is a little different because he has his eye on the long term. Consider what happens in the telling of most zombie stories. If itís a movie, the world is saved in ninety minutes, and if itís a book, the world is either saved or destroyed within a few hundred pages. Kirkman has elected to tell a long-term story of survival. He just published his ninth compilation and shows no sign of slowing at all. As a matter of fact, at the end of that book he introduced a character who was involved in the Human Genome Project who has said that he knows why the dead have come back to life, so even if he is lying (which I suspect he is) that story is going down the same road as 28 Days later. Max Brooks in his masterpiece World War Z did not give us too many new elements of the zombie myth: The only thing I can remember was that zombies were capable of walking across ocean beds, and that is how the zombie apocalypse spread. What he did give us in World War Z was a picture of a completely transformed society after the destruction of the zombie hoards. No longer did thing such as religious differences, or race or even lifestyle matter to people after having gone through the horror of that war, so in effect Brooks focused on the most important theme in all of SF, that of transformation.

This begs the question, what has Wellington added here with his Monster trilogy? First, he gave us some intelligent zombies called "lichs." Wellington's lichs were created almost by accident. He posited that most of the zombies lost their marbles at death because their brains had been cut off from oxygen for so long. In each of the three volumes in this trilogy Wellington introduced one lich in each book who either by mistake or by design was hooked up to a forced oxygen source and/or a dialysis machine to keep the blood moving. These lichs not only had the benefit of human level cognition, but they were also wielders of magic, for some unexplained reason. The lichs had the power to access a "network" of sorts; a network made up of the collected experience of everything that ever lived on Earth, much like the internet is made up of processors and packeted data. Lichs could communicate with each other over this network if they held a talisman of the person they wished to contact, but the network also gave each lich a unique magical power. For instance, one lich could become invisible. Another could throw blasts of forceful energy. A third strongly affected plants and fungus and wherever she went, plant matter grew wildly and uncontrollably.

Wellington also imagined that living things radiated a beautiful, golden form of living energy, while the dead radiated a black form of it. Zombies ate people to consume the energy, and even though the energy dissipated with death, the flesh still held a little. This is why the zombies ate humans, and was a critical part of the resolution of the story.

Monster Island, 2004: This was the first book written and posted on the web, though it is the second in the chronology, and the second published in book form (I think; Its kind of confusing). In it the zombie apocalypse has struck full force and there are hardly any humans alive anywhere on Earth, though in the more remote and under developed nations pockets of people do survive. Dekalb was a UN weapons inspector who lived in Kenya with his family, his Kenyan wife and their child, Sarah. When the dead started rising from their graves Dekalb and his daughter were forced to leave without his wife. They made their way to Somalia, where they were taken in by a local warlord named Mama Halima; a woman who had turned her pocket of Somalia into a place where woman would be free from circumcision and other of the more barbaric humiliations they were subjected to in that part of the world. But the warlord was HIV positive, so she strong-armed Dekalb into finding her the AZT cocktail that she would need to stay alive and protect her people. In order to guarantee Sarah the safest upbringing she was likely to find anywhere, and to guarantee that she would be educated in an Islamic school, he agreed to find her what she needed. All of the hospitals that he found in Africa had been stripped or burned, so Dekalb and a crew of two, Osman and Yusef, along with a gang of Somali school-girl warriors set sail on a tug for New York City: Dekalb had worked in the UN Secretariat before, and was aware that the medical facilities were stocked with anything and everything they could possibly want. The problem was that New York City was populated, probably, with several million ghouls. That was exactly what they encountered, but there was a twist or two.

A medical student in Brooklyn named Gary had decided that the dead, homo mortis, was the future for mankind. He also realized that the dead were shambling idiots probably because their brains were deoxygenated at death, so he went to his training hospital and stole an oxygen tank and other modern medical devices to keep his blood circulating and oxygenated, and then he took his own life. Gary woke up and almost immediately realized that he could access a "network" of the dead, through which he was contacted by a mysterious "benefactor" named Mael Mag Goh. Gary also realized that he could control the dead completely, to the point that he could order them to die and they would just fall over.

Mael was a bog mummy that was on display at the Met. He and all the other mummies who had not been debrained at death had risen, but because of the mummification process they were incorruptible and did not need to consume energy. The mummies were like a subspecies of zombie who were pretty much insane, but could survive without killing. Mael had taken mental control of all of the mummies and then tried to befriend Gary. Gary went along until he realized that Mael's purpose was to destroy all life and unlife on the Earth, including men, zombies, plants, animals: Everything. Mael claimed that a dark god, the Father of Clans, had spoken to him in the bog where he was sacrificed, and had told him that mankind was evil and that they all needed to die. When he awoke he began a campaign to realize that goal, and he hoped that Gary would help him. Gary, on the other hand, thought that he had a right to exist, and did not want to die. Dekalb had to work around all of this as well as the millions of other undead on Manhattan Island. He had to keep the girls alive, get the drugs and escape, and even help a group of 200 other survivors who they discovered in a subway station.

The most important theme in this first book probably was sacrifice. The sacrifice of Mael when he was a druid created many of the hurdles that Dekalb and the others had to get over in order to live, and the resolution of those problem, as it turned out, depended on one sacrifice or another. The additions to zombie lore in this book had mostly to do with the intelligent lichs. Mael was the most powerful of the mummies, supposedly because he had been touched by his god, but he identified two lichs in addition to Gary; a small boy in Russia who had been a vegetable for several months and was hooked up to all manner of devices at the time he died, and Nilla, a California girl who died while hooked up to a lead at an oxygen bar in L.A.

Now before you begin thinking that all of this is the equivalent of midget porn, take a second breath and hear me out. Yes, Wellington's characters lacked the proper motivations and were a bit thinly drawn. Wellington never really bothered to explain to us how Gary, a rational person who was otherwise self absorbed to a fault, could ever come to the conclusion that becoming a lich would be preferable to staying human. I think it would have been easy enough to write Gary a little more hopeless, and say that he was suicidal, but took one last shot at retaining his personality at death, just to see if it would work. Instead, Gary pretty much did it to conform. He was probably aware that unless he blew his brains out he was going to rise anyway; he had been watching the dead from his apartment and at the hospital for months. But none of this was ever explained, and because of that the literary quality of the book, which otherwise is moderately high, suffers for it. And if you are thinking that a UN weapons inspector with a team of teenage female African sharpshooters is a bit hard to swallow...Well, I am right there with you. It seemed to me that this thing was written to be easily translated to the screen, and I think that a bunch of cute girls in Catholic School uniforms will work well. Here is another example of the Wellington's visual style:

From the south came a dead woman with long black hair in a full bridal gown with a train, her hands covered in bloodstained gloves, her veil back to show us the long sharp teeth exposed by her withering lips. We would have to take our chances, I decided. We would have to gun down the bride and hope that there were no more of the dead behind her. I didn't relish meeting the rest of the wedding party.

Did I mention yet that Wellington's dark sense of humor? Despite these shortcomings, Monster Island is a fun, disgusting, action packed book that in some places actually does make you think. Certainly not about the big questions in life, but the author spent time researching the cultures of his characters, and military procedure and weaponry, for example. He also has a flair for describing New York City, which he obviously loves a great deal. Other critics savaged him for failing to describe the source of the zombie outbreak, so he went back in the second book and fixed that. But personally I do not think that this book suffers for that omission. If you are anything like me, who has read dozens of zombie books and seen hundreds of zombie movies, then you have probably already accepted the idea that sometimes zombie outbreaks just happen and try as you might, you will never figure out why.

Monster Nation, 2005: The second book in Wellington's Monster trilogy is a prequel to the first. It tells the story of a lich named Nilla, and Captain Bannerman Clark, an engineer in the U.S. Army Core of Engineers and Colorado National Guard who was one of the first responders to zombie violence. In my opinion the narrative in this book is superior to the first, right up until the end when Wellington reveals the cause of the epidemic. There is also a large cast of minor characters in this book, and like the main characters many of them are developed pretty well. Since the major critical complaints of the first book were the impossible motivations, weak character drafting, and omission of the cause of the zombie outbreak, this book feels very much like a responsive text.

Before I get into the plot I think I should say a bit more about character motivation, because it actually is a mixed bag. That is not to say that Wellington's abilities as a writer are just average, because I do not think that they are. True, in Monster Island I did have a hard time accepting that Gary would see a brighter future as an undead zombie. It is just too hard for me to believe. But there is more to consider. Motivations in this series, particularly the last two volumes, were a pretty fluid thing. Wellington's sharpest focus in these books was on the plot, and to say that he changed circumstances several times is probably understating it. To be sure, he changed circumstances so many times and so harshly that goals were frequently rendered moot. In order to stay believable his characters had to change alignments, allies, goals, everything, frequently. So much in fact that almost more than anything else the books become examples of large scale problem solving in a highly chaotic and fluid system. For me, that added to the enjoyment. It did not detract much at all. I do not think that was the case so much in the first book, and it certainly did not cure the problems noted above, but I think some of the critics are missing the boat when they said plainly that Wellington always drew motivations poorly.

Monster Nation changed the focus from Gary and Dekalb to Nilla and Clarke. The first place the zombie uprising became noticeable was in a rural Colorado, probably because the Source was somewhere in the Wyoming mountains, and Colorado was the closest densely populated area. From a heavily infected supermax prison in Colorado Clark chased the "virus" to California, where one of the prison's administrators had gone for vacation. In California he crossed paths with Nilla, who had hardly realized that she was undead herself, and could not recall anything about her past. Nilla as it turned out was one of the powerful lichs because when she died she was hooked up to a mask in an oxygen bar. Soon after reanimating Nilla discovered that she could render herself invisible, and escaped from local police who were about to put her down as one of the undead. Since she could speak and think Clark figured that she was critical to understanding what was going on. After that point the book became a chase story. But as Clarke chased Nilla, Mael urged her to walk to New York City and join him in his mission. But where Gary was a megalomaniac who was enraged by living society's rejection of him, Nilla was a empathetic pacifist who seemed to enjoy the solitary lifestyle, and had no problem avoiding everyone altogether. Ultimately Mael wore Nilla down and succeeded in pushing her to accept the lich aspects of her existence, but Nilla never lost her human sides, even after she learned how to feed her own hunger.

In the first book, Monster Island, Wellington had shown that the intelligence of the ghouls was not any lower than that of an animal. One ghoul who had eaten most of the animals in the NYC zoo had grown to gigantic size with the energy and flesh of the creatures (which also meant that the zombies metabolized flesh), and had become so protective of his feeding grounds that he took on and defeated any other zombie who had wandered in. In this second novel he told a portion of the story from the point of view of Dick, a Colorado livestock inspector who responded to a remote shepherd's complaints of disease in his herd, when he was turned by a flock of undead sheep. Dick was pretty much mindless and a slave to his hunger, but he was also capable of recognizing and responding to stimuli other than that which would satisfy his hunger. He was capable of simple emotion, and could feel irritation, anger and regret. He was capable of wondering why people and zombies did what they did, and he was even capable of asking (to himself, since he was mentally incapable of communication) the question "why?"

Wellington had me riveted to this book right up until the end when he revealed the cause of the zombie uprising. In my opinion Wellington turned too far towards fantasy and relied too much on magic, which did not appear to have a place in the world prior to the uprising. I can not fault him too much for that though; if you are going to have a zombie uprising, you have to figure out some reason for the dead to crawl out of the ground, right?

He nodded apologetically. "It's sort of like the Earth's magnetic field, except this is a biological filed. The energy, the life force, is everywhere, all the time. It's in every cell of every living thing. What you think of as the golden energy...That energy is what makes cells divide. It's what makes organisms want to reproduce. It makes DNA strands spiral around each other and it carries some of the pattern of living things. It's the force that drives evolution. Without it living things would just die. Scientists have been trying to find that energy for centuries with no success. It's too subtle. You need other methods to see it - methods scientists, including myself, generally frown upon. Once you know it's there, however, you can feel it all the time. You can touch it - and you can mold it. I liberated some of the energy from that system...Unfortunately I liberated too much. You, and the others like you, are the result. The excess energy can't just dissipate into space. It has to go somewhere. It looks for things it can animate, things with nervous systems it can flow through. Dead things.

So the Source of energy for the zombies was a scientific mistake gone too far, which somehow allowed certain zombies, those with their mental faculties, to perform magic. I get hung up on this every time I try to rationalize it. The whole idea of psi powers was too much for me to chew on, even in the context of a zombie story. Despite the hackish logical break at the end of the story, I still enjoyed the rest of the book. Unfortunately the Source was very important to the resolution of the Monster trilogy.

Monster Planet, 2005: This third and final book in the series is not as strong as the other two. Set twelve years after the occurrences in Monster Island this book tells the story of Sarah, Dekalb's daughter, and of the Russian lich boy, who called himself Tsarevich. It also tells the story of Ayaan, who was one of the survivors of Dekalb's Muslim school-girl army in Monster Island. The plot twists in this book make it virtually impossible to describe in any detail, but the story is basically about a caravan from Russia to Egypt to New Jersey, and then on foot to the Source in the Rocky Mountains of the United States. The Tsarevich had decided that he could bring peace to the world by converting everyone to zombies. Although they would live a mindless existence and essentially would be no more than slaves to the Tsarevich, not many characters in the book disagreed with him, living or undead. The living had retreated to the places that not even the undead would wander too; deep caves, nuclear material storage sites, and areas with no life at all, for example. Humanity lived in a form of squalor that it has never really known before.

Despite herself Ayaan realized that he was telling the truth - as had the green phantom. These starving, sick people were barely holding on to life by their fingernails. Their lives would be ruled by constant fear and constant death. They were literally living like animals. Ayaan knew about refugees, had been one herself, both before and after the Epidemic. She knew about famine and war and pestilence. It looked like America was learning from the African primer. If this tiny tribe joined up with the Tsarevich they would be slaves - but still their lives would improve dramatically. She remembered the Turkish prisoners she's seen on Cyprus, the ones who watched one of their own drown and then return from the dead. She thought of Dekalb, her old, long-lost friend, who had made a similarly horrible bargain. He had turned his only daughter over to a tribe of anarchic women warriors. That must have seemed like a horror at the time, but it had worked out for Sarah.

The Tsarevich promised to end their suffering and give them purpose in life by setting them to serve him and the cadre of lichs he has created since the undead uprising. Most of the cast of the prior books come back in this tale. Attitudes changed quite a bit, but in the end the Tsarevich was forced to fight two or three separate battles to get to the Source so that he can guarantee his victory.

Monster Planet was much more of a thinker than the other two books were. Both Monster Island and Monster Nation were cover to cover adventure and filled to the brim with gore and the braining of the undead. This book spent quite a bit of time on the plight of the few remaining humans. That is not to say that it was a kinder, gentler zombie tale; not at all. But it did contain significantly less carnage than the other books, and there was an empathetic focus here that quite frankly I have never really seen before in any modern zombie tale. But the biggest problem with Monster Planet was the characterization. The story centered on what the Tsarevich had in store for all of us, and not once did Wellington allow us to sit down with him and hear him out, save for one forgettable soliloquy at the end of the book. His orders and pronouncements all came from the mouths of his other lichs, so as a reader one is never really able to evaluate whether or not the plan is a lie. As it turned out the Tsarevich had good reason for staying out of sight as much as possible, but Wellington did not even give us more than a minute or two with him even in the company of his companions. This was a tragic oversight because the book would have been so much better if he had taken the time to tell the Tsarevich's story properly. Personally I also found the parts of the story that involved the Source to be a little far-fetched, but Wellington did a good job working those out-of-place elements into his narrative with a minimum of incredulity. Ultimately though the issue of the Source is a personal matter that some readers will like, despite my own personal feelings.

So what we are left with here at the end is a trilogy of books that starts out strongly, ends weakly, and is on the balance much better than middle-of-the-road. As I've stated here before, my standard for getting onto this list is something that I have or would be willing to read more than once. I found a few problems with the books, but on the whole they were interesting, loads of fun, gory and frightening, and added something to a subgenre that greatly interests me. I will probably reread them someday. The books are available on-line, as are several other works by Wellington.

Copyright © 2009, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)

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