San Francisco at the time of the American zombie apocalypse. Nick Mamatas's The Last Weekend is not only a zombie novel that actually uses the word "zombie" and acknowledges that American culture is supersaturated with these monsters, it is also chock-full of metafiction and social criticism. After all, when you learn that the dead rise up only in the United States of America, you immediately start keeping a wary eye open for possible metaphors. And they are never too far below the surface.
Our protagonist, Vasilis—Billy for Americans—Kostopolos, is a driller. This means that he has been issued an electric drill by the city and whenever somebody with a dead or dying person in the household gives him a call, he goes there to drill the brains of the deceased, so that they won't come back as mindless, ravenous monsters and try to eat/infect their families. Sometimes when he arrives, he finds that the person in question isn't dead yet. Sometimes he finds that it's a child. And the families always have a hard time letting go and accepting that Billy's job isn't about violating their loved ones but that he is there to keep everyone safe for the moment—and so that they don't have to do that sort of work themselves. It doesn't come as much of a surprise to learn that Billy is an alcoholic and accelerating down an ever-deepening abyss of severe self-loathing and depression.
In the first chapter, Billy quotes an epitaph from a local gravestone, which in the course of the novel takes on even more sinister significance:
Remember man, as you pass by,
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, so you must be;
Prepare for death, and follow me. (p. 2)
The zombie tale forms a sort of frame story, alternating with long, detailed flashbacks to Billy's time at college, majoring in English "because [he] like[s] to read" (p. 7)—to such a degree that he increasingly speaks in literary quotations, trying to sell Olivetti typewriters in anticipation of Y2K and, while hopelessly pursuing his ex-girlfriend Yvette (all the way to Boston), sliding ever deeper into self-pity and alcoholism. Genre-wise, this story is a piece of literary fiction nestled in the overall post-apocalyptic storyline, which nevertheless contributes a great deal to the bleak overall atmosphere and ironic tone of the novel. It deals with memories of personal and cultural trauma (from broken hearts to 9/11), concomitant conspiracy theories (because having somebody to blame makes things easier), and the recurring theme of the (narrator as) unsuccessful writer, which takes this book into horror fiction meta-territory (something I personally very much enjoy).
Billy's most prized possession and greatest achievement is his one and only published short story (which he wrote at school):
When it came out, I printed some copies of the check, and the story, and gave them to professors. I had a dental appointment and put a print-out in my pocket so I could use I'm a writer, I'm a writer, I'm a writer as a mantra to block out the pain while getting my teeth drilled. It almost worked. (p. 10)
This pretty much sets the tone for his future, umm, career—up to the day when his first reaction to learning about the ongoing zombie apocalypse is to break out the good bottle of whisky (p. 12). Describing his post-apocalyptic reality to his readers, he says,
I'm not above quoting Nietzsche: "What is the greatest thing a man can experience? It is the hour of great contempt." Contempt of the self, that is. The syphilitic old proto-nazi was right about that one thing. Forget guns and canned goods. Dog-eared paperbacks of Dostoyevsky, Henry Miller, Colin Wilson, these were the best survival tools or at least the best marker of a survivor. Call it anti-social Darwinism. Looters and heroes were among the first to die and die again when Canadian bombers took out whole cities to bury the reanimates. (p. 13)
What's left is a world of mindless revenants and pulpy self-publishing that we get to know in all its bleakness via characters like Thunder, who is very excited about killing zombies—until the moment she watches one getting drilled. They are too much like people, after all.
Then there is Alexa, who wants Billy to help her break into City Hall in order to solve the mystery of the revenants' origin. Theories abound—"[a]s if apocalypse were a matter of consensus" (p. 82)—but they are all equally far-fetched, right up to Billy's suggestion,
"May as well blame Cthulhu," I said finally but nobody got the joke so then I had to explain what Cthulhu was and how it wasn't a real thing or even really mythological, and how in the old days Cthulhu ran for President every four years—remember "Why vote for the lesser evil?"?—and how he and his tentacles were even put on pairs of fuzzy slippers worn exclusively by nerds. (p. 82)
And this is about as funny as it gets in near-future SF. (Please note how this sentence can be read in several ways that yield several meanings. Like a lot of the book, especially the walking dead.) Billy's real theory (and don't forget that he is our narrator, who is also ostensibly writing the book we're reading) "isn't about the reanimates, but more about the normal workaday human being. Nothing there but us little wind-up toys. [...] Are the reanimated dead inexplicable? Of course, as are the unanimated living" (p. 83).
And increasingly we notice how the living dead are not so different from Billy himself.
Alexa's plans all seem pretty illusory until, in a city of transients living day-to-day, where everyone is a squatter and thus nobody keeps spare keys, they get hold of a big bunch of keys that seem to unlock the City Hall basement. But will whatever they find there, if they find anything at all, provide answers to their questions? Will Billy ever manage to come back to life himself? And what's more, will he care to? And in the end, with San Francisco's great secret revealed, will it even make a difference if he doesn't?
Nick Mamatas is at his best here, questioning authority and dishing out severe criticism to everyone from derivative horror writers via the U.S. bureaucracy and its policies, to your common, everyday sheeple—while providing dark, noir-ish entertainment. His close relationship to San Francisco and the Bay Area feeds into his descriptions of the city and into the adventures and anecdotes shared by the characters, showing us how we're surrounded by stories and also exchanging stories with our fellow human beings on a daily basis. He also repeatedly stresses the importance of not just writing another generic zombie novel, because everyone's already read that and can probably create their own slapdash version just by sitting down at a keyboard and typing up a list of clichés:
I am, in general, not a fan of single-sentence paragraphs. Even worse are one-word paragraphs. And yet our national dilemma lends itself to the poetaster strum of that one tedious chord:
And from the darkened corner of the room, I heard an unearthly groan.
She wasn't my mother anymore.
It was all I could do to keep from holding out my arm to the nearest slavering mouth, to offer myself, to join this brave new world of the dead.
Dear Reader, I ate him.
Then Emily's body began to twitch.
You know exactly the sort of asinine bullshit I mean. The zines are full of it, as is the Internet and all the mimeographed and hot-glue-gunned "novels" that anyone can publish these days if they want to put the work into it. All the greats are dead, and that was so even before the outbreak. "Zombies" are ubiquitous these days, as overwhelming to auctorial understanding of America as was the Vietnam War or the settling of the West. The rise of the dead was so inexplicable, and yet deep down in our cultural DNA. It was so universally anticipated that it has created immense problems for American letters. (p. 12f)
So instead of all the generic zombie survival/splatter storylines, our not-so-heroic heroines and heroes get their hands on the right keys and basically waltz into the basement under City Hall, only to realise that, to appropriate a meme, you don't simply walk into a secret archive. There they find more than just the stereotypical showdown at the end of the book. They also find a roll of film entitled "living dead man—1917," which shows a civilised zombie who has been trained to speak again. Scientists warn the viewers of a future zombie outbreak, although the causes of this "disease that affects only the dead" (p. 228) remain unclear. There are a couple of allusions, however, that it may be connected with the legendary Bay Area fog, which might explain why it remained more or less a local phenomenon. And because "the public must not be allowed to panic" (p. 229), the film had been kept secret by the city of San Francisco. Which begs the question of whether this silencing had political/economic reasons (and is thus related to the denial of global warming and similar issues). The protagonists conclude that since the virus is transmitted by the walking dead, everyone who has come into contact with one of them is now a carrier and will inevitably change after their own death. Including themselves. "The reanimates are as alive as I am," the narrator finally concludes for himself. "It's just that I'm not so very alive" (p. 238). The action that eventually liberates him from his past and from all of this—America, life in the home-made apocalypse—is writing all of it down indiscriminately, turning it into a pamphlet and announcing to all the world … not "The End Is Near!", but with the uprising of the already dead and the spreading of information, "The Beginning Is Near!" (p. 243). And as he turns toward the door of his squat and the scratching noises on the other side, he tells the readers: "There's a number of solicitors standing just outside my door with a great new deal [thus linking the current crisis of capitalism to the Great Depression], and I'm ready to take it" (p. 244). And these last words finally turn the above-mentioned epitaph from a prophecy of doom to a recruitment for revolution.
So if you're looking for something that's different from your everyday zombie gorefest, if you want a zombie novel with actual brains, and a mouth that cannot be silenced, try The Last Weekend. It's killer.
Christina Scholz writes from Graz, Austria, where she is currently working on her PhD thesis on M. John Harrison’s fiction. She has published articles on science fiction, weird fiction, and superhero comics in Alluvium and on Infinite Earths as well as short stories in The Big Click, Visionarium, and Wyrd Daze. She blogs at phoenixdreaming.wordpress.com.