I have been privileged to work at ECW Press for the last 15 years. Not just because it's the leading publisher of books on television, music, and wrestling, but because have published not one, but TWO of the great Canadian zombie novels. The first was in 1998, Tony Burgess's Pontypool Changes Everything. In 2009, that novel became a zombie film by Bruce McDonald simply titled Pontypool. (And if you haven't yet seen it, DO SO.) In an age of this movie, along with The Walking Dead, the zombie genre has moved up from being silly horror slapstick to a serious, thinking fan's genre.
Last year I acquired our second zombie book, and the second time I'd worked with its author, Corey Redekop (the first was for his brilliant debut novel, Shelf Monkey). The book is called Husk, and if you buy only one zombie novel this year, make it this one. It is horrifying, laugh-out-loud hilarious, and heartbreaking.
It is the story of Sheldon Funk — Shelley to his friends — a guy who dies on a bus and who wakes up on an autopsy table, just as his organs are being removed. We have the usual animation scene — the walker sits up, moans, grabs closest attendant, breaks his arm, shambles out — but this time it's told entirely from Sheldon's point of view. He's shocked that he's lying on the table. He doesn't understand why it's so cold, why his brain just feels like it's waking up, why this man is holding a bone saw and standing a little too close to him. He's terrified and confused, and grabs the man's arm intending just to get him to back off, and doesn't realize his own strength. The sound of his new, horrifying voice rising from the depths of what's left of his stomach scares even him, and he doesn't know what to do.
Of course, the scene is also played for laughs, and there are many reaction moments in this book that will have you in stitches (no pun intended).
Sheldon is an actor, and at first he wants to cover up his new undeadness, and decides to play it cool and try to pass as human and alive at his auditions. That doesn't go well. There's this whole... hunger thing. And goddammit if his voice isn't the worst thing anyone's ever heard. In one scene he tries to control it in the most mind-over-matter way possible:
I tried again, smiling around the word this time, picturing kittens frolicking in a meadow with baby goats, dolphins performing back flips in a tranquil bay.
The sound of orphans being strangled in their cribs soaked into the walls. The goats head-butted the kittens into red mush, and the dolphins lined up to be mercury-laden breakfast treats for Chinese children.
What follows is one man's quest to find out what this new life — if that's what you can call it — is really all about. If he can just stop the smell from emanating from every inch of his body, or his voice from making people want to throw up, and if he can convince people he's really human. And that's just the first third of the book. Let's just say when they find out who he really is, the world goes apeshit, and Redekop paints a fairly plausible picture of what would happen if a member of the undead ever "came out."
The book is hilarious and Redekop never spares the gore (he seems to revel in pushing us to our limits of what we can stomach), and, as mentioned, is very poignant. For, as Sheldon lumbers out of the autopsy room at the very beginning, he can't leave his heart behind, and eventually begins stapling it to his spine to try to keep it inside of him. The rest of him is just organic, but this heart means something to him, and he doesn't want to lose it.
And if that doesn't make him human, I don't know what does.
Husk by Corey Redekop, ECW Press, ISBN 978-1-77041-032-9, $18.95 CDN/U.S.