Nursing Home Zombies

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A review of Matthew Johnson’s “The Afflicted” in Irregular Verbs and Other Stories (ChiZine Publications, 2014).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Matthew Johnson’s “The Afflicted” levels a critique at older adult care facilities and the general social desire to make the elderly invisible. Johnson highlights the way that we tend to hide older adults away in care facilities that are largely there so that we can hide from the spectre of age. Yet, his elderly population refuse to submit to erasure. Instead, they act boldly, making the threat of age literal by turning them into zombie-like cannibalistic figures. 

The first signs of The Affliction are whitening of the hair, memory loss, and some disorientation. The Affliction then proceeds to make the afflicted violent, inspiring them to hunt other human beings and bite their flesh. 

The Afflicted have all been taken out of nursing homes and placed in locked, gated facilities deep in the woods where no one can see them or visit their elderly family members or friends there. These facilities are believed to be better for those who are likely to eventually become End Stagers – the final stage of The Affliction when the person loses all identity and becomes a ravenous feeding machine. 

It is revealed in the story that The Affliction came from out of the nursing homes, that it originated in these facilities, which allows Johnson to comment on the type of care that is received by the elderly in older adult care facilities. These facilities (before the outbreak) were largely run by machines, limiting human contact between residents and the outside world. Each facility only had one nurse on staff. This lack of contact relates to The Affliction since Kate, the nurse at the facility that The Afflicted takes place in, notes that generally older adults who have regular contact with family and friends don’t go End Stage as early and are able to resist some of the dehumanizing effects of The Affliction. Johnson emphasizes the need for human contact for the elderly and the health benefits of regular contact with family members.

Johnson’s “The Afflicted” brings attention to the way we, as a society, dehumanize the elderly. We turn them into our social fears of death and aging and erase them by placing them in facilities where we don’t have to see them. Johnson powerfully challenges our preconceptions about aging and forces readers to confront the spectre of age and invites readers to question their own assumptions about aging. “The Afflicted” is a powerful reminder of what is forgotten – the people left behind.
  

To find out more about Irregular Verbs and Other Stories, visit ChZine Publications’ website at http://chizinepub.com/books/irregular-verbs

The Ad Astra Experience: A Reflection on Ad Astra 2015

By Derek Newman-Stille

As an educator who engages in fandom, I see fandom as a teaching space, by which I mean it is a space for developing new ways of looking at the world. Ad Astra is nominally a Canadian SF writer’s conference, but there is some magic in the slippages between writer and fan, and in my case between academic, writer, and fan. 

I wanted to be on as many panels as possible because I feel that as an academic I have a duty to share knowledge and experience wherever possible. So, being on panels allowed me the space to share some of my ideas and to learn from the ideas and perspectives of others. Having said this, many of the most informative and educational experiences happen between panels, in those random hallway conversations and in breakfasts, lunches, and dinners with fascinating people.

I was on 8 panels this year: “The Classics – In Space and Beyond!”, “The Beldam, the Hag, and the Hedgewitch: Witches in Popular Culture”, “Podcasts Killed the Radio Star”, “The Pleasure and Pain of Teaching Literature”, “Ghosts in Popular Culture: From Casper to Ghost Whisperer”, “Zombies as Dressing: How Society Returns in a Zombie-Infested World”, “Superheroes: From the Printed Page to the Silver Screen”, and “Intersections Between SF and Contemporary Issues”. I had the opportunity to talk to a wide variety of people from diverse backgrounds and interests and was fortunate  enough to share the experience with brilliant, wonderful panelists who varied from performance artists to authors to academics and, of course, fans. I was impressed by the incredible amount of enthusiasm and passion from all of the people involved, and I think this is the particular magic that comes from a mingling of people who come from varied perspectives to bring their delight and sense of wonder to this collective space.

“The Classics – In Space in Beyond!” in addition to having an amazing title and an exclamation mark (letting us know that we were DEFINITELY in for excitement) allowed for an exciting place for exploring something that I love to explore: adaptation. Texts can shift and change with time and with the interests of people, and this panel explored the notion of a “classic” text and how these classics could become platforms for changes that allow them to shift to include new ideas while maintaining their core, or become spaces where under-represented people can insert their voice or ideas. I have probably talked about this before, but I see fan fiction as an exciting potential space for playing with texts, for shifting them, changing them and asserting new ways of looking at them (as well as allowing for fan agency) and I see a lot of the adaptations of the classics as forms of fan fiction, explorations of new elements of texts and creative engagements. As a panel made up of performance artists, authors, and instructors of literature, we were able to explore the possibilities of investing new energies and new insights into classical texts through adaptation and also the potential dangers in adaptation.

For me, the real magic of the panel “The Bedlam, the Hag, and the Hedgewitch: Witches in Popular Culture” was the exploration of the power of books that feature witchcraft for empowering young people. Often these books feature young people who begin in a situation of powerlessness and gradually are able to shift their circumstances through magic. The wonder of this is that it illustrates to young people that they DO have magic, that they have an ability to change their world by words – not spells, but another form of words, those on the page. They learn that by reading and writing there is a power to challenge assumptions and to change the way we view our world. This type of power results in things like the Harry Potter Alliance, a group that began as a fan group for Harry Potter and changed into a group that takes the Harry Potter texts and uses them to change the world by empowering young people, encouraging them to help get books to those who can’t afford them, and generally by challenging the cultural assumption that young people can’t change their world. This is a special kind of magic – that of empowerment.

The beauty of the “Podcasts Killed the Radio Star” panel was the excitement of the audience, and, particularly, their desire to engage in those communication spaces that allowed for their voices to be shared with the world around them. Many of the attendees were interested in sharing their perspectives, their interests, and their understanding of speculative genres. This excitement underscores why i began blogging, podcasting, and running my own radio show – to provide a space for people to share their voices and their perspectives about the genre that they feel so passionate about and to encourage people to think about and interrogate the works they are reading. 

“The Pleasure and Pain of Teaching Literature” blended a critique of the embedded ‘traditional’ ways that literature is often taught (which are often assumed to be the only ways of engaging with the process of teaching) with new ideas for approaching the process of teaching students about literature. We examined the idea of ‘pedagogy’ (teaching) itself and looked at what this means for our engagements with literature: what do we consider ‘teaching’?, what does teaching inside the classroom look like?, and, of course, my favourite question – how do we extend teaching literature beyond the walls of the classroom. I think that this last question occupied a lot of our time and concentration because many of us engage in the idea of teaching in diverse ways: through providing a space for students to think about how literature and life outside of the book interact with one another, through looking at literature as a medium of empowerment, through encouraging students to think critically about the texts in their lives, and through making ourselves figures who look for learning opportunities outside the classroom.

“Ghosts in Popular Culture: From Casper to Ghost Whisperer” extended the idea of hauntings to encompass an idea of the haunted, spectral space itself. We looked at traditional ghost narratives and how they develop to express cultural issues, representing sort of a cultural icon of our particular cultural preoccupations. Ghosts tie in with the subconscious and represent those things that we deny in our culture, the things that haunt us. We looked at the relationship of ghosts to the texts that they are presented in, whether through the descriptive power of literature or the CGI of film and television, and explored the diversity of ghost narratives and the idea that ghosts are presented in diverse ways in our cultural media to present diverse issues and understandings. Ghosts, as figures who represent that barrier between life and death, become figures who are surrounded by questions and come to embody the idea of questioning ideas themselves. It turns out that the “boo” of the ghost is actually an existential question. 

Of course, right after the ghosts panel, I was able to stay in that space of the undead for “Zombies as Dressing: How Society Returns in a Zombie-Infested World” and have a chance to explore the figure of the zombie with two authors of zombie fiction and a costumer. We looked at the changes in the zombie narrative and the current diversity of narratives, while being aware that the zombie narrative in recent years has tended to be inclined toward the infected zombie (the zombie virus). The zombie narrative has been able to shift and change to express the fears, anxieties, and even desires that we have as a society… though when I talked about Claude Lalumiere’s descriptions of wiggling maggots in zombie kisses there were gags around the room (it is always awkward to talk about zombie romance before lunch). We also took the zombie beyond the page and film by talking about how people have used the image of the zombie to make cultural commentaries – through dressing as zombies to protest educational reforms to the CDC’s use of the zombie narrative to create a pandemic preparedness guide. The panel’s exploration was staggering… or maybe shambling… 

“Superheroes: From the Printed Page to the Silver Screen” allowed panelists to explore the shifts and changes that are perpetually happening in the superhero genre as well as the potentials and dangers in the transition from comics to film. The superhero was exposed to the Kryptonite of critique and through that process, like Star Labs, we were able to look at the superhero through new lenses and then turn that lens on the society that creates and needs its superheroes. We looked at the social conditions that make superhero narratives desirable and the changing social conditions that mean that we need to shift and change our superheroes to become representative and dynamic figures. We looked at the different possibilities that the comic book or film media represent and the way that these different media change the figure of the superhero and, by necessity, focus on different issues, needs, and desires. At the end, we were even able to sneak in a little discussion about ‘the gutter’ (the white space between the panels of a comic book) and the incredible creative work and insights that happen in the comic book when the audience has to fill in the narrative between panels. 

One of the highlights of the con for me was the final panel I was on, “Intersections Between SF and Contemporary Issues”, because we explored a particular type of fantasy that is generally considered absolutely the most “real” thing possible, and that is “normalcy”. We looked at the potential that the speculative genres have for illustrating that “normalcy” is itself a fiction, something created to embed certain groups in power and to suggest that other groups don’t have worth or value. This clearly hit home for some of the audience members because one member expressed his issues with the notion of changing SF to be inclusive. He told us that we were too disparaging of past SF that portrayed a white, straight, able-bodied male hegemony and expressed his concerns that if SF and other social media changed that he and other straight, white, able-bodied men would “become a minority”. I think this itself illustrates the power of SF to challenge those power structures and to illustrate that the structures that keep groups like straight, white, able-bodied men in power are themselves quite weak and that questions posed by minority groups can destabilize those structures, open new possibilities and fundamentally point out the insecurity surrounding the structures that situate one group as “normal” and therefore naturalize their power when in fact it is as constructed as any fantasy story.

Ad Astra would not have been such an amazing experience if it weren’t for the incredible insights, passions, and interest of the fans. I am so thankful for all of you fans who asked brilliant questions and brought up new ways of looking at the material. I am also extremely thankful for brilliant co-panelists and the co-panelists for these panels included people like Kate Storey, David Lamb, James Bambury, Gail Z Martin, Karen Dales, Gregory Wilson, Kari Maaren, Robert Boyczuk, Douglas Cockell, Erik Buchanan, Alisse Lee Goldenberg, Chris Warrilow,  Peter Prellwitz Dennis Lee, Derek Kunsken, Max Turner, Adam Shaftoe, Cathy Hird, and Charlotte Ashley. Authors, academics, musicians, biologists, podcasters, costume designers, a Wiccan priestess, fans, and a whole lot of people who blended these roles… this complicated mix of panelists made for some amazing interactions and really incredible discussions. 

I want to particularly thank Angela Keeley for all of her hard work at Ad Astra this year. She was both a great resource to presenters and her enthusiasm and interest in the topics of the con really encouraged presenters to be similarly excited, energetic, and engaged in their panels. 

I have to say that my favourite overheard line from the con was “Watch out: things tend to get derailed by the Klingon in the room”. I would imagine that unlike “the elephant in the room”, the Klingon in the room makes him or herself heard.

To discover more about Ad Astra, visit their website at http://www.ad-astra.org 

Only More Death on the Horizon

A review of Tony Burgess’ The n-Body Problem (ChiZine Publications, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of The n-Body Problem courtesy of ChiZine Publications

Cover photo of The n-Body Problem courtesy of ChiZine Publications

Tony Burgess’ The n-Body Problem is a pharmacological journey through the zombie apocalypse, and a discourse on the collective social habit of avoiding one’s problems. The n-Body Problem explores a world where people keep moving after death, not threateningly or aggressively, but moving nonetheless evoking the question of whether they are alive, what constitutes death, and the bigger problem of what to do with so many moving bodies. WasteCorp, a waste disposal company proposes the idea of launching the living dead into orbit, suspending them in the atmosphere until they burn off as layers of fire, and they are able to do good enough PR work to convince people that this is an almost romantic way to go. The only problem is that the sky is greyed by the network of dead bodies around the Earth and it is creating health issues for the people alive on the planet – both from lack of exposure to the sunlight and from the depression that comes from seeing a network of the dead around their planet every time they raise their eyes. It is a zombie apocalypse filled with threat, but not from the zombies… at least not directly, but rather from the “solution” to the living dead and the horror that ensues.

In order to cope, the population is advised to avoid looking up and to regularly take SSRIs to deal with the perpetual depression and anxiety evoked by this permanently altered world. However, the SSRIs are not benevolent either, causing a Syndrome from the quantities they need to be used in, fundamentally changing the people who use them.

The characters have their moral compass set to grey from the beginning of The n-Body Problem but a dark, dirty grey that gets more ashy over time as layers of dust from bodies burned in orbit rains down on them… a zombie grey that exists in the perpetual twilight of a world that no longer has hope of change.

Playing with ideas of speech and silence, the notion that some people are best left in a devoiced state because when they speak it may only be a diatribe of horrors, Burgess explores the power of voice for propaganda, and the way the silenced are used for religious, corporate, and political causes. Whether corporate propaganda tells the people about the beauty of their dead loved ones floating in silence in orbit close to the stars, or religious leaders use the dead and the dismembered to bring on religious fervour born of fear and a need for some form of change, silence is made to speak loudly.

Burgess experiments with the idea of a social shift from the military-industrial complex and its profit from death through war to a new system of profit based around the pharmaceutical-waste-disposal-religious complex, intertwined in a system of making capital through the disposal of bodies and inciting people to suicide.

To say this is a bleak book is to downplay the significance of the melancholy it evokes – within this novel, the only thing on the horizon is more dead bodies… literally. It is a stream of consciousness narrative that reads like a hallucinatory voyage between pathologies and syndromes, a work that makes the body and the world around it a perpetual uncertainty, a slippery, threatened and threatening thing.

To find out more about The n-Body Problem, visit ChiZine Publications’ site at http://chizinepub.com/books/n-body-problem

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 8: An Interview with Marie Bilodeau and Karen Dudley About Myth and Canadian SF

In this interview, SF authors Marie Bilodeau, Karen Dudley, and I explore the mythic underpinnings of modern Canadian SF. Prepare for us to open up mythic worlds within all of those little corners of reality.

Marie Bilodeau is an award-winning, Ottawa-based Science Fiction and Fantasy author and a professional storyteller. A modern mythographer, Marie creates worlds of wonder with pen and voice. Marie is the author of the Destiny and Heirs of a Broken Land series of novels.

Karen Dudley is a Winnipeg-based author of environmental mysteries and historical fantasy. Evoking the wonder of the past and the mysteries of the present, Karen blends humour with the paranormal. Karen is the award-winning author of the novels Kraken Bake, Food for the Gods, Hoot to Kill, Macaws of Death, and multiple others.

Together, we examine the continuity and changes of myth, moral grey areas in Canadian SF, the development of the figure of the hero, the villain, and the monster… and, of course, the ultimate villain: Winter!

Explore Trent Radio at www.trentradio.ca

Explore Trent Radio at http://www.trentradio.ca

 

This audio file was originally broadcast on Trent Radio, and I would like to thank Trent Radio for their continued support.

Make sure to allow a few minutes for the file to buffer since it may take a moment before it begins to play.

This interview was taped in preparation for the event – A Mythic Night: An Author Reading by Karen Dudley and Marie Bilodeau at Sadleir House (751 George Street North in Peterborough) taking place on Thursday June 19th at 7:00 PM.

A Mythic Night poster 2 revised

Why Do Schools Keep Making Zombies Out of People?

A review of James Marshall’s Ninja Versus Pirate Featuring Zombies (ChiZine Publications, 2012)ninja_2
By Derek Newman-Stille

In his Ninja Versus Pirate Featuring Zombies, James Marshall tells us something that every one of us who attended public school and high school already know – schools are Hell trying to make zombies of us all! Unfortunately, the only one who sees this is Guy Boy Man, a young adult who killed his parents after he discovered that they were zombies and were planning on eating him once he failed the ZAT (the Zombie Acceptance Test). They were certain he wouldn’t pass the ZAT – he was too much of an outsider, a rebel, someone who just didn’t fit in and abide by the “normal” rules of zombie society. Zombies are close-minded, worried about how things “seem” to others, and strongly interested in maintaining the status quo of ‘normalcy’. The zombie teachers are literally muzzled (to keep them from snacking on students before they write the ZAT) and chained to their classrooms with chains. After all, schools hunger for brains.

Guy Boy Man is able to see things that others aren’t. He can see that the world is populated by the supernatural, that the world is well into the zombie apocalypse and most people are zombies… and if they aren’t, they are food. He sees more than everyone else, but he is an unforgiveable jerk – treating women as disposable, engaging in homophobic, ableist, and racist comments, comfortable destroying art… but, the reader can take incredible pleasure in Guy Boy Man’s offensiveness because he is consistently blunt about the underlying offensiveness of our culture and of schools in particular. Rather than covering up the way that disabled bodies are treated as disposable, he brings attention to it. Rather than trying to politely ignore the racism and homophobia in schools, he make it blatant, often in his attempts to NOT be homophobic and racist. He treats women as objects because women are consistently objectified by our school. He is offensive because he is part of an offensive world and his casual destruction embodies the hopeless nihilism of a world that believes it can’t change anything – a zombie world that believes that nothing will really change and will continue in undead monotony.

Guy Boy Man is the openly offensive jerk that our society tries to mask itself from being through polite avoidance of the issues of society. Marshall uses Guy Boy Man to take the “subtle” fatphobia, ableism, sexism, racism, and homophobia of our school system and over-perform it, taking it into a place of self-mocking auto-parody.

Marshall’s zombies are stiff because their lives are rigid. Zombies have absolute control over our society and in order to maintain their control, they eat anyone who is rebellious. Marshall uses the figure of the zombie to bring critical attention to the way that our society maintains the status quo, unquestioningly repeating the same patterns of the past. He reminds us that much of our education system is focused on the memorization and regurgitation of information rather than on asking critical changes and thinking outside the box.

You can find out more about James Marshall’s work at http://www.howtoendhumansuffering.com/ .

To explore this and other ChiZine Publications books, visit their website at http://chizinepub.com/ .

 

 

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 1: Canadian Zombie Fiction

In many American zombie narratives, people escape the zombie apocalypse by crossing the border into Canada. Is it our health care? Is it the cold? Is it the maple syrup? Whatever it is, American zombies don’t seem to like us very well… so, Canadians have created our own zombie fiction and we do something a little bit different with our zombies.

This first radio show of the season explores the history of the zombie narrative then delves into some examples of Canadian zombie narratives and explores the potential for the zombie to ask social questions of us as readers.

Listen to a discussion of:

The film Pontypool by Tony Burgess and Bruce McDonald

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s collection Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction, and particularly the stories “And All The Fathomless Crowds” by Ada Hoffmann and “The Herd” by Tyler Keevil.

Corey Redekop’s novel Husk.

James Marshall’s novels Ninja Versus Pirate Featuring Zombies and Zombie Versus Fairy Featuring Albinos.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s short story “Cemetery Man”

and

Claude Lalumiere’s short story “The Ethical Treatment of Meat”

Click on the link to hear about how Canadian zombie fiction can comment on everything from the media, violence, the human as monster, social performances, the education system, depression, war, and animal rights.

Explore Trent Radio at www.trentradio.ca

Explore Trent Radio at http://www.trentradio.ca

This audio file was originally broadcast on Trent Radio, and I would like to thank Trent Radio for their continued support.

Make sure to allow a few minutes for the file to buffer since it may take a moment before it begins to play.

Escaping North – Zombified Canada

A review of Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction, edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Exile Editions, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover Photo of Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction

Cover Photo of Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction

In American zombie movies, Canada is a place of escape, a place to run to in the event of a zombie apocalypse to escape from the ravening hoards. I am not certain what sort of magical barrier our country’s border has, or whether perhaps zombies just really don’t like winter, or perhaps zombies are threatened by public health care, but somehow the Canadian landscape is seen as anathema to the zombie apocalypse. Dead North tackles that notion of the zombified Canadian landscape and rustles up our dead to wander in search of Canadian flesh… adding to the BODY of literature.

Like the flesh of the creatures in its pages, the stories in this collection are morally grey, defying the easy morality of most zombie movies and the Us-Them dichotomy that often shapes the zombie genre (and allows for the killing of zombified human beings without guilt). Instead, these zombie stories play with the notion of Us versus Them, breaking down barriers and complicating the possibility of distancing ourselves from the figure of the zombie. The zombie is intimately connected with humanity and these stories question whether it is the zombie who is the monster… or the human who hunts them. The zombies in this volume make the normally straight forward ascription of humans as heroes and zombies as villains complicated, slippery, challenging.

Dead North brings zombies into Canada, but does so with a sense of play with the tropes of the genre, challenging traditional patterns of zombie apocalypse literature and film. These zombies are issue-laden, exploring notions of environmentalism, history, colonialism, protest culture, technological relationships to human beings, capitalism, aging, sexuality, and diversity. These zombies present a mosaic of the dead, a landscape of multiplicity in the types of rotting flesh.

Zombies have something in common with the North: cold, blanched… and they take the notion of a “biting chill” literally!

You can explore a few reviews of the individual short stories in this volume at:

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/11/29/necrosexual/

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/11/25/zombie-survival-training-101/

and

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/hunger/

Find out more about Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction at http://www.exileeditions.com/singleorders2013/deadnorth.html