May 31, 2010

Monkey droppings - Dog Blood by David Moody

The Monkey has the taste for blood and gore, for some reason.

Must be a monkey thing. No way humans have that impulse, right?


Dog Blood
by David Moody (2010)
NOTE: Spoilers abound in this review, particularly if you have not read Hater, Moody's unnerving first novel, and a direct precursor to the events in Dog Blood. Sorry, can't be helped.
When all the living have been infected and there's no one left to kill, what happens next? Does the hunger every go away, or is rotting all that's left for them?
There are a few ways to write a novel from the monster's point of view. One way is to soften the creature, try to make it seem sympathetic while it does monstrous things. See the canon of Anne Rice for many examples of this, taking the terrifying vampire of lore and making him a gothic romantic. There's nothing inherently wrong with this approach, and it can be done quite well - I love the first few instalments of Rice's Vampire mythos, but lost complete interest when Lestat slithered his way into Hell.

The other way is to embrace the monster for what it is, a monster. Something irredeemably grotesque and vile. This is what David Moody does. He started it with Hater and directly continues it with Dog Blood, presenting the monster as pure monster, crafting the story in such a way that the reader gets confused as to who to root for.

Hater posited a world where something (something never explained) transforms a good third of the world's population into violent, bloodthirsty fighters (or 'Haters') who will stop at nothing to kill the unaffected or 'Unchanged.' Moody started slowly, mixing his tale with equal parts Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 28 Days Later, and Night of the Living Dead. Part of Hater's grindhouse brilliance was to be narrated by Danny, one of the infected, a rather unassuming and put-upon father whose brain simply clicks over into destructive mode. There is no explanation offered, there is no room for questions. The Hater exists to kill the Unchanged, and there is no arguing points of logic or intellect.

However, where Hater was an exercise in sustained tension, Dog Blood finds itself firmly in sequel territory wherein the audience is already primed and ready. So, as sequels go, will Dog Blood be an escalation of themes and gore a la Dawn of the Dead or 28 Weeks Later, or will it be, well, a dog?

Luckily for the discriminating reader of hard-core horror, Dog Blood is pretty damn good. It's clumsy, and the writing is rarely more than serviceable, but Moody amps up the violence while driving his pseudo-zombie narrative into some uncharted territory, expanding his own mythos while staying true to the designated monster-movie format of killing anyone and everyone.

Dog Blood opens on Danny, a few months or so after the outbreak has firmly taken hold. The world is already heavily militarized; the Unchanged are kept behind walls that threaten to burst from overpopulation, while the Haters roam free, picking off any remnants of humanity they can find. But as with all addictions - like all good monster stories, the plot is rife with subtext, drug addiction being one of the more obvious - once the supply begins to dwindle, there's very little for the addict to do:
I don't get the same highs anymore, just the cravings. The euphoria has faded, and life's more of a struggle now. It's getting harder to find food, and I'm tired. The gap between kills in increasing, and all that's left to do in those gaps is think.
While Danny still gets a powerful high from killing, enough time has past that he has gained some perspective on the situation. Indeed, he is not the only one, as the Haters are beginning to mobilize and organize, believing that only once the Unchanged are wiped from existence can their lives return to normal. But Danny has a modicum more self-interest than most of his new brethren, understanding the risk concentrated attacks may pose the new world order.
When we're together we become an easy target for the Unchanged to pick out of the sky. Cowardly bastards. Face-to-face they know they don't stand a chance. Long-distance battles are the only ones they can win.
Speaking of subtext, the parallels to America's response to terrorism come through loud and clear. It may be unfair to ascribe a whole mind-set to one novel, but it would appear Moody does not hold out much hope for humanity's chances under sustained periods of strife.

But for Danny, his new comrades are only a tool to help him get what he truly seeks; his missing daughter Ellis, a five-year-old Hater he lost when his initial transformation overwhelmed him. Danny's quest takes him into the heart of the new Hater hierarchy, where the infected able to control their impulses plan a new strategy, that of subterfuge and infiltration.

No mistake, Dog Blood is not for everyone, and there are many who will see little value in its intense cynicism and graphic violence. But connoisseurs of the genre will realize the craft behind the mayhem, and will appreciate Moody's refusal to enliven his grim fairy tale with humour or hope. This is the horror of blood and guts, the horror of vintage Romero and Fulci, and if you're not prepared for it, why are you reading it?

It's the possibility of a new working world after the devastation that drives much of Dog Blood; in many ways, it is a sister novel to Octavia E. Butler's masterful Clay's Ark, about a space-borne pathogen that slowly alters the whole of the human race. Moody, like Butler, isn't interested in the whys of the infection, but in the consequences. In both stories, man is slave to his passions, and all the intellect in the world can only hold it at bay for so long. Moody isn't afraid to show the unpleasantness of his universe; despite Danny's identifiable personal quest, he's a conniving monster, as are his cohorts, and the rampant violence in Dog Blood is not for the squeamish.

In the end, Dog Blood, like Hater, is a true grindhouse horror movie translated onto the page. It is vile, nauseating stuff, done with verve and more style than you'd think. I recommend both books to the devoted horror fanatic who can appreciate both good art and good trash. I'd also recommend skipping lunch before you start.


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