Rot by Michele Lee

Rating: 7/10 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

Title: Rot
Author: Michele Lee
Genre: Horror, GLBT Interest
URL: Horror Mall
Price: Trade Softcover: US$14.95 – Mobi/Epub/PDF:  US$3.95
Warnings: Gore, Violence

Summary (from the publisher): Zombies Can Be Such a Burden. So you’ve raised your loved ones from the dead, but had no idea how difficult it would be to care for them. No problem! Silver Springs is a warm, peaceful facility equipped to handle all your zombie needs. Their friendly staff will ensure they have a safe environment with daily exercise and raw meat. Rest easy knowing they’re in good hands… as they rot. In Michele Lee’s Rot, you won’t find an apocalypse or Romero-style flesh-eaters.  This is far more disturbing. In a world where certain people can will others back from death, Silver Springs Specialty Care Community caters to the undead for those who aren’t quite ready to let go (zombie milk available by special arrangement at the home office). Dean, retired from the military and looking for an easier life, runs security at this zombie-herding farm, but he learns that dark injustice is not unique to war.  There’s a rotten core to Silver Springs.  Now, Dean and a quickly decaying corpse named Patrick are on the hunt for a woman they both love and lost to a lucrative business that specializes in greed, zombies and never having to say goodbye.

Disclaimer: This is a novella length work. I purchased the PDF version of the book and it should be noted that the PDF version is not formatted correctly for Sony e-reader’s enlarged text feature and the normal view text size is so small it was not readable for me.  Be aware that if you use a Sony e-reader and want to enlarge the text, nearly all formatting will be lost and paragraphs and dialog will run together.  I have not examined the other available e-formats to determine if the same problems exist.  I’d also recommend ignoring the tongue-in-cheek tone of the publisher’s blurb. While there is some dark humor in the novella, the blurb doesn’t really do justice to the work.

My Review: Never, ever has a review given me more pause than this one.  I’ve sat with it for days, trying to ascertain my honest feelings about Michele Lee’s debut novella. There is so very much here to praise: from its inventiveness with a genre that has been (pun completely intended) done to death to the wonderful humanity of the zombie characters Lee has created. And yet, I have to be honest and point out that there were significant problems for me with other aspects of the work, problems that left me disappointed in the work as a whole.  It’s a battle of wills….half of me wanting nothing more than to jump up and down and give this a 10-star, rave review, and the other half of me going…wait.  So forgive me if this review seems to suffer from a bit of split personality.

Let’s start with the positives.  Zombies are one of the horror genre’s staples and it is incredibly difficult to find a new and inventive twist, but it is exactly here that Lee shines brilliantly.  Instead of the lumbering zombies of Romero’s earliest works or the frenetic zombies of something like 28 Days Later, Lee gives us incredibly rich, human characters in zombie form.  Full of emotion and fear and dreams, Lee’s zombie characters are very real, multi-dimensional people who just so happen to have returned from the dead and need flesh to munch on to sustain themselves.  They are smart and funny and appealing and utterly believable.

Amy, the main female zombie, has a dry, almost sarcastic outlook on un-life. She’s hardened by what has happened to her, but underneath it all she’s just as frightened by what she’s become—and may soon become—as those intolerant people around her.  Likewise, Patrick, a gay man who was killed in a car accident and raised from the dead by his ultra-Christian family so that they might save him from his perverse “lifestyle,” is tough, wryly humorous and wonderfully sensitive in a way that is guaranteed to break your heart.  And while the gay aspect of Patrick is essentially only back story (that is, it isn’t really dealt with directly), as a gay man I was so glad to see him because he’s a damn good man, a victim who rises above it and becomes heroic in his own way.  The problem for both Amy and Patrick is that when dealing with zombies proved more than their respective families could handle, both of them were shipped off to Silver Springs care facility, little more than a holding tank where zombies are mistreated and worse.

There’s a wonderful duality in these characters. They’re jaded from all they’ve been through, but underneath there is a glimmer of hope that things could get better. They’re not naïve, though. Each knows the slow process of rot is an inevitability, that their minds will dwindle and their ability to control their reactions will be lost.  And both of them fear that. They don’t want to become the monsters we all know as zombies.  They want and need to hold on to their humanity, what is best about who they were. It’s a brilliant spin on zombie lore and utterly refreshing.

This entire novella is allegory.  But what is amazing about it is exactly how versatile the allegory is. The story could be viewed from multiple angles: a commentary on the U.S.’s treatment of the aged, the disposability of relationships, the early days of the AIDS pandemic, even the treatment of patients at Kalaupapa.  There’s a lot to be found here and it is a testament to Lee that her story can be interpreted on many, many levels.  In the end I walked away feeling that the title of the piece was not so much the rot of flesh inflicted upon the zombies, but the rot that has infected society, turning it callous and ugly.

So, you ask, why the mixed feelings?  That sounds pretty spectacular.  And it is.  But then I have to take into consideration the other aspects of the story and that is the detective procedural aspects. That is, unfortunately, where I found my biggest qualms about the story.

Rot is told from the first person perspective of Dean, an ex-military man and now security specialist at Silver Springs.  This is one of the problems I had in that the narrative voice of the character never reads ex-military to me. Dean reads very much as every day Joe and I expected the edge I have found in military people I know in real life to be there. And that personality dynamic—that slightly jaded perspective that melts away as the story progresses—was lost for me.  Dean at the beginning of the story reads very much the same as Dean at the end of the story, and I missed some kind of character arc for him. As a protagonist, there really isn’t all that much that is memorable about him and this only stands out more so because the zombie characters are so compelling and dynamic.

As to the procedural aspects of the detective side of the story, Dean does his detecting largely through paper files. This is a difficult thing to pull off in fiction because we readers aren’t looking at the notations the characters are and, therefore, aren’t at liberty to put the pieces together as the character does.  The result is a lot of story exposition that tends to drag the pace of the book down and doesn’t really allow for the creation of any sort of dramatic tension or risk.  And when Dean discovers the abuse that is taking place at the facility, it is cleared up “off-camera” apparently without any fuss or fighting back by the personnel of the institution. This bothered me because systemic abuse in facilities like this is never put down without a fight.

Likewise, with the plot twist of Amy disappearing, Dean again has to rely on a paper trail. But when he starts to get an idea what is going on, we do get “out” into the world, meeting the CEO of Silver Springs and some shady characters that are doing some despicable things.  Here, again, things seem a bit too simplistic and the “villains” Lee has created lack any type of real depth, feeling very much like stock characters that I can find in just about any TV detective show. They’re neither particularly heinous nor particularly smart. Thus, they’re not particularly memorable.

I also had problems with Dean’s ease of entry into the headquarters of what is either a major corporation or a rising corporation that has managed to put a dreadful system of human trafficking into place.  Given that me getting into my building is an exercise in security frustration every day, I would have expected Dean’s access to be thwarted a little bit, if not by technology, then by a corporation that has a lot to hide. It all happens a bit too easily for Dean and that, unfortunately, creates a lack of tension that is sorely needed in detective works.

Luckily, Dean has taken Patrick with him and this is when the second half of the books works best.  The tension Lee creates in this dynamic is spectacular.  Is Patrick going to go all zombie and eat Dean? Will he eat a few villains?  Will he degrade into what he is most afraid of becoming?  The sense of risk for Dean is palpable. What is at stake for Patrick is untellable.  And this pairing leads to one of the very, very best scenes in the novella. One I will not forget for a very long time.

When all is said and done, I still come away with mixed feelings about Rot. With as inventive as Lee was with the zombie aspects of the story, I wanted her to be equally inventive with the detective aspects which drive the latter half of the novella and fall very flat in comparison.  And that’s my quandary. There are almost two books here that don’t quite mesh.  So, how do I judge this one?  I think in the end I have to look at the overall picture and ask myself…is there something extraordinary about what this writer has done?  Is this a writer whose imagination and inventiveness excites me and whose work I want to read more of?  And my answer there is most definitely yes!  No, I can’t overlook the flaws, but I can be excited with what is done spectacularly well.  So, while I have some major problems with other aspects of the book, I recommend you read it…for the zombies.