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Pontypool Changes Everything

December 31, 2011

This book, by Canadian Tony Burgess, was on Rue Morgue’s must-read list a few years back, so I bought it. Watching the film last spring finally persuaded me to read it. Goodreads gives it 3.28 based on 113 ratings, which isn’t awesome, and I understand why. This book is really tough to read.

I initially thought that the fragmented narrative structure was due to the POV of who I thought was going to be the protagonist: Les, the schizophrenic. I found out as I read on that there are a few different points of view so far, all equally garbled. Only now that I’ve met the recovering addict and chronic masturbator, Greg, is the book starting to make any sense; his narrative is mostly clear, if not slightly skewed by his ever-present “higher power.”

Burgess writes horrific violence well:

The propeller, it should be said, is entering the zombie’s stomach. It releases an underwater ticker tape parade around the man’s waist. His intestines blow their contents out into the lake…The zombie caves in over the cannon ball in its middle and folds in half on the bottom of Lake Scugog. The boat, something of a paintbrush now, is still tied to the dock. As it extends itself it floats a long feather boa of blood on the clear water.

And he knows zombies. The reader is allowed into the psyche of the zombie in this book, and it’s a really horrible place. The virus that turns people into zombies starts by attacking their language centres, and seeing that process unfold from the very beginning — a few mixed-up words and annoyance at a brain that isn’t cooperating — to the end, at which point a person is just a jibbering monster intent on biting off the mouth of any non-zombie it sees, is genuinely scary.

From the movie’s Wikipedia entry:

At Rue Morgue’s 2008 Festival of Fear expo, director Bruce McDonald stressed the victims of the virus detailed in the film were not zombies and called them “conversationalists”. He described the stages of the disease:

“There are three stages to this virus. The first stage is you might begin to repeat a word. Something gets stuck. And usually it’s words that are terms of endearment like sweetheart or honey. The second stage is your language becomes scrambled and you can’t express yourself properly. The third stage you become so distraught at your condition that the only way out of the situation you feel, as an infected person, is to try and chew your way through the mouth of another person.”

The setting is very conducive to that insolated situation that so many zombie books and movies try to achieve. The novel takes place in northern Ontario (very little happens in the title village) in the winter, and it’s a very cold, very bleak place. Everything comfortable and sweet about small Canadian towns is completely perverted and ruined in this book. Zombies aside, the reader gets to see the dark underbelly of everyday middle-class life. The characters do horrid things to one another and have very unnatural thoughts in their heads.

The reason I am not totally sold on Pontypool is that is just isn’t fun. The readability is hindered by Burgess’s forays into a sort of surreal poetic prose that really doesn’t work for me. As I said before, the zombies are scary, and the violence is mind-numbingly good, but the mortar holding the horror elements together is a mess.

I should add that the movie is fantastic…It has everything I could ever ask for in a horror film — a loveable anti-hero protagonist, great gore, great scares, great zombies.

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