Sunday, March 6, 2011

Book Review: De Bello Lemures by Thomas Brookside

De Bello Lemures, Or The Roman War Against the Zombies of Armorica is a self-published book, about the length of a long novella, by Thomas Brookside.

De Bello Lemures is presented as a newly recovered and translated Latin text, originally written in the late 2nd Century AD by Lucius Artorius Castus, a Roman military commander. The story begins in Armorica (Brittany), a minor backwater of Roman Gaul where Artorius and his troops, a mix of Roman legionaries and Iazyges (an Indo-Iranian tribe that settled in Eastern Europe) auxiliaries, have just successfully put down a native uprising. When the surviving rebels are put to death by crucifixion, one of them calls out a curse in his native tongue just before expiring, saying that he will lead the dead to take revenge on the Romans.

Artorius, contemptuous of the natives and what he regards as their barbaric superstitions, thinks little of it. That night, however, while returning to camp after dining with a wealthy local citizen, Castus and his companions- Radamyntos, an Iazyges officer, and Pacilus, a tribune- are attacked on the road. Their assailants are men dressed in rags, covered in blood and filth, and bearing terrible wounds, incapable of any speech other than inarticulate moans. Possessed by bloodlust and able to shrug off wounds that no man should be able to survive, they fall upon the local farm boy serving as Castus' guide and tear him apart with their bare hands and teeth before Castus and his fellows are finally able to bring them down.

In the distance, Castus and his companions can now hear a low, dense droning sound- the sound of more inhuman voices like those of their attackers, filling the forest. With the countryside overrun by ferocious and almost unkillable madmen, they will need to find defensible shelter to survive the night. What fuels the murderous insanity of the men who attacked them is unclear, although Radamyntos recognized one of their assailants- he had killed him in battle and seen him dumped in a mass grave the day before...

I'm not generally a fan of zombie horror, but I greatly enjoyed De Bello Lemures. The storytelling held my interest, and the atmosphere was very strong. Castus is very effective as a protagonist and narrator, and Brookside does a good job of making him compelling without soft-pedaling or glossing over the sort of attitudes a man of his time, place, and station would likely have.

Brookside makes extremely effective use of his historical setting, and this adds to the story enormously. What makes everything work for me is that the historical element isn't a gimmick or an excuse to just retread standard zombie tropes in fancy dress. It's far more fundamental, and it greatly affects the impact of the book.

As described above, the book uses a “lost document” framing device and is built on the conceit that De Bello Lemures is an actual recovered work written by a second-century Roman Roman general. The story is prefaced with an introduction describing the discovery of the original text due to advances in the use of synchrotronic x-ray analysis on ancient documents, the provenance of the medieval palimpsest where the recovered text was found (including an explanation of why the title of the book, appended to it centuries later by a medieval copyist, is written in incorrect Latin) and the intense controversy incited in the scholarly community. It also includes information about Castus and the various theories that have been offered to explain its bizarre contents. The story is footnoted throughout to explain allusions made by Castus,  the historical and cultural context in which he lived, and the implications of certain statements and events in light of the overall body of knowledge about ancient Rome.

The main body is told by Castus in the first person. What really makes it work is that, while there are some concessions to modern writing conventions, primarily concerning dialogue (which the foreword explains as interpolations added to the English translation rather than features of the original Latin text), Castus' voice feels very authentic; Brookside does a very good job of capturing the tone and style of translations of genuine Classical histories.

The historical verisimilitude is enjoyable in itself, but it's even greater power is the atmospheric effect it creates. Zombies have become a very well-worn pop culture trope at this point, and for me personally they don't really work well as horror because they're too transparent and too concrete for my tastes- what they are, what they want to do, and usually some clue as to how they can be overcome or at least resisted usually becomes apparent to both the readers/viewers and the characters fairly quickly, even if their ultimate origin is not explained. While I'm sure I'd be horrified by the idea of a dead body coming back to life and attacking people in real life, in fictional contexts they usually just seem generic to me- they're orcs or stormtroopers or nameless hoodlums, except ickier.

De Bello Lemures manages to avoid this problem. The book's historical details and academic presentation, along with Castus' terse, no-nonsense writing style, creates a context in which the presence of zombies seems much more jarring and incongruous, much more wrong, than it would in a story set in present-day. This drives home just how incredibly bizarre, unnatural, and disturbing zombies would really be in a way nothing else I can think of really has. It made them seem truly horrifying, instead of merely dangerous

I'd strongly recommend De Bello Lemures for any fan of horror or dark historically-based fantasy. It's a short read, but well-worth getting and a very promising debut for Thomas Brookside. You can read a free preview here.

Stumble Upon Toolbar