review by Jake Anderson
The story of unlikely heroes rising to save the world from the undead and mob rule (and an arrogant tyrant) may hit a little close to home for some right now. But if you’re a fan of zombie fiction, or really any fiction, you should curb your feelings of anxiety with one of the best horror novels of the year. Haely Bare’s Flesh City is a vulgar, subversive and ultimately cathartic romp through a zombie apocalypse that is much more about the despots that arise to fill the vacuum. However, it is chalk full of some of the most horrifyingly intense zombie scenes ever put to paper. I’m not going to pretend I’ve read thousands of zombie novels. But I can say I have seen thousands of zombie films, and this book is a resounding addition to the genre. If it doesn’t get the attention it deserves, there will be bite marks, torn flesh and a raw gushing wound in the side of the genre.
The story is set in New York during the outbreak of a virus that everybody wants to blame on someone else. The plot follows three principle characters: Haely, a comedic, serpent-tongued former stripper/freelance escort, who is cast in the first-person; Giuseppe Mezzani, or Beppo to his friends, a crime lord acquitted of twenty-three counts of human trafficking, who left his granddaughter for dead at the start of uprising; and Ara, a student with a heart of gold, whose mother has become an outspoken member of the Living Church of God and believes, among other things, that the virus is the work of Muslims and a precursor to the Second Coming.
The story progresses through a horrifying initial outbreak, during which Ara is trapped in a Louis xiv wardrobe in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is violently sprung to freedom by a man named Moe, who “held an iron broadsword with two hands, like a baseball player waiting for the pitch. Ara and her mother rescue a child from a bathroom overrun by the undead and care for him throughout the rest of the story.
Meanwhile Giuseppe looks to make a power grab with his Robotti’s corrupt twin cops, which undertake a horrifying violent false flag attack on the Bellevue hospital that they then use to redirect blame of the virus on the Rust Revs, a revolution among “proles” angry about automation and AI taking their jobs. It gets complex, and eerily relevant. Giuseppe “Beppo” sits over a map of the city with his housemom, Lala, who, though she plays his stockholm misogynist, takes on major significance later. Beppo strategizes how to use his corrupted police force to make a profit off the zombie apocalypse and become the king of new York, marveling that the media even takes the time to tell the “proles” their world is collapsing around them. They marvel even more so at the patheticness of the mainstream media being unable to even call the virus for what it is. At one point, “the anchor never mentioned a virus at all, calling the incident ‘a sad reminder of the reality of organized crime’ ”. Again, eerily relevant in the current landscape of mainstream media sources complaining about inaccurate news.
Haely enters this narrative wearing only wet panties with a knife in the waistband and a backpack. She had “positioned the straps over [her] nipples, for modesty.” Her goal at this juncture is simple: save her dog, Buji, from a Russian family who wants to eat him and find antibiotics for her cut hand (she ends up using vodka)
One of the most rewarding parts of this read is the comedic relief. Author Bare, who was an comic improvisation actor for many years, showcases her deft use of both absurd physical humor and strategically placed land mines of irony and sarcasm, which keep the surface tone of the narrative in constant uproariously change.
Another plus that I’d be remiss not to note is the breathtakingly sardonic scenes of violence. They are both difficult to read and brilliantly poetic. At one point she ends a particularly vicious scene by describing “a Lovecraftian golom of flesh.” I love this. She follows it with one hell of a one-sentence scene:
“The square was silent for a few moments, then the cannon fired, and the woman’s head arced through the air, splatting wet against a pyramid of other severed heads that filled the Plaza fountain.”
Meanwhile, Giuseppe’s “bruised male ego” must escape a wave of rats while searching for nanotechnology that can reverse the virus, all the while hatching yet another scheme by which to become King of New York (and the known universe). The ruthless crime lord almost dies while asking for a sizable portion of God’s mercy and “picturing nanobots like cherubim at the gates of heaven.”
I stopped keeping track of how many times I laughed out aloud at Bare’s villain’s awkwardness and her protagonists’ excesses. Those polar extremes flip at just the right times, leaving a confused magnetism of me never really sure who I was rooting for (which seems about right during a zombie uprising) but also vaguely convinced that the author was posturing a Trump-like figure a full year before Trump declared his candidacy. By the time I neared the end, already atwitter from the generous conspiracy theory fodder, the gore, and the comedy, it was almost too much for me to imagine that the big bad boss was not modeled off of Trump. But he was not. That is not merely some strange reader transference; it’s a masterful sleight of hand by the author to leave the villain open to transparent reading. Successful character builders allow for their readers to read what they want into them – especially villains. We all have our own deeply personal conceptions of pure evil that spill over into what constitutes the ultimate villain.
There is a healthy dosage of philosophy as well. Consider that the fictional reality TV show featuring middle and working class zombie deaths is entitled “No Exit” (the name of the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre’s classic play). Consider also that the existential loathing of the old world doesn’t go away just because the zombie apocalypse is here; things just become even more loathsome; and escape from this suddenly terrifying loathsomeness becomes all the more necessary. While the narrative infrastructure is designed to tackle the logistical problems of zombies and the tropes of an action-horror novel, the focus always comes back to assessing how even during the apocalypse, while rations of food, clean water, and actionable technology dwindle, the ignorance, despair, and hubris of humanity remain in large supply. Haely also poses an interesting question: is the human condition viral? As we seek communion with artificial intelligence and extraterrestrials, it’s worth considering.
It’s pretty rare to get a zombie novel that rewards the intellect – and even revolutionary zeitgeist – of its readers; it’s just as rare for that same novel to not neglect its duties to deliver heart-pounding action and vicious, jaw-droppingly vulgar scenes of gore and viscera. Flesh City accomplishes this and a lot more in Haely Bare’s debut satirical horror novel about a zombie uprising in a city already overrun with organized crime, militarized police, sex crimes, and hedonism.
I fully expect by the time Bare releases her next book (though a little bird told me it may not be fiction), she will have an established niche in the horror genre. If she does not, that gaping, bloody wound I referenced earlier will have turned into a purple puss-filled ulcer with black subcutaneous veins spreading in all directions, and a virus will have spread to the rest of the host. The horror genre will soon turn into a snarling incoherent savage only satiated only by the flesh of generic works that do not offer the antidote of subversive gore that is so needed in these trying times. Buy it, read it, absorb it into your system, then we’ll talk.
by Haely Bare
167 pages. Kindle Price: $2.99