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The Grisly Anatomy of Horror: Methods in Horror Fiction

Halloween is upon us, and I can’t think of a better season to consider the anatomy of the horror genre. I’m not looking for a definition of the genre (most definitions run along the lines of “the horror genre generates a feeling of terror or horror in the audience” – DUH!). Instead, the ghouls and ghosts and ninja pirates outside my door ravenously seeking my candy inspire me to ask the following questions:

  1. What kinds of emotional response can be evoked by the horror genre?
  2. How does the horror genre evoke that emotional response?

Terror, Horror, and Identification/Realization

Of course, all writing is manipulative to a greater or lesser degree. But horror especially plays on our ethos to achieve the author’s goal: eliciting a strong emotional response. This is the case whether we’re considering:

Horror makes use of three primary modes:

Terror (Dread) The fear of predicted or anticipated events. The fear of what is to come.
Horror (Revulsion) The fear of events or facts that have already happened/been shown. Revulsion at what is perceived.
Identification (Realization) Lingering terror or horror at the conclusion of a story that relies upon internalization of the story’s themes.

Any particular work of horror can (and often does) utilize all three modes at different points in the story. I won’t bother commenting much on the first two (Terror vs. Horror) because a lot has already been said about that. If you’re looking for some of that discussion, a good starting point is the Wikipedia entry on Horror and Terror.

I would, however, like to spend a moment discussing the concept of identification. This is not horror in the “what’s that behind the door” (terror) or “my god that’s disgusting” (horror) variety. Instead, it is a thematic horror that lingers after the book has been closed. This type of horror relies on the reader’s self-identification with the story elements that had – until the climax – been the object of terror/horror. It is fundamentally the realization that “The monster is Us” and is often used in the most memorable horror stories. It is that sensation at the end of a horror story that leaves you feeling like:

  • you could see yourself as the monster, and/or
  • you would behave as the (doomed) protagonists were you in their shoes.

While the entire horror genre uses terror, horror, or both, I believe that the most-memorable horror also relies on this third mode for its resonance. Matheson’s I Am Legend would be unremarkable if not for its use of realization. Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death is powerful precisely because we identify with the doomed revelers.

So how does the horror genre evoke these three emotional modes? Just as with any genre, horror has its share of tropes. But I believe there are two tools which are universal across all of the sub-genres of horror (intrusion horror, zombie horror, vampire horror, etc.) and all of the mediums of horror (books, film, comics, etc.): uncertainty and horrific imagery.

Uncertainty: The Gasoline in the Horror Plot

Every story – regardless of genre – relies to some extent on uncertainty. We (the reader) are uncertain of what our hero is going to do next, or of how a situation will resolve itself, and so we keep turning pages. In the horror genre, our uncertainty is typically shared by the hero. The hero is uncertain of the monster: is it real? What is it? What are its weaknesses? What does it want? While on the journey with our hero, we share that uncertainty. Good horror is frequently written in either first-person narration or close-perspective third person. This is done specifically to put us in the hero’s head, to understand his perceptions of his situation. If the hero (and the reader by extension) were certain of the situation, then there would no fear, and thus no horror.

From a plotting standpoint, resolving this uncertainty gives the story its forward motion. It’s the gasoline that powers the story’s engine. Consider Stephen King’s Needful Things. In that novel, Sheriff Pangborn tries to unravel the mystery of why Castle Rock’s residents are suddenly killing each other. He is uncertain of Leland Gaunt’s intentions, and initially of his guilt. Similarly, Dan Simmons’ Drood is propelled by Dickens’ and the narrator’s desire to uncover the mystery of Edwin Drood. In James Cameron’s Alien, the uncertainty rests around if and how Ripley and the rest of the crew will escape the xenomorphs. In the 1997 film Event Horizon, the uncertainty stems from the Event Horizon‘s appearance and its strange gravity drive.

How the characters respond to these uncertainties elicits the sensation of dread (terror) or revulsion (horror). Just as your characters’ reaction to magic systems makes them believable in fantasy, so the characters’ reaction to uncertainty generates fear in the reader. This effect can be enhanced through the use of horrific imagery.

Imagery: The Keys to Horror

Effective horror imagery manipulates that part of our brain which our ancestors used to identify (and fight or flee) from threats. I believe that there are five principle types of horror imagery, each of which has different components and different effects:

Imagery Typical Effect, Method, & Examples
  • Establishes the mood of a story.
  • Puts the reader in a receptive frame of mind.
  • Builds a feeling of palpable anticipation (dread).
Manipulates our limbic system (that reptilian part of our brain that controls the fight or flight response). Dark, chilly rain forests replete with mysterious sounds still make us wary, despite the fact that most of us left the forest floor millenia ago. A fog-covered city street in the dead of night automatically puts us on our guard because our brain knows that “unnamed threats” can lurk in the mists. If your setting is built with imagery that can hide or hint at monsters, it can be used to make your audience receptive to the sensation of dread you’re seeking to instill. It can be a subtle effect, gradually building through layers of disconcerting and slightly shadowed images. Look to Poe or HP Lovecraft for great examples of how this can be done.
Pin-point Terror
  • Elicits a sense of immediate threat.
  • Places the hero and reader in a state of perceived jeopardy.
A more direct type of horrific imagery used to “jump start” the limbic system. If layering horrific imagery throughout your story produces the appropriate mood, throwing in explicit imagery of your monsters can be excellent punctuation. Be careful not to over-do it. You want to show enough of your monster to terrify your audience, but leave enough uncertainty for them to keep jumping at shadows. The classic image that comes to mind is eyes glowing in the dark. It makes us think of wolves in the night, monsters whose eyes you can see without any idea of how large or dangerous they are. This combination of immediate danger while maintaining uncertainty is a great way to up your audience’s heart rate.
  • Generates a sense of revulsion.
  • Explicitly describes what the reader would rather not see.
The explicit description of the repugnant (cannibalism, gore, viscera, etc.). Repugnant imagery is straightforward and understandable: it is the pulling back of the curtain on the uglier sides of fantasy; showing the reader things they would rather not see.
  • Generates a sense of revulsion.
  • Describes something impossible which our mind rejects as contrary to our sense of right and wrong.
“Wrong” imagery takes an image that the reader is intimately familiar with (e.g. the human body) and twists it, placing it at odds with the reader’s accepted norms. Think of the grotesque, hunched physique of Mr. Hyde in Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or horror film’s usage of twisted body shapes (head-spinning in The Exorcist or the contorted “spider-walk” in many horror movies), or the shambling, broken gait of the walking dead. These are images which when our eye sees (or imagines) them our brain instantly classifies them as wrong: incorrect and unnatural.
Cultural Legacy
  • Uses cultural tropes to evoke an emotional response.
  • Relies on cultural background (folk tales, pop culture, etc.) for the audience to “fill in the blank”.
Every culture has its ghost stories, folk tales, and frightening myths. Devils, demons, cannibals, etc. lurk somewhere in every zeitgeist. George A. Romero’s living dead are a recent addition. These images can be utilized by creators as a short-hand for all of the other imagery. The very word “zombie” conjures certain images in the reader’s mind, and creators can use that cultural legacy either to “shortcut” some narrative or to “level-set” the reader’s mind-set. Or consider Stephen King’s usage of the clown Pennywise in It. While this is a useful (and often powerful) tool, it should be used judiciously as over-reliance can leave the work feeling trite or comedic in nature.

So as you lie in wait for monsters to come trick or treating to your door, try to think a little bit about the horror genre. What makes it good? What makes it horrific? Maybe you can add a little more horror into your Halloween? And please, let me know if you can think of any other tools that creators of excellent horror utilize. I’d love to add them to my ghoulish toolkit.

With that being said, and in the spirit of Halloween, allow me to leave you with an image I have always found fun and terrifying. Happy Halloween!

Pennywise the Clown from Stephen King's It

Pennywise the Clown from Stephen King's It

REVIEW: The Dervish House by Ian McDonald

Title: The Dervish House
Author: Ian McDonald
Pub Date: July 27, 2010
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
Exceptionally well-crafted setting and utterly believable.

The Dervish House is Ian McDonald’s new novel set in a near-future Istanbul. Soaked in history, nanotechnology, and McDonald’s always-amazing settings, this book is arguably one of the best science fiction titles I’ve read this year.

I have loved “traveling” with McDonald since I first picked up River of Gods, his 2004 novel set in a near-future India. Following that book, he has carved a very nice niche for himself by setting his novels in somewhat unusual (read: non-American/British) settings. Chaga (published in the US as Evolution’s Shore) took us to Kenya, River of Gods took us to India, Brasyl took us to (surprise!) Brazil, and now The Dervish House brings us to Istanbul.

Setting has always been central to McDonald’s works (even in his earliest novels like the harsh yet beautiful Desolation Road). I’ve traveled a lot in my life, but I’d never visited India, Brazil, or Kenya. So when I read his earlier books, the settings were lush and fascinating to me, but still alien. But Istanbul, I’m familiar with. I lived in Europe for ten years and spent quite some time in Turkey on business, so for the first time I was able to read a McDonald book with pre-existing familiarity with the setting and culture. And as far as I can tell, McDonald nails it.

Istanbul has always been a crossroads of commerce, history and religion. Today, it’s at the heart of a maelstrom of geopolitics, religious debate, and energy economics. McDonald captures that intersection and projects outwards from it, taking us to a Turkey that just-recently joined the European Union and still struggles with its identity as a nation, its religious history, its place in the region, and its internal politics (generals vs. intelligentsia vs. religious fundamentalists of various types). His Istanbul is recognizable to anyone who has even spent a day in that city, capturing the Byzantine streets and the culture of a city that straddles two continents. A writer of lesser skill would have simplified the reality, perhaps skimped on the economics or drawn caricatures of the complex cultures that intertwine in the city. But McDonald doesn’t. He balances the different interests and cultural backgrounds of his characters deftly, showcasing a nation that waking up to its dreaming potential.

The book follows the lives of six characters who live in an old building that long ago had belonged to or been involved with an ascetic Sufi fraternity. The dervish house is the hub, the connecting strand that joins together the six characters in this story. The events of the book unfold starting with a suicide bombing, and how it affects – directly and indirectly – the lives of the people who live in the tekke (dervish house). The story is told from the perspectives of each:

  • An academic economist forced into retirement,
  • A nine-year old boy with a dangerous heart condition,
  • A rural young woman determined to make it as a professional in the big city,
  • An ambitious young woman who runs a religious art gallery,
  • A ruthless energy trader, and;
  • A troubled, screw-up caught up in the development of street sharia.

Their lives are tied to together by the tekke, by the suicide bombing several blocks away, and by a near-mythical relic from Istanbul’s past. Each character is painstakingly crafted. Their voices are distinct, their judgments and values a clear outgrowth of their background. These characters have depth, and plainly show McDonald’s careful research into some of the more esoteric branches of market theory, contemporary futures contracts, and obscure kabbalistic sects. This research gives this book its lush, rich texture and bring the characters and setting alive.

The intersecting character arcs are exceptionally well done, and they are at once the book’s primary strength and its greatest weakness. In fact, that’s the only reason why I’m giving this book four stars instead of five: I feel like I have seen this device used before. When I think about McDonald’s works, the ones that instantly come to mind are Desolation Road, its sequel Ares Express, and River of Gods. Each of these books relies on the same narrative structure: different characters whose lives intersect through one (or a handful) of locations. McDonald does this better than anyone I can think of just now. But I’d like to see him stretch more, maybe try some different structures out. It would be nice to see, because having read most of his work I find that I know how it will flow. I can’t predict the events of the plot, but I can predict its cadences and rhythms. It’s like listening to a new symphony by a beloved composer: you can just tell how the music will swell next, even if you’ve never heard it. Much as I enjoy McDonald’s symphonies, I’d like to be surprised.

The physical book itself is great. Pyr did an excellent job with the hardcover, designed by Jacqueline Nasso Cooke and with a cover illustration by Stephan Martiniere. The cover illustration sets the tone for the whole work, showing the crowded streets of 2027 Istanbul, the combination of history (old buildings, traditional clothes) and uber-modernity (neon advertisements, robots, etc.). That cover image captures the mixing pot that is Istanbul, and captures the intersections of its residents lives just as well as the text. Martiniere’s covers and McDonald’s prose are a great pairing, and I’m glad to see that Pyr has maintained that connection through all of McDonald’s books they have published. Great job with that, and I hope they maintain it since I think that combination is just getting better and better.

This is not a rip-through-it-in-one-night, page-turning adventure. It has its moments of high tension and danger, but this is the kind of book that you want to enjoy over the course of several nights. This prose should be savored. If you have had your fill of anglophone settings and cultures in your science fiction, you should pick this up. If you are interested in high-quality literary fiction that just happens to be set in the future, pick this up. I think this is one of McDonald’s better works, and I definitely enjoyed the trip he took me on. If you find that you like this, there’s a variety of other great science fiction set outside of the American/British cultural background that you might enjoy, most notably the books by George Alec Effinger and Lucius Shepard‘s Life During Wartime.

REVIEW: New York Comic Con

Whew…I’d forgotten how exhausting Comic Con can be. This weekend saw Comic Con return to New York City for the first time in 18 months, and this triumphant return saw several improvements over the previous show:

  • The floor space was doubled. Artist Alley and Autograph Alley seemed significantly larger, and there were more exhibitors.
  • Comic Con was held parallel to the New York Anime Festival. What could be more fun than comics, science fiction, fantasy, video games and anime?
  • Massive gaming stations (for multiplayer computer games as well as tabletop gaming)  were added if you were so inclined.

Unfortunately, I think the organizers underestimated the number of people interested in comics, video games and speculative fiction. This has been a chronic problem with the NYCC, dating back to several years ago when the fire marshal had to kick people out. By Saturday afternoon, this year’s show had sold out, and crossing from one end to the other was a 45 minute battle against a rising tide of costumed humanity. Next time, rather than squeeze another booth into every last square inch the organizers just drop one row of exhibitors and expand the traffic aisles so that the crowd can have better flow. It will make the experience a lot more pleasant for everyone.

That being said, there was a lot to do at Comic Con. Between walking the booths, talking to people, demo’ing upcoming video games and trying to grab a couple of panels it was a wild and exhausting couple of days. I tried to divide my explorations into some specific categories, and so here are the highlights that I walked away from the event with:

Literary (books, as opposed to comics)

I spent quite a bit of time wandering around the book publisher aisles. I had some general observations and some specific comments:

General Observations

  • The expanded floor space gave the publishers the opportunity to really stretch their space. Most of the big publishers had large booths (double, triple or quadruple booths seemed the norm).
  • The publishers relied less on ARC’s (advanced reader copies) and galleys to pimp their titles: most (even the big houses) were making visitors purchase their books to a far greater degree than I remembered.
  • I saw far more mass-market titles than trade, which while not terribly surprising was a little disappointing.
  • Most publishers (large and small) offered good author signings. Standard practice was for an author with a new title out to be signing copies of a previous book that the publisher was giving away. A handful of publishers dropped the free give-aways and instead made people buy the books.
  • There were several significant genre publishers whose absence was notable for me:
    • Scholastic. This is a shame considering their excellent line-up of middle-grade and YA books (especially strong in the paranormal teen romance and quirky science fiction). While the other publishers there were all pimping their YA lists/imprints, Scholastic’s absence really stood out.
    • Pyr did not have a booth. Considering the impressive list that they have put together and their excellent blend of commercial and literary appeal, I was really surprised. This audience would have eaten their stuff up like there was no tomorrow.
    • Night Shade Books did not have a booth. This is not really surprising, considering their size: NYCC would have been an expensive proposition. But there were a bunch of other smaller-press publishers doing a brisk trade at the event, and considering what Night Shade’s list looks like, I’m sure they would have benefited from a presence.
    • Genre magazine publishers were completely absent. Again, not a surprise considering the cost of exhibiting. But I can guarantee that most of the people on that floor are completely unaware of the existence of magazines like F&SF, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Apex, etc. I’m not sure if it’ll ever happen, but they may want to consider banding together and sharing a booth in the future if for no other reason than for mutual promotion. Couldn’t hurt and may help expand the audience.

Specific Observations

  • Tom Doherty Associates (Tor/Forge) had the best-organized booth layout, keeping it simple and classic and always having it manned by well-informed publicists, marketing reps and the occasional editor. The booth itself wasn’t terribly large, but the displays were thoughtfully set up and very well managed. On display were a handful of books from their 2010 lineup and book plates for titles on their 2011 list. I was a little disappointed by the paucity of their author signings however, as they only had a handful of authors there (their major headliner being Brandon Sanderson).
  • HarperCollins had the weakest booth of the lot. That’s not to say that they have weak books – but their event management just sucked. They had some interesting looking books displayed, but the booth was so understaffed that I couldn’t ask anyone about them. I was there all day on Friday and Saturday and spent quite a lot of time in the vicinity of their booth, but only saw one (rather beleaguered) person manning it both days. The displays themselves were not terribly well done, typically displaying only a handful of copies of select titles. The impression I had was that they were not really serious about marketing to the NYCC crowd, which is somewhat surprising considering the popularity of their competitors’ booths.
  • Penguin Group had a rather sizable showing. The staff were generally knowledgeable, friendly, and had decent displays. Their primary strength was their large number of author signings (including Jim Butcher, Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant, etc.) but the downside was that you either had to bring the authors’ books to the signing or buy them beforehand on the other side of the booth…about 30 feet away. That might not seem bad, but it’s really crappy event management: traveling 30 feet at Comic Con is a challenge, and having to do so after spending 15 minutes in line and then spending another 15 minutes in line after the purchase is quite annoying. It wouldn’t have been that hard to have a stack of books at the signing and tell people to pay for them after they’ve been signed. First Second Books (a smaller graphic novel press) managed that type of setup quite well and if Penguin had tried it, things would have flowed smoother and far fewer people would have been frustrated.
  • Random House had by far the biggest showing of the lot. They practically took up two whole sections of one aisle, although all of their imprints were basically doing their own thing. I didn’t have too many notable comments on the Random House crowd, other than a general observation that they seemed to have fewer author signings than the other publishers.

Video Games

Video games seemed to occupy a third of the floor space (that’s not a complaint). There were far too many upcoming games for me to comment on all of them, so instead I’ll just focus on the ones that most appealed to me:

  • James Bond 007: GoldenEye for the Wii. I loved the original Goldeneye game on the N64, and they have made an awesome new version of it for the Wii. Gameplay will be instantly recognizable to anyone who played the N64 version. The graphics have been updated (though seeing this on an Xbox-360 or PS3 would be even cooler), and the multiplayer is awesome as it ever was. Don’t know how the single-player mode runs, but multiplayer was great.
  • Disney Epic Mickey for the Wii. This game looks awesome. Set in a dark and twisted world of rejected cartoons, you play as Mickey trying to bring some brightness with a magic paint brush. The graphics are great, the gameplay looks fun (I didn’t get a chance to play myself, alas), and the story is just dark and twisted enough to be awesome.
  • Captain America: Super Soldier for every system out there. If you loved Batman: Arkham Asylum, odds are you’ll love Captain America: Super Solider. The gameplay looks very similar (they weren’t letting anyone play the demo, but the videos and the in-person demo’s by the reps looked identical). I loved Arkham Asylum and I’m definitely buying the new Cap game as soon as it hits the shelves.
  • Dead Space 2 for all the major systems. Looks like the original, only with some cool new gameplay features thrown in (jetpack!). The fun part seems to be what they’re doing with the story, basically giving Isaac a little more character and initiative than he had in the first game.


It is incredibly unfortunate that the New York Anime Festival was relegated to a single room in the deep underbelly of the Javitz Center. I found it near the end of my second day at the Comic Con, when I only had the strength to dash through the aisles pretty quickly. It seemed to be primarily full of anime artists and cosplay fans – which on the whole seemed neat – but its location was unfortunate. I wanted to find more dark, interesting anime/manga (Naruto is not my scene) but I was too late getting there to have the patience to find any. Maybe if it were better positioned, I would have thought to spend more time there sooner and found something cool. Maybe next time.


I attended (or tried to attend) several panels that I thought might be cool, but again the organizers let me down. The first panel I tried to attend had a neat title: “The Search for Humanity through Utopias and Dystopias”. Just the kind of dorky little panel that I find fascinating and fun. The panel started thirty five minutes late because of technical blunders. By that point, boredom had set in and the presentation didn’t help. Maybe I’m spoiled by corporate presentations and research papers from my day job, but I know people in the comic book industry can present well. Unfortunately, the organization of this panel was atrocious and the content ended up uninteresting.

The second panel I went to – “Editors on Editing Comic Books” – actually came off without a hitch. I found it really interesting and informative. On stage were veteran editors from the three big houses (DC, Marvel and IDW) and they basically told the audience the truth about breaking into the business. It was refreshing to see the editors pull no punches. They told the packed room that each editor has writers, pencillers, letterers, inkers and colorists who they have worked with successfully in the past, and that these colleagues are looking for work. Translation: if you want to break into the business, you need to be technically better than the current professionals, and overcome the “relationship advantage” that your entrenched competition already has. That’s a tall order, and I saw a lot of disappointed faces in the crowd. But hey, that’s the truth of it. Probably the truth of it in any medium. Those creators who internalize that message will do better work because of it, and invest the time (often years) needed to build relationship in the industry.

The organizers dropped the ball on the third panel I tried to attend as well. It was the fantasy writers’ panel, and it sounded like it would be a lot of fun with Joe Abercrombie, Brandon Sanderson, Naomi Novik and Peter V. Brett. But alas, the organizers shoehorned the event into a tiny room far off in a distant corner. By the time I got there (fifteen minutes before the panel was due to start) it was standing room only. I was three people away from the door when the organizers said “No one else! Get out of here!” and shut the door. Did the organizers think that comic book fans wouldn’t be interested in fantasy? They should have given this panel one of the larger rooms available.


I have become so disillusioned over the writing in comic books over the years, that I have to admit they’re last on my list. That’s ironic, considering that I spent about twenty hours wandering amidst the crowd of the New York Comic Con. But it was really telling that when listening to comics editors speak about their work, they openly admit to focusing entirely on the art and not caring so much for the writing. That’s understandable, considering that good art is a must-have for a decent comic book, but it’s still sad to hear editors (editors!) say “I’m in comics so I don’t have to deal with words.” There are a few exceptionally-well-written comics out there (Fables?). I tried to find some more, but alas no luck. Oh well.

I’ll definitely be looking forward to NYCC next year. Mark your calendars for October 14 – 16, 2011!

REVIEW: Dreadnought by Cherie Priest

Dreadnought by Cherie Priest Title: Dreadnought
Author: Cherie Priest
Pub Date: September 28, 2010
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
Exciting steampunk set in an alternate nineteenth century America.

Dreadnought by Cherie Priest is an excellent steampunk novel set in an alternate 19th century America: replete with airships, trains, walking war machines, and zombies; what more could you ask? While set in the same universe as her 2009 Boneshaker, Dreadnought is a standalone novel and can certainly be enjoyed without having read Boneshaker.

I’ve been a fan of Priest’s since she knocked the ball out of the park with her Hugo-and-Nebula-nominated Boneshaker in 2009. Boneshaker introduced me to her “Clockwork Century,” a nineteenth century United States where the Civil War has gone on for twenty years. The characters, the pacing, and the writing of that book sucked me in and left me thinking about it months after I’d read it and so I was eagerly looking forward to Dreadnought. Thankfully, Priest did not disappoint.

Dreadnought follows Venita “Mercy” Lynch, a southern nurse working at a military hospital in Virginia as she travels across the country to see her estranged father in Seattle. Her trip takes us down the front lines of the Civil War and across the frontier. Mercy is just passing through all of the places she visits, and we’re just passing through with her. As a result, Dreadnought is understandably not as grounded in place as Boneshaker was. But Mercy focuses her attention on the people she encounters during her trip, and this performs two admirable tricks: it grounds the book in time, and it instantly makes us care about our hero.

The characters and the voice are the best part of this book: they are what kept me turning pages on the edge of my seat. While written in close-perspective third person, I felt like I was reading a first-person book. The details mentioned in the prose observations and the cadence of individual sentences cemented me in Mercy’s head. Priest admirably avoids typographic sleight-of-hand (which I usually find annoying as all hell) to establish her characters as “southern” or “western” or “Mexican”: her dialog is generally written in clear, understandable English. But the way she constructs her sentences gives each character and even the third-person narrator a distinct “flavor” that establishes them in time and place. Even the narrator spoke in my head with a slight southern accent, the kind one might hear from northern Virginia. Throughout Dreadnought’s 400 pages, there was only one (exactly one!) sentence that rang off-true and knocked me out of Mercy’s head. The rarity of such a misstep is a testament to the skill with which Priest draws her characters and grounds them in her fictionalized history.

Fans of alternate history might want to take Priest’s fictional history with a grain of salt: this is not a Harry Turtledove alternate history that painstakingly considers actual history and how it might have played out differently. Instead, Priest makes a sweeping conceit and uses it to buttress a fantasy world. In this, her work is closer to Emma Bull’s Territory or Patricia C. Wrede’s Frontier Magic than to Harry Turtledove’s Timeline-191.

Nonetheless, the book is heavily informed by Civil War history. In her acknowledgments, Priest mentions using the Louisa May Alcott letters to research her fictional Civil War hospital and this homework shows: the opening chapters bring to mind Walt Whitman’s Memoranda During the War, with all of the pain and hardship of nineteenth century medical care. If the facts of history are altered, the basic feeling, lifestyles, and value systems are consistent with what I have read about late nineteenth century America. This firmly establishes Dreadnought in time, making Priest’s “alternate USA” plausible.

“Classic” steampunk motifs – airships, steam/diesel-powered “walkers”, trains – are rendered believably: Mercy is ignorant of much of the mechanics, but she is forced to deal with them and we learn about them along with her. These devices struck me as more prevalent in Dreadnought than they were in Boneshaker, but as methods-of-conveyance they played a more central role to the story so it makes sense.

If there is anything to criticize in this book, it is not the author’s fault. If you buy this book and want to avoid spoilers, avoid the back cover copy. I made the mistake of reading it, and was given a very neat little synopsis of the first 65% of the book. Thank you for that, but I’d rather read the book: next time, just “vague it up” a bit, please. Barring this (minor) complaint, the rest of the book’s design is superb: excellent cover art by Jon Foster (who also did the cover for Boneshaker), and a brilliant sepia ink really make the book an attractive object in its own right.

Dreadnought is an improvement over the already-excellent Boneshaker. It is a simpler story, but that simplicity gives us greater richness. I thought Boneshaker was a good example of steampunk being the new gothic, and Dreadnought continues this tradition. It feels less Gothic, but that is due to its lack of a solitary villain and its persistent sense of motion (which isn’t really surprising in a travel story).

This book is tremendously fun to read. It is exciting, the characters engaging and the monsters scary. If you like zombies and the steampunk aesthetic, you will love this book.

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