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"May be one of the most important novels published this year." —Toronto Star
"Pontypool shivers beneath the skin with unsettling wit. It is a deep book, but it is fun and magical as well." —Globe and Mail
"Buy all his books." —Now Magazine
"An exquisite writer . . . [B]lissfully overarching descriptions and deadpan humour that ensure Burgess won't be filed as a horror writer." —Uptown Magazine
"Like Burgess's last book, The Hellmouths of Bewdley, the writing in Pontypool is taut with inventive and poetic metaphors. Overtones of the Night of the Living Dead abound and the novel is filmic in approach, style, imagery, and construction." —Quill & Quire
"Quite literally, a hell of a read, enough to satisfy the most jaded appetite." —eye Weekly
The Nervous Population
Down in the strange hooves of Pontypool's tanning horses scratches one of Ontario's thinnest winds. Cold as a needle and far too complicated to ever leave the ground, these picks of air snap at fetlocks, blackening the legs of horses. The anonymous wind gathers its speed in turns around a cannon bone and tears across the ice of a frozen pool. It feels the behaviour of more famous systems and is consumed by the complexity of its origins, breaking into mad daggers and splintering into the phantoms of horses. These horses, vacancies now, or maybe caskets, are places for the wind to rest. And when a wind rests, its heart stops and it is dead forever. The horses on the ice, built from the corpse of a breeze, skate towards each other, not breathing, but intelligent. They leap inside their crazy minds and begin to make plans.
On the shore of the pool the other horses, ageing and brown, unglue their heels from the burning snow and align their bodies with the grain of the sun, counting the minutes, eight in all, until the first warming rays fall from the star's coat and drape across a horse's back, raising its withers and bathing its dark crest. The horses of leather and bone and cheek and thigh climb towards an open gate in the cedar fence that surrounds the pool. On the southern post claps the fat orange mitt of a man in a bulging white coat. In his other hand he swivels a bucket, clanging a metal dish against its sides.
The horses, five of them, roll in a line through the gate and are swallowed by the south shadow of the barn before they disappear into an open door. The man closes the gate and, swinging the bucket, follows a shallow gully of mud wending through the snow to a beige truck parked at the side of the road. He walks around the vehicle kicking the heavy ice that juts out, like teeth, from its underside until it loosens and falls, intact and old, onto the soft shoulders of the road. After circling the truck twice, swiping and kicking at random, he tries the tread of his boot in the access step and climbs into the driver's seat.
Beside him on the passenger seat is a copy of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Its leather cover is striped with road salt, the tar spine is pot-holed. The inner lining and mulling have surfaced through ruptures. Books X and XI are marked by curled strips of pink paper that would open to the story of Orpheus. On these pages are scribbles and strokes caught in the fresh yellow paths of a highlighter, and in the margins illegible markings run the full length of page after page of the book. The man drops the bucket on the passenger floor, spraying a new chain of spots across the volume, which he turns over and presses for a second into the upholstery. He pops open the glove compartment with his huge orange thumb, lifts the book in the soft potato of his mitt and drops it on a stack of crisp white flyers.
Across the top of the flyers, in lettering flown with ears and arches, are the calligraphied words: "The Pontypool Players Present King Lear." Beneath this: "directed by Les Reardon." The opening performance is dated today. The man, who is in fact the same Les Reardon, claps the glove box three times until it closes. He removes his gloves and starts the truck. While he waits for it to warm up he turns on the radio.
If you've just tuned in we're asking the question: Was it really our responsibility to feed the deer this winter? The problem is that the severity of the season has made food scarce. So a huge number of the deer population are not expected to survive. This huge population is a result of, is caused by, a previous government's winter feeding program.
Les squints out through the salted windshield looking for rampant feeding programs. Or deer. He finds neither.
So what we're asking today is this: Should we just put the whole business back in nature's hands, or do we go on spending tax dollars to wreak ecological havoc just so a few shortsighted animal lovers can feel all warm and fuzzy? That's the question. Hello caller. What do you make of this?
Les rotates the dome at the end of his turn signal. The switch sends a blue stream into the path of a wiper. He repeats this tiny twirl with his fingers, and he mimics the sounds made against the windshield by sucking his tongue through his lips.
I don't think there's any question. This is what nature wants. Let her trim the population.
OK. You don't have a problem with preventable mass deaths?
It's not the ones that die that are important, it's the ones that live, the strong ones.
Survival of the fittest, eh?
You got it.
OK. Sounds good to me. Hello. Who am I speaking to?
Les rolls the window up until it seals. He breathes onto its surface, and in this opacity he draws with his finger a man in a hat. He puts a pipe in the man's mouth, but it looks more like an oar, so he wipes the window clear with the mitt he lifts from his lap.
Peter. Listen, a living thing's a living thing, and if we can save them we should.
But aren't we just contributing to the problem?
No. We're responsible for the problem, and our responsibility is to protect these herds.
Says who, Peter?
Me. I say so.
Well, if you say so Petey. Hello?
Hello. I just can't stand to think of those poor animals starving in the cold, mothers with their little does shivering in the wind. I think it's terrible. How much does it cost to feed them, anyway?
Well, actually, nothing, it's always been a volunteer thing, but hey, that's not the point. It's not a matter of economics, it's really a matter of what nature wants, and somehow I don't think she spends a lot of time caring for a surplus of weakened animals at the expense of a healthy population.CHAPTER 2
A Healthy Population
Deep in the woods a female deer lies on her side as thirty baby deer slide easily from her birth canal on an immense sluice of effluence. As the moon appears above the trees its tidal effect on the afterbirth is visible. In the morning, children in full hockey gear skate across the purple and red ice, weaving around an obstacle course of tan corpses. Several of the deer stand frozen, and the children cut down all but two. They become the opposing nets of a makeshift hockey rink. A heart thawed over a small fire is used to draw the centre line and goal creases. A great deal of time is spent disembowelling the baby creatures so that their frozen feces can be used as pucks; however, having never eaten, their little bodies are as clean as packaged straws. The children settle for the mother's hoof, which twists off easily.
As the sun climbs to a height that the clouds can't reach, its rays smooth down the amniotic ice, turning it silver around children who slide out of control. The hockey players drift horizontally, like beads of mercury, losing the hoof, while they grab at the exposed backs of baby deer to keep themselves from being drawn along on their bellies toward some remote, invisible cliff.
Les pulls his truck onto the highway and, flicking off the radio, lifts a cell phone from his side to dial a number.
"Mary, howdy, Les here. Yeah, they're good. Hey, what do you think of doing Ovid?"
Les makes a right up a long ice-covered driveway and stops halfway between the highway and a brick farmhouse that stands alone on a white hill in a field. Long rows of dark soil break intermittently through the snow.
"I know, but we could adapt them."
Les reaches over and pops open the glove box and pulls out the book. Encircling the steering wheel with his arms, he turns to his marked pages. A powder of crystals swirls in through the driver's window he's cracked open again, glittering the book. Les tries to blow the pages clean but his warm breath melts the ice that sinks through the letters.
"A horror story? They want to do a horror story?"
Les tosses the book onto the dash and pulls off his toque, letting loose a six-inch whip of grey hair that he pulls back over the top of his balding head.
"I was thinking about Orpheus. Now that's a horror story."
Les stares out the side window while he listens, occasionally rolling his eyes, and at a distance he watches a man with a rifle emerge from the woods.
"Ed Gein? Now who the hell is Ed Gein?"
While Les listens to the story of how Ed Gein redecorated his farmhouse with body parts, he can't shake the story's dramaturgical inevitability as a home-shopping network sketch. Besides working for a livestock farmer, Les plans to direct the Campbellcroft High School yearly theatrical production. His ambition is to elevate a small troupe of drama students to a recognized regional company. He has printed flyers for productions of King Lear, Oedipus Rex, The Rez Sisters and Artichoke. Flyers that no one has ever seen. Les Reardon now believes that he is also destined to write the play he will direct. He wants to adapt the mythology of Orpheus into an outdoor spectacle — to include the music of the forest, the photosynthetic process, its colours and its honey and the trembling of stones, the abdomen of bees and the shadows of snakes. He wants to conjure an Orpheus, be possessed by him. And you know, Les thinks, people love outdoor theatre. Like in Toronto, the Shakespeare-in-the-park thing. I could have an annual Orphic festival. Except. Except now these kids want to do a serial killer. These kids think they discovered the low brow thrill allegory. So, it's the Ed Gein Home Shopping Network-in-the-park.
"OK. Listen, if they wanna do this cannibal thing, God help us, I wanna write my Orpheus into it."
Les grabs his Ovid by the spine, spilling several pages to the floor.
"Shit! OK. Listen, I can do it. It'll work. It'll be great. Look I gotta go. I got a hunter on my property, and I gotta chase him off. I'll call you later."CHAPTER 3
A Hunted Population
The hunter stops and turns towards the sound of the truck door slamming. The two men square off opposite each other, a full acre apart. As Les reaches behind to flip the door handle to check that it is locked, the hunter holds his rifle out from his waist, his hands gripping in formal distances from either end. Les recognizes this as a military move, a way to hold a rifle safely and run. In order to accentuate the joke being formed between them, Les begins to walk towards the man as casually as he can, stopping occasionally to cock his head and lift his hands in surrender. When they are within twenty metres of each other the hunter turns and starts lifting his knees in a strange slow run. Les raises his wind-chapped hands to his wind-chapped cheeks.
"Hey! Hey buddy, hang on there!"
Buddy manoeuvres evasively around a stack of cord-wood, successfully disappearing from the enemy's sight. Les has grown annoyed, and as he reaches the spot where the hunter has disappeared he shouts, "Hey, asshole!" Three feet to his right the asshole crouches against the woodpile and kicks his feet out in order to roll onto his belly. He becomes tangled in the low boughs of a tree. Resorting to a clumsy series of civilian manoeuvres, the hunter, still on his side, slaps at the tree, which has snatched the barrel of his rifle.
Growing concerned for the safety of both man and conifer, Les approaches the battling pair with his hands out — hands that flit in a signal between harmlessness and helpfulness, careful not to trigger the wrong response in this man. With a final grunt and tug the man frees the weapon, driving its expensive butt directly into Les's shoulder. Before the first impact has even had a chance to hurt, the weapon fires and kicks Les again. Spinning onto his back, Les feels his shoulder disappear into the ground. He reaches to see if it's still there. It is. The pain surfaces out of the snow to find the shoulder. The brightness of this feeling springs through his body and sweat fills his boots. Les lies still for a moment, and he hears the hunter crashing through the forest. He sits up painfully and realizes that he is now seriously angry. You want an enemy? Les thinks, well, you've got one. And I'm gonna wrap that precious weapon of yours around your neck.
The anger arranges itself directly over the pain, and when Les stands he is already sprinting after the hunter. The path of the man's escape is itself a spectacle. He's not gone between trees but attempted to run through them. On their cracked branches hang, like Christmas decorations, little shreds of a camouflage snowsuit. At one point Les hops over the discarded knapsack of his quarry. Later, black latex goggles lay in the path, crumpled like S&M gear tossed off in a moment of passion; at some distance the rifle itself, pretty and scented with oil, reclines across a pillow of snow.
Les pauses here beside the rifle and thinks, coldly and soberly, I might kill this son of a bitch. Les lifts the rifle. The elegant black backsight rises up from the stock. Across the empty space over the barrel a thin line leads to the foresight at the weapon's conclusion. Les lowers the rifle without checking the safety, and he strolls — dangerously, he knows — handling the weapon dangerously. He flips his frozen finger in and out of the trigger guard, the scent of it warming his hand.
He reaches a frozen stream where the hunter has obviously grown confused, his trail doubling back over itself, aborting directions. He's lost. Stupid bugger. Scared stiff. Les lifts the rifle and turns the bolt handle, flipping the round out into the snow. He throws the safety on before cradling the gun over his shoulder. After spending several minutes tracing the meandering steps of the hunter he determines that he's probably heading down the centre of the frozen river.
One hundred metres along Les discovers the hunter lying on his side, facing away. He grows alarmed and, moving closer to the figure on the ice, notices blood spreading out from its face. Leaning over the body he sees that, in fact, there is very little face left. By the aggression of the act and the senseless snatch of missing face, of missing life, Les knows that a human being has done this.
Has just done this.CHAPTER 4
The detective looks like a hockey player. He has a penalty box chin and eyes that recede way up into the cheap seats, the greys, faint in a mist beneath his heavy brow. His tie flips across his chest like a cat's tail, alive, kinking against his knuckles for attention. The suit is not his preferred uniform, not the one he trains in. That one has action figure invisibility, so he ignores what he's wearing, and the suit sails up over his shoes, gathers thickly in his armpits, and keeps rising north. He looks over at the man sitting across from him. Quiet. Patient. The detective thinks of himself as a people scientist. Les Reardon is a quiet, patient man.
Sitting in the little coatroom of a country church, surrounded by a dragon of wire coat hangers, Les Reardon has been shifting uncomfortably on a small wooden chair for two hours. Expecting to leave any second, he's kept his coat on. Now that the detective has come in and sat down, Les regards the chain of hangers circling him as a lost opportunity. With his coat off he might have appeared cooperative, casual, at home in the investigation. Les puts his heavily padded elbows on his knees and twirls his cap in his hands. He feels restless. He wants to say something.
The detective continues writing in a folder. He'll do this for five minutes. Testing his theory. Mr. Reardon is a quiet, patient man. Mr. Reardon works with someone else's cows and horses. He's a drama teacher. The detective likes men with decent effeminate professions. He looks up at Les to assess the femaleness of the man, to determine whether to contest it or flirt with him. The detective notices that his own handwriting is pioneering the interview, the dots are pecking impatiently on the outskirts of the "is", and a brusque circle around the date misses something crucial. The detective introduces himself.
"Mr. Reardon, I'm detective Peterson. How are you? I appreciate you co-operating."
The detective attempts to untuck his sleeves at the elbow, but can't.
"I guess what I need to hear from you is exactly what happened out there."
Les tells his story. He remembers it as a western, a shootout, but he tells it as if he were a decent man, protecting his property. As he tells the story, "I found a wounded deer in the garage last year, so I have posted the property ..." in Les's head, or rather his imagination, a crazy bulb swings at the end of a cord, and the drama teacher stands in its green light, staring down the sights of a weapon. His grin hangs off the side of his face, a stirrup lost across the ankle of a boot. When he's finished, the detective gauges the effect of the murder scene on Les. A drama coach, or whatever he is, he's not so decent. He's acting.
Let's see a show.
"Awright, I have a dead man, and I have a man here, sitting across from me, who I found at the scene. You chased the victim into the dense brush, swinging his rifle at your side, and all of a sudden it's a homicide scene. Now, what do I say? What do I do with your connection here?"
Les straightens the label on the inside of his cap. It curls back against his baby finger, a tighter furl for having been unwound.
Excerpted from Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess. Copyright © 2009 Tony Burgess. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted February 15, 2013
Off the bat, this book was written to confuse the hell out of you. If your not willing to put the effort into understanding it then it's not for you
Simply interpreting it as a zombie novel is an oversimplification, it is a discussion on how ideas, even potentially dangerous ones, spread between people.
We would like to think that the crazed killers of this novel don't exist, but the author's point is that they do. People kill themselves and others every day for an idea that was introduced to them from outside. (religious extremists
politically motivated people, etc.) the very point of the confusing language is to demonstrate the distortion a change in thought processes can cause.
Sorry Charla6321 if this book gave you some trouble, but an inability to understand does not a bad book make.
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Posted June 28, 2012
I wish I could say I enjoyed this book but found it difficult to follow - the writing was extremely cryptic - for all but the last thirty pages or so, I thought the first character was schizophrenic or perhaps the story was being told from the zombie view point but nope, none of those. The end is where the truth comes out but wading through so much of the book to discover this was unbearable (at least for me). Also, the one scene with the disc jockey - really? that had a place in the book????????? And the kids playing blue lagoon in the middle of Canada???? I am sure this is an excellent author but for me, this book was the worst of 2012 for me to have to read (reading for the zombie book club).
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