I don’t often have this sensation while reading, but while I read Nate Crowley’s The Death and Life of Schneider Wrack, my mind kept dredging up images of one person in particular. She and I share a love of zombie fiction, and Schneider Wrack can be technically counted as one of the undead: he awakes to himself one day, rotted and scrabbling in dead flesh, on the deck of an enormous ship, in a besieged place called Ocean.
Wrack can’t remember much of his life, but he can remember he was a librarian, before being convicted for sedition and put to death. He doesn’t even remember if he’s guilty of his crimes. In the lacuna between his death and reawakening, his undead body was used by a government at war to fish the monstrous seas of Ocean. Scads of the undead, grill-mouthed overseers, scary robo-manta rays, and incalculably large leviathan people this horrific landscape.
The simple inclusion of the undead wasn’t enough to get me thinking of my fellow zombie-phile, but the spongy, gloopy gore splattered all over the novel was—and its sense of gleefully off-kilter comedy. I was also reminded of Tony Burgess’s The n-Body Problem, another weirdo zombie novel my fellow reader and I bonded over. Both books are hideously disgusting, just absolutely playing in guts, and other stuff better not looked at too closely. Both are also riotously funny, in that weird way splatstick films (that’s not a typo, but a a portmanteau of slapstick and blood-splatter) can be funny—think Evil Dead or Shaun of the Dead.
Like the best splatstick, Schneider Wrack is self-aware and has something to say, rife with sly genre commentary and a brutal social sense. I can find over-the-top gore funny in and of itself, but I like it a whole lot more when there’s a reason behind all the insides turned outside. Schneider figures if he’s going to be guilty of something, he might as well be guilty of something, and works toward a sort of undead uprising on the inhospitable ship. He awakens his fellow undead, many of them little more than smeary piles of bones and offal, and sets them against their overseers, and then the ship itself.
This isn’t a drear stealth treatise on labor conditions, or a one-to-one allegory, but something weirder, grosser, and more fun. For example, the undead go whaling, Moby Dick-style, for an alien monster on an ocean without a bottom. While there’s a sly invocation and then near-dismissal of Melville’s classic novel—the undead are just as tethered to Ocean’s inexplicable desires as the crew of the Pequod to its captain, though they’re the ones looking for revenge—there are strange, beautiful moments of horror in the mix: an undead man gives up his fight and sinks, sinks, down through the blackening water, as Wrack gives witness.
Once the undead denizens of the monster ship Tavuto take charge of it, and their destinies, things really take off. Wrack and his first mate of sorts, Mouana, are given their backstories, which sometimes rub against their undead lives. The technology and sense of Ocean and the other planets (realms? places?) they visit have the strange alternate-sense of Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, a novel in which strict physics is eschewed for a more emotionally resonating architecture. Which is an altogether dorky way of saying that the weird world of The Death and Life of Schneider Wrack works, but it works on its own terms.
This book won’t work for every reader. The grand guignol sensibility alone is going to turn off those who take no joy in such a project. But it’s the kind of book that makes me think of one reader in particular, and she’s probably going to love it. The Death and Life of Schneider Wrack makes me think about how disgust and empathy are intimately intertwined, and how one can overcome the other, but that it’s oftentimes a close thing. May all pulp be as smart.