Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Review: Pontypool Changes Everything

Tony Burgess, 1998 (new ed. 2009), ECW Press

The island community of Pontypool, Ontario, is a remote, cold, peaceful place where people live relatively uneventful lives day-by-day; Les Reardon, for example is checking his property for poachers while he thinks about tonight’s opening performance of Pontypool Players’ King Lear (directed by himself), and tries not to dwell upon the various personal problems that have recently beset him. A few minutes later, a hunter on Les’ land is having his face chewed off, and nothing will ever be the same again.

Pontypool Changes Everything may be one of the most genuinely horrifying horror novels – as opposed to simply discomforting, sickening or terrifying, although it is all of these as well – that I have ever read, and the impact of this tale is due almost entirely to the author’s skill with prose. For a start, there’s the constant juxtaposition of utterly beautiful writing like this:

‘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...’

...with passages like this:

‘The killer’s neck is broken and he stands over the nurse with his head dropping to his chest. His mouth is open, a bright red gasket through which can be heard the bleating of animals. The sound he makes isn’t human; the message, however, is unmistakable. He’s saying: This doesn’t work, I’m failing.’

Still so beautifully written and understated that sometimes the reader is halfway through the horror before realisation hits.

Another intensely disturbing aspect of the story is that much of it is told from the viewpoint of characters infected with a ‘zombie’ virus (which, terrifyingly, is communicated not through biological vectors but through language). Burgess gives the reader a vivid ‘in’ to the cognitive processes of some rapidly degenerating people here (some of whom are a little ‘off’ before they even contract the virus), in a manner that’s calculated to both feed off and fuel our collective fear of mental illness.

I really can’t recommend this novel highly enough; in my opinion, it would (and should) definitely be up for major (non-genre) literary awards if not for the central zombie theme (and that’s a comment on mainstream literary prejudices, not my own). Pontypool Changes Everything is not an easy read by any means – aside from being horrific, it’s also extremely dense, surreal, and at times requires intense concentration to grasp certain meanings and concepts – but is nonetheless utterly rewarding to anyone willing to put in the effort.

A movie adaptation – simply entitled Pontypool – scripted by Burgess himself, and directed by Bruce McDonald, is due for release this year, although previews of seem to indicate that only the central concept of a virus spread through language has been retained. So: grab a copy of the book first, and treat yourself to one of the very best-ever excursions into horror literature.

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