Feb 13, 2011: Perhaps taking its cue from David Wong’s seminal online horror comedy John Dies at the End, with a dash of Stephen King’s The Stand, Adrian’s Undead Diary aims for a blend of chuckles and chills in portraying a world in gradual but irreversible decay in the face of a zombie apocalypse.
Adrian Ring is a likable, if unremarkable, everyguy who slowly discovers, along with the rest of the world, that the dead are rising and eating the living. Unlike many other zombie tales that plunge you into the heart of the action once the disaster is well underway, Adrian’s Undead Diary is a slow burn that echoes the gradual creeping disintegration of society as infrastructure collapses, as food and provisions become scarce and as small communities pull together (and, unfortunately, steal from, backstab and kill each other) to shield themselves from the undead onslaught.
The early entries establishing Adrian, the early days of the zombie disaster, and his initial efforts to find his family and develop his survival strategy are mildly amusing but not especially compelling or original (though there are some nice touches for zombie veterans as author Chris Philbrook adheres to some classic rules, breaks others and adds new quirks to the mix). To me, it takes more than a dozen diary entries—we’re at 77 as I write this—before chaos and catastrophe truly take hold and the drama really kicks in. At that point, the zombies become a backdrop as the real monsters emerge: ordinary human beings who’ve had their creature comforts, their social structure, their moral order ripped away.
Unfortunately, there are two fundamental flaws with this kind of storytelling that Philbrook never quite gets to grips with: First, the nature of journal narratives is that every time you turn the page and there’s another entry, you know the protagonist has survived whatever it is he’s about to tell you about—kind of a tension killer for a long-form horror story. Second, telling your story through an ordinary guy’s blog challenges a writer to strip away artifice (or at least to appear to) but more often encourages laxity to the point of artlessness. Even the best of the entries (and the most recent ones are charged with action and conflict) could stand a good rewrite—something the conceit*, and the writing schedule, probably doesn’t allow for.
If one pushes through the largely expository early entries and gets to the meat of the story, Adrian’s Undead Diary has quite a lot to offer. And if the author were to use this version as a rough draft for a tighter more polished novel, zombie fans—myself included—might well have something to celebrate.
So, funny story: Chris (Poirier, editor of WFG) asked me if I would approve his changing the word ‘conceit’ to something else (he chose ‘device’) because he was getting a lot of e-mail from people who did not understand that the word has numerous meanings including concept, thought or idea. It’s a slightly lighter word than concept or device but effectively marries the two. It is not perjorative and does not suggest that the writer is ‘conceited’ which conveys another meaning and is a whole other issue entirely. Since, really, it’s just a word and could be replaced by another relatively similar word, I said yes.
Chris has since shared some of your e-mails with me, and their tone and content has been—well, informative would be a diplomatic adjective. You’ll all be delighted to know that they have prompted me to revisit this decision, and the word ‘conceit’ will stand. It is the better word. I wish more writers would revisit what they’ve posted, and look for more effective, more precise, more varied, more meaningful words to express what they say, rather than settling for lazy and, yes, artless approximations.
And for those who are wondering—yes, I did get the point that Adrian as an everyman would use ordinary language to describe the extraordinary events around him and his reactions to them. One can use a wide range of language to create and reflect character quite effectively, particularly in journalistic and epistolary works (The Color Purple, The Turn of the Screw, Flowers for Algernon, We Need to Talk About Kevin, and even Dracula spring to mind). To my taste, AUD would be a stronger piece if the author demanded more of himself and gave more consideration to the quality of writing and the language choices he uses. It is not, after all, an actual diary but a simulation, and from what I see is striving to be more than just a time-filler for its author. It is certainly striving to be more for its protagonist, who is using it to keep company, stay sane and record what may be the end of the world’s history. I think the author—and his readers—would do well to respect and encourage the seriousness of those intentions. I believe a truly excellent work would result.
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