Cold Storage: More Like Lukewarm but Still Comfortable

I’ve had no small amount of difficulty deciding how to rate this book. Cold Storage, by David Koepp, is a horror novel that essentially takes Richard Preston’s nonfiction book, The Hot Zone, and jazzes it up with sentient mushrooms instead of Ebola. 

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It’s a choice that should have fallen firmly within my wheelhouse but, spoiler alert, my reaction at the end was fairly tepid. To me, this type of scary situation is served better through a sense of realism, where it can remain firmly grounded and can subtly suspend the reader’s disbelief. While I enjoyed the moments that felt over the top, I definitely felt like this was more of a Michael Bay take on the “scary disease outbreak” genre. This may resonate with some, but for me, it feels as if it misses the point of good horror as it doesn’t remind the reader that scary stuff happens all the time and more importantly, that scary stuff can happen to them.

Beginning with a brief first look into the story 32 years before the events of the meat of the book, Cold Storage introduces us to one of our main characters, Roberto Diaz, in what appears to be a very trying time in his life. Tempted to cheat on his wife with a colleague and on his way to Australia with her and his partner, he is given a first-hand look at what Koepp has named Cordyceps Novus, the “villain” of the book. A mind-controlling fungus familiar to anyone who has watched the docuseries Planet Earth or played the video game The Last of Us, Cordyceps is a parasitic mushroom that infects the brain of (currently) insects and turns them into zombie suicide bombers. After the mission to Australia Cordyceps Novus is contained and put into, you guessed it, cold storage in the United States. Fast forward 32 years and, you guessed it again, Cordyceps Novus has somehow managed to breach its containment and start infecting stuff. Cue a mostly grounded and fun adventure with a few absolutely eyebrow-raising moments.

These moments are experienced by the aforementioned Roberto Diaz and a pair of civilians, Teacake and Naomi Williams. I found the parts with Teacake and Naomi to be the most fun parts of the book. From their perspectives, we are given an exciting and fun story that starts as a fun mystery and quickly moves to abject horror. After finally meeting while at work on the night shift at the storage facility, they hear a beeping and, since they’re characters in a horror book, decide they need to check it out. This leads to a really fun story of hijinks and “don’t do that!” moments reminiscent of watching a horror movie in a theater. Diaz’s story, on the other hand, didn’t really ever click for me. I liked the idea of a run-down and retired superagent having to be reactivated for the return of his biggest boogeyman, and I thought there was a lot of potential there. Unfortunately, this part of the story made it very difficult to suspend my disbelief. I was willing to go along with a lot of stuff, I’m reading a book about a horrifying mushroom zombie parasite outbreak, but there were things so ridiculous and absolutely impossible that I actually put the book down for a minute. It was strange to read something that seemed so far outside the bounds of the realism that the rest of the book seemed to strive for, and it really left a sour taste in my mouth.

Swinging back into the positives, I really enjoyed the descriptions of Cordyceps Novus and the thought patterns that the infected were going through. The way the parasite evolved through the book and Koepp’s reasoning for it struck me as very realistic while still being alien enough to frighten. I felt that the pseudo-scientific reasoning for the paths the fungus took while mutating was really interesting and served to build a really interesting villain out of what is a replicating colony of spores at the end of the day. I really wish that the book had either been longer or that this had been at least a duology, as I don’t think that Cordyceps Novus really had enough runtime to shine as a true threat and exciting villain. What we got was good, but I wanted more.

That feeling of wanting more plays into a theory of mine about this book. I think this was a screenplay that was a difficult sell to production companies after the zombie genre collapse, and Koepp decided to flesh it out to a full-length novel. The over the top action scenes and buddy/romance story between Naomi and Teacake, the superagent gearing up scenes, and the final climax all seem more like they were written for the big screen than as a novel. I don’t think this is a bad thing, and what we got was a fun and exciting ride for the runtime, but I couldn’t shake that sneaking suspicion and when I looked recently at the back of the book there is a blurb specifically touting Koepp as a screenwriter and not an author, which I found somewhat edifying to this theory. I hope that Koepp continues writing for the page, though, as this was a fun time.

Cold Storage was not a masterpiece. However, it was a very fun, easy, and quick read that I immediately recommended to my friend in the car when I put it down. It reads like a novelization of an action-horror movie, and as such is a really great popcorn book to turn the critical parts of your brain off and have a good time with. If you’re looking for retired government agents, some pretty legit body horror, and a zombie deer riding elevators then look no further than Cold Storage.

Rating: Cold Storage – 6.5/10

Hollow Kingdom – Crow And Tell

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Kira Jane Buxton’s Hollow Kingdom, for better or worse, is one of the most unique books I’ve read in recent memory. Buxton treads new ground within the zombie genre, exploring the apocalypse through new eyes. Buxton veers so sharply off the beaten path that Hollow Kingdom feels like something entirely new. Whether readers find the playful departure from typical zombie fare refreshing or off-putting, though, will likely boil down to personal taste and maturity. This is not a genre-defying, revolutionary work of literature, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a fun diversion for some.

Hollow Kingdom follows protagonist Shit Turd (S.T. for short, and no, I am not joking), a Seattle-dwelling domesticated crow. S.T.’s owner, Big Jim, succumbs to the zombifying disease that has already spread to most of his known world. Following a few hilarious attempts to heal Big Jim (including delivering a cocktail of Walgreens-brand over-the-counter medications to the decaying human), S.T. takes Dennis, his basset-hound companion, on a journey to find the cure. This is where the novel veers wildly off the usual zombie-apocalypse path and represents the turning point where I expect readers will choose either to skip this story or see it through. S.T. and Dennis realize the infection is incredibly widespread and has left thousands of Seattle’s domestic pets trapped in their homes. They take it upon themselves to unite two worlds–the domestic and wild animals–to free those trapped in their homes and ostensibly find a way to cure their human compatriots

Following in the footsteps of its whimsical premise, Hollow Kingdom boasts idiosyncratic prose. It is littered with strong cussing and references to brand name products (S.T. considers Cheetos a delicacy). The jokes and irreverent language take a scattershot approach: volume over accuracy. Many of the quickfire puns or references land with chuckle-worthy gusto and others breeze by forgettably. On the whole, I enjoyed the less serious tone. There’s something enticing about a swearing crow with human-like behaviors; it led me to swiftly devour the book despite a few other misgivings.

This brings me to the story. The recap above only covers the first few chapters and overlooks some of the more spoilery aspects of the novel, but there are tons of fun set pieces in this 320-page read that I never expected. Some of it’s great, like a diversion to the aquarium during which S.T. talks to an octopus; Aura, the bird equivalent of the internet; and S.T.’s interactions with wild animals to whom he only feels tangentially connected. Other elements fell short, though I suspect those faults boiled down mostly to personal taste. The zombies are underexplored and under described, and I get it–it’s not a book about the zombies or even the humans who became the zombies. But this caveat opens up some story holes that left me saying “Huh?” more than once. The cause of the zombification, and the later stages of it, are both underdeveloped. It’s not an outright knock on the book, though. I’ve already said it, but it’s worth reinforcing that these problems may cause no issue with other readers. I just wanted a more traditional zombie story within the fun and carefree packaging of Buxton’s prose.

The characters of Hollow Kingdom slot neatly into my personal disconnect between prose and story, resting right in the middle. It’s intriguing to explore the zombie apocalypse through the lens of animals, and S.T. interacts with a bevy of them. Cool, crazy, smart, stupid–the gang’s all here, and meeting them as the human-ish S.T. is a fun romp through an interesting cast of fauna.

Hollow Kingdom is one of those books that requires a specific palate. It’s a read that I’d recommend to friends with a distinct checklist of “likes” in a novel, or to someone seeking a completely new take on zombies and the impact of their spread through humanity on other living beings. At its best, it’s an amusing adventure through S.T.’s zombie-ridden world, and if the premise sounds interesting, it’s worth checking out.

Rating: Hollow Kingdom – 6.5/10
-Cole