Gay Book Review: Kick at the Darkness by Keira Andrews
(Warning Spoilers ahead in my review)
There's something about Zombies that fascinates people to write social commentary in their story. I guess the idea of a group of mindless merciless beings that consume the flesh of normal human beings or worse converts them into one of them has a lot of application to things such as consumerism, human exploitation, political satire, and "mob mentality". I enjoy well written Zombie stories, because they mirror some of the worst flaws in human society, the problem of the group. When I was young, I wasn't into Zombie stories, nor did my upbringing introduce me to the concept of Zombies. In recent years, Korean film makers have crafted movies like Train to Busan and streaming shows like Kingdom, which with its 16th century setting has retcon them into Far Eastern sensibilities. However, in traditional storytelling, East Asian stories don't have an equivalent to the Western Zombie; though we have stories of the undead, ghosts, and ghouls out for "Selective" vengeance.
Werewolves are a different kind of story that is more niche than the variable Zombie-genre, which has grown in the last few decades. The idea of man becoming a beast is fascinating in its own right, but there is variability in the storytelling. In Western story tradition, Werewolves are usually viewed as villains, who like Zombie stalk human beings for sustenance and their bites can convert humans to their side. Essentially, the werewolf is portrayed as humanity in our beast state, who have abandoned the benefits of civilization for the nature. However, in East Asian story traditions, where creatures such as the werewolves exist along with foxes and deer who can shapeshift into human beings, they are considered part of the "natural" world, humans intrude on their domains or they are sent by nature to punish human beings for our misdeeds. In Far Eastern folklore, their presence is also malign, but the blame is not on them or their nature, rather it's humanity that prompts them to act, many times in self-defense, to destroy civilizations.
Beyond a few odd horror fiction stories, I have rarely read a story that contains both elements until Keira Andrew's Kick at the Darkness. The Zombie-Apocalypse is an old narrative device now with The Walking Dead being a notorious example, but having gay characters confront the Zombie Apocalypse is refreshingly new. There's also a bit of parallel (and horror) if you compare certain early plot elements to current issues: A Pandemic spreads rapidly across the world, news spread with various loose or false narrative, and eerily the hope of people that "Authorities" will control the outbreak to no avail. Yes, this is a story that has aged better with COVID-19 pandemic, written 6 years ago before our current predicament means that the author is not out to make a quick buck from current events.
The setting is not original, but the characters and how they deal with the end of the world are.
Let's start off with our first protagonist character: Parker. At first, I found him annoying, whiny, and self-absorbed. His first few chapters feels like I am reading a caricature of a stereotypical Millennial. He's also the reason why he and Adam, co-protagonist, have to go on a road trip across Post-Zombie Apocalypse USA to reach Cape Cop in Massachusetts to find his family. Logically, it is insane idea to travel that far for what may (and eventually proves to be) a futile effort. As the story progress, we learn more about him and if you open your minds a little, enjoy his quirks. As a gay man, I can understand his innate fears and can imagine what he went through growing up, not in the closet but not accepted fully either. He has a very deep yearning to please and "meet expectations". In this way, Parker's self-esteem is probably the lowest of any character I've ever read in fiction. Whether its his father, who appears to push him into an acceptable profession, i.e. law school, before the Apocalypse, or his last relationship with a boy in high school, who used him as a Cum-dump and remained closeted himself. Parker is used to being degraded and pushed around. He's not just a snowflake by accident, he's been beaten up emotionally to the point where he expects others to treat him a certain way.
He grows eventually, due to his love for Adam. Adam would nurse him back to health over 2 days in the wilderness, he found a guy who would not abandon him for his flaws or lack of "meeting expectations". He realizes he can't live without Adam, they soon become lovers. The Desert motel incident left him feeling incomplete and unsatisfied, which is sadly something I do want to touch on. I think at this point in the story Parker has developed a "sex = worth" issues, Adam loves him for more than the sucking and fucking, but Parker has never known that type of love beyond the sex. It's a testament to the author to display Parker's issues without psychoanalyzing him, he's got deep-seeded problems that a lot of gay guys can see. When Adam meets another werewolf, Parker feels his inadequacy and fears rejection due to the lack of sex as well. Parker's character breakout of this mold somewhat after he saved Adam from a mad scientists, but it remains unresolved (and continues to remain unresolved in Book 2 of this series Fight the Tide).
Basically, readers, if you give Parker a chance and think about his motivations with the subtext that I noted above, he's a deeply flawed and intriguing character. Yes, he may come off as a complete bottom-boy stereotype, but I am glad that there's reasons for why he's that way, which asks some tougher questions.
Now as for the 2nd Protagonist, Adam. He's basically....Mr. Spock as a Werewolf 😮 Yes, he's stoic and holds his emotions down, but he was trained from a very young age to control his "wolf". I find this take on a werewolf very fascinating. He has a lot of emotions and is deeply in love with Parker, but like Parker, he doesn't know how to express his love. Partly due to his werewolf secrets and partly due to the fact that he's a "lone wolf", since his entire family/pack died in a car accident (They were decapitated, which like a lot of horror stories would prevent supernatural creatures from using their healing factors). Then, there's the whole background of him being in foster case, trying to reveal himself to his foster parents (then being rejected out of fear), and him running away. His werewolf nature is oddly enough a parable for LGBTQ+ kids, who try to come out to their families and being rejected by them. Parker doesn't reject him, though and they became intimate with one another soon after establishing that kind of bond.
Adam has an emptiness where his family used to be, which is one reason he became a film major, trying to capture the moments of joy and belonging that he has long lost. We learn a lot about the lore in this stories' universe about Werewolves, they have transformation ability, extreme speed, healing factor (possibly even immunity to Zombie virus), and a deep connection as a species with one another. I can understand why Parker is jealous of Adam's werewolf connection to an ancillary character named Ramon, but if you look at from Adam's perspective, it's a call of belonging that comes naturally to him. In the end though, Adam learns that his natural instincts had led them into a trap, but it's not his fault.
At the heart of the story, I think the author consciously or subconsciously created a split between group dynamic/relationships and Individual drives. Parker is a character driven by his individual drives and seek to find fulfillment in goals/expectations, in romance he seeks his partner's sexual gratification as a result to prove his individual merits. Adam on the other hand seeks group dynamic/relationship, he is trying to fill the emptiness in his life left by his dead family and trying to connect with others, especially Parker, who he has bonded with.
A self-centered individualist and a group oriented person is a good dichotomy for a relationship, learning to accept help from others and learning to reach personal goals help both of them in the end. The story ends when they reach a desolate Cape Cod town. I like the call outs and the sex on the Provincetown Dunes was cutely relevant (I know gay guys do that around here). They choose to go out to sea and find a new destination, where there maybe hope.
Overall, I give this story 9 out of 10, it was good and it didn't fall into any of the Tropes of Fantasy genre dealing with Werewolves. I also like how subtle the psychological issues human beings are displayed throughout the story. They aren't evil per se, but they are broken. Parker and Adam were broken before the Zombie Apocalypse, but seeing them interact with other survivors fleshed out how strange this new world has become.
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