Trials and Tribulations

James Miller – UnAmerican Activities (Dodo Ink)

Not every book can be perfect. The prologue and epilogue of this one, for example, are absolutely obnoxious and will ruin your reading experience, if not your whole day. Thankfully, books aren’t sacred either. Upon first purchasing a copy of UnAmerican Activities I recommend tearing these pages out and burning them. Congratulations, you are now left with a brilliant book.

UnAmerican Activities is a series of short stories which, as the book progresses, become tantalisingly close to a novel, before once again dissipating into tall tales. Their subject is America, the dark side of Americana, and, in particular, that dark side as it appears to a writer from London, England. It is a romantic ballad of trailer parks and badlands, or evangelists and good ol’ boys, seedy motels, crack and conspiracies. It’s B-movie America, and who doesn’t love a good B-Movie?

The first stories, with catchy titles like “Eat my Face” and “Exploding Zombie Cock”, establish a postlapsarian nation where all are sinners and there are no good intentions. The characters border on caricature but, as in Fielding, their lack of moral qualms is what makes them compelling. These stories are punchy. No-one’s wasting time. Everyone acts. Into this mix, Miller pours movie monsters, and then the story really gets moving.

The best part of UnAmerican Activities is the monsters. Miller’s monsters really deserve the name. Of all the movies, books and games of recent years to be about monsters, so many have been metaphors for something, or sub-Frankenstinian exercises in sympathy for the outsider, that to encounter real monsters – brutal, terrifying, evil – is refreshing.

Miller knows how to write them too. I found myself asking at a Halloween party this year, “-but are vampires really scary?” Miller’s vampires haunt the imagination. The second half of the book features an extended arc with Nephilim, vampire hunters, occult plagues and ancient evils uncovered in the desert. There is a real sense of danger; of something dark at the heart of a nation already tearing itself apart. “The Abomination of Desolation”, above all, is an exercise in sustained tension which could rival anything by Stephen King.

The book is sparing in its use of hero characters, with only two innocents among its expansive cast. Abraham Helsing, the cheery Christian bounty hunter who tracks vampires on the side, and Esther Daniels, a teen writer with loopy survivalist parents, provide our only respite from an unremittingly bleak panorama. Their presence provides the contrast the narrative needs. They help us to discern the merely weak and self-deluding humans from the truly evil monsters.

It is for this reason that, perhaps against Miller’s intention, I find UnAmerican Activities to be a truly American, morally righteous set of parables. It makes me look back to recent novels like The Girl With All The Gifts (2014) which, in a fever of zombie-relativism, finds a happy ending in the total destruction of mankind. The author, M.R. Carey, implies this is deserved as humans weren’t tolerant enough to coexist with flesh eating monsters. In Miller’s world, by contrast, when you give yourself up to dark powers, bad things happen. At times the writing in UnAmerican Activities may appear nihilistic, but there’s some old time religion hidden in its heart that is extremely refreshing.

This isn’t to say that UnAmerican Activities is purely a horror book. It breaks enough genre conventions and rings enough lit crit bells that I would hope it appeals to a discerning readership as well. It deserves to be widely read. Every story is tightly plotted, the prose is controlled and well-paced, while the publishers – DoDo Ink – have presented the work beautifully. I would highly recommend reading it… but only if you start at page 17. I can’t get over that implied author. James Miller, I hope it aint you.

– Joe Darlington 

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One thought on “Trials and Tribulations

  1. i was taught by james miller at uni for creative writing and i was writing from a different race than my own. he said i was unable to do that so i should put in another layer to the narrative that would be the voice of me, the writer, basically to explain why it was okay for me to write from the perspective of another race in a different country. i hated it because it was a waste of time and didn’t add anything meaningful to the story (beyond a meta wink to the reader). is that what he has done here?

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