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Book Report: Even far away, zombies the rage What's with the current zombie craze?

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You can't turn on the TV without a commercial for an upcoming zombie movie.

Publishers are crazy for zombies, as in the novel I recently reviewed about the end of civilization, which is centered in Lower Manhattan and involves the paramilitary groups who are out to kill the zombies before the zombies eat their brains.

Where, indeed.

A young writer from rural Wisconsin has a somewhat different take on zombie land.

Scary but different.

"Huldredrom: Dream of the Hid-Folk," by Christopher R. Knutson (Tate Publishing, $12.99).

It's a folk tale of old Norway and is much more palatable than most of the zombie stuff about the supernatural that I've run across recently.

A friend passed Knutson's first novel on to me, saying that the young author lives near him in rural River Falls, and was home-schooled.

I confess a red flag went up immediately and I wondered what to expect.

Turns out I needn't have worried. His first effort is capably told and has a charming, almost Victorian edge to it. (Knutson is partial to the word "whilst.")

Here's a sample:

"The soft crackling of a warm fire made night within the house a welcome creature. A time when one could stretch ones limbs and slip into the Morphean abyss of sleep and dreams. In this hour of silence, all things hung for something they desire. So too was hunting the murky form that skulked behind the farmhouse."

Was that "murky form" a zombie? Well, sort of a Norwegian zombie. Actually, a huldre or troll.

And as the novel begins, one such little monster spirits away Vitholf, a new born babe, from his cradle and becomes one himself.

Matters, however, get complicated when Vitholf falls in love with a human, a herd girl down in the valley. What is Vitholf to do?

Enter Christianity.

I recently received a book I hadn't ordered, but I dipped into it anyway, thinking to take a moment or two away from a different book I planned to review.

Well, I've been dipping, dipping, and dipping into this fascinating book I never ordered ever since. I can't seem to get enough of it.

On the face of it "The Lives of the Novelists" (Yale University Press, $39.95), by English professor John Sutherland, doesn't seem very promising.

It's a door-stopper of 818 pages and the publisher compares it to Dr. Samuel Johnson's "Lives of the Poets," an 18th century snore if ever I read one.

Turns out the publisher's comparison isn't accurate at all. Johnson's "lives" only covered a few writers and in some detail.

Sutherland, on the other hand deals with 294 writers, beginning in the seventeenth century with John Bunyan and his "Pilgrim's Progress" the all-time best-seller and runs through the centuries to contemporaries like Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie.

And the almost 300 authors he selects are idiosyncratic indeed.

He leaves out writers like Charles Dickens and includes those who would never make it into a standard literary biography.

Like Mickey Spillane and Horatio Alger, Jr. He also includes writers who should be included in such biographies, but seldom are.

Like O. Henry, a marvelous storyteller, grossly underrated by "serious" scholars.

Sutherland races through the ages, dropping very funny lines like his take on "Pilgrim's Progress":

"At the outset...Christian claps [the volume] to his bosom, fingers in his ears, as he runs away from his amazed wife and family, shouting a 'Life, life, eternal' (and to hell with child support)."

And unlike many current "serious" scholars, Sutherland isn't afraid to add the minutiae of authors' lives, as his title suggests.

I learned, for instance, that Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner was too small to get into the Army air service. He was so anxious to get into the Great War, he went to Canada and joined the Royal Air Force, by lying about his age and adopting a British accent.

He never got to fly, but claimed he did when he returned to Oxford, Mississippi, where he illegally wore an RAF lieutenant's tunic and sported a swagger stick.

And what about Horatio Alger, Jr.? He began adulthood as a Unitarian preacher, but was immediately charged with pederasty and turned his attention to writing moralistic novels with strangely appropriate titles, like "Ragged Dick."

I was disappointed that one of my favorite Minnesota novelists, Louise Erdrich, didn't make the cut, but was happy for Northfield native Siri Hustvedt's appearance along with her husband Paul Auster, who takes up nine pages (compared to Mark Twain's three).