Dust by Joan Frances Turner

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Dust

Author: Joan Frances Turner

Type of Book: Fiction, horror, zombies

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s not wholly odd but it’s inventive and it was a great life-saver for me when I realized the zombie-western I wanted to review was too short for me to have much to say about it.

Availability: Published by Berkley Publishing in 2010, you can get a copy here:

Comments: We have reached the final day of my first Zombie Week and I can’t thank all of you enough for making this a fun, instructive and interesting experiment for me. I have dozens of new authors on my radar due to the excellent recommendations people have shared, I’ve learned much about zombies and I’ve met some pretty cool people. Thanks to everyone who commented to my entries and contributed their love of the genre.

And today is the last day to comment in order to win the five books I am giving away. Here’s how you enter the contest to win all five books:
–Leave a comment on any of the Zombie Week discussions.
–You can enter up to five times by leaving a comment on all five of the Zombie Week entries.
–Only one comment per entry will count. So if you comment 50 times in one entry, you’ve only entered once.
–Alternately, you can leave one comment on all five entries at any time you want, as long as you make all comments by 9:00 pm CST on Friday, 4/1/11.

I bought Dust because regular IROB reader, Anton, suggested it. I was in a book store, saw it on the shelf and bought it with Anton’s recommendation in mind. It sat in a stack of books in my bedroom until last week. I was thisclose to canceling Zombie Week because I ended up with problems with two of the books I had planned to discuss. I picked up Dust, not knowing a damn thing about it other than Anton liked it and was happy, happy, happy it turned out to be about Zombies. So I booked it and got it finished in time. Anton and Dust saved Zombie Week. Yay.

There is a blurb for this book and I don’t remember who said it, but it says to the effect that with this book, Turner has done for zombies what Anne Rice did for vampires. Initially I thought that was utter bullshit, but then I thought about it and it may be right. Before Rice, did anyone tell the story of vampires from the mind of the vampire? There may have been some outliers here and there but until Rice, I am unsure if the story of the vampire from the vampire’s perspective was typical. The only other person I can think of at the time who presented the vampire’s perspective in a manner invoking sympathy for the devil was Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and I am unsure who technically got there first, but for better or worse, Rice is definitely credited with giving us the mind of the vampire in a manner that influenced just about every vampire writer since.

And since I have not read nearly enough zombie novels, I don’t know if there are others out there that give us a look into the mind of a zombie, but if there are, then they are in pretty good company with Turner’s Dust. In Dust, Turner really has created not only a zombie culture wherein zombies have personal identities, but has also combined several mythos in order to create her zombies. People die and rise from the dead. The zombies rot but they take years to do it, even centuries, becoming bug-filled, nasty, shambling messes. Eventually the zombies dry out as their flesh and viscera are eaten away, falling to dust. An elderly zombie sounds more like an unwrapped mummy to me. These zombies rise from the grave with sharpened teeth, pointed in a way that reminded me of vampires more than anything else. And these zombies are able to communicate with each other telepathically, which is important because tongues and throats rot away. Unless a zombie turns to dust from old age, they can also be killed if their brains are stomped more or less into oblivion. The condition cannot be spread by bites. It simply happens because of a specific plot device in the book, and anyone can become a zombie when dead. And there is an apocalypse but it would be hard to call it a zombie apocalypse.

The plot, which became a bit drawn out at times, is hard to sum up but I will give it a try, and beware, there are spoilers of a sort: 15-year-old Jessie died in a car accident and rose as a zombie. She lives in a world not unlike our own but one in which zombies are a known evil and many people take pains to make sure they do not rise from the grave by getting cremated. The whys of zombie-creation are too long to go into for a review. When she rises from the dead, Jessie is taken in by a zombie clan, or gang, called the Fly-By-Nights. There are larger, more aggressive gangs that feed on humans but Jessie and her little family live in a wooded area and feed on animals. Despite her deep loathing for hoo (human) culture, Jessie cannot bring herself to kill them or eat them.

Then one day Jessie begins to notice that their clan leader, the reviled Teresa, smells funny and is losing her appetite. A chance meeting with her brother, who is still alive, explains to Jessie all of the strange things that have been happening. Jessie had moved the body of a strange human female who was trying to kill game and eat it but threw up and passed out, and the identity of this woman is also Jessie’s sister, Lisa (this plot is fueled by a lot of coincidence). Jessie’s brother, Jim, aware his sister was a zombie, worked for a research facility that was trying to wipe out the zombies via viral warfare. But their plan failed when they ended up making the zombies more human and making humans near-zombies. There is also a side story of how Jessie’s most beloved friend, Joe, sets her up for a betrayal that could have sent her to her final death. How the zombies and the humans survive this is something I definitely won’t spoil, but in a way, it almost doesn’t matter because as plot heavy as this book is, it is very much a character-driven novel. Knowing the bare bones of the plot isn’t going to mean much because the ins and outs of the zombie cultures, the way they live and interact, is really why you’re paying for this book.

This book will be deeply disgusting for the average reader. It wallows in rot, cannibalism, graphic depictions of animal hunts, human decomposition, vomit, vomit and more vomit, the effects of zombie-on-zombie violence and so much more. Dwelling in the head space I do, I only got creeped out by a couple of scenes and those were scenes that discussed in depth the insect infestations the zombies dealt with. The rest, sadly, became tiresome as the novel went on because the reader gets his or her senses clubbed with all the depictions of nastiness. In a novel this foul, when such descriptions became old hat, you’re doing it wrong, as the kids say.

But until that happens, it’s a fun, nasty, sad, interesting ride. Because we don’t know what Jessie was like when she was alive, save for her anger at her parents’ terrible marriage and the way her older siblings chose to deal with it, it’s hard to know if becoming a zombie changed Jessie in significant ways. Jessie is a hard character to like because she is ruled by self-interest, has absolutely no compassion for anyone except Florian, the eldest member of her gang, and Joe, a complete jerk of a young, male zombie. Jessie is just flat-out unpleasant. It is tempting to say that she is this way because being a zombie changed her but Linc, a sensitive and nice zombie boy, shares none of Jessie’s emotional emptiness. Moreover, Linc, who was beaten to death by his parents, should have far more reason to hate the hoos and his fellow zombies, but doesn’t. One just gets the impression that had she lived, Jessie would have just become a nasty girl who dated assholes who used her. She alludes to this fact herself, and I also wonder if Jessie more or less stayed stalled at 15, even as she aged as a zombie. Nothing in the rule book says we have to have a character whose motivations make sense, who evokes in us any understanding or sense of connection, but it would have helped to have liked Jessie more. There are little glimpses of the person she was capable of being, but it was not until the end that we see any real redemption in Jessie and by then it was a bit too late. It was just too hard to care about her character arc. Moreover, as pitiless as Jessie was, it bled over into how I read this book. When your protagonist is emotionally flat except for anger, much of the book just won’t matter.

Jessie makes the transition to meat-eating zombie very easily despite the fact she had been a vegan when she died. It almost seems like she would have been less contradictory had she become a human-eater, because surely killing animals must have been hard on her emotionally. But this makes little sense, as does her all-encompassing anger and her rage towards her brother but not against the traitor Joe. She does mention that being a zombie gives her a greater appreciation for nature that she had lacked even as a vegan.

And I liked trees and riverbanks now, in a way I never had when I was alive; I’d wanted to save all the animals, but nature bored the piss out of me. This was better.

I wish there had been more moments when Jessie made some sense to me.

But despite failing to connect with Jessie, this book was not wholly alienating. A zombie dies in this book, falls to dust in front of Jessie, Linc and another zombie called Renee (an interesting name for a zombie, to be sure), and the effect it has on them is moving. There are other similar moments of small redemption in the book that help make up a bit for the lack of investment I felt in watching Jessie try to survive. Also, Turner, her characterization aside, took great pains creating the back story for her world that is so similar to our own but also so very different. Learning about the zombie culture and regular culture as they reacted to zombies was fascinating.

Take this scene, for example. Renee has just been brought back to the gang. She is what the zombies call a ‘maldie because she was embalmed with formaldehyde and coming back from the dead is made harder for her. Tasked with helping this newly dead girl, Jessie struggles with modern death and it’s customs.

Ever read how they used to put pennies on dead people’s eyes, to weight them shut? Florian had those. Nowadays, though, they use eyecaps: big plastic lenses with tiny tent-pole spikes on the outside, covering the whole eyeball and keeping the lids anchored like awnings. There’s no way to get them out except to hold the ‘maldie down, peel the eyelids back, and pry them out, hoping you don’t accidentally gouge out an eye. And we haven’t gotten to the really fun part yet – the mouthpiece. It’s always so tempting just to leave their whiny lips sealed shut. With every touch, New Thing flinched like I’d punched her.

“I’m gonna open your eyes,” I said. “They’re sealed shut, that’s why you can’t open them. Okay? You understand?”

No answer. As Mags and Ben gripped her arms, I pried gently at one eyelid; not sewed shut, good. Much easier, I gave the eyecap a little tap, got a grip on it ——

—–and tore her eyelid in two when she wrenched away and let out a muffled banshee-shriek of panic.

Don’t worry, they get her sorted out and then beat the hell out of Renee in an initiation ceremony. And yep, poor Renee gets to go through her zombie life with half an eyelid. This is bad because zombies who go blind are stomped because a blind zombie cannot hunt and drags down the rest of the gang if they have to support their blind gang member.

It could be worse. Jessie only has one arm. Her arm was almost torn off in the car crash that killed her and it had hung from her body, still attached by stretching tendons and pieces of skin. For nine years she had this arm that does not work attached to her but one day her right arm begins to shake. As her fellow gang members mock her, she sheds the limb.

…a phantom dog got its teeth deep into my right shoulder, shaking and shaking, and a tremor shot down to my knees and back up again. The tremor became a whip crack and something snapped painlessly in my shoulder, and my poor useless deadweight arm broke off for good, wet purplish skin sliding off in sheets as it hit the underbrush with a squish and a thud.

Your body reflects all the damage you receive. Broken limbs become unstable, broken ribs make it impossible to sleep and it’s strange that the zombies like fighting with each other so much because they still feel pain and every dreadful fight causes more bodily degeneration that takes them closer and closer to the day when they turn to dust.

And at this point, I feel the need to share some of the more foul scenes. Just because I can. No context because you don’t really need it.

Lisa held my head as I got sick, sick everywhere, puking up everything I’d ever eaten. The thought of meat, of any meat, still made my mouth drip drool and my stomach tighten in anticipation, but then it kept tightening, like an iron band until the meat rocketed back up again and my throat burned with acid.

Dig into this:

So hot they almost steamed, those good fresh deer guts, and warm dripping blood and the solid meaty muscle of a heart still beating as we tore the carcass open, venison like you never tasted it on your little boo-barbecues with the charcoal smoke making it filthy.

Take a whiff of this one, while you’re at it:

Her teeth seemed long for a hoo’s but they were white and squarish like any human’s and just as bad at tearing through hide and thick bones. She gnawed at the little bit of meat she could still get, licked fresh blood from her hands, and then I heard a gurgling sound and she was looking at me trembling in fright, dark bubbles of spume oozing up from her ash-colored lips. She stared down at the torn-apart thing in her hands, warm and dripping blood and viscera and tufts of gray fur, and let out another moan, not of starvation but shame and horror, meat and bile rocketed back up, splattering the linden tree and the soil below…

For the more advanced reader of extreme horror, this is not that bad, really. But this is a mainstream book and it is filled from cover to cover with more of the same. Interesting, really. I wonder how many unsuspecting people picked this up because I bought it at Borders (sigh….).  It was in the literature section.

Like I said above, the only thing in this vast tome of vomit, decay and worse that bothered me were the descriptions of bug infestations in the zombies. Jessie is looking at Joe in this scene:

The maggots and blowflies and watch beetles feeding off him head to toe pulsed with the hungry sucking and clicking of thousands of little mouths: shuck-shuck, in rhythm, and then crrnc-crrnc, biting down. They’d been feeding off him for decades now, feeding on bits of nothing between bouts of silent stasis.

This is mild, compared to many of the bug scenes in the book. Characters are forever crawling with bugs, vomiting up dead bugs, dreading summer because of the bugs. Had I been a zombie, when the bugs came, I would have begged to be stomped.

This book reminded me of two other break-out books by female writers – Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke and The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. The three books have little in common in terms of style and even the subject matter is only connected through slender tendrils of the paranormal and the speculative. What they all three have in common is that all three needed ruthless editors because each one worried to death certain details over and over until I grew tired of the book. In Kostova’s The Historian, all the details of the interminable traveling the protagonist did wore me out. In Dust, the endless descriptions of the characters’ bodily change wore very thin after a while. Because the zombies in the book have a sort of nihilistic flatness to them that means it is hard to feel much urgency, the descriptions of all the hunger, the vomiting, the exhaustion had me, at points, groaning inwardly, “Enough with the puking, I get it, I get it, she’s sick.” “Yes, yes, yes, they are eating rotting corpses yet again, please get on with it!” There is a fine line between expansive, Baudelaire-like interest in rot and misery and stating the grossly obvious so much that it loses its impact. Turner crossed over that line from time to time. The plot also at times was plodding, in a way that is difficult to explain other than to say that my inner editor rose forth several times. Turner’s plot at no point meandered or included elements that were inessential, but that which was essential could have been tightened up. At the end, I was very ready for this book to be over and that sense of negative relief could have been avoided had this book been closely edited.

One other problem I had may be wholly personal to me but I found her sentence structure at times to be strange. There were places where a comma was needed and none was to be had and places where there were so many the eye skipped reading. Her use of semicolons often irked me, as she was less linking two independent but related sentences than she was attaching ensuing action onto the original sentence. There were also times that sentences just felt awkward, with ideas rushed together. There is some sense that perhaps Turner’s characters speech patterns may have changed when they became zombies. Even so, given that this book is a first-person narration, if the narrator’s speech and thought patterns are jumbled, it makes for rough sentences at times, even taking to account any potential motivation. I don’t think we are meant to believe that Jessie’s thinking no longer follows human patterns though, because there are enough normal sentences to make that seem like an invalid idea.

But the problems were undeniably there. Take this sentence, for example:

There were wrapped things too from some obliging butcher, raw cow heart, plastic containers of blood, he opened and lined up on the ground; they ran up to grab them, cried and retched with revulsion, crammed it all feverishly into their mouths.

Among other problems, these are two separate sentences held together with a semicolon. It may be no big deal but if one is going to use semicolons consistently in their writing, it’s going to annoy readers when they are used incorrectly.

This problem is endemic throughout the book, and lest you think I cherry picked all the quotes above so I can be a Grammar Priss, to find this next sentence, I just closed the book, opened it and read for a few seconds and it jumped out:

We left Sam sitting with him and headed for the gazebo, appetites gone, everyone staring sidelong at everyone else for a hint of the secrets they were concealing; I heard the word change in murmured snatches of talk like a coin glinting in a river, pretended it meant nothing to me.

Again, two sentences joined together with a semicolon. They are not independent clauses that should be linked – they are separate sentences. Also note the awkwardness in the sentence after the semicolon. It’s small things like this, when you have written a good book, that prevent the book from being excellent.

Why am I picking on this? Well, I am a grammar perfectionist, even though I know my blog is likely teeming with errors. But a blog is one thing and a novel from one of the largest publishers in the nation, with money and editors behind it, is another. Increasingly I hold in near contempt anyone who actually has the sheer idiocy to actually suggest that self-publishing is for losers who don’t want to work their way up. When you can read a novel released by a major publisher with this many awkward sentences and this many outright errors in punctuation, it increasingly tells me that the feared democratization is at hand and major publishers are skimping on the things that supposedly made them the better alternative in the first place. David Baker’s self-published book I reviewed last year was interestingly vile and cartoonish but pristinely line-edited. His novel easily was better edited than many books from small presses and better edited than this book. None of this should make you not want to read this book. Dust as a whole is strong enough to overcome these bizarre editorial issues. But at the same time, when I spend most of my time reading the small presses and self-published books and I increasingly cannot see much difference between them in terms of content, and when the little guy actually does it better than a major publisher in terms of editing, from the perspective of a reader, it’s hard to mourn the fall the major publishers are experiencing. Writers have an entirely different opinion, I am sure, and I suspect that is a discussion for another time.

So what we have here is a book with a meticulous back-story that I could not do justice to in this review. We have a zombie society threatened from inside and out, a zombie story that combines elements of other supernatural monsters to create a relatively unique subset of creature that is intelligent, hunts, rots and eventually dies in ways different from “canon” zombies. We also have a book that is too long, engages in questionable sentence structure and punctuation, and allows its gore to become repetitive. We have annoying characterizations in a character-driven novel but an expansive, interesting plot. All in all, this is not a bad book and I recommend it but with the caveat that it is very gross in places and the use of semicolons may make your eyes cross. With that having been said, though I could not wait for it to end (there is one hallucination scene that went on for pages that could easily have been cut), the first 200 pages or so went by in a flash and were a pleasure to read. The remaining 175 plodded too slowly and kept recovering the same ground but even so, I am glad I read this book because it showed me a zombie world conceived with care and created some excellent hunt, fight and quest scenes.

And my last reminder: Zombie Week ends today, at 9:00 pm  CST. Please be sure to leave comments on as many of these five entries as you like, with one each day counting as an entry into this contest to win five books. I will announce the winner on Monday. Again, this has been a hoot and I look forward to Zombie Week II, which has to happen now that I have all these great recommendations for zombie books to read. Thanks for helping me make Zombie Week so great!

11 thoughts on “Dust by Joan Frances Turner

  1. This sounds like a worthwile read. It’s added to my wishlist. If you’re interested in other zombie books, here are a few others I’ve enjoyed:

    Back From the Dead by J. F. Gonzalez – a group of teenagers murder a homeless man for kicks and bring him back as a zombie so they can kill him again and again.

    The Dead by Mark E. Rogers – It’s the rapture. All the good Christians have ascended into heaven, and the damned souls have risen from hell to kill those who were left behind.

    The Reapers Are Angels by Alden Bell – The story of a young girl who was born after the zombie apocalypse. Good, but has some annoying problems with the author assuming edible food in grocery stores, working cars, and electricity more than a decade into a zombie apocalypse.

    Rock and Roll Reform School Zombies by Bryan Smith – A meteorite falls and unleashes the undead on a reform school designed to beat the love of heavy metal out of teenagers.

    Valley of the Dead: The Truth Behind Dante’s Inferno by Kim Paffenroth – Dante finds himself in a valley infested with zombies and sees a lot of weird stuff.

  2. Thanks for doing these reviews. They were a lot of fun to read. I’m not sure about this book. I need to like the character, even if it is a bad character. Another book that has the zombie point of view was david wellingtons monster island. I really enjoy talking about books, so even though zombie week is done, I will be back to see what else you are reading.

  3. How exciting to be able to recommend something! I was looking forward to hearing your opinion of things. It’s funny, part of my brain registered the semi-colon thing but another part didn’t. I have to admit my firmness on punctuation is very hit or miss so it never bothers me.

    I found the main character interesting in the sense that she seemed trapped in that angry, angry fifteen year old head space even after long years as a zombie. Part of me at times wanted to shake her, but I felt like I could relate to carrying a certain amount of anger and especially given that she had no real opportunity to grow up and move away from it.

  4. I have throughly enjoyed your reviews this week! I will be back to read more reviews! I especially loved zombie week! Thanks for taking your time to read and review these books for us.
    As for this book, while some elements of this book seem intriguing, I would probably not buy it. Reason being, I am not a fan of books/stories written in the point of veiw of the zombies. I have read a few short stories from this point and it just wasn’t my style. I prefer to root for the survivors in a world that is falling apart. It shows just how much stress the human race can take and still survive. Also, just how strong the will to lie really is. I do, however, think book would be an interesting read. It shows zombies with intelligent thought. That in itself is not of the norm. I am also a fan of gore, so I might read this book for that as well.
    Once again, thanks for the reviews this week!

  5. I would also like to recommend a few books: Thunder and Ashes and Plague of the Dead by Z. A. Recht. The author is no longer living, so this series will never be finished, but they are great reads. Also, Dead City and Apocalypse of the Dead by Joe McKinney. Hope you enjoy!

  6. Zombies and insects might be more similar than might first appear – remembering each other not in form, but in social behavior. Amongst all the decaying flesh, zombies have a group-think even worse than a co-op full of Obama supporters – reflecting nothing so much as the single-mindedness of an ant colony. And therein lies the horror – not in being eaten by the mindless mass, but in losing your individual personality to the horde.

  7. This one sounds good to me too! I really like that the author is giving us something different. I think if you enjoyed this book that you may like Kim Paffenroth’s Dying to Live series. I think that they are a bit different than most other zombie books that I’ve read with some new concepts like a survivor that has a power over zombies and a smarter type zombie.

    You’ve got quite the talent for writing reviews! You were funny and clever and I looked forward to seeing what you were going to write each night. Thanks for a great zombie week!

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