The Ghoul Archipelago (Audiobook)
I’ve been getting into audiobooks more and more recently, because upgrading my car for one that was actually built in the 21st Century means that I now have access to this miraculous technology known as ‘Bluetooth’. This wonderful invention allows me to sync my phone up to the car stereo and speakers, meaning that I can now listen to audiobooks properly and not straining to hear the tinny sounds emanating from my phone’s speakers as I’m driving down the motorway in the pouring rain that consists of approximately 85% of all British weather. It’s also allowed me to increase my productivity by providing the ability to listen to audiobooks of Horror novels and anthologies that I wanted to review for this blog, but didn’t have the time to actually read. I’ve queued a number of them up on my Audible account, and one of the first I listened to was The Ghoul Archipelago by Stephen Kozeniewski and narrated by Jennifer Fournier.
I was lucky enough to be sent a review copy of the audiobook, though it had been at the top of my list to purchase regardless, and that’s because Mr Kozeniewski has made his way towards the very top of my ‘Favourite Horror Authors’ list throughout the course of 2019. His novella Skinwrapper was a fantastic piece of Space Horror, and The Hematophages was a brilliant follow-up novel that rightly deserves to be seen as a classic of the Space Horror genre. I also thoroughly enjoyed Slashvivor!, the chaotic and darkly humorous slice of post-apocalyptic reality gameshow horror that he co-authored with Stevie Kopas, and as such I was eager to see what Mr Kozewniewski could do with the ever-popular (but often stale and moribund) zombie horror genre in The Ghoul Archipelago. The gruesome, top-quality cover art for the novel by Chris Enterline certainly seemed promising, showing the shattered torso of a zombie crawling out of the water onto a beach, nothing but blood and spinal column beneath its ribs, whetting my appetite for the audiobook to come.
Getting to the review itself, I still don’t quite know where to begin with The Ghoul Archipelago, because it is most definitely not your usual post-apocalyptic zombie horror novel. I’ll give Mr Kozeniewski his due – when he writes a zombie novel, he definitely doesn’t write something that is bland, generic, or blindly follows the tropes of the genre. Or it would perhaps be more accurate to say that he does – but only by picking up each and every one of those sacred tropes in turn, shoving them right in your face and then forcing you to re-examine them through incisive, blood-stained and often uncomfortably perceptive writing. It’s certainly an unusual attitude to take in the genre, and I can see why it has something of a divisive reputation on its Amazon page in terms of its reviews; this is not your run-of-the-mill zombie horror novel, and treating it as such will surely disappoint.
The differences between The Ghoul Archipelago and other novels in the zombie horror genre become clear from literally the start of the novel. To begin with, this isn’t another genre novel where the action takes place in the United States, or Canada, or the United Kingdom, or indeed anywhere else in the Western world. Instead, Kozeniewski takes the incredibly smart decision to set his story in the South Pacific and the (fictional) Curien island chain, an isolated and relatively back-water location that has avoided some (but not all) of the catastrophic effects of the undead apocalypse. Indeed, apart from a few, key sections within the novel, the rest of the world isn’t mentioned at all, ensuring that we’re spared the often awkward and stilted monologues genre authors deploy to give the readers an info-dump on how the rest of the world is faring. Instead, this story is hyper-localised and focused almost entirely on the population of the Curien islands, along with the few survivors from the outside world who have managed to reach them. This allows Kozeniewski to deliberately take the novel in a very different direction, focusing on how these small islands and their populations deal with the sudden imposition of Western technology, attitudes and even outright colonialism; and how radically different groups of Westerners interact and conflict with each other as it becomes apparent that the Curils are effectively all that’s left of the modern, pre-apocalypse world.
I think one of the things that so impressed me about The Ghoul Archipelago, and which has made me such a fan of it, is the way in which Kozeniewski keeps the apocalypse itself distinctly in the background, and focuses instead on the local issues – the exact reverse of every other book in the genre. Four distinct but key storylines begin to develop as the plot moves forward. We see how the local population cope not only with the rise of the undead, but the arrival of the remnants of the Western world and their immediate attempts to co-opt the locals and their resources into an effort to maintaining pre-apocalypse values. A ‘Tech-Bro’ CEO relocates the surviving elements of his Fortunate 500 company to the islands and attempts to focus on perfecting his sex-based VR technology while selling it to the locals as a panacea for the chaos outside the islands and profiting off their inability to resist. A fanatical priest believes that the undead are holy vessels that must not be killed but rather controlled and used to his benefit to extend his cult-like religion. And the remnants of the US Navy and US Government arrive, with the aim of utilising firepower to dominate the islands and everyone living there – Western or local.
It’s a potent mixture of plots and characters, and in lesser hands it could easily have become a confusing jumble that loses the reader’s interest, but Kozeniewski skilfully and deftly weaves these plotlines into a coherent, engaging and often unsettling narrative. The key to the novel is Captain Henk Martigan and his motley crew of merchantmen, who become unwillingly enmeshed in the plots of all four factions when their mysterious and deadly cargo unwillingly lands them in the Curil islands. Martigan is a fantastic character, full of hidden depths and faced with an endless array of moral conundrums that are forced upon him, and I loved following him through the portions of the novel focused on him and his crew, who are also engaging and well fleshed-out characters. They’re some of the best characters in the novel, especially the way that they interact with each other and the complex relationships between them develop, break and reform as the plot progresses. Not that any of the other key characters in the novel are under-developed – whether it’s the slimy, back-stabbing Tech CEO, the fanatical priest, or the unbalanced Admiral in charge of the US Navy forces, they’re all well-written, engaging, and even sympathetic in some ways, despite the horrific acts they undertake, especially towards the end of the book.
That’s the living characters – but what about the undead ones? Well, it’s near-impossible to make zombies seem interesting in the genre these days, given the endless flood of zombie novels with trite, clichéd and flat-out boring takes on the undead, but I’ll be damned if Kozeniewski doesn’t actually manage it against all the odds. They’re used sparingly, with the focus of the novel deliberately on the horrific things that the living can do to each other when moral and social boundaries and values are eroded, but when they do appear they act as both antagonists and, unusually, victims of the apocalypse. For all of the terror and fear that they inspire – and there are some wonderfully gory and graphic scenes where they’re unleashed on the few living survivors – Kozeniewski is also at pains to highlight how in many ways they’re just as trapped as the living. They’re used and abused, often in degrading and disgusting ways, by many of the factions in the Curil islands, and are little more than slaves. There’s even a certain amount of satisfaction to be taken when certain characters are finally overwhelmed by the dead given their treatment of them. And lack of space prevents me going into even more of the fascinating aspects Kozeniewski develops, such as the integration of the living dead into a twisted version of Christianity that spreads throughout the islands.
As The Ghoul Archipelago was an audiobook rather than a physical or Kindle copy, I’d like to take a moment to discuss the quality of the audio. The actual audiobook itself was of a very high quality, with no discernible drops in audio quality or that strange hissing or popping you sometimes get in audiobooks that have seemingly been rushed out. But by far the best element was the narrator herself – Jennifer Fournier is an excellent, first-rate narrator with great range and pace, and the ability to provide distinctive voices for each character despite the wide-ranging cast that appears throughout the novel. I could tell which character was speaking in a matter of moments whenever they appeared, something that is distinctly a rarity in many of the audiobooks I’ve been listening to recently, and I would hope that Mr Kozeniewski is able to work with her for any other of his properties that get adapted as audiobooks.
The Ghoul Archipelago is a complex, multi-layered and inspired horror novel, one that is nothing less than a deconstruction and critique of the zombie/post-apocalyptic genre as a whole. This is a title where the undead themselves are constantly in the background as an environmental hazard, only occasionally appearing in the foreground as a direct danger, and is all the better for it. Instead, Kozeniewski goes back to heart of the genre and focuses on the miseries and pain inflicted by humans on humans as they are freed of constraints of civilized society and law and order, and the increasingly vain hopes of those struggling to preserve some vestige of sanity and hope in the aftermath of the undead apocalypse.
The author deftly develops multiple, intertwined story arcs that could each be their own full book and then delights in bringing them together, with no loss in quality despite this, and the arcs examine an array of issues and concepts that are so often ignored or taken for granted in genre titles. These range from the inherently grim and misogynistic nature of the sex drive that the Tech-Bro CEO sells, and their addictive nature and way they shatter cultural beliefs and hierarchies, to the terrifying consequences of religious zealotry merging with Biblical beliefs and the virulent nature of the undead. The consequences and costs of Western imperialism and colonialism are laid bare and then relentlessly criticised under the guise of the zombie apocalypse, Kozeniewski taking no prisoners in his analysis while also allying it with an engrossing, well-paced and horrifying and deeply unsettling horror novel.