Wrath James White (no, that’s not a pen name) is mostly likely an author you’ve never known. Let’s change that, shall we?
Wrath writes horror, but not in the vein of Stephen King, Peter Straub or Dean Koontz. His work lies out there, more on the fringe– on the extreme, if you will. I don’t think what he writes qualifies as “bizarro” horror, but it’s close, and it can get damned gory.
I’ve never been a big fan of gore in horror. Greg Bear (Blood Music, Darwin’s Radio) once said that horror had three modes: Dread, terror, and gore– and that the last of these was also the least. I’m inclined to agree with that… Too many writers and directors in the genre overdo it and make a huge disgusting mess. In fact, it can even mute whatever sense of fear the creator was hoping to achieve. I say this, because Wrath is one the goriest writers I’ve ever read– and he’s damned good at it. You need to know this before diving in to his works. They can be perverse, disturbing, eloquent and poignant as all hell.
To The Death is one of his lighter works. In Uganda, a “Revolutionary” General begins using the walking dead to bolster his forces and dominate a nation. In San Francisco, Detective Elgin Washington begins a case involving a dead MMA star with some odd post-mortem injuries. Meanwhile in Vegas, MMA fighter Tyler Pope is kicking ass and taking names in an underground fighting circuit known as the “Terror Combat League.”
Yes, this novel mixes the horror of war in Africa with zombies and mixed martial arts fighting. (I warned you that Wrath’s stuff is “out there.”) The zombies are animated by a strange fungus brought to the US by the nefarious Bill Vlad, who uses it to start up his new League. Once Tyler is in the Octagon, the only way out is to utterly destroy his shambling, flesh-craving opponent.
The zombies presented here may be fast or slow, depending on their state of decay. One interesting point is that some of the zombified MMA fighters retain some of their skills– a take on muscle memory I’ve never seen explored. It lends an extra hint of credence to the fight scenes, which are already well-written. A person who is, in most respects, brain-dead may not be aware enough to know the whens and hows of delivering a low round kick or an elbow strike– but with repetition and training, how deep does that drill into a still active subconscious? As a martial artist, this concept intrigues me.
Elgin Washington’s investigation is what links the MMA and the Ugandan sub-plots together, while he’s drawn into a similar underground fight circuit. It serves it’s purpose, but it’s probably the weakest element of the book. It’s a case of the loner cop who gets in deep even after the Feds pull the case out from under him. Decently written, but predictable.
Tyler Pope is trying to leave the Terror Combat League, but he gets roped in for “one more match” as he falls for a Vegas bartender. Again, decent but predictable– once the stakes start ramping up. Bill Vlad comes across as a despicably generic villain who just sleazes his way through the book– making things happen because he can.
The novel’s ending felt very abrupt, as though the author couldn’t put the brakes on the story and sped through the climax and denouement. I won’t give it away here, but this is Wrath James White we’re talking about and it’s anything but a happy ending. That said, something happened when my brain took a Fridge Break.
No doubt, you’ve had these moments: You’re watching a movie, digging it, and then once it ends you get up and go to the fridge to fix yourself a snack. As you open the door, something somewhere in your brain goes click and you go, “Huh…” This can elevate your recent experience to awesome, or it can bring it all down in a crashing heap. In my case, the former happened when I began to wonder who the monster in this story really is.
It’s certainly not the zombies.
Is it Bill Vlad, who puts an entire nation– if not the world– at the risk of a zombie apocalypse by running an undead sports league simply because it amuses him? That he’s more than happy when the living fighters get bit even as they win, so he has a new combatant in his “stable”?
Is it Detective Elgin, who is willing to put aside his ethics and regard for other human beings to investigate his case? That he’s more driven by a missed chance at glory and fame than by a need for justice and closure?
Is it General Nwosu, who’s more than willing to kidnap children and turn them into murderous soldiers, but has no qualms about using the fungus to unleash an army of the dead? A man who feels his methods are justified because he believes God mandated that he is destined to rule Uganda?
Or is it Tyler Pope, who feels that without his anger, his rage– he loses his edge as a fighter? A man who welcomes attacking the walking corpses of his former peers and does so with savage fury… While at the same time, isn’t sure he understands what love feels like?
That’s why I like reading Wrath James White’s work. There’s something beneath the gore and atrocity that, while it may be disturbing, also gets you thinking.
The Kindle version of To The Death is only $2.99 USD— and that’s a fair price to pay for an e-book, especially if you’re new to this type of horror. However, if you want to go deeper straight off the bat, see if you can get a copy of His Pain or Succulent Prey. These are much better examples of the author’s work, but be warned– none of them are easy reading.