Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a weekly column dedicated to doing exactly what it says in the header: shining a light on the some of the best and most relevant fiction of the aforementioned form.
I’ve missed China Miéville.
But fair’s fair—the bloke had earned a bit of a break. A new novel bearing his name appeared every year from the publication of The City & The City in 2009 through the release of Railsea in 2012. After that, he scripted fifteen issues of the underrated and unfortunately ill-fated Dial H for DC Comics, and sure, there have been some short stories since: in The White Review, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern and The Apology Chapbook, which was distributed amongst attendees of last year’s World Fantasy Convention.
I haven’t read any of them, though. They were hella hard to get hold of, and if they were rarities then, these days they’re like liquid silver: hot and costly.
Miserably, my last Miéville was ‘Three Moments of an Explosion,’ which you might recall I shone the Spotlight on when it was nominated by the British Science Fiction Association for Best Short Story—to wit, when ‘Polynia’ was posted on Tor.com a couple of weeks ago, the better to celebrate the announcement of Miéville’s next collection, I had Numfar dance the dance of joy in its honour. I couldn’t believe my luck when ‘The Crawl’ came to light courtesy rejactamentalist manifesto the very next day.
His first post on said site for something like six months, ‘The Crawl’ is a script for a film trailer which elaborates, in its way, on a brief history of the recent filmic ideology of the necessity of walls against zombie hordes. There are no walls in ‘The Crawl,’ but there are lots of zombies—of all and sundry sorts.
The story, such as it is, appears to take place in the aftermath of an apocalypse. “Rotting corpses” run riot. There are “shots of cities destroyed and deserted. The images intersperse with close-ups of wounds and dead flesh.”
A horde of horrors chase a young guy, hereafter Y, through “the charred remains of an art gallery.” Take that, contemporary culture! In any case, they—the zombies—can’t catch our man. Instead, something catches them. “They are all taken, yanked into shadows by something unseen.” Cut to the interior of a broken-down shack, where we see Y speaking of his unexpected experience to an audience of unkempt survivors.
“First they walked. Then they ran. Now it’s a new phase,” an elderly lady says:
They do not crawl on their knees but on their toes, with their backs tilted, knuckles or fingertips or the palms of their hands on the ground. They move at odds with their own bodies, like humans raised by spiders.
Miéville’s monsters have always been awesome, and his conceptualisation of the undead in ‘The Crawl’ is no exception. The crawlers are just the start of that, in fact. Before the fiction fades to black, we see zombies riding other zombies, a walking corpse which has made wings of its ribs, “a dead drone pilot” stitched into “a flesh web,” and other equally insidious sights. All ring of wrongness.
Notably, these are not the zombies the genre has gone so far as to romanticise in recent years, so when, on a chocolate-box bridge over a river, “two zombies kiss so hard their faces distort as they shove into each other [whilst] behind them rages a violent battle between crawling and standing dead,” the incongruity is immediately apparent.
But insofar as ‘The Crawl’ obviously pauses to take the mickey out of the most outrageous elements of the modern zombie, it also lays the groundwork for an independently effective setting. We know this world well—I’d call it comfortably familiar—but the crawlers and whatnot make it different enough to be legitimately interesting.
Narratively, a zombie civil war, complete with a human cast caught in the middle, could be a bunch of fun. ‘The Crawl’ even has characters! Y and the voiceover lady seem like uneasy leaders: Rick Grimes types who face opposition from all corners, including their own, but continue to fight for what’s right. If the film this trailer teases was real, I’d see it. Perhaps that makes me an easy mark.
The presentation of ‘The Crawl’ allows the author to pack a whole lot of fiction in, suggesting plenty without elaborating on anything—other than the undead. Image follows image follows image. Everything about this brief piece is skin-deep. A cutting comment on the short attention spans and superficial interests of modern audiences? Maybe. Maybe not.
Whether Miéville is making an important point or just playing—my money says the latter is more likely—at less than a thousand words long, you really can’t go wrong. ‘The Crawl’ isn’t especially clever, or particularly profound. What it is, whatever its intent, is profoundly fun, and stupid good.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.