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Worlds Without End Blog

The Universe Wants You Dead: The Return of Cosmic Horror Posted at 3:48 AM by Charles Dee Mitchell



It’s a phrase I expect to find written in fat, drippy letters on the cover of an EC comic book from the 1950’s. Or one of the empty promises hurled at the audience in the previews for what will prove to be a predictably ordinary 1940’s horror film: Fiendish Tortures!… Ghastly Terrors!!… Cosmic Horror!!!

It is not a term I expect to find in the subtitle of not one but two current releases from New York Review Book ClassicsShadows of Carcosa, Tales of Cosmic Horror edited by D. Thin; and, The Rim of Morning, Two Tales of Cosmic Horror by William Sloane. NYRB Classics is an admirably eclectic sampling of world literature where major if obscure works of European Modernism find themselves shelved alongside noirish crime fiction of both U.S. and European vintages and the novels, memoirs and travel journals of excellent prose stylists who the editors have rightly decided deserve a fresh hearing.

But “Cosmic Horror”?

Shadows of CarcosaFirst of all, what are they talking about? And are they just trying to avoid the even pulpier term, Weird Fiction, which is, by the way, what they are talking about. Weird Fiction found its home in the classic pulp magazine Weird Tales. That magazine had a long run from 1923 – 1954 and several incarnations since, one of which remains in print. Hundreds of authors, many lost to time, appeared in the magazine, but it remains best known for the presence of H.P. Lovecraft in its early issues.

Although Lovecraft acknowledged his many forbearers, his florid, visionary style defined the genre. This new NYRB anthology quotes him on the back cover. He writes that in the true weird tale —

An atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; a hint of that most terrible conception of the human brain – a malign and particular suspension of defeat of those fixed laws of nature what are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

Lovecraft’s was a cosmic vision, and later writing on the genre introduced and refined the term “cosmic horror.” A Wikipedia entry covers the field but has the unfortunate term “comicism” as a title. The website TV Tropes takes a more casual and entertaining approach. They offer a five-question quiz readers can use when confronting possible entries to the cosmic horror canon. Two negative answers means that you have slipped into the watered down realm of “Lovecraft Lite.”

With the first season of the HBO series True Detective, the Cosmic Horror genre wormed its way into the minds of a great swath of the American public that had probably never considered reading Lovecraft or Weird Fiction. The ritualistic murders and the decadent sect that the protagonists uncovered in the American South made references to The King in Yellow and Carcosa. Viewers and commentators rushed to the internet to unpack those references and found the peculiar 1895 work by R.W. Chambers, a popular if not particularly good writer of the time who specialized in romance novels but turned out several anthologies of weird fiction. In Chamber’s work, The King in Yellow is the name of a forbidden play, a work so diabolical that reading it, particularly reading Act Two, will drive a person mad. The play is set in Carcosa, an imaginary city Chambers borrowed from an 1891 Ambrose Bierce short story. The HBO series employs the terms divorced from any of their previous fictional uses, but weirdness and cosmic horror is all about hints and evocations. True Detective’s grand guignol set pieces and its pessimistic denouement did the tradition proud.

Shadows of Carcosa includes both the Bierce short story and a tale from the Chambers collection. It’s a chronological anthology that begins with Edgar Allan Poe and ends with Lovecraft, therefore much of what is here is “proto-weird.” It’s a progression of established tales that allows editor D. Thin to make a case for a genuine tradition. Genre fans will find mostly familiar material with a few hard-to-come-by entries, and such terror masterpieces as Poe’s “MS Found in a Bottle” or Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” are always worth rereading in a new context. For people only familiar with Dracula, Bram Stoker’s “The Squaw” proves that he was a refined purveyor or Victorian frights that had found their way into a more modern world than their Gothic predecessors. Arthur Machen is an enthusiasm I have long aspired to without ever quite attaining, but rereading “The White People” makes me want to have another go at him. Including Henry James and Walter de la Mare may be a stretch for the editor, but I am not one to complain given the quality of their stories.

This was my first encounter with M.P. Shiel, who I know wrote The Purple Cloud (1901), an apocalyptic novel kept in print by Penguin Classics. “The House of Sounds,” his story collected here, is an off-the-rails variation on the theme of a young man’s journey to the remote home of an old college friend. I am not surprised to learn that his contemporaries considered Shiel “gorgeously mad,” and that he had become a “reclusive religious maniac” by the time of his death.

Prose as feverish as Shiel’s or Lovecraft’s, and situations as extreme as those that fill these stories, ask the committed reader not to find the enterprise ridiculous. The writing at its best, or at its worst – these terms can become relative – may be bonkers, but woven through the lurid fireworks are passages effective as both visceral horror and exciting of explorations of extreme psychological states. The diarist in Poe’s “MS Found in a Bottle” is trapped on a ship blown off course and headed for oblivion. His lucidity is the last remnant of his humanity.

The Rim of MorningTo conceive the horror of my sensations is, I presume, utterly impossible; yet a curiosity to penetrate the mysteries of these awful regions predominates even over my despair, and will reconcile me to the most hideous aspect of death. It is evident that we are hurrying onwards to some exciting knowledge – to some never-to-be-imparted secret, whose attainment is destruction.

The two William Sloane novels from the 1930’s gathered in The Rim of Morning may seem like tame stuff compared to the stories in D. Thin’s anthology. To Walk the Night and The Edge of Running Water were Sloane’s only two novels. He wrote a few stories, edited a couple of significant sf anthologies, but spent most of his career as the director of Rutgers University Press. Stephen King writes the admiring introduction to the NYRB volume, and he lets the reader know not to anticipate the kind of horror show that we have come to expect from the genre:

Sloane builds his stories in carefully wrought paragraphs, each one clear and direct. He is a man of the old school, who learned actual grammar in grammar school…and probably Latin at the high school and college levels.

King may be weeding out the sensation seekers, but, like King, I was hooked by the first sentence of each of Sloane’s novels. These openings promise the kind of storytelling I weaned myself on as a child and still find irresistible.

The form in which this narrative is cast must necessarily be an arbitrary one. In the main it follows the story pieced together by Dr. Lister and myself as we sat on the terrace of his Long Island house one night in the summer of 1936.

To Walk the Night

The man for whom this story is told may or may not be alive.

The Edge of Running Water

Sloane’s novels bring in university settings and academic protagonists, which is not surprising given his background. In To Walk the Night, two young men making their way in the New York City financial markets return to their alma mater for a homecoming football game. When they go to visit a favorite astronomy professor, they find him seated in the chair at his telescope in the school’s observatory and burned to a crisp. (Small North Eastern colleges have observatories in these types of stories the same way college professors have elaborate laboratories in their remote country homes – see The Edge of Running Water ff.) The deceased professor had recently acquired, to his ex-students’ surprise, a young, beautiful, otherworldly wife. To the reader’s surprise, when this woman shows up in Manhattan one of the young men falls under her spell, marries her, and moves to the desert. Distressed letters from the young husband brings his friend to Cloud Mesa and sets up Sloane’s final set piece, a conclusion that proves that this director of Rutger’s University Press knew how to put on quite a show.

In The Edge of Running Water, a young science professor answers a distressed message from his mentor who has retired – in disgrace – to some New England backwater. There he continues researches that may change the way we think about life and death. That sounds like the hackneyed plot to some minor, 1940’s Universal Studios Boris Karloff vehicle, and in fact it is. You can stream it on Your Tube under its more suitable Saturday matinee title, The Devil Commands. (I recommend it on principle, not having yet watched it myself.) Sloane squeezes all the action of his final novel into a forty-eight-hours and incorporates a love interest for the young protagonist, a creepy medium whose agenda may run counter to the aging professor’s best interests, and a possible murder. What the novel lacks in suspense it makes up for in characterization and a frenzied conclusion. Sloane’s novels may appeal to only a small segment of the horror market, but they definitely have their place in the history of American fantastic literature. They are best read on rainy afternoons.

NYRB Classics have sprinkled horror and science fiction through their lists, and these two volumes are welcomed additions. Two new titles do not mark a trend, but given the depth and quality of their crime list, weird fiction, cosmic horror, or however they choose to label it is a promising field should they choose to commit to it.

Month of Horrors / Hell is Adaptations: Hannibal Posted at 2:32 PM by Jonathan McDonald


Month of Horrors: Hannibal

After establishing a solid crime thriller formula with Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, novelist Thomas Harris took a chance and tried something entirely different with his wildly popular Hannibal Lecter character: he set him free. Harris’ fans had been wondering for some time what the cannibal psychiatrist would be like in the wild, as it were, out of captivity and free to roam as he pleased. Written eleven years after Silence the novel and eight years after the film, Hannibal is the gory, violent, and disturbing followup to his increasingly popular series. Did it live up to its promise?

It’s hard to say. The next Lecter novel had two very difficult tasks: to tell a story centered for the first time around Dr. Lecter that did justice to everything his readers had learned about him in Dragon and Silence, and to write something that would please the many fans of the film. Even the choice to write a novel with Lecter as a main protagonist must have been a difficult one. It would have been much easier to keep him as a secondary character with Clarice Starling or another FBI agent in the foreground. Harris had built up the mystery and abilities of Dr. Lecter so greatly that it would seem impossible to actually write a story that lived up to what it was claimed he could do when not imprisoned.

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Month of Horrors / Vampire Manga 101: Dance in the Vampire Bund Posted at 3:15 PM by Glenn Hough



Glenn Hough (gallyangel) is a nonpracticing futurist, an anime and manga otaku, and is almost obsessive about finishing several of the lists tracked on WWEnd. This is the first in Glenn’s new series on Vampire Manga, a companion piece to his excellent SF Manga series, which will be accompanied by separate series for Horror and Fantasy.

Dance01The Japanese love, love, love, the supernatural. Their folklore and native religion of Shintoism foster a worldview that is positively bursting with gods, demons, and beings of all shapes and sizes living alongside Humanity. When Stoker unleashed his Count Dracula upon the English speaking world, Vampires and European Vampire lore found especially fertile soil in Japan. Like a sponge.

It’s not a surprise then, that Vampire related Manga is prolific enough for it’s own category blog. So we start.

One of the best – number one as far as I’m concerned – is a relative newcomer to the manga scene. It debuted in 2006. What gives it top of the heap status for me? Two words: Mina Tepes.

Princess of the Vampire Clans and Ruler of the Night: Mina Tepes.

Anyone who knows Stoker and the saga of Vlad the impaler should appreciate how deeply entwined her name is in all the Vampire lore which has gone before. How deeply right that name sounds for a Vampire: Mina Tepes.

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Month of Horrors / Hell is Adaptations: The Silence of the Lambs Posted at 8:08 AM by Jonathan McDonald


Month of Horrors: The Silence of the Lambs

“Memory, Agent Starling, is what I have instead of a view.”

It’s easy to understand how Manhunter and its source material Red Dragon lost much of its staying power after the release of The Silence of the Lambs in 1991. This is the film that made many people ridiculously famous: Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster, Ted Levine, Jonathan Demme, and Thomas Harris, among others. It won five Academy Awards in one swoop, beating out The Prince of Tides (for Best Picture), JFK (Best Director), Cape Fear (Best Actor), Thelma & Louise (Best Actress), and Fried Green Tomatoes (Best Adapted Screenplay).

Unlike Harris’ novelSilence the film is a standalone piece that makes no reference to the earlier story, ignoring the novel’s many reference’s to Red Dragon’s protagonist Will Graham, now living as a disfigured drunk somewhere in Florida, and inferring that Graham’s boss Jack Crawford was the one who caught the notorious cannibal psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter. For the purposes of adaptation to a new medium, it’s understandable that many changes would need to be made, but it’s actually fascinating how well the finished product works both as a standalone piece of art and as an adaptation.

blah blah blah

“I ate your script with a Montrachet and a side of red caviar.”

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Book Gift Suggestions: Horror Posted at 8:06 AM by Jonathan McDonald


It’s been a while since we created our suggestion list for Fantasy, and the Month of Horrors seemed like the perfect time to cobble together a list for Horror. Been looking for some good genre book recommendations you can pass along to non-genre or genre-beginner readers? Here are some works of fiction that will blow their minds and make them addicts just like you.

Today’s list contains half a dozen Horror books to knock the socks off the people who don’t have good genre taste… yet.

The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird StoriesThe Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, by H. P. Lovecraft

Arguably, you could hand a reader any collection of Lovecraft stories, and the effect would be just about the same. The master of weird fiction rotated regularly through just a few variations on his theme of supernatural terror: from intrusions out of the dream world to beautiful symbolic visions, from unnatural resurrections to polar-dwelling Elder Things, you can be sure that at least somebody will be losing his sanity, if not his lunch. Many of the stories in this volume also tie in to Lovecraft’s popular Cthulhu Mythos, so there’s plenty of temptation here to find more to read.

Perfect For: People who like old-timey scares and wish their steampunk novels had more unnatural geometry.

20th Century Ghosts20th Century Ghosts, by Joe Hill

One might shy away from Hill’s collection of short stories in favor of his more popular novels, but 20th Century Ghosts has something for everybody to enjoy. As I wrote in my longer review last year, the stories that especially stand out are “20th Century Ghost” (about a dead girl who loves the movies too much to leave the theatre), “The Black Phone” (a terrifying tale of kidnapping and phone calls from the dead), “The Cape” (a spooky story of a… different kind of superhero), and “Voluntary Committal” (wherein one might easily be lost amidst the cardboard maze in the basement). Don’t miss out on Hill’s sequel to Dracula and his personal take on Kafka’s Metamorphosis, either.

Perfect For: Anyone who likes disturbingly surreal tales.

DraculaDracula, by Bram Stoker

By far the most obvious recommendation on this list, you might be surprised how many people have never read the novel that sparked the popularity of the “romantic vampire” subgenre. Told entirely as an epistolary novel, Dracula follows the ever-shifting fortunes of a small group of English aristocrats as an ancient Transylvanian vampire decides to hitch a ride to their homeland from the old country. It’s both a look at the fragility of Victorian mores, and awe at the power of the mysterious foreign “other.” Arguably also a yearning for a spiritually-enriched world that the Enlightenment cast aside, Stoker’s novel offers a great deal even for a jaded, modern audience.

Perfect For: That friend who’s watched every Dracula movie.

House of LeavesHouse of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski

Danielewski isn’t well known for his fiction outside of this novel, partly because he hasn’t written much else, but mostly because his other work is so rarified and abstract that it only appeals to a niche audience. However, House of Leaves was his first and most popular work, despite some aspects that a popular audience might find pretentious. This is a story told from the perspective of a young tattoo artist Johnny Truant, writing about a found manuscript detailing a documentary that does not seem to officially exist, The Navidson Record. It’s a narrative within a narrative within a narrative, copiously (and often erroneously) footnoted. The documentary concerns a preternaturally-shaped house, which may or may not be haunted, and which frequently changes its inner layout and dimensions. It’s hard to be both scary and erudite, but Danielewski manages.

Perfect For: Someone who’s ready to make the leap into metafiction.

The Sandman: Preludes and NocturnesThe Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes, by Neil Gaiman

Although Neil Gaiman has long had a reputation as a Horror writer, much of his fiction is simply Fantasy with a slight twist of Horror. Even most of his run on the Sandman comic series was more about Fantasy than Horror. But the first volume of this popular set definitely shows off Gaiman’s talent at writing Horror, albeit the sort influenced more by old Horror comics than novels. As he introduces the character of Morpheus, the King of Dreams, he is at great pains to remind us that Morpheus is also the King of Nightmares. The series found a larger audience after this first storyline, but I will always have a soft spot for this mash-up of Gothic and old-school comic book scares.

Perfect For: Wannabe goths and people wondering how Neil Gaiman got his start.

InfernoInferno, by Dante Alighieri

Ok, this one might be pushing it a little. There’s no doubt that much of today’s Horror fiction simply could not exist without Dante, but his medieval epic poem does not easily fit into the genre as we know it today. It also does not provide the thrills-n-chills normally associated with Horror. It is rather a more intellectual look at the horrors of the human spirit, and a sober acknowledgement of where they lead us. That being said, I would stack up the story told by Count Ugolino in the ninth circle of Hell about his betrayal by an archbishop to a slow and very cruel death against anything written by Stephen King or Clive Barker. You can also learn how Hell actually froze over a very, very long time ago.

Perfect For: Poetry lovers and those curious about ancient cosmologies.

Have anything you’d like to add to the list? Let us know in the comments!

Month of Horrors / Hell is Adaptations: Manhunter Posted at 5:02 PM by Jonathan McDonald


Month of Horrors: Manhunter

Watching Michael Mann’s Manhunter is something like watching a now-famous actor in a commercial filmed at the beginning of his career; except that here the actor is a character, and the character is Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Yes, this year’s Month of Horrors will feature a crossover with our Hell is Adaptations series in an overview of all the films adapting the Hannibal Lecter novels.

What is especially noticeable to fans of later Lecter films is the scarcity of the popular cannibal in this 1986 crime thriller. It seems a little silly to assume that anybody would need an introduction to the character of “Hannibal the Cannibal,” but perhaps a quick overview is in order for the few newcomers. Originally created for Thomas Harris’ 1981 crime novel Red Dragon, Dr. Hannibal Lecter is an extremely intelligent serial killer from Eastern Europe who ate his victims and avoided detection and arrest for many years before being caught almost by chance by FBI agent William Graham, a man who has the ability to empathize with killers and figure them out from the inside. Dr. Lecter worked both in an emergency room and later as a psychiatrist, and used his medical knowledge to commit and hide his violent crimes. In many of the media adaptations of the Lecter novels, the cannibal doctor often serves as a guide to help the FBI apprehend other serial killers, though usually with the intention of playing both sides of the game.

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Hell Is Adaptations: The Innocents Posted at 11:23 AM by Scott Lazerus

Scott Laz

Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough, I said to myself . . . and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy (with the children) and horror (of their false friends) will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars. Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications.

—Henry James, 1908 Preface to the New York Edition of The Turn of the Screw

In considering which genre film adaptations to take a look at for WWEnd’s new blog series, I thought I’d begin with that most unusual case—a successful film adaptation of one of my favorite novels; one that manages to respect the original story while using the tools of cinema to elucidate that story in ways not possible on the printed page. Instead of nitpicking the alterations from print to screen and wondering what in the world the filmmakers were thinking (which, unfortunately, tends to be my response to film adaptation of novels I admire, more often than not), upon re-watching The Innocents, the 1961 adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, I found myself admiring the ways in which the filmmakers had added their own touches to the story, indicating a real understanding of the essential ambiguity that defines The Turn of the Screw, while not merely giving the audience a slavish recreation of the original.

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Hell is Adaptations: Carrie Posted at 8:02 AM by Charles Dee Mitchell


Hell is Adaptations: Carrie

Horror fans owe Tabitha King a dozen roses, a box of chocolates, something. When her husband Stephen tossed the unfinished manuscript of his first novel into the trash, it was Mrs. King who fished it out, read it over, and convinced him to finish it. And so we have Carrie and possibly all that has come after it.

I am not a Stephen King reader, and so, almost forty years after its publication, Carrie is the first of his novels I have read. However, on whatever Friday in 1976 Brian de Palma’s film version opened in Dallas, I was in line. I had seen de Palma’s films Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise, and Obsession and loved them all – well, maybe I admired Obsession more than it loved it. Those films and a poster featuring Sissy Spacek covered in blood got myself and some friends to the theater for that Friday bargain matinee. We expected to enjoy ourselves. We had no idea just how much fun the next ninety-eight minutes were going to be.


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Guest Post: Mira Grant Talks Parasites Posted at 8:00 AM by Dave Post

Dave Post

Mira Grant, author of the wildly popular Newsflesh zombie trilogy, has a new plan for creeping you the fuck out. In this guest post she shares some fun facts about parasites that she discovered doing research for her newest creeptastic book called, you guessed it, Parasite. You can practically hear her cackling with glee while she’s trying to make our skin crawl but what else can you expect from the Zombie Queen? Enjoy!

Mira GrantParasites are neat.

They can modify of the behavior of supposedly more “complex” organisms, turning them into incubators and caretakers at the expense of their own lives (and the lives of their young). They can survive in dramatically different environments over the course of their often metamorphic lives, going from open water to the gut of a bird to the weeping sores on a human’s leg (hint: don’t go wading in any water you don’t know intimately). They infect everything. You, me, the world–this planet belongs to the parasites, and we’re only tolerated because they’ve got to get their take-out somewhere.

In case the preceding wasn’t enough of a hint for you, I’m Mira Grant, and I love parasites. They have shaped the evolution and development of life on this planet to a degree that we’re still trying to accurately map, and there are indications that they may be responsible for a lot of things that we enjoy. Like gendered reproduction. Studies on otherwise identical populations of snails living in isolated lakes have shown that snails who reproduce parthenogenically (basically via self-cloning, a trick that can also be accomplished by some lizards, some fish, and the Komodo dragon, in case you never wanted to sleep again) have a higher instance of fluke parasitism than snails who reproduce in a sexual manner. The blending of genes inherent in sexual reproduction creates children who stand a better chance of resisting cataclysmic parasitic infection. So if you like sex, thank the parasites.

tapewormBut parasites don’t just give us gender and hence sex and all the fun things you can do with it. They also give us real-world zombies, creatures whose wills have been totally hijacked by their parasitic masters. Parasites may be tiny (for the most part–some tapeworms can grow dauntingly, damagingly large) but they’re capable of some incredibly big things. Our immune systems have evolved in tandem with these parasitic visitors, a continual biological arms race with the end goal being nothing less than ownership of the human body. We think we’re winning. The parasites, if they could think, would probably think that it was just a matter of time.

As you can probably guess, I’m a lot of fun at the dinner table. Especially right now, when I’m full of fun facts about the wonderful world of parasites. Fun facts like “let’s talk about parasitic cysts in your sashimi” and “do you know why you shouldn’t eat undercooked pork?” (My friends have gotten very, very good at distracting me with ice cream.) Researching the book that would eventually become Parasite was some of the most fun I’ve had since I was initially consulting doctors on the best way to raise the dead. I read books. I read technical papers. I read more books in order to understand the technical papers. I attended lectures, visited museums, and watched several necropsies of local animals thought to be suffering from parasitic infection (spoiler alert: most of them were, which is why we don’t eat roadkill). I met the parasitic world in the best possible way: by looking at it, delighting in it, and learning to respect it. These little creatures possess the power to really ruin a person’s day. I like that in a biological organism.

Parasites are wonderful. I hope you can learn to love them like I do, or at least come to really understand why restaurants have all those “do not eat undercooked seafood” warnings.

Yay, parasites!

ParasiteMira Grant’s newest book is Parasite, out on October 29 from Orbit.

From New York Times bestselling author Mira Grant, a high-concept near-future thriller.

A decade in the future, humanity thrives in the absence of sickness and disease.

We owe our good health to a humble parasite – a genetically engineered tapeworm developed by the pioneering SymboGen Corporation. When implanted, the Intestinal Bodyguard worm protects us from illness, boosts our immune system – even secretes designer drugs. It’s been successful beyond the scientists’ wildest dreams. Now, years on, almost every human being has a SymboGen tapeworm living within them.

But these parasites are getting restless. They want their own lives… and will do anything to get them.

Thanks for the post, Mira… I think. I’m not sure I’ll be able to enjoy my sashimi like I used to but I’m looking forward to the new book. For you other Mira Grant/Seanan McGuire fans out there we’re collecting questions for an author interview this month so don’t miss your chance to Ask Mira Grant Anything.

Watch the First 3 Minutes: IN THE FLESH 3-Night ZOMBIE Event Posted at 8:49 AM by Dave Post

Dave Post

I saw this over on SF Signal and had to share it here. I’m not a huge zombie fan, except for the comedy end of the spectrum like Zombieland or Shaun of the Dead, but this one seems an interesting take. And I like that it’s only 3 episodes – which is about how far my attention span will take me when it comes to zombies. The show premiers Thursday June 6 at 10pm/9c on BBC America.  What do you think?