Attack of The Killer Tumbleweeds by Antonia Rachel Ward: A Review
Come for the title, stay for the characters in this fantastic B-movie pastiche
Note: I received this ARC from the author in exchange for an honest review. This review is also posted on Goodreads. If you like the book, consider doing so too (as well as Amazon once it's out) as this really helps authors.
You would have forgiven horror writer Antonia Rachel Ward for not putting much effort into her new novella Attack of the Killer Tumbleweeds (out May 23rd) having already come up with one of the best story titles of they year. Has there ever been a better oxymoron in a title? After tipping my hat at this genius nomenclature I went into this B-movie horror story set in 1950s Vegas expecting all the tropes of this pastiche genre: ironic alien havoc, hopefully some good Blob-style gore, some brutal ends to larger-than-life villains and heroes all in an outlandish, best-of-Americana setting (as aptly portrayed by the fantastic cover art by Daniella Batsheva – look at that beauty).
While I did indeed get most of this, I ended up loving this book for something else entirely. Ward pulls a fast one on us in the best traditions of the Vegas conman, making the b-movie horror goodness a way to camouflage the unexpectedly deep character arcs. The result is a truly memorable horror pastiche that fires on all cylinders and straps on new ones to boot.
First, the plot. I normally write the plot in my reviews in my own words, because what else am I going to do with my time, but Ward has written her own brilliantly on-point B-movie blurb, so I reproduce it here in all its glory while I make myself another cup of tea:
Starring Dean Valentine, and introducing Glitter, the most stunning showgirl on the strip. You won't want to miss ATTACK OF THE KILLER TUMBLEWEEDS!
Showing in all good movie theaters now.
It’s 1958, and for jaded showgirl Glitter and washed-up Hollywood star Dean Valentine, teaming up to seduce a pair of newly-wed tourists is just another day in Vegas. But when the strip is overrun by razor-sharp tumbleweeds intent on destroying everything in their path, Glitter and Dean are forced into an unlikely alliance with a preacher’s daughter and her scientist husband as they try to solve the mystery of the tumbleweeds’ origin and escape the city—all while evading a psychopathic mobster with an axe to grind.
When you read that, you’re under no illusion about what to expect. Brutal plant violence, alien science shenanigans, larger than life characters and the full exploitation of the Vegas setting. And you do get all that. It’s great fun (I particularly enjoyed the bizarre image of the razor sharp tumbleweeds slowly but inescapably running over people, leading to some pleasingly gory moments that Ward definitely does not skimp over).
But then she does something else too. With this kind of b-movie story, an author has two choices. Go full on parody, with all the cynicism and brutal throwaway treatment of its characters that irony and pastiche horror demands (the Mars Attacks! approach, if you like). Or you can try and be sincere with your characters and try and make your reader care for them. Take it seriously even as you riff it up. That second one’s dangerous and demands a good writer. Luckily Ward is a great writer. With the aforementioned washed-up Glitter, we have a fantastic character; a medley of cynicism but also heart who deeply cares for her seedy Hollywood star partner even though it’s not always returned. Somehow Ward makes their relationship touching rather than acerbic. Then there’s Cindy-Lou, the honeymooner with the personal secret. The choice of this secret and the way it’s handled by her new husband – refreshing, given the time period and the genre expectations – made me care so deeply for her and her relationship than I would ever expect from a novella which features hordes of zombies at one point.
Characterisation aside, Ward does some great stuff with the classic B-movie alien themes. Secret government bases, tick. Strange alien powers, tick. But she goes beyond this, and explores questions of identity and individuality, once again defying the title with some philosophical and pleasingly complex analysis of alien ecosystem.
I should also mention the prose. Ward is that most admirable of writers, one who writes with a punchy, simple prose style that doesn’t pile it on but keeps it clear and simple. That’s not to say she can’t bring the emotive or dramatic prose when she wants, but it’s this basic competence that makes this an enjoyable and fun read. I actually found her a better writer than a lot more established horror writers on the scene. A good story is one thing but good prose, to borrow the Vegas theme, is the jackpot.
This being a short novella, Ward gives us some extra value with two short stories at the end. These are brilliant – involving respectively a startlingly original vampire tale in the Wild West and a slasher/witch genre mashup in a theme park – and continues her trend for upending our expectations as well as nailing the setting.
Attack of the Killer Tumbleweeds, then, does everything it says on the tin, but it’s what lies inside that elevates this to a story you need to read. Ward makes you care deeply for her characters as they run away from desert plants and makes some inspired choices, propelling this from a great joke to the one of the essential horror novellas of the year. I hope we get a full novel from her soon. Until then, I’ll carry on saluting that title and the B-movie brilliance inside.