New Adventures Reviews: White Darkness

Zombies are hip. They’re in our movies and comics and major investment firms. You can’t walk more than a few blocks without stumbling across some shambling horde of loosely anatomical types desperate for brains. Zombies, it seems, are the new ninjas. So the cover of White Darkness—on which a smiling Doctor, intrigued Ace, and off-model Benny greet their happy zombie friend—might look ahead of the curve. Not exactly. White Darkness gets into the kind of stuff that started the pre-pop-culture zombie legends. David McIntee “set out with the intention of giving Haiti and voudon society a fairer representation than is usual in fiction.” White Darkness is a straight-up historical adventure novel, with no pretentions to anything more, but it’s coming from a slightly smarter place than the books, films, and flash mobs covered in fake latex sores.

White Darkness innovated in setting the story somewhere other than goddamn London again. A lot of Doctor Who stories take place in and around London. I mean, a lot. There was a reason for this, once. The TV series had tight budget constraints and, hey, the Home Counties were right there. It’s slightly less understandable in the new series, which by the same logic should spend more time in Cardiff. When the novels and Short Trips collections head back to London again it’s plain baffling. It costs no more to set a novel in Africa, or India, or even on some entirely imaginary alien planet, than in Croyden. Apparently these stories suffer from imaginitive constraints… which may also explain those alien-world EDAs that could have been set in London. Conversely, many London-based stories could have taken place in any city and even at any time… but the TARDIS automatically, unthinkingly seeks out contemporary London again. (Preferably a neighborhood with some nice middle-class white people.) It’s like the default state of Doctor Who.

David McIntee did more than any other nineties author to claw the TARDIS from the death grip of southern England. Of his dozen Doctor Who novels only one is set in the London area, and that was a Pertwee-era UNIT story. Ironically, the author who in one book dropped in a lame joke about “political correctness”—which sounded completely bonkers coming out of the Doctor’s mouth, being normally used only by old-fashioned types who resent being asked to show some manners—did so much to diversify the series. When he wasn’t taking the TARDIS to strange new worlds, he set it down in 19th-century China. Or medieval France. Or imperial Russia. Or contemporary Hong Kong. Or, in this case, Haiti.

White Darkness needed its location. The politics and culture of Haiti circa 1915 are central to the story. On a basic level McIntee connects the threads of his story with a light theme: the loss of the self. The German troops are testing a neurotoxin designed to zombify Europe—removing its victims’ pesky personalities and free will—based on the drug that author Wade Davis believes to be at the root of the zombie legend (though it should be noted that some people question his research). Criminal mastermind LeMaitre moves in the other direction; he hopes to reunite the personalities of the Old Ones with their bodies, now running, zombielike, on their autonomic nervous systems.

Yeah, the Old Ones. This was the book that united the Cthulhu Mythos with Doctor Who. (One of the supporting characters is even named Howard Phillips.) This got out of hand around All-Consuming Fire, which revealed several existing Evils From the Dawn of Time (Fenric, et al.) to be gods from the Lovecraft canon. Although even that was better than Gary Russell’s attempt to regularize the Doctor Who cosmology in Divided Loyalties. Did you know the Gods of Ragnarok were named Rag, Naa, and Rok? I’m still getting over that one. But I digress.

The psychological wear-and-tear of pervasive violence is the other major theme. This centers, of course, around Ace. It was a truism in the NA days that New Ace was a damaged human being. This was “resolved” several times but somehow until she left in Set Piece it never took; writers and fans were just suspicious of her now that she’d been a soldier.

McIntee revisits the theme, but in a different way: he’s sympathetic. White Darkness isn’t condemnatory so much as concerned. McIntee seems to have more sympathy than some DW writers for people whose professional lives put them in contact with violence. A lot of this may be down to research. For instance: McIntee seems to have read up on guns. Many Doctor Who writers treat them as action-movie props (I’m still flabbergasted by the Steve Cole book that had Fitz up and running around a few chapters after getting shot in the leg) or reverse-fetish objects. (Think of the Doctor’s reaction to Col. Mace in “The Sontaran Strategem.” Treating guns as pure concentrations of physical evil is not a lot more sophisticated than the gun nuts’ dream of manly toughness enhancers; both attitudes grant the things an undeserved aura of magic.) I’ve never been around a gun that wasn’t either a toy, or secured firmly in a police holster, but speaking as a non-expert White Darkness’s details at least seem accurate.

Some of this may also stem from the movies he likes. Many BBC Books-era authors were heavily influenced by the latest CGI-heavy Hollywood blockbusters. McIntee has a strong film influence, too, but he’s seen a better class of action movie. His heaviest influence is Hong Kong cinema, in particular John Woo-style thrillers and wuxia films—he set three of his books in Hong Kong or China. More relevant to White Darkness are longer-lived Hollywood action fare like the James Bond and Indiana Jones films. Despite the WWI setting the Kaiser’s forces are written as proto-Nazis; Benny’s adventures in their underground base recall the sneaking-around sections of Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade. As for the Bond influence… well, there’s Live and Let Die. But White Darkness, ending as it does with a massive raid on an underground complex, owes at least as much to You Only Live Twice.

McIntee plots his books like action movies, but his style is less action-packed. Prose is McIntee’s weak point. He’s known for a lugubrious concrete-breezeblock style: solid, but it doesn’t really flow. I’ve always found him readable, but this time around White Darkness tripped me up. Maybe because of my struggles with my own flabby prose, I couldn’t help noticing that most of the sentences were at least a couple of words longer than they should have been. I kept slowing down to rewrite sentences in my head. A quick skim-read of randomly chosen The Eleventh Tiger fragments didn’t give me the same problem, so McIntee must have improved over the years.