*A Review Copy of this book was provided by the author*
Photo Credit: Provided by Author
A SMALL SPOILER FREE ASIDE:
The book is excellent. Read it. Spoilers ahead. This is your only warning.
What is a trope?
In a literal sense, at least in relation to fiction, it is just a plot device or framing narrative that has
been used enough to achieve a status as commonplace. The farm boy turned hero in fantasy, for
example. In reality, at least as far as online critical discussion goes, a trope is the source of ire. A
contested feature of fiction that is often utilized as a derogatory term, a synonym for hackneyed.
Often, these tropes can become so discussed and hated that they loop all the way back around,
with new articles and discussions praising them, demanding their return, and lauding their true
merits. The farm boy turned hero in fantasy, for example…again.
This article isn’t about farm boys turned heroes. There isn’t enough money in the world to get
me to stick my hand in the fantasy trope “discourse” hornet’s nest. Instead, it’s about zombies,
and in a broader sense it is about Indie Horror’s refusal to put up with the elimination of any
trope, no matter how common.
Oh, and this article is also a review of Robert Royal Poff’s 2023 novella SLEEPING AMONG
WOLVES. So let's start there.
SLEEPING AMONG WOLVES follows Moose and Atlas as they navigate their lives and the
world around them in a post-apocalypse hellscape familiar to most readers of horror fiction. An
infection of unclear origins is spreading across the world, turning those afflicted into beings with
an insurmountable hunger for human flesh. It cycles through a present day/flashback narrative
that allows the reader to piece together the story on their own, divvying out information about
Moose and Atlas and the world a little at a time, all the while building towards something clear.
Something terrible. Atlas has been infected, and his hunger is growing. He is terrified that one
day soon his hunger will overtake him and he will kill his lover, the only light he has to cling to
in the ever oppressive darkness.
These two narrative threads are the roots of the story. Both the rising fear of the disease and the
delicacy of relationships burrow into the depths of the narrative, and with them they take the
reader into a ratcheting cycle of tension and anxiety. The reader does not just sympathize with
Atlas, they feel his fear. They feel his spiraling anxiety. His growing hunger.
SLEEPING AMONG WOLVES is a novella set during a zombie apocalypse, but one that isn’t
outwardly, narratively about societal collapse or spreading disease. Those things are backdrops,
framing devices, foundational tropes.
The story ends with Atlas and Moose making it to their destination. The source of a radio
broadcast from the mysterious Cat Voleur (yes, named after the Scoop’s very own) pushing them
onward towards a hopeful respite. But time has run out. Atlas loses control just as they arrive and
Voleur is forced to kill him. The story ends not with a cure, but the emotional finality of the true
apocalypse. Of an apocalypse that echoes the thematic lineage of Cormac McCarthy’s THE
ROAD. At the end, the true apocalypse is when we are forced to continue on in a world without
the ones we love.
Zombies are a trope, but they do not define the novella’s narrative. They define it’s emotion.
Indie Horror and the Refusal of Constraint:
I will not write here, in the annals of the internet to be forever preserved and called upon, that
Indie Horror has a different relationship to tropes than the other genres represented in SFFH.
You would never get me to say, for example, that Indie Horror readers are more kind and
forgiving of tropes, while Fantasy can be damingly hard on writers for their work feeling
derivative of Tolkein or Jordan or Abercrombie. I would never say that.
What I will say, though, is that horror writers, indie or otherwise, are less afraid of feeling
derivative or tropish. I admit that this could be a misguided perspective. It is possible that the
activeness and relative kindness of the Indie Horror community, and the way they welcomed me
without questioning what business an at the time literary writer had in their circles, have skewed
my perspective. But it is undeniable that, whether you look on Instagram or Twitter or
Goodreads or right here on the Scoop, you will find countless trope filled books. Stories about
back rooms and zombies and haunted houses and vampires, and they all use those tropes in their
own ways and are, for the most part, welcomed with open arms by the rest of the community.
Poff made a choice in SLEEPING AMONG WOLVES to write a zombie story in an era where
much of the media is still reeling with burnout from the trope. This refusal to accept rejection, a
refusal common across much of the Indie Horror scene, to me is a recognition of the importance
of tropes. That they are not steps in the story representing the derivativeness of genre
storytelling. The farm boy does not always become the hero because that is the step that must be
taken. Sometimes he becomes the hero because that is the vehicle for emotion that the author
feels is best.
In SLEEPING AMONG WOLVES, the zombies are not the story or the method. They are
backdrop to an emotion. An ethereal, flesh hungry representation for the persistent fear of loss.
I do not give star ratings when I can avoid it. Those numbers mean something different to every
person, and serve only to simplify a thing as complex as storytelling. Instead, I leave you only
with my final thoughts, because at the end of everything art is personal. You must decide for
yourself if it is worth your time.
Poff’s prose is not revelatory. The connection I made to its emotional narrative and McCarthy’s
THE ROAD is only present in the emotion, not anywhere else. The writing will not leave you
reconsidering passages for months on end, wondering if the meaning you deciphered is the
correct one. At the same time, it is not the ever elusive “invisible prose,” as it offers a great deal
of texture in the gore and hunger of the story’s new reality.
SLEEPING AMONG WOLVES, above everything else, offers readers an honest, emotional look
at love. It shows what it is like to be terrified that you will lose the last thing you have left. That
loss is not something predicated on zombies or post apocalypse. We have all, as humans and
artists and whatever else we are, been afraid that what we have now is fleeting.
That someday, hunger will devour it too.
Robert Royall Poff is writing stories like this every day. Find him at:
Facebook- Robert Poff