"Zero Lives Remaining" Book Review
Written by Gabino Iglesias
Published by Shock Totem Publications
Written by Adam Cesare
2016, 104 pages, Fiction
Released on January 24th, 2016
With a series of outstanding novels and novellas, author Adam Cesare invented a horror subgenre that could be called nostalgia-infused creature mayhem (although I suggest someone comes up with something better). With Video Night, I thought he had offered readers the perfect example of what his subgenre could do and it would never be surpassed as an example of it. I was wrong. While Video Night is an exceptional novel, the wistfulness in Cesare’s latest, Zero Lives Remaining, is twice as thick, the monsters a tad more gooey and intelligent, and the pacing even more insane. The result is a narrative that oozes a bizarre kind of melancholy while celebrating the classic video games and music of a different era while crushing bodies with more speed, creativity, and ease than most current best-selling horror authors put together.
Robby Asaro used to prepare awfully mediocre pizzas at an arcade, but a horrible accident ended his life two decades ago. Despite being dead, he’s still hanging out at the arcade. He's become the proverbial ghost in the machine. Instead of preparing pizzas, Robby now watches everything that happens in the joint from everywhere and nowhere at the same time. After a sad life, Robby is pretty happy with the electronic panopticon that is his afterlife. On a day like any other, he decides to protect one of his favorite patrons, a young, talented gamer named Tiffany Park, from a bully. His message reaches the abuser, but things quickly escalate and soon a maelstrom of violence and supernatural events land Robby and the bully in equal ground. What follows is a fast, brutal, and very slimy narrative in which a small group of youngsters try to survive the attacks of an angry paranormal entity that has them trapped in his realm.
Zero Lives Remaining takes readers into the heart of an arcade that has withstood the test of time; a place where old games are appreciated and kept relevant by fans obsessed with them. Then, once safely there and used to a few faces, all hell breaks loose. And this quick onset of absolute pandemonium is one of the things Cesare does very well. For dark fiction readers who appreciate the way Richard Laymon dealt with characters and dished out inventive deaths, and Bentley Little’s ability to turn a normal place/space into something horrific in just a few paragraphs, Cesare is a wonderful hybrid that brings to the table those things from past masters while also injecting his fiction with enough energy and original ideas to make it entirely his and refreshingly new.
There’s a strange balance between tension and dialogue and the amount of gore Cesare delivers, and that balance is better appreciated in his shorter works. In Zero Lives Remaining, there’s enough blood to keep fans of hardcore horror satisfied:
The gate broke both of the corpse’s legs at the knee and smashed Eddie Harmon’s hands so badly that the joints of his wrists popped like glass bottles in a vise. The elasticity of his skin and tendons was still strong enough to drag him flat to his belly, knock the wind out of his lungs, and trap him under the gate.
I’ve read everything Cesare has published and, up until recently, cataloguing his work was relatively easy and every new book more or less felt like the result of natural progression and his growth as an author. With his latest releases, that has changed. Now, Cesare’s oeuvre includes a mixture of themes, a dizzying array of rhythms, lengths, and degrees of humor and gristle. In that context, Zero Lives Remaining is probably his most nostalgia-infused novella and the one with the most shattering finale. It’s also an unexpectedly rich narrative that explores things like the psychological reasons for bullying and the camaraderie caused by similar interest. All of that, as well as most of the back stories provided, are framed in unflinching brutality:
He’d received the knife in the boy scouts, back when he used to see the outdoor world every once in a while. The handkerchief had belonged to his grandfather and he now used it to clean Yosef’s blood off his glasses. Once he could see again, he took a look at his handiwork, folded the cloth up into a square and stuffed it back into his pocket. Then he sat with his back against the Centipede machine and sawed back and forth with the knife, opening his own throat.
Saying Adam Cesare is one of the best new voices in horror is getting old because he has a great body of work to his name, so it’s time to drop the “new” and declare he’s now one of the best voices in horror. Zero Lives Remaining is a short, very entertaining trip to an arcade preserved in time and packed with death. More impressive than that is the fact that this novella pushed its way past some really great books to join Exponential and Video Night as one of my favorite Cesare books, and that’s saying a lot.