I’ve bitched about the proliferation of zombie novels and, of course, much like the ravenous undead they feature, the novels keep coming. Call it a fad. Call it a subgenre that won’t go away. Call it my karma coming back to haunt me.
Call it what you will, but here are a quintet of recent books that feature a possible cause of the apocalypse … at least according to the CDC.
A ZOMBIE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES: FROM THE MASSACRE AT PLYMOUTH ROCK TO THE CIA’S SECRET WAR ON THE UNDEAD by the pseudonymous Dr. Worm Miller takes the position that zombies have been an intricate part of history, but largely covered up. Miller tells the story of the United States’ last 200 years and how zombies played a major part in its formation.
In Miller’s alternate history, there are two types of zombies: the berserkers who are essentially mindless eating machines, and hybrids, who are zombies capable of thought and reasoning, but who are sometimes overcome by their more animalistic urges. His book reads like an entertaining history textbook: Washington crossing the Delaware while fighting off an undead horde; Lewis’ (of Lewis and Clark) obsession with proving that a zombie cure works, to the point that he experiments on himself, and the inevitable tragic end result; Jim Bowie’s ferocious fight against an army of zombies at the Alamo and his own heroic sacrifice; the zombie hybrids who were used as super-soldiers during World War II (take that, Captain America!) …
These scenes are all fun to read and to imagine, but too often, Miller’s book gets bogged down in real-world situations and obvious setups. He depicts zombies as a minority lower down on the scale of being prejudiced against than any other, and of course, there are civil rights scenes that play out because of it. Sometimes it’s clever and it works, but more often, it’s predictable. Yes, of course they would be hunted for sport. Of course they would be experimented on. Of course they would be ostracized.
Most disturbing, at least in my mind, is that Miller depicts the Civil War as more of a fight for zombie freedom than what it was originally fought for. I understand he has a message here, but something about taking the history of the African Americans in this country and rewriting it with zombies doesn’t sit quite right with me.
In AUTUMN: THE CITY, author David Moody constructs a more realistic approach to what a zombie plague would entail. A cover blurb compares his AUTUMN series to Matheson’s I AM LEGEND, and although I see the similarities, I think Moody falls short of that lofty ideal.
Much like Matheson’s novel, a plague erupts without warning and suddenly billions of people drop dead. A few days later, the dead begin to move and slowly, almost imperceptibly, they exhibit awareness. Naturally, this means trouble for the scant few survivors.
Moody is good at creating realistic characters with scenarios that engage the reader. A cover blurb also compares his series to George Romero’s LIVING DEAD films and 28 DAYS LATER, but I was reminded more of King’s THE STAND: The world changes overnight, leaving the few survivors are leftscrambling for food, shelter and safety in numbers; there’s a large cast and multiple subplots; unlikely bonds form between disparate characters; and everyone is moving towards a common goal. All the elements are there, and without the hokey good-vs.-evil crap that King forced into that novel.
AUTUMN: THE CITY is an enjoyable read with true moments of suspense. But the “best horror since Richard Matheson’s I AM LEGEND”? Sorry Wayne Simmons, author of that hyperbolic blurb, but I think you should re-read Matheson’s book.
ZOMBIE, OHIO by Scott Kenemore tells a zombie tale … from the viewpoint of a zombie. It’s a quirky take on this overused subgenre (although one that is increasingly becoming more common), and it works on several different levels.
Peter Mellor wakes up after a car accident with no memory of his past life. There’s a reason he’s amnesiac: The top of his head was sheared off in the accident, and he’s now a member of the living dead who are roaming the countryside. That’s right: The zombies are out in full force and people are scrambling to survive.
But Peter is different from the other zombies: He can think and reason and talk, and as long as no one asks to take his pulse (and he keeps his baseball cap covering his exposed brain), he can pass for a member of the living. Peter is an über-zombie.
Therein lies Peter’s dilemma: As a thinking being, he has a moral code and a conscience, but as a zombie, he has a craving for brains. To him, brains taste better than a peanut-butter-and-crack sandwich. So what’s an undead man to do when he’s caught between two worlds? And how long can he resist his hunger?
Kenemore has a background in humor writing, which shows to great effect. His prose is sharp and witty, and there are situations and bits of dialogue that made me chuckle and occasionally laugh out loud. At the same time, his main character is a tragic figure, a man reborn as a monster who tries to hold onto his humanity, but finds it slipping further and further away.
Favorite line: “I grabbed some of his brain and downed it before continuing. It galvanized me, like fucked-up Popeye spinach.”
Joe McKinney’s FLESH EATERS takes more of the traditional approach. Houston is hit with a hurricane, and amid the flooded streets, the dead are rising and attacking the living. Sgt. Eleanor Norton has her hands full with helping survivors and struggling to keep her husband and daughter safe from not only looters, but also an impending second storm. Now she has to contend with zombies, as well.
McKinney is a good writer and his plot seems geared for a blockbuster movie adaptation — like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD crossed with HARD RAIN (that crappy ’90s Christian Slater/Morgan Freeman flood movie) — but he takes his time in getting the story moving. I found myself wondering, “When are the zombies gonna show up?” for a good 60 pages or so. I mean, in a zombie novel, you want to get to the zombies as quickly as possible. Right?
There’s a concurrent running plot about a group of men who are using the flooding to hide their plan to pull off a major heist. It’s an interesting scenario: a foolproof plan to score millions of dollars … if only those damn zombies hadn’t of shown up. Despite the book’s slow start, this secondary plot and the plight of Eleanor keep the novel moving.
Finally, there’s S.G. Browne’s BREATHERS: A ZOMBIE’S LAMENT, a tale of zombies as told from the viewpoint of one. (See what I mean about it becoming more common?)
Andy lives with his parents because he died in a car accident and now he’s one of them, the world’s newest and most hated minority. His wife is dead (she didn’t reanimate like he did) and he’s unable to see his daughter. The only thing he has in “life,” if you can call it that, is a support group for zombies like himself.
There, he gets to mingle with suicides, other car crash victims, robbery/murder victims … and they all are as miserable as him. One day, they meet a zombie who introduces them to the joys of eating humans. Then Andy’s undead life becomes more interesting.
Browne also has a quirky take on zombies, although it doesn’t snap with the same electricity that Kenemore’s ZOMBIE, OHIO conducted. Browne’s zombies are 21st-century slackers with a mixture of self-loathing and lack of self-worth — emo-zombies, if you will. The cast is interesting and there’s a bit of mystery that kicks the story off in an interesting fashion. Browne also throws in tidbits like the zombies having to consume products that contain formaldehyde in order to stave off further decomposition. It’s a fun bit that adds — dare I say it? — flavor to the plot.
Of the two, I found Kenemore’s book more enjoyable, but why quibble? Read both for two sides of the same coin.
Footnote: Jonathan Maberry, an author of many a zombie book himself, seems to be the go-to guy for zombie-novel blurbs. His name is on the majority of these books’ covers, which I guess means that publishers are actively soliciting his endorsement. I wonder if he still enjoys the genre, or if he’s wishing he had made a name for himself writing something else. —Slade Grayson