For the longest time I had been of the opinion that zombie fiction was an entirely dead genre (sorry) only occasionally revived (really sorry) by the likes of World War Z, rare titles indeed. The majority of the titles found on the shelves are thoroughly braindead (forgive me) and do nothing but elicit moans (I know, I know) as I read. Thank Romero then that I stumbled upon Brian Keene via his Jack’s Magic Beans short story collection. The originality, visceral thrills and creeping menace he managed to bring to the tales within (read them, seriously) tempted me to pick up his award-winning The Rising, paving the way for four or five nights of intense night reading.
The Rising begins in a setting more familiar to zombies than the survivors of their apocalypses (Apocaloids? Apocalii?). Jim Thurmond is trapped within the shelter constructed in his backyard in the wake of millennial fever. Above his tomb roam the undead remnants of his neighbours, not to mention his wife, peering down his periscope and taunting him incessantly. Suddenly his cellphone rings after days of silence, a missed call and message from his son Danny at his ex-wife’s home halfway across the country in New Jersey. By the time he listens to the recording his battery dies, power stations having failed around the world, but the sound of his voice galvanises him to strike out and reach his son, saving him if it costs him his life.
As you can imagine, the country lies in ruins. With no warning the dead began rising, armed with an insatiable hunger for human flesh and more besides – see later… Infrastructure collapsed, humanity shattered into tiny pockets of survivors, varying massively in their levels of sanity and civilisation – you know the drill. Jim has to pick his way through this wasteland, avoiding the dead and the more dangerous elements of the living, making alliances where he can and inching ever closer to Danny.
By the second installment, City Of The Dead, Jim has reached his destination but finds himself drawn to the centre of Manhattan. Ramsey Tower, a supposedly impregnable and self-sufficient built in the wake of certain terrorist attacks, is putting on a lightshow every night, broadcasting to survivors in the locale. Following a hair-raising journey to the tower, Jim and his collection of stragglers (no spoilers as to who makes it!) join the tower’s community.
Still shell-shocked from the devastation outside, the fortress is as close to paradise as they can imagine. Plentiful food and water, a functioning school, hospital cinema and broadcast system, enough armed guards to see off the interminable zombie assaults, it’s an island of plenty amid the hordes of the undead. But things are never so simple – with a zombie army en route to the tower and a leader slowly losing his grip on reality (in truly hilarious fashion) it’s only a matter of time before they are once more fighting for their lives.
Now while the above synopsis may sound like a mish-mash of several well-worn zombie tropes, The Rising and City Of The Dead have an ace in the hole with the mechanics of the undead themselves. Remember I mentioned the taunting? That’s not figurative, that’s literally talking to Jim, looking down his periscope at him, feeding him his dead wife’s recollections of extra-marital affairs to drive him insane. The zombie army? Not merely your average shambling horde of corpses but a legion of the undead toting rifles and driving tanks. Where most other zombie novels either leave the origins of the scourge a mystery or go for the usual disease option, Brian Keene takes a novel approach which allows him far more flexibility.
His dead bodies are possessed by demons, malevolent creatures shunned by God from the dawn of time and out for revenge against his pet creatures. As soon as a soul leaves a body (yeah, I know) the demons can take up residence, absorbing their memories and using what’s left of the flesh for their own means. Conscious zombies, actively working together to bring about the fall of mankind so that their cousins can finish the job and torch the planet entirely before moving on to the rest of God’s creation. It’s certainly an original conceit and while it takes time to find its feet, Keene soon has fun with the possibilities opened up to him.
The Rising and City Of The Dead manage to weave the standard plotline together with the demonic zombies and come up with a pretty gripping tale, albeit a rather lightweight and pulpy one. The one thing which grated for me was the religiosity – souls, gods, etc – although to be fair it was not handled in a ham-fisted way. For every mention “God will get us through this” another innocent would die a gruesome, painful death only to return and attack his comrades. That aside, for any zombie fan looking to kill a few hours it’s well worth a read. Go into it expecting an enjoyable romp with some well-developed characters, originality and extreme violence and you won’t be disappointed.