Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Review: Dying to Live

Kim Paffenroth, 2006, Permuted Press

Before we get to the review, some observations on zombie fiction in general...

If you’re a regular visitor to HorrorScope, and a regular reader of my reviews, you may be aware that I’ve been reading a heck of a lot of zombie fiction lately; some drawn from the original Haitian roots, but the overwhelming bulk of it based upon the apocalyptic template laid out in George A. Romero’s ‘Dead’ movies. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. Indeed, the Zombie Apocalypse tale has become a distinct and popular (not to mention lucrative) subgenre of the zombie tale.

Like the Alien Invasion SF tale, or the Epic Quest fantasy tale, the Zombie Apocalypse horror tale offers certain standard tropes that are easily recognised and appreciated by readers who enjoy that sort of story. Unfortunately, this relative strength of the ZA tale is also its greatest potential weakness. Allowing the standard tropes of the subgenre to dictate the plot of every ZA tale can render these tales boringly similar, and even the best ZA tales tend to be made up of a sequence of standard set pieces:

a) The dead arise en-masse and slaughter the living, causing human civilization to crumble.

b) An assortment of survivors band together in some moderately defensible location in an effort to keep the zombie menace at bay.

c) Tensions between the survivors rise and wane, as would occur in any closed community.

d) Our protagonists encounter rival groups of survivors, with whom they battle over resources.

e) As a result of the fighting, the zombies bust in and destroy most of the survivors.

As you might expect, the very best ZA tales rise above the same-old by introducing new ingredients to the standard mix, with the easiest and most effective ingredient being fresh characters. The further an author gets away from clichéd character ‘types’, the greater the effect upon the story.

The point I’m making here, in my usual long-winded way, is that a standard Zombie Apocalypse tale is by no means necessarily a poor Zombie Apocalypse tale; the final rating really does depend not only (and obviously) upon the quality of the actual writing, but also upon whether the author bothers to do anything original with the piece.

Take Dying to Live. In this tale our viewpoint protagonist, having survived the initial fall of civilisation, encounters a group of fellow survivors who have erected a barricaded base, and our protagonist is accepted into this community. Much of the remainder of the book follows the continuing development of the community and the personal tales of those within it, interspersed with expeditions into zombie territory. Towards the conclusion of the novel, one such foray goes horribly wrong as our survivors happen upon another survivor group, whose intentions are far from pleasant – but to say more about this would give away too much.

It all sounds extremely standard for a ZA story. However, author Kim Paffenroth raises this tale well above the ordinary by delivering a range of genuinely engaging characters I’ve not previously encountered. Our viewpoint protagonist, for example, is an academic; capable in firearm usage (as so many Americans are), but not an obvious ‘survivor type’. This immediately leads the novel off in refreshingly different directions; less action, more focus upon the human element and The Meaning of It All. Throw in a former-scientist-turned-religious-icon (yes, you read that right) with an almost purely philosophical interest in the zombie apocalypse; the Military Man who is unexpectedly generous, level-headed and competent; the Homemaker with anger issues; the Widower, existing solely for his child; the Teenager who reverts to savagery in order to survive; and then there are the Bad Guys - not the standard troublemakers who suddenly find the pickings of civilisation there for the taking, but truly monstrous folk who would behave no less hideously during Civilised Times. And the author uses each of these and other characters to comprehensively explore how and why human beings deal and develop.

My only major criticism of the novel is that, in having many of the major characters relate their survival experiences via dialogue, much of that information (and there is a great deal of it) comes across as rather bland, where it could have been made more exciting through flashbacks or first-person viewpoints. That aside, Dying to Live is an enjoyable, well-written and engaging piece of fiction. Zombie Apocalypse ’purists’ may find the relative lack of gory action annoying, but then, some people simply don’t like any changes to the formula. Definitely one of the better pieces of zombie fiction I’ve read recently.

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