Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Review: Kiss of Life

Daniel Waters, 2009, Simon & Schuster

In this, the sequel to Generation Dead (reviewed here), Waters once again tackles the various thorny issues arising in a world in which American teens have begun to rise from the dead. Kiss of Life is primarily a YA romance set against a rich backdrop in which the existence of zombies continues to polarise the community, and force changes (not always for the better) in politics, law, religion, and social machinations. The plot - which follows our schoolgirl protagonist Phoebe as she continues to fight for Undead rights, whilst pursuing romance with her (now dead) best friend, Adam - is tight, engrossing, and at times genuinely frightening in its all-too-credible examination of how the masses react when faced with unwanted realities.

With Kiss of Life carrying directly on from the events of Generation Dead, Waters wastes no time in jumping straight to the action, continually increasing the stakes as the novel progresses. The plotting and characterisation is spot on, the story satisfyingly mature and dark.

Kiss of Life is a terrific little page-turner that will leave you hungering for the next book in the series, and is available now from Australian retailers.

Review: Generation Dead

Daniel Waters, Simon & Schuster, 2008

All over the US, teenagers who die aren’t staying dead. And, as you might expect, people are divided on how to react. Some embrace this ‘second chance’ to be with their undead children. Others denounce these revenants as demonic portents of the apocalypse. Whatever the case, the undead are now a part of everyday life; they’re in our towns, our shops, our schools. And at Oakvale High, Goth-girl Phoebe’s obsession with Tommy, the new dead kid in class, will have consequences that nobody could ever have foreseen.

Generation Dead is a terrific little YA novel that credits its target audience with a fair bit of depth and intelligence. What begins as a deceptively light-hearted foray into the familiar territory of American high school culture – jocks and cheerleaders, freaks and geeks – quickly begins to delve into some very dark areas indeed, with themes of racial (or, in this case, biotic) and religious intolerance, grief, guilt, and various other unpleasant aspects of human nature coming to the fore. Nothing about this book is straightforward: the characters are complex and varied, with motivations that they themselves rarely understand, but with which readers will empathise, if not always sympathise; the plot twists and turns, defeating expectation at every turn. Even the ending – which I thought I could see coming a mile off – is brutally unexpected and downbeat, and guaranteed to leave the reader wanting to know: ‘but what happened next?’

Utterly absorbing and gripping from beginning to end, Generation Dead should appeal to most readers of darker fiction. I’ll look forward to reading the sequel.

Review: Gospel of the Living Dead

Baylor University Press, 2006, Kim Paffenroth

In 1968 a young Pittsburgh film-maker named George A. Romero released a horror film that would continue to influence the genre, delight moviegoers and critics alike, and redefine the zombie both as a monster and a symbol, for the next 40 years. That movie was, of course, Night of the Living Dead, which was followed by the loosely linked Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), Land of the Dead (2005), and Diary of the Dead (2008).

Gospel of the Living Dead is an intriguing little nonfiction tome, released in the wake of the fourth Dead movie, which closely examines the themes explored by Romero. For such a slim book (195 pages, including 58 pages of appendix and index), there is a surprising amount of apparently well-researched, thoughtful and interesting material packed inside. Fans of Romero’s zombie films should already be familiar with the oft-discussed themes of rampant consumerism and human nature vs. survival; this book digs far deeper, examining such topics as religious philosophy (most notably comparing the entire Dead series to Dante’s Inferno), scientific responsibility, disease, war, humour, racism, sexism, and others, as well as looking at the influences upon Romero’s work and his influence upon the work of others.

The text in this book is well-presented, engaging, and eye-opening; this reviewer was certainly prompted, upon completing the book, to immediately re-watch the first four Dead films with new eyes, as it were. It was a quite wonderful experience, and I’d encourage any serious zombie fan with even the vaguest interest in the deeper meanings of the genre to go and order a copy of Gospel of the Living Dead for themselves. I’ll be interested to see if this book is re-issued with new material in the wake of the just-released Diary of the Dead.

Review: Roses of Blood on Barbwire Vines

D. L. Snell, Permuted Press, 2007

The zombie apocalypse has arrived, humankind has been devoured, and the scattered survivors eke out a meager existence amidst city ruins. But now the vampires have emerged from the shadows, seeking prey, and the remnants of humanity are further reduced to the level of cattle - lobotomized amputees bred solely for food…

To describe Roses of Blood as ‘disturbing’ seriously underplays the sheer brutality of this tale. From the very first page, the circumstances of the protagonists – both human and vampire – are depicted as utterly pointless and hopeless, not to mention violent and gory. Add to the mix a high level of erotic content and the author’s complete disregard for the well-being of any given character, and you’re guaranteed a highly unsettling read from beginning to end.

Snell has introduced some wonderfully fresh elements to the familiar backdrop of the zombie apocalypse, such as the vampires, and the origin of the undead (reanimated by lab-born parasites every bit as lethal as their hosts), all of which directly drive the narrative rather than simply providing set-dressing. The quality of Snell’s writing is also extremely high: this is horror written as high literature, with beautifully rich and flowing prose pulling the reader deep into the story. Having said that, the author’s fondness for similes as a substitute for functional description did start to wear after a while, but this was a minor quibble when compared to the novels’ many strengths.

If you’re fond of zombie fiction (or just horror fiction in general) this is certainly a novel worth reading, and one of the strongest small-press offerings I’ve read in quite some time. I’ll greatly look forward to future offerings from both Snell and Permuted Press.

Review: Day by Day Armageddon

J. L. Bourne, Permuted Press, 2007

If the title of this zombie-apocalypse tale sounds familiar, that’s probably because it's been doing the rounds for a few years now in various forms; first as an online journal, then as a print publication (which I believe has been revised at least once). Day by Day Armageddon also has a major cult following, being one of the earliest examples of the current crop of U.S. small-press zombie fiction to ‘make it big’ (comparatively).

The story is written in the form of a daily journal, penned by a survivor of the zombie outbreak who just happens to be a serving member of the U.S. military (as is the author), with knowledge of and access to weapons and various invaluable survival techniques. The narrative follows the nameless protagonist’s struggle to survive, and to find safe refuge from the undead for himself and a motley assortment of fellow survivors he collects along the way.

To be honest, I wasn’t at all convinced that I was going to enjoy this novel: apocalyptic tales in which the protagonist is a strong, capable type with a good grasp of what’s going on tend not to grab my interest so much. Give me a gibbering, ineffectual loser every time; it makes things more interesting.

However, as it turns out, I did enjoy the book. Sure, there’s nothing really new here, the plot almost wholly composed of elements that any zombie fan will be familiar with. However, it’s still a pretty good read if you don’t mind more of the same (and, given the popularity of the subgenre, I’m betting most readers who pick up this book won’t), and the military-man POV admittedly generates some interest. The author also manages to make his protagonist – who might well have come across as boringly invulnerable – sufficiently flawed and sympathetic to engage the average reader.

I did have two major issues with this publication, though. Firstly, it ends extremely abruptly, and I don’t mean in a ‘they all got eaten’ sort of way. This may have worked okay in the original blog format, where readers held no real expectations beyond the entry du jour, but unfortunately in novel form the result is extremely annoying, with no real climax to speak of, and no hint of possible future developments or sequels. Perhaps I’m expecting too much, but the lack of anything that could be called a proper conclusion left me extremely frustrated.

My second issue was with the editing of the book, or lack thereof. Although competently written, the text is rife with errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation – not to mention some extremely dodgy sentence construction – that kept making me want to whip out the red pencil and go to town. If I were feeling generous, I might suggest that the cruddy grammar lends the tale a certain realism; the journal has, after all, supposedly been written by an Average Joe, possibly with a fairly substandard grasp of the expectations of decent prose. But in the end, it was simply an annoyance that detracted from my enjoyment of the book.

This is a worthwhile addition to the private library if you really enjoy zombie fiction. Otherwise, I’d suggest Joe McKinney’s Dead City as a similarly-themed but more competently packaged substitute.

Review: History is Dead

Ed. Kim Paffenroth, Permuted Press, 2007

History is Dead is another in the ongoing series of zombie-themed anthologies from Permuted Press, a U.S. small-press publisher specialising in apocalyptic and zombie fiction. In this case, the theme of the anthology is historical settings; there are tales set in the days of the Wild West, the Black Plague and the Great Chicago Fire; there are zombie cavemen, zombie Vikings, zombie pirates and zombie samurai; there are tales involving William Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, Jack the Ripper, the Lone Ranger and Thomas Edison.

The twenty stories included within this anthology are mostly well-written and engaging. There’s nothing particularly thought-provoking or frightening here, it must be said, but almost all are extraordinarily fun to read. In particular, Leila Eadie’s ‘Society & Sickness’, written in the style of Jane Austen, and Jonathan Maberry’s ‘Pegleg and Paddy Save the World’, an over-the-top piece of clichéd Oirish tomfoolery, had me laughing out loud.

All in all this is an extremely worthwhile publication, and one I’d recommend to any zombie enthusiast. With Permuted Press’ anthologies consistently showcasing quality in content and production, I’ll certainly look forward to their next offering.

Review: Zombie Movies: the Ultimate Guide

Glenn Kay, Chicago Review Press, 2008

Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide is a fun little tome for any zombie enthusiast. While ‘ultimate’ may not be quite on the mark (there have been several similar publications in the recent past that offer a little more substance overall), at least the description of ‘guide’ is accurate; a fairly casual dip into the sub-genre, with emphasis on fun rather than serious discussion. The guide gives good general synopses and reviews for most of the chronologically-listed movies, and is certainly up-to-date, the final major review being for George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead, released earlier in 2008. Also included are a number of interviews with ‘names’ from the world of zombie flicks, lists for Highest-Grossing and Greatest-Ever movies, and – intriguingly – a list of ‘Zombieless Zombie Movies’, plus a forward by Stuart Gordon.

The author consistently personalises the content with humorous comments and asides, as well as observations drawn from his own experiences as a ‘zombie movie extra’, all of which – for me - added to the enjoyment (although those preferring more serious discussion may find the authorial input intrusive). Definitely worth buying to complement, if not replace, your existing zombie movie references.

Review: Bone Song

John Meaney, 2007, Gollancz

Welcome to Tristopolis, a city powered by the bones of the dead (which, rumour has it, do not rest easy); where buildings tower two-hundred storeys above street level, and ancient catacombs lie for miles beneath; where wraiths inhabit the mechanisms of everyday machinery; where law-enforcement sorcerers can pick apart a suspect’s mind with the ease of a computer technician rewiring a PC.

Lieutenant Donal Riordan is a good cop, good enough to get himself assigned to protect a visiting Diva from a shadowy organisation trading in the talent-drenched bones of true artists. When he fails, however, it’s up to Donal – assisted by his high-ranking zombie lover and her team of hardened cops – to chase down a conspiracy that appears to reach the upper echelons of political power in the city, and in doing so protect his own life, and the lives of those around him.

This really is a brilliant dark fantasy novel, which gave me the same sort of thrill I recall getting upon first reading China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. The world into which Meaney drops the reader is original, enthralling, and tightly put together – an unsettling blend of shiny Retro Sci-Fi, grim dystopia, and gothic horror - giving the city a character all of its own. The plot develops nicely, delivering twists and turns, tension and dizzying action, together with fascinating glimpses into the personal lives of the strange denizens of this strange city.

This is definitely a must-read novel for all fans of horror, fantasy and SF alike; ‘New Weird’ at its very best. A direct sequel to Bone SongDark Blood – is also currently available in Trade format, to be released in paperback early 2009, and I’m already rubbing my hands together in anticipation of immersing myself in it.

Review: Eden

Tony Monchinski, 2008, Permuted Press

The zombie apocalypse has arrived, civilization has fallen, and in what was once Queens, New York, a small community of survivors stand their ground in a fortified compound they’ve named Eden. And, like its namesake, there are snakes within...

Okay, yes, it’s yet another zombie apocalypse novel, and yes, there are plot elements here that will be extremely familiar to anyone who has ever watched a George Romero movie. However, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that this is one of the very best apocalyptic novels I have ever read, bar none; and, as with most truly exceptional zombie novels, it’s la difference that sets Eden apart from the pack (if that isn’t too damn obvious a statement). For a start, our main protagonist, a former teacher named Harris, is introduced on page one of the novel having just been bitten by a zombie. He’s dying from the moment we meet him, and we follow his rapid deterioration throughout the remainder of the novel as he attempts to discover just who in Eden set him up (yep, someone let the zombie in deliberately).

Monchinski intersperses the brief chapters detailing Harris’ hunt for justice with ‘snapshots’ describing his experiences of the apocalypse up until the ‘present’ – moments big and small, significant or otherwise - along with occasional peeks at the experiences of other characters, not all of whom figure prominently in the plot. By the time we reach the foregone conclusion of the novel, we have invested emotionally in Harris’ fate because we know him so well. Fascinatingly, though, most of the aforementioned snapshots are delivered out-of-sequence, so that the reader builds up a very particular (and often flawed) view of any given character, which may very well be turned upon its head with the next snapshot (in one such instance, the reader alone is given information on the background of one of the ‘good guys’ of the piece which, I guarantee, will turn the stomach of even the most hardened horror fan!). This serves to keep the reader guessing, adding to the mounting tension of the main story thread.

My one gripe concerning this novel – and it seems to be a ongoing problem with Permuted Press publications – is that the standard of proofing is pretty dreadful; the published version of Eden is replete with typos and grammatical errors that could have been removed with a decent copy edit. It falls to the editors of any publishing company to weed out such errors, and a failure to do so unfairly gives the impression to potential readers that otherwise excellent authors and works are somehow substandard.

Okay, rant over.

Eden is a wonderful, engaging novel that will continue to resonate, emotionally, long after the final page is read. You can order a copy online from Amazon.com, and should do so immediately. I’ll be looking forward to Monchinski’s next offering, hopefully in the not-too-distant future.

Review: Soulless

Christopher Golden, 2008, MTV Books

To begin with a confession: I picked this book up at random, knowing absolutely nothing about it, in a deliberate effort to expand my genre reading beyond my usual predilection for apocalyptic zombie literature. But maybe the Dark Forces don’t want me to expand my reading, ‘cos guess what? It’s another apocalyptic zombie novel! Spooky...

As the novel opens, the first-ever mass séance (presided over by a number of famous mediums) is being broadcast live from the set of Sunrise in New York. The intention is to open a window to the Other Side, through which the spirits of the dead may communicate with their loved ones for a brief time. Of course, it’s really all just a ratings-grabbing publicity stunt, and, of course, it all goes horribly wrong as the mediums slip into a catatonic state, and all over Manhatten the walking dead rise from their graves to devour the living.

I quite enjoyed this book. Soulless appears to be aimed at a YA readership, despite including a certain level of gore and various adult themes; horror for the Buffy generation. The plot is extremely simple (resolution of the situation depending upon the performance of one specific act, made clear fairly early on in the tale), and will be familiar to anyone who has ever watched a modern zombie movie; the characters are – while not entirely stereotypical – certainly ‘viewer friendly’ and easily recognisable; the prose is clear and easy to read (not a criticism, by the way); and the themes boil down to the old favourite of all apocalyptic zombie tales: is survival worth giving up your humanity for?

The verdict? Soulless is a light piece of summer reading for horror fans. If you think of Stephen King as the genre equivalent of Shakespeare, then Christopher Golden is Jodi Picoult. Fun, pacey, and ultimately disposable.

Review: Bits of the Dead

Ed. Keith Gouveia, 2008, Coscom Entertainment

‘Flash’ fiction – that is, stories that run to only between 50-500 words – can be a bit of a mixed bag. There’s a real knack to – and not a little difficulty in - presenting a clear central idea, together with bare bones plot and characterisation, plus a strong conclusion, without the luxury of a larger word count in which to develop all these aspects. At worst, flash fiction can be boring and obvious; the presentation only of a concept, without any attempt to dress it up in fictional finery, like reading a 500-word movie synopsis. At best, though, flash fiction delivers a real ‘wow’ – a fully-formed vignette with a single, strong idea that becomes the story itself, and delivers an ending that stays with the reader afterwards, usually a twist or shock conclusion. Australia’s own AntipodeanSF is one example of a publication with a well-deserved reputation for quality flash fiction; and now, too, we have Bits of the Dead.

Bits of the Dead is a quirky little, zombie-themed, flash fiction collection, featuring entries by Piers Anthony, Tim Waggoner, Nancy Kilpatrick, Adam-Troy Castro, Steven Savile, and a host of other authors well known for their genre work. There’s a remarkable breadth of diversity here, given the apparent restrictions of the topic (dead folk walkin'); there are tales terrifying and humorous, prose plain and poetic, and any number of cross-genre offerings, nearly all of which are extremely satisfying to read. The greyscale interior drawings by Sean Simmons also run the gamut from silly to scary (some are really quite disturbing, without being openly horrific), and the production quality of the collection rivals that of some major publishers.

A really fun read. Highly recommended.

Review: The Forest of Hands & Teeth

Carrie Ryan, 2009, Gollancz

Mary’s mother used to tell stories of the world before the Return, before the dead rose and civilisation fell; of a time before the Sisterhood, and the Guardians, and the fence that surrounds The Village, protecting the last human survivors from the Forest of Hands and Teeth. But now Mary’s mother walks with the dead, and Mary is beginning to learn that the accepted truths of her world hide a multitude of secrets. Could there be life, after all, beyond the fence? Could the ocean be more than just a fantasy?

And when the fence is finally breached by the Unconsecrated, could Mary’s inability to choose between love and duty, between The Village and some imagined world beyond the forest, really spell the end of everything and everyone she has ever known?

The publishers of The Forest of Hands and Teeth have been actively likening this book to Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, which makes a great deal of sense from a marketing point-of-view, but is really rather unfair to author Carrie Ryan, as The Forest of Hands and Teeth truly is so much better than Twilight on numerous levels.

Ryan has taken a familiar horror theme - the apocalyptic zombie tale – and refreshed it by setting Mary’s story several generations beyond the fall of civilisation, with an intriguing and exciting plot that never quite takes the expected path. The book is well written, the language concise and easy to read, for which readers should forgive the author’s occasional tendency to ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’. The characters – young adults, for the most part – are as realistically flawed as any teen you may meet, and never fall to stereotyping. Even the romantic element dominating the narrative is brilliantly handled, and here Ryan obviously has taken a leaf from Meyer’s book by depicting love and sex as being scary as all hell (an aspect of Twilight to which many attribute Meyer’s phenomenal success), tapping into the most fundamental of all teenage anxieties. However, Ryan tops Meyer by raising the stakes to truly horrifying levels, where the distractions posed by lust may not simply cause you to fall for the wrong guy, but could quite literally lead to the destruction of humanity.

Despite being categorised as a Young Adult novel, The Forest of Hands and Teeth certainly doesn’t shy away from a quite adult level of both horror and sexuality, although in both cases far more is suggested (or at least understated) than actually shown. Nonetheless, this is a book I would recommend to anyone, adult or teen, regardless of whether their tastes run more to horror or to romance, or even just to great human drama.

Review: Pontypool Changes Everything

Tony Burgess, 1998 (new ed. 2009), ECW Press

The island community of Pontypool, Ontario, is a remote, cold, peaceful place where people live relatively uneventful lives day-by-day; Les Reardon, for example is checking his property for poachers while he thinks about tonight’s opening performance of Pontypool Players’ King Lear (directed by himself), and tries not to dwell upon the various personal problems that have recently beset him. A few minutes later, a hunter on Les’ land is having his face chewed off, and nothing will ever be the same again.

Pontypool Changes Everything may be one of the most genuinely horrifying horror novels – as opposed to simply discomforting, sickening or terrifying, although it is all of these as well – that I have ever read, and the impact of this tale is due almost entirely to the author’s skill with prose. For a start, there’s the constant juxtaposition of utterly beautiful writing like this:

‘On the shore of the pool the other horses, ageing and brown, unglue their heels from the burning snow and align their bodies with the grain of the sun...’

...with passages like this:

‘The killer’s neck is broken and he stands over the nurse with his head dropping to his chest. His mouth is open, a bright red gasket through which can be heard the bleating of animals. The sound he makes isn’t human; the message, however, is unmistakable. He’s saying: This doesn’t work, I’m failing.’

Still so beautifully written and understated that sometimes the reader is halfway through the horror before realisation hits.

Another intensely disturbing aspect of the story is that much of it is told from the viewpoint of characters infected with a ‘zombie’ virus (which, terrifyingly, is communicated not through biological vectors but through language). Burgess gives the reader a vivid ‘in’ to the cognitive processes of some rapidly degenerating people here (some of whom are a little ‘off’ before they even contract the virus), in a manner that’s calculated to both feed off and fuel our collective fear of mental illness.

I really can’t recommend this novel highly enough; in my opinion, it would (and should) definitely be up for major (non-genre) literary awards if not for the central zombie theme (and that’s a comment on mainstream literary prejudices, not my own). Pontypool Changes Everything is not an easy read by any means – aside from being horrific, it’s also extremely dense, surreal, and at times requires intense concentration to grasp certain meanings and concepts – but is nonetheless utterly rewarding to anyone willing to put in the effort.

A movie adaptation – simply entitled Pontypool – scripted by Burgess himself, and directed by Bruce McDonald, is due for release this year, although previews of seem to indicate that only the central concept of a virus spread through language has been retained. So: grab a copy of the book first, and treat yourself to one of the very best-ever excursions into horror literature.

Review: Nekropolis

Tim Waggoner, 2009, Angry Robot

Almost 400 years ago, Father Dis opened a portal that allowed the myriad supernatural entities of Old Earth to colonise a dark planet in another dimension. Welcome to Nekropolis, bustling metropolis of the undead and indefinable, home to vampires, werewolves, and things that go bump in the night. Problem is, unless Matt Richter - zombie, detective, and relative newcomer to the Dark City - can get to the bottom of what appears to be a simple case of jewel theft, Nekropolis might not be around for another 400 years. In fact, it might not even last through the next twelve hours...

Nekropolis can best be described as a fun read. The crime / dark fantasy mash-up works well, the plot rolls along at a decent pace, and the main characters are relatively engaging.

My one issue with the book - and unfortunately, it's a fairly big one - is that the whole thing falls way below the expectations created by the back-cover blurb, which likens Nekropolis to the works of Charlie Huston and John Meaney, among others. Perhaps, I'd have been more satisfied with the novel if I'd not expected deep insights into the society and culture of Nekropolis on par with Huston's insights into vampire-run Brooklyn, or if I'd not expected the city of Nekropolis to be so richly described that it became a character in its own right, as with Meaney's Tristopolis. By comparison with the aforementioned, Nekropolis (both the novel and the city) came across as frustratingly insubstantial, with the the various locations and situations experienced by the main protagonists largely failing to gel in terms of providing a genuine 'feel' for the location.

In a nutshell: Nekropolis is worth reading. It is a fun read. Just don't approach it thinking you're getting into anything other than a light romp.

Review: After the World

After the World: Killable Hours (Clay Blakehills) / After the World: Gravesend (Jason Fischer), Black House Comics, 2009

'Life on Earth has changed since the dead stopped dying...'

After the World is an ongoing series of self-contained novellas set against a 'shared-world' backdrop of a zombie apocalypse, published by Australian small press Black House Comics in a 'pulp'-style magazine format (although, as in the case of fellow 'pulp' magazine Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, the publication truly is far too well-produced to truly qualify as pulp).

In Clay Blakehill's Killable Hours, protagonist Terry finds himself stuck in a skyscraper full of dead lawyers who won't stay dead, and - together with a small entourage of fellow survivors - must negotiate his way through the building in order to escape to whatever remains of the world outside. Can the group work together in order to survive, or will human nature (and flesh-eating senior associates) doom them all?

In Jason Fischer's Gravesend, life goes on (more or less) in the titular barricaded English village - school, politics, neighbourhood squabbles. It's just your everyday small town, albeit with an army of undead cannibals waiting to get in. And when a transmission from America sends ripples through the close-knit community, it may only be a matter of time before the walking dead get their chance.

The first two installments of this series are great fun to read. As with the bulk of apocalyptic zombie fiction there's (understandably) not a vast amount of innovation here, but both Blakehill and Fischer provide sufficiently original set-ups and characterisation to make these novellas compelling reading for the zombie afficianado. The differing ways in which the two authors approach this shared world, with regards to style, tone and focus, also gives each installment a fresh and unique feel, and bodes well for future installments by other writers.

Killable Hours is currently available from newsagencies for a mere AUD$5.00 (and soon via Black House Comics' online store), with Gravesend, and at least two further installments, due out in subsequent months. Go and hassle your local newsagent to stock this publication immeditely, and enjoy the zombie apocalypse in tasty, bite-sized servings.

Review: Dead America

Luke Keioskie, Severed Press, 2009

Life's tough in America. Especially when you're dead. Minimum wage, biotic bigotry, rotting flesh. Against this backdrop, private investigator Jon Faraday has taken on the task of tracking down a runaway girl. Easy money. But when the girl turns up dead - truly dead; the first person in twenty years who didn't 'relive' - Jon finds himself drawn into a world of undead gangsters, zombie sex-workers, and a covert experiment that may see simmering tensions between pro- and anti-zombie interests explode into all-out warfare on the streets of New York City.

Let me say right from the outset that I enjoyed Dead America enormously; the story rolls along at a cracking pace, through countless twists, turns and surprises, to a bittersweet conclusion; the characters - while leaning dangerously close to cliche at times - are engaging and, if not alway likeable, entertaining at least. Prose and dialogue are competently handled. The background of this world, in which everyone reanimates shortly after death, and the walking dead are assigned the role of the disenfranchised (as in S. G. Brown's Breathers) is fairly well-realised, with even the massive infodumps doled out by the viewpoint protagonist somewhat forgiveable in that they are a staple of the 'hard-boiled PI' subgenre.

That said, there were two niggling issues that unfortunately prevented my complete enjoyment of Dead America; firstly, the author seems compelled to constantly remind us of basic plot and character information that has already been stated (such as the fact that the dead girl is 'really' dead); secondly, there's a major inconsistency regarding zombie 'biology', with the dead regularly referred to as being able to 'exist forever' on the one hand, but plagued by rot on the other. Mutually incompatible states, surely? Both issues, for me, became highly irritating before I'd even read a quarter of the way through Dead America; that said, it speaks volumes of the strengths of the novel that I was unable to put this book down.

Dead America is a wonderful, if flawed, zombie novel, and should please most fans of the subgenre.

Review: The Anthology of the Living Dead

Ed. J. Travis Grundon & L. B. Goddard, Black Bed Sheet Publishers, 2009

Boasting the by-line 'Forrest J. Ackerman Presents', and featuring a dreadfully pun-filled introduction by the late genre-fandom personality (which neither 'sells' nor detracts from the publication, in my opinion, though fans of 'Uncle Forry' may beg to differ), The Anthology of the Living Dead is an oddly mixed bag of zombie-themed short fiction, featuring some of the very best zomfic I've ever read on the one hand, along with several unutterably ordinary entries on the other. Fortunately, the brilliance of the former outweighs the 'drag' of the latter, making this an above-average zomthology, and definitely one worth reading.

Standouts amongst the standouts include 'Whimper', by Scott Lefebvre, 'Her Wound', by Dave Lounsbury, 'A Hiccup. A Remedy', by Joe Moe, 'Icy Dead People', by Jeremy Boland, and 'Braindead', by Sean Douglas, and it's no coincidence that all of the aformentioned venture into teritory previously uncharted by zompocalyptic fiction.

A strong entry into the subgenre; l look forward to seeing more from this editorial team.

Review: The Enemy

Charlie Higson, Penguin Books, 2009

When the sickness came, everyone over the age of fourteen - every adult in the world - fell ill. The lucky ones died. The survivors are crazed. Confused. Hungry. Encouraged by rumours of a safe place to hide, a community of children begin their quest across London, where all through the city, down alleyways, in deserted house, underground, the Grown Ups lie in wait...

Those famillar with the highly-successful Young Bond series will already be aware that Higson rarely avoids depicting realistic brutality and violence in deference to his Young Adult readership - although more extreme events do tend to be understated, or even occur 'off screen' - and The Enemy certainly continues that tradition. In what is essentially an 'infected' zombie-apocalypse tale for younger readers, scenes of gore and violence, as well as themes of a fairly dark and often 'deep' nature, abound (although Higson avoids gratuitous nastiness). That said, it's adults who may find this novel especially disturbing for the fact that the horrors therein are visited almost exclusively upon children.

A genuinely chilling page-turner, The Enemy is a brilliant thriller that will disturb readers of all ages. The Enemy is currently available in Australia through Penguin Books, and is the first in an ongoing series.

Review: The Dead That Walk

Ed. Stephen Jones, 2010, Scribo Australia

The release of any anthology edited by Stephen Jones is an event to be celebrated; the man knows his quality horror fiction, and consistently delivers the very best of the best. The Dead That Walk collects twenty-four tales of the walking dead - a mix of reprints and originals - including gems by Lovecraft, Ramsey Campbell, David J. Schow, Robert Shearman, Christopher Fowler, Nancy Holder, and Gary McMahon, to name just a few of my favourites. The original tales are mostly top-notch, while the reprints are all recognised classics of the genre.

That said, my one issue with this anthology - and admittedly this may be an issue unique to those, like myself, who read far too much zombie fiction - was that, with so many top-notch zombie reprint anthologies released over the past couple of years, most of the reprints in The Dead That Walk were already overly-familiar to me; the result being that I ended up reading perhaps half the anthology, and felt somewhat cheated as a result.

Don't get me wrong: this is an anthology worth buying (and hey! another zombie antho that's actually available in Australia!), but perhaps it's also an indicator that publishers and editors should give zombie reprints a rest, and concentrate upon commissioning more original work (as was done with Christopher Golden's recent Zombie anthology).

Review: Zombie Holocaust:How the Living Dead Devoured Pop Culture

How the Living Dead Devoured Pop Culture

David Flint, 2009, Cromwell Press

Zombie Holocaust is an illustrated history of the living dead and their fluctuating and evolving importance (and periodic reinvention) in western culture. With chapters devoted to movies, TV, literature, comics, games, toys, music and the Internet, plus sidetracks into 'almost-zombie' territory (mummies, revenants and pod people), this book provides an engrossing and comfortably-readable insight (due in no small part to the author's easy humour and often unique personal takes on various 'sacred cows' of the genre) into how and why the zombie has so effectively infiltrated modern pop culture.

Although the current and continual flood of zombie-related products will undoubtedly necessitate an updated edition of this book sooner rather than later, Zombie Holocaust is a volume that all self-respecting zombophiles should have on their bookshelf.

Review: The Undead: Zombie Anthology

Permuted Press, 2005, ed. D. L. Snell & Elijah Hall

Permuted Press is a U.S small press that in the past has dedicated itself almost entirely to zombie fiction, which - in my book - is extremely cool. However, despite my being a vocal fan of both small press and zombies, it’s taken me a while to pick up a copy of this anthology: I’ve recently read so much bad U.S small press horror (by virtue of the U.S small press market being so vast – see Sturgeon’s Law) that my expectations of such a specialised small press offering were extremely low, to say the least.

Well, I’m delighted to say that this anthology is great fun to read, and will undoubtedly please most fans of Romero-esque zombies.

Of course, that last comment brings me directly to my only major criticism of the anthology: the tales herein revolve exclusively around the variety of flesh-eating zombie beloved of film-maker George Romero. Not that there’s anything wrong with that in itself. I, like many others, am a huge fan of the so-called ‘Pittsburgh’ zombies, and this is the market that the anthology is aimed at. Having said that, however, this narrowing of the field (which ignores zombies from voodoo, EC Comics and other backgrounds) does make for an anthology in which many of the stories achieve a slightly bland ‘sameness’. This is not to say that the quality of the individual stories is poor: barring a couple of notable exceptions which read like poorly-edited fan fiction, most of the tales are well-written, engaging, and – yes – frightening. However, the subject matter – not to mention the original movies from which these tales have in part been drawn, and which therefore set certain specific expectations for readers – seriously restricts the creativity of the authors. By the time I’d finished the fourth 'survivor-of-apocalyptic-zombie-uprising-struggles-to-cope' story, I was beginning to feel that each piece – regardless of its strengths – was really just readdressing specific elements of the various Romero flicks. Aside from introducing a certain degree of blandness, this also gave some of the stories a ‘vignette’ feel, as though they were supposed to be part of some larger work (this is almost literally true in the case of David Wellington’s ‘Chuy and the Fish’ and David Moody’s ‘Home’, which are both set in the worlds of those authors’ respective previously-published zombie novels). This may also be down to the originating material, as the Romero movies deal with zombies on an epic scale, and allow for levels of emotional and plot development that shorter forms simply can’t achieve.

Of course, it’s unlikely that the restrictions I’ve mentioned will worry die-hard P-zombie fans, but anyone looking for a slightly broader range may be slightly disappointed. That said, even the ‘same-old’ stories were for the most part enjoyable, and those that strove for something more were often outstanding.

And so: the highlights.

‘Hotline’, by Russell A. Calhoun, is a neat little story about a zombie clean-up squad, with a twist in the tale that takes the reader instantly from ‘same-old’ territory to somewhere much nastier. To say more than this would give too much away.

Meghan Juraldo’s ‘Dead World’ turns the standard zombie apocalypse scenario on its head by presenting from the zombie’s point-of-view. It’s a darkly humorous piece that doesn’t necessarily offer any definitive answers to the oft-asked questions (Why do they come back? Why eat human flesh?), but gets full marks for tackling them from the other side of the fence.

‘13 Ways of Looking at the Living Dead’, by David Pape, is a rather beautifully poetic collection of vignettes that do exactly what the title suggests. Purportedly collected by a ‘survivor’ in an effort to explain the zombie phenomenon, the various pieces tackle the themes of life, death, loss, desire, and even nekkid girls in horror movies, in a style that alternates between clinical and emotional. A very impressive offering.

David Dunwoody’s ‘Grinning Samuel’ revolves around a very ‘different’ P-zombie, whose chief desires – despite his obvious predilection for carnage – are somewhat more practical than usual. An intriguing mixture of horror, steampunk and action (with a touch of New Weird), this story defeats reader expectations at every turn. I can only pray that Dunwoody turns his talents to penning a complete novel set in Samuel’s world – this is one of the best zombie tales I’ve ever read, and I want more!

‘Undead Prometheus’, by Rob Morganbesser, puts an interesting spin not upon the zombies in his tale, but upon the chief protagonist, a well-known figure drawn from horror literature (and if the title doesn’t give it away, you haven’t read the classics!). Taking Romero’s proclamation ‘They’re us’ and examining it from the point-of-view of someone who is neither ‘us’ nor ‘them’, this piece doesn’t necessarily offer anything startlingly new, but at least changes the window-dressing in a manner that generates interest.

Andre Duza’s ‘Like Chicken for Deadfucks’ (which actually is lifted from a larger work, but nonetheless stands exceptionally well on its own) depicts a future noir in which electrified fences keep the zombies at bay, as they would any other urban annoyance, allowing the cops and citizens of the big city to concern themselves with the far nastier problems occurring on this side of the barriers. An exciting blend of action, cyberpunk and horror, this story simultaneously concludes the anthology and points the zombie menace off into new directions.

All in all, this is an extremely enjoyable anthology, with good content and decent production values. Definitely worth owning if you’re a fan of zombies in film or fiction.

Review: Virus (aka The Missing)

Sarah Langan, 2007, Headline Publishing Group

When school troublemaker James Walker doesn’t get back on the bus after a school excursion, the quiet town of Corpus Christi unites to look for him. However, by the time James emerges from the woods surrounding the town, he has changed. And in his wake, everything else will change as well…

Virus (entitled The Missing in overseas release) was the most recent winner of the Stoker Award for best novel, and deservedly so. Langan takes various familiar horror themes and current social terrors – pandemics, zombies, possession, small-town insularity, etc - and combines them to create something frighteningly original.

Some absolutely superb characterisation complements an extremely nasty plot. The reader gets right inside the heads of even the most disposable characters, discovers what makes them tick, becomes attached to them, and then – all too often – watches them die in the most horrific manner imaginable. There are no absolute good or bad ‘guys’ here – everyone is composed of varying shades of grey. Nice folks don’t always do nice things, and vice-versa. Also, Langan is extremely good at defeating expectations; it’s almost impossible to guess which characters will live, die, or…change, which certainly adds to the tension, and gives the novel an unpleasantly realistic feel. Even the origins of the titular horror are kept deliberately obscure until the final moments, though there are numerous hints dropped along the way - which will probably lead you off in absolutely the wrong direction.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and state for the record that not only is this one of the best horror novels I’ve read this year, it’s also probably one of the five best horror novels I’ve ever read. Virus is guaranteed to creep you out, and is a must-read for horror aficionados.

Review: The Undead Vol 2: Skin & Bones

Ed. D. L. Snell & Travis Adkins, Permuted Press, 2007

Skin and Bones is the second of a series of zombie-themed anthologies from Permuted Press, a U.S. small-press publisher specialising in apocalyptic and zombie fiction. Regular HorrorScope readers might recall my review of the first anthology in this series, in which I suggested that publication – while an extremely worthwhile read – did suffer as a result of many of the stories included being extremely similar, most being obvious homages to George Romero’s zombie movies.

Well, I’m extremely happy to report that the editors have hit their stride with this second anthology, and everything about the publication – from the hideously wonderful cover art, to the range and scope of the stories therein – reflects this. There are still plenty of Romero-esque zombies, sure, but mostly presented from new perspectives, and with new twists and turns to keep them fresh (so to speak!); there are futuristic zombies, prehistoric zombies, zombies born through voodoo, and Indian witchcraft, and fungal infestations; there are humorous zombies, tragic zombies and downright frightening zombies. There are even zombie tales that don’t appear to feature zombies at all. Except that they do. Sort of. Trust me, you’ll have to read the anthology to see what I mean.

As is always the case with an anthology of this quality, I found it difficult to pick any standout pieces. I will, however, single out a few personal favourites:

David Dunwoody’s ‘The Abbot and the Dragon’ is a clever little science-fantasy/horror tale, with a number of fresh twists on several well-worn genre tropes. To say any more would give away too much. So I won’t.

‘Something Fishy This Way Comes’, by Joel A. Sutherland, is a wonderfully comic take on the zombie apocalypse, suggesting that there are far worse things that a zombie might want than eat your flesh. And no, it’s not what you’re thinking.

Eric Shapiro’s ‘The Hill’ is a chiller that, at first glance, appears to have nothing to do with zombies at all. However, the author has taken the tropes of the zombie apocalypse – fear, isolation, an unexplained and almost nonsensical foe – and created something fresh and unique. Okay – no walking dead, but this tale definitely belongs in this anthology.

‘The Traumatized Generation’, by Murray Leeder, posits how a zombie-besieged society might attempt to cope with the social and psychological ramifications upon our younger citizens. And, as always, the government gets it horribly wrong. A very nasty little tale indeed.

There’s also a full novella, ‘Skin and Bones’, by co-editor D. L. Snell, which draws from both voodoo and Night of the Creeps to achieve some extremely effective chills and grue, plus an excerpt from Kim Paffenroth’s novel (also published by Permuted), Dying to Live. I usually ignore excepts from publishers’ ‘coming soon’ lists, but – again testifying to the tightening of the reins by the editors of this anthology – this excerpt stood well enough on its own to be included, and immediately made me want to run out and grab a copy of the novel.

If you haven’t already guessed, I’m giving this publication two thumbs up. Anyone with the slightest interest in zombies should read it, as should any general fan of well-written, engaging horror.

Review: The Undead Vol 3: Flesh Fest

Ed. D. L. Snell & Travis Adkins, Permuted Press, 2007

Flesh Fest is the third in a series of zombie-themed anthologies from Permuted Press, a U.S. small-press publisher specialising in apocalyptic and zombie fiction. With this volume, series editors Snell and Adkins continue to showcase their eye for excellent zombie fiction with fifteen themed tales, all well-crafted, and most approaching the zombie phenomenon from fresh perspectives.

Again, difficult to pick the standouts from such an overall-brilliant anthology, but here’s a list of personal favourites:

Matthew Masucci’s ‘Adam Repentant’ offers a zombie uprising of the biblical kind, and from an unexpected source. Some deft reimagining of Biblical fables results in a tight, atmospheric and engaging tale.

Rick Moore’s ‘Basic Training’ is a frankly horrific take on the manner in which ordinary, decent folk might evolve (or devolve) psychologically in order to deal with the unbearable. Wonderfully written, but not for the faint-hearted or easily offended.

‘Killing the Witch’, by A. C. Wise, presents us with a zombie fairy-tale – specifically, a dark retelling of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Unique, lyrical and unsettling, this is a great example of the broad scope available to authors of zombie fiction when they allow their imaginations to run free.

Scott Standridge’s ‘If You Believe’ is a chilling tale that may have you blocking up your chimney this Christmas. It begins gruesomely, and gets worse. Ramsey Campbell would appreciate the sense of dread with which the author manages to imbue one of our beloved festive icons.

‘The Legend of Black Betty’, by Tim Curran, is undoubtedly the masterpiece of this anthology. Curran, whose work usually falls into the Lovecraftian camp, has here produced one of the most genuinely frightening horror stories I’ve read in quite a while. The mix of Old West and zombies in fiction is certainly not new, but the sheer sense of terror achieved – largely through use of the 'campfire' mode of storytelling, with one character relating much of the tale to another – raises the piece well above the same-old.

And, parochial as this may make me, it’s nice to see local lad Steven Cavanagh get a guernsey in this publication, his brutal tale ‘Street Smarts’ being first cab off the rank.

As with volume two of this series, I would highly recommend this anthology to all fans of zombie fiction, as well as to fans of horror in general. If Permuted Press continues to publish anthologies of this caliber, I may have to find a whole new range of superlatives with which to describe future releases.

Review: Dying to Live: Life Sentence

Kim Paffenroth, 2008, Permuted Press

Twelve years on from the events of Dying to Live (review here), The Community has expanded and flourished; there are new rituals and new roles, as well as new sacrifices to be made. Zoey – an infant when the zombies first rose – is now coming of age, and must find her own place in this strange new world, a process which will include coming to terms with the world ‘before’, which the older folks of The Community still cling to in many ways. And then there are the challenges of dealing with human marauders, and the ever-present threat from the zombie ‘population’.

A population that appears to be becoming smarter...

I greatly enjoyed Life Sentence, as I enjoyed its predecessor. The story clips along at a fair pace, despite being more focussed upon the philosophical and cultural implications of the zombie apocalypse than seasoned gorehounds may appreciate, and the author gives his viewpoint characters a pleasant and engaging ‘voice’ through which the tale is related.

Having said that, there were two general aspects of the novel that weakened the story somewhat. Firstly, there’s a tendency by the author to over-explain certain themes and ideas, particularly at the beginning of the novel, which gives the work a ‘padded-out’ and ‘preachy’ feel occasionally. Secondly, (and I include a ‘spoiler alert’ here) the chapters related from the point-of-view of a ‘smart’ zombie character were a little disappointing, as – despite constant reiteration that this character was unable to remember so many aspects of his former life – he simply seemed too ‘together’, and came across more like a regular human mute. Still, taking the concept of Smart Zombies to the next level and proposing (relatively) Compassionate Smart Zombies is a nice move, and one that Paffenroth should be commended for. It’s certainly an idea that begs for further investigation and expansion.

So: all in all, a worthy read. If you’ve enjoyed Paffenroth’s previous work, you’ll certainly enjoy Life Sentence. If you’ve not read Paffenroth before, I’d recommend starting with Dying to Live, as it introduces concepts, situations and characters central to the sequel. Highly recommended to fans of zomfic.

Review: The Undead: Headshot Quartet

Ed. Christina Bivins & Lane Adamson, Permuted Press, 2008

Headshot Quartet is the fourth in a series of zombie-themed anthologies from Permuted Press, a U.S. small-press publisher specialising in apocalyptic and zombie fiction. With this collection of four novellas, regardless of the change in editorship, Permuted Press continues to offer excellent production values and engaging fiction that approaches the zombie phenomenon from fresh perspectives.

‘Million Dollar Money Shot’, by John Sunseri, revolves around a mobster-on-the-run struggling to survive the zombie apocalypse. Teaming up with a jaded working girl and a rather unorthodox priest, our protagonist soon discovers that the undead menace originates not from outer space or some biolab, but from a well-known aquatic Lovecraftian source. The zombie/Mythos mix doesn’t really gel as well as it could, but some very nice writing and above-average characterization raises this story above such drawbacks.

Ryan C. Thomas’ ‘Enemy Unseen’ is, for me, the absolute stand-out story in this collection. In a tale that renders the old-fashioned Voodoo zombie completely terrifying again, Thomas paints a bleak picture of the walking dead being used as tools of terrorism. In a post-9/11 world, the scenario offered here comes across as unsettlingly plausible.

‘Lost Souls’, by David Dunwoody, again assigns the zombie a more traditional role – that of the avenging demon. Here we have a tale in the vein of Evil Dead, with four young folk heading out to a rental shack in the woods for a weekend and there encountering a violent supernatural force. While the story moves a little too fast to generate many genuine chills, it certainly makes up for this by maintaining an atmosphere of relentless horror.

D. L. Snell’s ‘Mortal Gods’ defies any sort of neat summing up. It’s a beautifully literary piece – as one might expect from the author of Roses of Blood on Barbwire Vines – that incorporates elements of George Romero, X-Men, The Butterfly Effect and A Nightmare on Elm Street, and blends them to great effect. A fitting tale to end this collection, as the author questions the very nature of reality, and the role of zombies therein.

All in all, this is a great collection, and one which successfully showcases the talents of some of the best current crop of zombie fictioneers. A must-read for horror and zombie fans.

Review: Zombie CSU: the Forensics of the Living Dead

Jonathan Maberry, Citadel Press, 2008

Have you ever seriously wondered what would happen if a zombie outbreak were to actually occur?; what agents might cause the reanimation of the dead?; how law-enforcement authorities might investigate a zombie attack?; how the armed forces, media, and society in general would react if the dead walked? If the answer is yes, then you – like myself – obviously have a serious and disturbing obsession, and should definitely secure yourself a copy of Jonathan Maberry’s Zombie CSU.

Zombie CSU begins with a hypothetical scenario: an attack upon a security guard at a medical facility by what eventually turns out to be a reanimated human corpse. From there, Maberry takes us step by detailed step through the procedures the police would follow in order to secure the crime scene, collect and process evidence, identify and track the perpetrator, and make an arrest. Every aspect of the process is carefully detailed; the hard facts of police and forensic procedure (as they would relate to any relevant real-life crime) explained simply and clearly, with the author then tackling ‘the zombie factor’ as an aside, examining how adding the walking dead into the mix might affect the investigation.

As the hypothetical investigation progresses, Maberry backs up his assertions with testimony and opinions from various experts in the field (most of whom appear also to be zombie fans), and continues to do so as the focus moves from the initial crime investigation to such topics as the psychological and spiritual implications of zombies, the legal ramifications of a zombie plague, and effective ways in which to protect yourself from undead flesheaters.

Despite the serious attention to detail in explaining the ‘facts’ of a zombie-related crime, this book is great fun to read; much of the speculative side of things is delivered with a welcome dash of humour, and the narrative of the ongoing investigation is regularly interjected with examples of zombie artwork, opinions from zombie ‘authorities’ (such as Max Brooks, Kim Paffenroth, Rocky Wood, Brian Keene, and others), lists of ‘best-’ and ‘worst-ever’ zombie movies and books, and a running symposium on the ‘Fast Zombies vs Slow Zombies’ debate.

This book will obviously appeal to zombie fans, but should also appeal to those interested in forensics, crime fiction, sociology, psychology, and media studies. There are plenty of surprises in store for the reader (seems the odds of an actual zombie uprising aren’t quite as unlikely as you might think – or wish), and also more than a few chills (the chapter examining plagues, prions, and other agents that might reanimate human corpses I found particularly horrifying). Zombie CSU is likely to become something of a classic in the ‘horror reference’ subgenre. For me, it’s up there with Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, and is similarly a book any genre reader will no doubt return to again and again.

Zombie CSU: The Forensics of the Living Dead is available from Amazon and selected Australian specialist bookshops.

(Oh, and by the way – the blood-spatter pattern on the book’s cover most likely came from a zombie, not a living person. That’s the sort of invaluable deduction you’ll be able to make after reading Zombie CSU :) )

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.

Review: Zombies: a Field Guide to the Walking Dead

Dr. Bob Curran, 2008, Book Man Press

Much as I love my flesh-eaters, it’s refreshing to find a pop-culture zombie guide that deals almost exclusively with the traditional mythology and folk beliefs surrounding the reanimated dead, as opposed to the fairly recent embodiment of the zombie as a mindless cannibal. In this slim, beautifully illustrated volume, the author examines zombie myths from around the world and the ‘evolution’ of these tales from pre-Biblical times up until the present day, as well as the social and cultural phenomena that fed such beliefs.

There’s a great deal of interesting, apparently well-researched material here, although, in the end, I felt that perhaps the term ‘zombie’ had been whacked onto the cover as a marketing tool, as many of the undead entities described therein didn’t seem to fall under that particular banner; then again, the guide presents much information specifically intended to dispel the many misconceptions surrounding zombie mythology (the chapter on the origins of Voodou, in particular, was a real eye-opener), so perhaps I’m more mired in my preconceptions than I’d like to believe. The book also could have done with a decent line-edit before publication; that aside, however, I found this an easy and enjoyable read. Highly recommended.

Review: The Resurrection Game

Mike Watt, 2002, Writers Club Press

The Zombie Apocalypse has been and gone, and the walking dead are now considered a social irritant on par with cockroach infestations or panhandlers. The Government claims they’re harmless, but tell that to burned-out PI Jim Campbell, who hasn’t really cared about anything since zombies ate his wife. Then Jim receives a million-dollar offer from a major horror author to find a cure for The Infestation, and soon finds himself neck-deep in a deadly conspiracy to ‘utilise’ the undead for various unpleasant purposes.

Okay, so this publication’s an oldie, but – thankfully – a goodie. The writing is competent, the characters engaging, and the plot – while not completely hole-free – certainly adds some novel twists and turns to the standard zombie fiction template. I was intrigued to discover that this novel was actually adapted from the screenplay of a low-budget movie of the same name, and immediately went and hunted down the production online. My advice: stick to the book. The Resurrection Game is a superior zomfic offering, and well worth reading.

Review: Patient Zero

Jonathan Maberry, March 2009, Orion

When Joe Ledger – police detective, ex-army martial arts expert, and certified smartarse – is called upon to kill a terrorist suspect, he’s just a little shaken by the experience: after all, he’d already killed the same guy only a couple of days previously. And with that act, Joe finds himself drawn into a shadowy world of covert anti-terrorist operations, global jihads, flesh-eating zombies, and a laboratory-born pathogen that, if released, could destroy the world. And the clock is ticking...

The cover blurb for Patient Zero describes the book as a coming together of 24 and 28 Days Later, and that’s a fairly good thumbnail review. The plot is satisfyingly complex, with plenty of behind-the-scenes detail relating to covert operations, zombie ‘biology’, and fundamentalist culture, yet avoids getting too bogged down as the story charges along at an electrifying pace. The various protagonists and antagonists (a line which occasionally becomes blurred) are suitably motivated and interesting, if not always likeable. And Maberry’s zombies are terrifyingly credible, in addition to providing plenty of tension, frights, gore – and occasionally, some emotional soul-searching.

Patient Zero is a terrific action/horror novel that effortlessly and absolutely satisfies the requirements of both genres. It’s also – and I say this without making light of the fact – a truly post 9/11 zombie novel, and all the more terrifying for it.

With a major Australian publicity drive behind this novel, Patient Zero should be available this month from most bookshops across the country. As an aside, it would be nice to think that this will also lead to local suppliers picking up distribution of some of Maberry’s back-catalogue (as has recently happened with the books of David Wellington), such as the Pine Deep trilogy, which deserves a far bigger readership in this country. Fingers crossed!

Review: Handling the Undead

John Ajvide Lindqvist, 2005 (English translation 2009), Penguin Books Australia

Something very weird is going on in Stockholm. Every electrical appliance in the city refuses to power down. The entire population are struck by blinding headaches, which slowly build in pressure before suddenly vanishing. And then, in morgues and cemeteries across Stockholm, the recently-dead begin to rise.

Handling the Undead is a beautifully-written, sad, and occasionally quite creepy novel about loss and the very human inability to deal with it, which utilises the zombie trope in new and fascinating ways. The walking dead of Sweden are not the ravenous flesh-eaters of Romero’s creation (at least, not exactly), but ordinary dead folk who rise, and walk, and attempt to return to those they left behind (thereby having more in common with the zombies from the 2004 French movie, Les Revenants). But not everything is as it seems. It soon becomes apparent that the ‘Reliving’ are not entirely whole, and that something other than memory or even humanity now drives them. It’s difficult to say more without giving away too much, but I will hint that much of the plot hinges not upon how the zombies affect the living – an issue nonetheless well-addressed – but upon how the living affect the dead.

Handling the Undead is a definite ‘must read’, as is Ajvide’s previous novel, Let the Right One In, which deals with vampirism. Given that the current movie adaptation of Let the Right One In (scripted by Ajvide himself) has been such a massive commercial and critical success worldwide, it seems likely that we’ll be seeing a film treatment of Handling the Undead soon.

Review: Every Sigh, the End (a Novel About Zombies)

Jason S. Hornsby, Permuted Press, 2007

Ross is a fairly average guy: he runs a business with his best friend, producing VHS copies of public-domain zombie movies, has issues with his family (particularly his sister), and is cheating on his girlfriend with her best friend in retaliation for his belief that she is cheating on him with his best friend. In short, life sucks, but so what? Then Ross slowly becomes aware of people watching him: in the street, at parties, even in his own home. Or are they? Is his paranoia baseless? And what – if anything – do these watchers have to do with his friends and family? And why do the strange events leading up to New Year’s Eve 1999 – culminating in a deadly zombie attack upon the party he attends – seem so familiar? Is it possible that Ross has experienced these events before? And why, in the midst of a real-life zombie massacre, is a movie crew taping every move Ross makes?

Every Sigh, the End is a zombie novel that doesn’t just turn the genre on its head, but delivers a violent kicking to that head for good measure. There’s simply no way I can suitably convey just how surreal and genre-bending this tale – which involves zombies, government conspiracies, time-travel, alternate realities and universes, the apocalypse, and pirated copies of Zombie Apocalypse – really is, except to say that this is the sort of zombie novel Phillip K. Dick might have written, had his tastes run that way. In fact, labelling Every Sigh, the End a ‘zombie novel’ is almost unfair, because the zombies themselves don’t feature all that prominently, except as a vehicle to usher in all sorts of apocalyptic weirdness for our protagonist: take away the zombies altogether, and you’d still have a Bloody Good Novel, one that grips the reader from beginning to end (‘unputdownable’ is a horrible term, but I can think of no other in this case). In fact, I’d go so far as to describe Every Sigh, the End as a Great American Novel – that is, one which holds up a (in this case, very uncomplimentary) mirror to the American Way of Life – up there with Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird. Only with more zombies.

I’m declaring Every Sigh, the End a certified Must-Read. For everyone. One of the best books I’ve read this year.

Review: Zombiemania: 80 Movies to Die For

Dr. Arnold T. Blumberg & Andrew Hershberger, Telos Publishing, 2006

Movie guides, of any sort, can be a bit of a mixed bag, ranging from serious critical tomes that document every last production detail to casual companions filled with trivia and irreverent personal opinions of the editors; in other words, there’s something out there for everyone.

Zombiemania belongs somewhere towards the latter; by no means a complete encyclopaedia of zombie films, it concentrates rather upon certain ‘key’ movies, as defined by the editors on the grounds of the importance of those films to the genre as a whole, cinematic merit, and even simply personal taste. This is not to say that the editors haven’t taken their work seriously: each entry in the guide is supplied with a brief but detailed plot synopsis, full production credits, behind-the-scenes information, and a full critical analysis, as well as information on alternate cuts of the movie that may be available, and specifications of current DVD releases, among other things.

On the lighter side, information may also be found under the headings of ‘6 Degrees of Necrophagia’ (the nature of the zombies in a given movie, and how they have influenced or been influenced by other zombie movies), ‘Now Wait a Minute!’ (bloopers, gaffes and plot holes), ‘Hey Look, it’s the Guy from the One with the Thing’ (other media credits of the various cast and crew), and ‘Tor, is That You?’ (appearances of bald zombies bearing a resemblance to Tor Johnson, of Plan 9 From Outer Space fame).

All in all, this is a solid, quite entertaining guide, although serious zombie movie enthusiasts shouldn’t consider it a Bible by any means; nonetheless, a worthy volume to add to the existing zombie movie guide collection.

Review: Breathers: a Zombie's Lament

S. G. Browne, 2009, Broadway Books

Death sucks, as Andy – a recently reanimated corpse – is discovering. Resented by his parents and reviled by a society that has revoked his legal and moral rights, Andy finds some small measure of solace in the company of his fellow Undead Anonymous attendees. Then Andy and his friends meet the charismatic Jay, a zombie who seems perfectly at ease at ease with who and what he is, and who introduces the group to the benefits of consuming ‘potted venison’. Only it isn’t really venison, of course. And that’s when things start getting interesting. And very, very gory.

As most zombie enthusiasts will be aware, there’s an absolute mountain of related fiction hitting bookshelves at the moment, and the majority of it seems to fall into one of two thematic camps: the ‘Romero’ tale, where mindless, flesh-eating corpses overwhelm society, and tales that paint zombies as a disenfranchised minority, highlighting the injustice and stupidity of bigotry in all its many forms. Breathers is a novel that falls squarely between the two camps: a dark, funny tale of the undead as unjustly persecuted outsiders, who find a rather unorthodox means of fighting back against their oppressors.

While I suspect that not all zombie fans – particularly those who prefer their mindless flesh-eaters – will appreciate Breathers, this is certainly one of the best themed novels I’ve read in a twelve-month period that’s seen more zombie offerings than have been released in some previous decades. The story successfully balances humour, horror, social commentary and a page-turning narrative to great effect. A great and worthy read.

Review: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Jane Austen & Seth Graham-Smith, Quirk Books, 2009

A mysterious plague has fallen upon the quiet English village of Meryton - and the dead are returning to life! Yet another distraction for feisty heroine Elizabeth Bennett, whose attentions are already fully taxed by her dislike for the arrogant (yet irresistable) Mr. Darcy, and her desire to overcome the social prejudices of her peers. Oh, and those dratted ninjas that Lady Catherine keeps sending to attack her...

Even if you're not a fan of zombies (or Jane Austen) it's likely that you'd be aware of the publishing phenomenon that is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Following some fairly minor pre-release publicity back in Feb this year, this novel - which is nothing more (or less) than Austen's original work with a zombie subplot and some 'tweaked' scenes and dialogue thrown in - was immediately picked up for international distribution and optioned for a movie adaptation, all well before the title had even hit bookshelves. Of course, it could be argued (correctly, I'd imagine) that the hysteria surrounding 'Pride' has more to do with the popularity of Austen than with the popularity of zombies: nonetheless, I've never before seen so much promotion amongst the usually horror-phobic mainstream media and bookselling industry for any publication involving the living dead.

2009: Year of the Zombie, man!

But I digress...

So, hype and publicity aside, is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies actually any good?

Well, yes, it is. It's fair to say that the book works more because of the extreme novelty of the Austen/zombie mash up than because of any added literary merit the inclusion of zombies might bring, but this doesn't make the ride any less enjoyable. There's actually surprisingly little change to the original text - okay, so the Bennett sisters are now zombie-killing martial-arts experts, and the lower classes have a careless habit of getting their brains eaten - but what changes have been made are very obviously and effectively played for laughs. There's even a 'Reader's Discussion Guide' at the back of the book, filled with useful book club conversation-starters such as: 'Vomit plays an important role in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies...Do the authors mean for this regurgitation to symbolize something greater, or is it a cheap device to get laughs?'

I suspect that those who are truly serious about either Austen or zombies or - not impossibly - both may think twice before picking up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but I'd certainly urge them to do so. Austen fans should find great enjoyment in identifying where the narrative in this book diverges from the original, and zombie fans will undoubtedly enjoy...erm...the zombies. And the gore.

A great, fun, classic tale of modern manners. Now with added zombie mayhem.

(Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is distributed locally by Random House Australia)