Written by: Emmet O’Cuana
8 As I watched, ligaments grew on them, flesh appeared and skin covered them; but there was no breath in them. [...] 10 So I prophesied as ordered, and the breath came into them, and they were alive! They stood up on their feet, a huge army!
Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s The Walking Dead continues to gobble up morsels across the media landscape. The original comic series from publisher Image has been adapted into novels, video games and of course a television show, which despite some ups and downs is still one of the most-watched genre programs today. Game of Thrones pips it to the post, but then it also features those stubbornly off-screen ‘snow zombies’. Clearly there is an audience for this cult monster of video nasties and horror fiction that can trace its ancestry all the way back to the Bible and Gilgamesh.
This pop culture zombie apocalypse began in earnest in the wake of successful films like 28 Days Later and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead. Many still claim George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is the definitive depiction of the undead and the influential novelisation of his Dawn of the Dead has recently been republished to the delight of fans (in fact Romero has a cameo in one of the books listed below). Horror writers have done their best to meet demand, with a horde of new book titles that fit snugly into the Z-word genre.
Some depict a world overrun by the undead, while others prefer an otherworldly sideways universe of goblins and ghouls living comfortably just out of sight of mainstream society e.g. Mike Carey’s zombie hacker in his Felix Castor novels. There has been goldrush of zombie comics following The Walking Dead’s success – with Ian Edginton and Davide Fabbri’s Victorian Undead particularly fun, as it merges zombies, the London cholera epidemic and Sherlock Holmes! The ravenous zombie has even chewed its way out of the cult horror book stacks to take on the literary set, courtesy of Colson Whitehead’s ponderous Zone One.
Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett
Pratchett’s Discworld novels are a grab-bag of every fantasy trope you can think of mixed in with an uncannily apposite appropriation of contemporary satire. Undoubtedly one of the key humourists in modern writing, this loosely connected series – for those of you lucky enough not to have experienced them yet – are guaranteed to make you laugh like a fool.
Reaper Man takes that popular notion of Death taking a holiday – everyone from José Saramago to Family Guy have had a go – and neatly segues into the issue of undead rights. Whereas George Romero gave us the sympathetic zombie Bub in Day of the Dead, and Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies delivered on its promise of a zombie Romero and Julie, Pratchett gives us Reginald Shoe. Shoe is an activist who tries to motivate fellow zombies, vampires, ghouls and Boogeymen with irritating sloganeering like a supernatural pamphleteer. In a neat stroke Pratchett has lovingly pastiched the rising social consciousness of zombie fiction, with the undead standing in for any number of minority groups, and reduces it to absurdity.
The Iron Hunt by Marjorie M. Liu
When I was eight, my mother lost me to zombies in a one-card draw.
As opening lines go, Liu’s is a killer. The origin of demon slayer Maxine Kiss has just the right about of family drama pathos and horror fiction excess, with the girl growing up to become a heavily tattooed avenger. The last of a line of monster killers known as Hunters, Maxine tackles the undead hordes raised by zombie queen Blood Mama, as well as demons trying to invade our world. The plot itself is both tight and neatly descriptive – Liu has a talent for offhand lines that stick in the memory - and the mixture of horror and fantasy is well done. Maxine’s powers are connected to her elaborate tattoos, which come alive at night, introducing several inventive fight scenes. Then there’s the depiction of the zombie itself, here closer in kind to the vodun possessed form than the Romero-zombie popularised by The Walking Dead. A quick read bursting with ideas.
The Nightside, Needless to Say by Simon R. Green
There was a vague uneasy feeling in my bowels and then a sudden lurch as something within made a bid for freedom.
The messy business of zombie body fluids tends not to be dwelt on by writers. After all, they are already a nasty, smelly, bitey lot. In terms of suspense, it is preferable to keep them off-side until the plot calls for a rush of violence and blood-letting.
Whereas Simon R. Green in this short story originally published in Powers of Detection: Stories of Mystery and Fantasy edited by Dana Stabenow comes up with an inventive way of conveying the plight of hapless protagonist Larry Oblivion, trusting to (very literal) toilet humour instead of maudlin descriptions of undead longing for life. Green’s story is set within a series titled The Nightside, depicting an otherworldly London of dark magic under neon lights. Poor Larry is trying to solve the mystery of his own death and accompanied by his former partner/vodon priestess Maggie, comes up against gangland mages and has a faerie wand in place of the trusty old shooter. Green knows enough about supernatural horror and detective to cherry-pick the best elements from both for this tight little tale.
Plus any questions you might have regarding the state of a zombie’s bowels will be answered.
On Stranger Tides, by Tim Powers
The fiction of Tim Powers is strongly recommended for anyone looking for a heady balance of ideas, historical detail and prose style. While the use of this book’s title for the last Pirates of the Caribbean, along with several plot elements, no doubt represented a neat pay day for the author, it is a shame we will probably know never see the actual story on the big screen.
Powers in his wisdom delivers a plot that serves up Blackbeard, The Fountain of Youth and….zombie pirates. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has read The Anubis Gates, which skipped from the poetry of Coleridge to time travel and werewolves, and here Powers is able to reinvest the swashbuckling style of nautical adventure with a more modern sensibility, as well as lashings of horror and suspense.
Again though. I feel we were cheated out of an amazing zombie pirates movie here.
Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest
Seattle used to be an uncomplicated trading town fed and fattened by gold in Alaska, and then it had dissolved into a nightmare city filled with gas and the walking dead.
Priest’s steampunk Seattle has mad inventors, zeppelins, a mother fighting to rescue her son and…well yes, zombies.
The author’s worldbuilding here is part of the book’s strong appeal. This is no cheap Victorian knock-off with goggles attached to top hats. Her alternate history of America has a scientist scam the Russians, who still own Alaska, out of capital to create the titular Boneshaker, a device intended to help mine the regional tundra. Instead he uses it to rob a bank. In the process of committing the crime the conniving Leviticus Blue’s device sets off a terrible earth-quake that releases a poisonous gas which kills the citizens of Seattle and then reanimates them as carnivorous ‘Rotters’.
Warren Ellis and Max Fiumara’s Black Gas has a similar plot, with gruesome imagery to boot. Priest has fashioned up more of an adventure story, but there is a chase sequence involving the Rotters which alone is worth the price of admission. Protagonist Briar Wilkes endures zombies, zeppelin pirates – and even a 19th cyborg! – during her quest to rescue her son Zeke. A great romp, well worth a read.
Herbert West–Reanimator, by H.P. Lovecraft
He was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms which I could not help calling fore legs, and a face that conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon. The body must have looked even worse in life–but the world holds many ugly things.
Ah racism. It goes with Lovecraft like butter on toast. Reading the 20th century’s true master of horror, the man who set in motion the careers of countless other writers down through the years, is always a troubling experience. It is difficult to set aside the race-hatred and resentment of immigrants bubbling away beneath the surface of Lovecraft’s often compellingly imaginative lyrical prose. To mount a defence of Lovecraft the man is a waste. What is most notable is how strong his influence still is on the writers who followed him.
Herbert West is a pulpy counterpart to Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein absent any sense of honour or sympathy. West is a doctor whose experiments on corpses with the assistance of the narrator carries an echo of Edinburgh murderers Burke and Hare. He uses outbreaks of typhus, as well as the First World War, as a means to obtain more bodies to experiment upon while also studying for his medical degree (fun fact – Shelley’s hero never completed his education).
Lovecraft’s description of the reanimated boxer Buck Robinson is contemptible though, a loathsome outpouring of middle-class privileged hatred for other races. In its own way Herbert West may not only be an influential zombie story, it is also be a hallmark for the ugly strain of racist language that appears in horror fiction.
Pontypool Changes Everything, by Tony Burgess
If you have seen the excellent horror film Pontypool with the always reliable Stephen McHattie – drop your expectations. The original Burgess novel and its film directed by Bruce McDonald are only slightly related. In fact Burgess has included his thoughts on the adaptation process in recent editions of his horror novel, arguing that the film-makers were obliged to take his story in an entirely different direction.
Far more successful in its use of experimental prose than Colson Whitehead’s overwritten Zone One – a zombie novel for Martin Amis fans if there ever was one – Burgess makes language itself the method by which the zombie virus is contracted. The descriptions of people slowly slurring their words, then slipping into word salad before becoming murderous monsters is genuinely terrifying to read. It also is a far superior approach to horror, the sign of a genuinely talented writer, than the literary equivalent of a zombie film jump-scare. Main character Les Reardon, who is extremely mentally disturbed, not only makes for an unreliable narrator for this blood-soaked chaos, Burgess also refuses to treat him as yet another clichéd madman. Troubling and powerful writing, this book will creep into your mind like an ear-worm.
Handling the Undead, by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Lindqvist has already proven himself – in both his native Swedish and through the English translations of his work – a master of horror. He takes typical tropes of the genre, say vampires in Let The Right One In and malevolent ghosts in Harbour, then delivers a touching love story that is also one of the most disturbing reads you’ll encounter or murderous spectres who really, really, like the music of The Smiths.
He’s a fascinating writer. Handling The Undead takes on zombies and marks a sharp contrast to the popular notion of an undead apocalypse. Instead Sweden’s government efficiently rounds up all the returned and makes use of that famous socialised state-medicine to care for the bewildered zombies and their families. To say any more would spoil this books many charms. Lindqvist trades more in existential dread here at the implications of a world where the dead come back than schlock gore, as well as fine character work to establish the psychological shock of those still alive who witness what unfolds. Essential reading.
World War Z, by Max Brooks
The book of war, the one we’ve been writing since one ape slapped another, was completely useless in this situation. We had to write a new one from scratch.
You knew this was coming. Following on from a series of chapters advising readers how best to survive a zombie attack in the directly titled The Zombie Survival Guide, Max Brooks then introduced a series of short anecdotes about recorded zombie attacks. My favourite was the French Legion story, a clever take on the subgenre that made excellent use of its isolated desert setting. This book had somehow switched from a humorous take on survival guides to an actual horror novel. Then Brooks brought us his second book.
Famously Brooks based his ‘oral history’ on Studs Terkel’s The Good War, using this model to bring to life just how ordinary lives could be torn apart by a zombie epidemic, but also lending the events a brilliant global sweep. One of the major disappointments of the Joe Michael Straczynski script drafts was how localised and narrow its scope was – the eventual film actually improved on this slightly, but the great cast of characters Brooks had assembled were still missing for the most part. World War Z feels like a proper lived-in zombie world and also acts like a counterpoint to the heroic survivalist fantasy of zombie/doomsday fiction. Everything from the Battle of Yonkers to the nutrition starved Otaku fending off his turned neighbours; French sewer divers to the receding figure of a lone hitchhiker in the rear mirror; give a sense of scope to the cost of human lives lost.
Feed by Mira Grant
This book is the business. It’s a seventies government paranoia thriller for the blogger era; a zombie horror novel with lashing of gonzo journalism. Though on reflection Hunter S. Thompson never got to behead a zombie….to our knowledge. Feed is the first – and arguably the best – of the Newsflesh series by Grant, positing a world where an experimental cancer cure creates the freak pathogen that leads to the zombie outbreak. Feed impresses not only in the depiction of how this effects the world – in contrast to Lindqvist’s benevolent treatment of the outbreak, here the medical industry becomes a tyrannical controlling influence over all aspects of everyday life – but its convincing appeal to a scientific explanation for how zombies come about.
In just over a century we have gone from Herbert West’s mysterious reanimating fluid to an almost convincing argument that an experimental virus could be at fault for the dead coming back to life.
Georgia and Shaun Mason, our zombie slaying blogger journos, are also compellingly realized, a brother-sister duo whose bond helps raise the tension when the shuffling horde attacks. The fear factor increases when the tropes of a conspiracy thriller are used to facilitate the conceit of a zombie viral outbreak along the campaign trail of an election. A fast-paced plot, combined with great characters and a fascinating innovation of how zombie biology works, make this an extra-special book.