by Brian Keene
Leisure Books (2004)
With the proliferation of the zombie genre in horror and beyond, I figured it was about time I sat down and read one of the first books of the 21st century to ignite the craze. Brian Keene's debut novel did more than win a Bram Stoker Award, it showed there was still life in the living dead.
The zombies have risen from the dead and overtaken the world. You know, that old chestnut. These zombies aren't quite like the shambling hordes gifted to the world by George Romero, however. These zombies are smarter. Rather than act upon a purely instinctual call to feast on whatever living flesh is nearby, Keene's walking dead have a consciousness and not only seek out victims, but they plot and cooperate and even use tools.
The novel starts out with Jim, a beaten man in a Y2K bunker that wound up being useful after all--at keeping out the zombie hordes. He is just about ready to call it quits and eat a bullet, since his pregnant wife died and came back as one of them, as well his ex-wife and their son are presumably dead in their home in New Jersey. But then he gets a weak-signaled cell phone call from his son, Danny. Danny's alive, but he's alone and he's scared. That's all the incentive Jim needs to stay alive and makes his primary mission in life to make it to New Jersey and find his son before the zombies lurking outside find him.
Jim's isn't the only story though, as there's also Frankie. She's a New Yorker with a heroine addiction and a life as a prostitute before "the rising." We first find her trying to hide out in a zoo from a gang of thugs she's indebted to. The zoo isn't exactly a great place to find a safe hiding spot, however, since mammals of all kinds are susceptible to the zombie apocalypse. Her situation actually goes from bad to worse even after she evades the thugs and the zombie zoo, when her withdrawal symptoms kick in and the men she meets along the way are even more unsavory than the johns she used to let use her.
Then there's Baker. His is a tormented situation too, as he's a scientist hunkered down in a military research facility in Pennsylvania. It's a site where they have one of those Relativistic Heavy Ion Colliders to see if they can find particles called "strange quarks." While the populace was worried about a black hole being created and destroying the earth, the experiment just might be responsible for the dead coming back to life. Sort of. It quickly becomes apparent to Baker that there's at least one zombie exhibiting signs of intelligence and malevolence, a zombie that calls itself Ob. It might be worth studying if Baker wasn't trapped in the underground facility with it, and when it breaks out of its glass enclosure Baker can't get out of that place fast enough.
There are some more characters that appear on the periphery of the novel, but those three seem to be the main characters for this story and they're all on a collision course towards one big-ass showdown. It might not be so awful if all the survivors had to worry about were zombies, but there's also a rogue militia roaming the countryside that's asserted an iron fist rule over their fellow man in order to hold back the undead assaults.
For a novel that's barely over three hundred pages, it sure packs a whollup. There are elements to it that make it feel reminiscent of Stephen King's The Stand, what with the whole end-of-the-world scenario and two psuedo-armies amassing themselves. Only Keene's two sides of the battle are both pretty evil--Ob's sinister talk of demons entering the world to take over and Colonel Schow's psychotic vision of humanity's last stand. The real heroes of the story are stuck in the middle with no apparent escape. It was a very riveting story and the world Keene built for it was meticulously laid out.
If I am walking away from this book with any gripes, they are but two. The first was the cavalier one-liners that the zombies spouted when they attacked. Some were genuinely funny, while others just grated on me and made me wonder if the zombies were channeling Arnold Schwarzenegger. The second thing was the very end of the book and how it leaves off with the blatant cliffhanger leading into the sequel. I won't spoil it for anyone, but when I came to the last page I couldn't help but utter, "Crap." I still found it to be a great thrill-ride, but endings like that always irk me. It's a good thing I have the sequel, City of the Dead, sitting on my shelf so I can get to it soon.
EDIT: It's worth nothing that Brian Keene recently announced the new ways in which you can purchase his litany of books, since his relationship with Dorchester Publishing and Leisure Books ended in 2010. Find out more by clicking here.