Shamblers. Zombies. Beaters. The Living Dead.
They might be known by a dozen different names but that doesn’t detract from their popularity in the slightest. Just a week ago the third season of AMC’s hit television show The Walking Dead aired to record numbers. From Jonathan Maberry’s Rot & Ruin to Sophie Littlefield’s Aftertime, zombies are alive and well in horror today and this list wouldn’t be complete without a few books dedicated to the animated dead.
I’ll admit upfront that I’m not a huge fan of zombie fiction. So much of it is the same tired plot regurgitated over and over again. I even swore once that I’d never write a zombie novel of my own – an oath that went by the way side the moment I came up with a concept for an alternate WWI steampunk zombie novel – namely because of those similarities. Every now and then, however, you come upon a novel about the walking dead that restores your faith in the subgenre by delivering something new, something fresh. Today’s selections fit that bill.
THIS DARK EARTH
John Hornor Jacobs
The land is contaminated, electronics are defunct, the ravenous undead remain, and life has fallen into a nasty and brutish state of nature. Welcome to Bridge City, in what was once Arkansas: part medieval fortress, part Western outpost, and the precarious last stand for civilization.
A ten-year-old prodigy when the world ended, Gus is now a battle-hardened young man. He designed Bridge City to protect the living few from the shamblers eternally at the gates. Now he’s being groomed by his physician mother, Lucy, and the gentle giant Knock-Out to become the next leader of men. But an army of slavers is on its way, and the war they’ll wage for the city’s resources could mean the end of mankind as we know it.
Can Gus become humanity’s savior? And if so, will it mean becoming a dictator, a martyr . . . or maybe something far worse than even the zombies that plague the land?
Jacobs uses multiple viewpoint characters to tell the story of a group of survivors trying to make their way in the world in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. The story isn’t really about zombies, at least no more than Frankenstein is really about the animated dead, but focuses instead on the human reaction to the tragedy and the age old question of whether they will rise above their base nature for the good of the many or sink into depravity and ruin for the sake of the one.
Our second selection for today takes the classic concept at the center of all zombie fiction – the battle pitting the living against the dead – and flips it upside down with a refreshing approach to the subgenre.
THE DISHONORED DEAD
In a not-so-distant future, the world has devolved and most of the population has become the animated dead. Those few that are living are called zombies. They are feared and must be hunted down and destroyed.
Conrad is one of the animated dead. A devoted husband, a loving father, he is the best zombie Hunter in the world. But when he hesitates one night in killing a living adult, his job is put in jeopardy. Instead of being outright dismissed, he is transferred to a program so secretive even the Government would deny its existence — and where Conrad soon learns a startling truth about how his own son might be in danger of becoming a zombie.
As living extremists become more emboldened and blow up a Hunter Headquarters, as a power-hungry Hunter becomes more enraged and will stop at nothing to gain absolute power, Conrad begins to question not just his profession, but his own existence. And before he knows it he is on a journey of self-discovery, remembering a past he was forced to forget, and soon finding himself not only a hunted man, but a man who must now save both his son and the entire world.
In this unique take on the zombie genre, the walking dead have won the apocalypse and are considered the normal society on earth while the humans are considered zombies and are being hunted to extinction. The hero, Conrad, is zombie hunter working for a secretive branch of the government, doing his best to avoid the threat posed by internal politics while watching for zombie sympathizers on the outside.
Swartwood’s writing is solid and he does a nice job of ratcheting up the tension and stakes throughout. The book would be worth reading just for the unique take on zombies alone, but thankfully Swartwood delivers a well-written tale that makes the experience all the more valuable.
Joseph Nassise is the author of more than twenty novels, including the internationally bestselling Templar Chronicles series, the Great Undead War series, and the Jeremiah Hunt trilogy. He is a former president of the Horror Writers Association, the world’s largest organization of professional horror writers, and a multiple Bram Stoker Award and International Horror Guild Award nominee.
You can find him online at Shades of Reality.