When it comes to the undead in modern horror, there are few—if any—things that come to mind quicker than zombies. Sure vampires are at least a close second, but they have been overwhelmed with glampires over the last decade and have largely lost their appeal to many people, myself included. And zombies, while they haven’t gotten sparkly, have been done to death, or undeath, as you will, and have grown tiresome to many hardcore horror fans. Because a lot of authors who take on the trope have a specific template in mind—which I’ll talk about later—effectively telling the same story with different words and characters: run for their lives, fight off hordes of the undead, hunt for food, fight off people trying to take their food, rinse, repeat. So it’s safe to say that I’ve had enough of them to last a lifetime and, as a reviewer, if a story is zombie-centric, it’s a super hard sell for me. It’s got to have something extraordinarily new about it to get me to look at it in the first place, let alone enjoy it. But I recently read a book by Scott Edelman titled Liars, Fakers, and the Dead Who Eat Them that rekindled my interest in stories of the unwashed dead, and the movie, Train to Busan further cemented that newly awakened interest. Because those two stories blew up the template and took their own singularly unique directions, using zombies as set pieces while telling stories that were achingly human in nature. So I got to wondering, what exactly takes such a story from being just another pile of same-old, same-old and transforms it into something interesting and readable for me. And the answer is glaringly simple and can be stated in one simple word: originality.
So, without further pompous blathery from me, and in no particular order except for the first one, here’s a list of some of my favorite dead things.
- THE RISING by Brian Keene – For most, it probably goes without saying that the template of which I spoke, the defining masterpiece that sparked the fires of fanaticism that have spread through the horror community like a plague, is Brian Keene’s breakout debut novel, The Rising. The 2003 publication was an instant success, garnering high accolades from industry professionals and horror fans alike and wrangling a Stoker win for best first novel. And while I, like most readers, could give a shit about awards, especially those born of exclusivity, it says a lot about a work by a relative unknown when it gets noticed and appreciated by what were then some of the biggest names in the business. Keene’s story is an in your face, smashmouth zombie novel that, while heavily focused on the undead, uses the violence, monsters, and breathtaking action to shore up the living. They were the means rather than the end and that was the secret that made his book work where so many others fall down.
- THE REAPERS ARE THE ANGELS by Alden Bell – You’ll likely notice fairly quickly that there is a trend to the creations I’m talking about here. Like the aforementioned Keene work, The Reapers are the Angels is a brutally human story about one young girl’s struggle to survive in a post-apocalyptic world, avoiding predators both undead and human as she travels across the country, all the while being pursued by a man with a personal vendetta. Like most of the books on the list, this story takes unique turns, envisioning zombies, and other things, in a whole new light. This tale is damn close to the top of my favorite stories list.
- THE LAST PLAGUE by Rich Hawkins – Though billed as a zombie novel by many, The Last Plague is really something else entirely. It has monsters aplenty, mutated, flesh hungry human beings, but their voracious nature is the only thing that resembles your average zombie theme. Hawkins has created monstrosities out of people metamorphized into strange and hideous creatures with unique and terrifying abilities. Some of them can fucking fly! Once again, it’s a story about people with monsters as set pieces, playing out in rapid fire, almost cinematic clarity as four men who had been on holiday try to fight their way back to their homes and their families, unsure if those family members yet live. It’s a tale told with heart and emotion and, in between wanting to scream, you may find yourself wanting to shed a tear or two.
- HATER by David Moody – It is, at best, difficult to tell you what, exactly, the Hater trilogy is all about. Doing it the justice it deserves would be impossible, as Moody has created something entirely his own. Where his Autumn series, though super good, was another take on the Keene template, Hater is anything but. It’s a story of monsters and, again, humans, but it’s often difficult to tell which is which, as person turns against person in a sudden onset of rage and hatred, determined to kill one another at all costs. It is once again a story that uses its creatures as set pieces to prop up the people, a tale of pain, loss, and ultimately a sort of dark redemption as one man tries to live his life and survive in a world that has lost its collective mind.
- ROT & RUIN by Jonathan Maberry – no such list as this would be complete without this incredible YA series by the now legendary Jonathan Maberry. Rot & Ruin and its successors are possibly, and impossibly, the most intensely human stories I’ll mention here. Benny Imura, apprenticed to, and accompanied by, his brother Tom, along with a few of his friends makes his way out of the “safe” compound they live in and into a world infested by zombies and the worst that humanity has to offer. A place where children are forced to fight children for the sake of gambling and death comes quick to the weak or unwary. If you can read and then walk away from this one without feeling some deep and heavy emotion, your heart is made of ice cold stone.
So there you have my very short list of some favorite dead things. Romero opened a gate, Keene brought the flood, and a torrent of tributaries split off from the main, most of them muddied by the silt of what’s been done before, but a few of them dredging unexplored channels in the loam of human imagining. I could go on a little longer, but even then the list would be short. Scott Edelman reminded me of my love of fictional dead things, but in the process he also reminded me that stories like his are few and far between, and when you discover them, you should treasure and savor them for the priceless gems that they are.