Read Recently — There Are Worse Things Than Zombies

The Rising and City of the Dead by Brian Keene

I like Brian Keene. A friend pointed me in the direction of his blogs, originally, and Keene’s blogs show him to be a creative, imaginative writer who’s a lot of fun to read (they also show him to be a smartass. It occurs to me that some of you may not find that as endearing as I do, so consider yourselves warned). So, when I found the Rising at World’s Biggest Bookstore, I grabbed it, and a couple weeks later I found the “sequel”, City of the Dead and I grabbed it too, before it disappeared. I was actually a couple weeks in between reading them both, but they’re getting covered together here because City is less a sequel than a continuation of the first book (the Rising did not so much end as stop, something which apparently caused some uproar among Keene’s readers).

I wish I could say I liked them. I didn’t. The basic plotline is that the dead are rising, and eating the living. There’s a slight twist in this one, though, since Keene’s zombies are intelligent. They talk, they use tools, and they can figure out how to find you and kill you. They also aren’t just human; cats, dogs, birds, zoo animals . . . all rising, all killing, all speaking (though they can only speak the languages that the body used to speak . . . and those who didn’t speak before can only speak some language that no one living can identify [we later learn that it is Sumerian, or possibly some other ancient Mesopotamian language]).

Jim Thurmond is a survivor. He had the good fortune to have built a Y2K shelter back when that was an issue, and the further good luck to make it to the shelter when things went critical. At the start of the Rising, he’s huddled in that shelter as the dead above try to dig him out. Then his cellphone rings, bringing him the news that his son, living in New Jersey with his ex, is alive (or claims to be, anyway) and trapped in the attic of Jim’s ex’s house. So Jim sets off to the North and East to find and rescue his son (hmmm, isn’t that the basic plot of Stephen King’s new one, Cell?).

There are other survivors: William Baker is a scientist at a major government project. He traps a zombie in a locked room and manages to get it to talk sense for a bit. It is animated by a demon-lord named “Ob”. When Ob breaks free, Baker is forced to flee the project. Reverend Thomas Martin is forced to confront quite a challenge to his faith. And a druggie named Frankie, whose last name, if it is ever mentioned, I cannot remember just now, is going through withdrawal and the end of the world. As if she didn’t have enough problems.

The Reverend meets up with Jim early on, and they begin to travel together. Frankie and Baker meet them eventually, when all are victims of a group of National Guardsmen turned looters/rapists/killers/barbarian horde. When the Guardsmen decide to head to Baker’s labs with an eye towards making the complex into an easily-secured base, they are ambushed by Ob and his hordes of deadites. Those of our heroes who survive the ensuing massacre flee to New Jersey where, in what I must admit was a very unsatisfactory (but not without its merits as a work of horror) ending, we leave them.

City of the Dead picks up where the Rising left off, almost to the word (it actually backs up a couple of paragraphs and starts a bit before the ending. The survivors of that situation flee into New York, where they are rescued and taken to a tower built a few years before by a reclusive, Howard-Hughes-esque billionare. The tower contains offices, condos, restaurants, et al, has a self-contained or filtered air system, and is generally supposed to be able to withstand everything up to a nuke (the crashing of airplanes into the building is specifically referenced as something it can withstand–this is post 9/11, and a little ways yet into the future). The billionare has gathered a small community in the building, intending to make a last stand against the dead. The zombies are certainly willing, and have gathered around the tower in huge numbers. And then Ob arrives, and everything becomes critical.

Basically, in case I haven’t spelled it out clearly enough above, the risen dead are animated by the spirits of ancient Mesopotamian demons, allowed to escape from the void for reasons that are never actually spelled out (we are given one character’s belief as to what happened, briefly and early in the book, but that is never confirmed or denied and frankly, doesn’t make any sense). They can animate a body as long as its brain is still whole, and there are a lot of them.

Firstly, Keene gets points for trying something new in the flesh-eating-zombie field, an area where little truly original is ever done. Unfortunately, he goes on to lose a lot of points for several reasons:

The first is that, frankly, the whole “demons inhabiting the bodies” thing takes away a lot of the horror potential from the story. I mean, really, there’s not a lot of horror potential to begin with; the basic fears invoked by zombies (ignoring, of course, fear of death/being killed/being killed ugly; those are inherent in most horror and especially in “survival horror”, the term used increasingly frequently for “carnivorous monsters on the loose” stories, an area including zombie attacks) are those of being eaten/cannibalism, an old taboo that we’ve gotten rather blase about these days, of being absorbed into the mass (becoming a shambling, badly-dressed extra in the great zombie movie of life–if you’re lucky you get a single word to recite, rather than any real lines), and being attacked by those you love who have moved on, often violently, forcing you to kill them again (it’s no coincidence that one of the first scenes in Night of the Living Dead takes place in a graveyard where siblings are visiting a family grave).

But if the bodies are inhabited, not by the spirits of those who used to use them, but rather by ancient Mesopotamian demons, both causes of horror there are gone. It’s not you that rises, and it’s not your loved ones who try to eat you, but rather something that just looks like you/them and has your memories as well as its own (this has some repercussions that were never explored in the Buffyverse, either).

Also, a zombie with intelligence is really just a crazy person and, unless you are a teenager who has just had sex, crazy people aren’t really all that scarey.

In the second book, the situation devolves down to a siege, a common heroic fantasy trope, with Ob and the Zombies (Dave Barry: “That’d make a good name for a band!”) just another sorcerer and associated barbarian horde.

And, of course, the whole situation lacks suspense. Since the demons must leave a body that has its brain destroyed but can enter a new body, they cannot be defeated and the human race is, in the long run, doomed. There is an ever-shrinking number of humans, and an ever-growing number of flesh-eating undead. This means that, in the long run (and it’s not a very long run, either–678 pages between both books) the question isn’t, “who will survive” because no one will survive. Rather, it’s, “how will they die?” And the answer, for most of them, is “They will be eaten by a zombie.”

I don’t have the energy to discuss in any detail why the name “Ob” is the least scarey name for a demon lord ever written (except for his brother Apu, who presumably runs a Kwikee-Mart). Just fill in your own reasons.

So, overall, not recommended. I do have hopes for Keene, so I will be reading Conqueror Worms, if I can ever find a copy.

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