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Two scuzzy, “spun” meth-heads take their first glance out the window after a few days’ sabbatical from the world and get a glimpse of apocalypse: They see a small girl, a vision of “innocence,” approaching a fierce-looking Rottweiler, and they fear for her. And then the dog crouches in fear, cowers away, and the child leaps for it. Hearts hammering, they shriek and close the curtain. A couple moments later, they cautiously peek back out. Innocence is standing two feet from the window, bloody like the First World War, and before I can scream and close the drapes, I take one close look, like really study her. Pieces of her flesh peel off her face like thin slices of gyro meat.
Peter Stenson’s FIEND opens with a needle jammed straight into your neck, and once your heart is thumping the novel feels like a three-day sleepless binge, rubbing your nerves raw. Billed as THE WALKING DEAD meets BREAKING BAD, it is another in the ever-circling skeletal family of zombie novels. The protagonists are junkies — turns out methamphetamine protects against whatever virus gets the “Chucklers” out chomping flesh — and the novel’s jitters stem as much from the itch of addiction as from the plague of the resurrected dead.
Some of these recent novels have shuffled away from the pack, riffing on the generic template established by George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD as a vehicle for post-9/11 cultural anxieties: Daryl Gregory’s glorious RAISING STONY MAYHALL is a sly zombildungsroman, a coming-of-age political fable, while Colson Whitehead’s ZONE ONE is a darker satire on the Age of Terror.
Others — like Alden Bell’s THE REAPERS ARE THE ANGELS, stealing its baroque prose from the Southern Gothic tradition of Flannery O’Connor, or this novel by Stenson, plucking its protagonist from Hubert Selby (or Darren Aronofsky) and the long tradition of drain-circling, self-destructive addicted schmucks — are less concerned with the metaphorical resonance of the mythology than the authorial showboating possible within the generic constraints of zombie horror.
What Stenson does very well is make his readers scratch at their skin. Yet his zombies are far less likely to make you twitch; it’s the skeevy jittery behaviors of his survivors that frays the nerves. At his best, Stenson uses apocalyptic horror as a complement to the paranoid dread of the drug novel. He captures a feverish intensity — and deploys a bleak, sick humor, visible right in that terrific opening sequence — in staccato, pungent prose. The book zips along, and the few moments of big action (a drugstore run that ends in a zombie siege; a confrontation with a gang of Canadian addicts) are written with style to burn.
Unfortunately, drug addicts, like zombies, have their frustrating generic tics. Protagonist Chase does an awful lot of mooning over his ex, whining about his bad choices, and repeating of those bad choices. (Much like most every drug addict. To be fair, the only fictional addicts I’ve ever had much interest in were Hunter S. Thompson and Denis Johnson’s Fuckhead.) At its best, FIEND breaks bad, but a little too often it felt a bit like the interminable whining of Rick et al. on that other AMC show.
Speaking of THE WALKING DEAD, let me give a brief shout for another recent riff on the Romero universe. While many of my friends rave about the cable series, I find it fairly often a letdown, constantly missing its opportunities to develop complex characters (or interesting events) in the steady, dread-beat rhythm of the post-apocalypse.
So when I read the cover summary for John Hornor Jacobs’ THIS DARK EARTH
, I quickly set the book aside. Yet another zombie apocalypse; yet another ragtag band of survivors trying to keep their community strong against the viciousness of not just the shambling dead, but the predatory survivors; yet another protagonist thrown into leadership who struggles to acknowledge the better angels of his own nature.
But, boy, was I wrong. Where other authors have smashed and reconstructed the genre in new ways, Jacobs is content to fully embrace the conventions. The novel does nothing particularly new, but from its opening at the moment of outbreak in a rural hospital to its inspired riffs on the “frontier community” long after zero day, THIS DARK EARTH is leading the pack.
It’s got everything THE WALKING DEAD ought to: smart characters you actually care about; a rigorous attention to pacing; a devious understanding of how to play familiar scenarios for maximum energy and surprise; and prose that (as each chapter shifts point of view) is varied in form, but consistently excellent. Jacobs is a fantastic writer — and he shows how much life is left in the moaning mob, even when you haven’t got some new, high-concept frame.