It shouldn’t be a stunning revelation to anybody to hear that zombies are on the lower end of the horror fiction spectrum. Usually mindless, cannibalistic, shambling blank slates, their best bet to be taken seriously is for their creators to fill their stories with sociopolitical commentary. Zombie flick godfather George Romero knew this well when he dealt with racism in the original “Night of the Living Dead.”
Much like good science fiction, zombies often stand in place of real issues so they can be made more palatable to those who have either resisted or never considered them. Zombies, after all, lack the menacing eroticism of vampires or the tragic loss of humanity of werewolves. Still, with shows such as “The Walking Dead” commanding the cable airwaves, a resurgence of zombie popularity was inevitable. The only problem is the current generation of authors doesn’t seem to understand what makes zombies a good plot element.
More and more novels are chock-full of familiar tropes, featuring intrepid bands of survivors in a post-apocalyptic hell desperately trying to find supplies or their loves ones or some safe place to hole up. That same story is being told over and over with no end in sight. In fact, there’s an entire fiction publisher that literally deals in nothing else. Clearly there’s a market for telling and retelling a familiar story to undemanding readers.
Not all fiction writers are content to spin similar yarns. I have published two zombie stories with no others currently in the works. The first one, “The Devoured,” is my commentary on nineteenth century racism and how the wealthy often get away with murder…and cannibalism. Oh, and there are a few dead people who come back to life. The other, “Cubicle Dwellers,” asks the old question: What if the dead walked the Earth and they wanted their old menial labor jobs back?
I am in no way an example of elevating zombie fiction to a level higher than cliché-riddled apocalyptic storytelling. My brief attempts were based more on boredom with what I am seeing. Below are three novels by authors who are doing more than expressing boredom:
Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament by S.G. Browne- Andy Warner lives in a world where everyone knows the dead occasionally come back to life. In his case, it was during a routine autopsy. Unlike other novels that take the end of the world for granted, “Breathers” exists in a world like our own that just happens to have zombies walking around and sometimes eating the living. They’re not mindless either, hence the subtitle of the novel. Much like Romero decades before him, Browne recognizes the opportunity for social commentary and goes for it in a very different and much more real way. According to Wikipedia, this novel has been optioned to become a movie. Hopefully, it won’t suffer a similar fate as the next novel on the list.
Warm Bodies by Issac Marion- This novel does take place in a post-Apocalyptic future, only zombies are not the only threat. “R” is the main protagonist, a still-decaying teenage boy who can’t remember his whole name. He can form complete thoughts, however, but isn’t sure his zombie colleagues can. As a matter of fact, he is unique among his peers, experiencing empathy when he kills the living (and eats them, of course) and falling in love with a living girl whose father happens to be the leader of the surviving humans. At this point, a lesser author’s work would devolve into meaningless teen romance drivel, but Marion keeps the story moving by concentrating more on R’s returning memory and the mysterious “boneys,” who are supposedly the final stage of zombie transformation. This is a novel just as much about what it means to be human as any standard literary work on the shelves and it should be read by anyone who appreciated good writing. While the film adaptation didn’t fare as well, it isn’t terrible either.
Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines- Certainly the most adventuresome of the novels listed here, Clines’ work in a modern classic of “mash-up fiction.” Featuring not only a zombie apocalypse, it also features a team of super-powered heroes who find themselves thrust into a difficult world that depends on them for its salvation. The brilliance of Clines’ work is in the characterizations and development, of which there is plenty without sacrificing any action. Each hero gets a flashback or two detailing who they were before the world fell and their stories are often heartbreaking and inspiring. Like the best comic writers, Clines presents real people with hyper-real abilities, except he combines that with the dead walking the Earth. This is a series, of which three out of a possible five have already been published. It gets better with each volume, wisely becoming more about the heroes and less about the zombies with each installment.