‘Zombie Apocalypse!’ is the first in a trilogy of so-called ‘mosaic’ novels which bring together mixed media contributions from multiple authors to produce the story of a zombie outbreak and its aftermath, based on a concept created by British horror editor Stephen Jones. The books came out between 2010 and 2014 and were sufficiently successful that they spawned a set of more conventionally written follow-on novels penned by single authors. I reviewed two of those here back in 2015, enjoying both. How does the original source material compare?
The basic premise of the story is that a near-future authoritarian British government, seeking to divert the public’s attention away from the country’s economic woes, decides to organise a nationwide celebration called the ‘New Festival Of Britain’. In the London Borough of Lewisham, this involves demolishing All Hallows Church and its graveyard to make way for a tram route. This is problematic on two counts. First, the graveyard was used as a ‘plague pit’ where the bodies of victims of the Bubonic Plague were dumped in 1665. Second, the church itself was designed by one Thomas Moreby, an apprentice to the architect and alleged satanist Nicholas Hawksmoor, who believed that the dead could be brought back to life if exposed to ‘pure humours’, which includes fresh air. So when the graveyard is dug up, exposing large numbers of three century old bodies to the air, the local people protesting angrily outside get rather a shock. Things are about to get a lot worse for them, though, as an infestation of angry red fleas comes out of the ground and starts biting people. The church soon becomes ground zero for a crisis of local, then national and finally global proportions, which we follow through police reports, diary entries, email exchanges, medical case notes and other contemporaneous records of what is happening.
Now, zombie novels are two a penny these days and, just like any over-exposed genre, there’s a risk of boredom and predictability if authors don’t keep things fresh. Thankfully, that’s not a problem here due to the originality of both the scenario and its presentation.
What I like about Stephen Jones’ world-building here is the level of complexity and detail that he and the various contributors go into in relation to the nature of Human Reanimation Virus (HRV), the zombie infection. In addition to localising the source to the plague pits under All Hallows Church and providing an extensive back story to that place, several of the pieces explore in scientific detail how the virus progresses in people who have been bitten as they grow ill, die and then are reanimated. For me, this gave the story much greater emotional intensity as you first mourn the death of the victim and then feel horrified when their revived corpse starts eating others. These are no faceless zombies, easy to kill without a twinge of conscience. They were, until recently, people like you and me, which makes their fate that much more disturbing.
The presentation of the material is, of course, the main innovation in this series. Although mosaic novels are not new, the approach works particularly well in the zombie genre where much of the horror is to be found in the diverse personal experiences of multiple eyewitnesses to the breakdown of normal society. There are several standout examples here. Paul Finch’s ‘Special Powers’ is a series of end-of-shift reports by Police Sergeant Liam Calvin as he and his understaffed team of constables investigate a series of violent disturbances in the area close to All Hallows Church the night after the bodies are first dug up. Sarah Pinborough provides a set of diary entries by thirteen year-old Lewisham resident Maddy Wood, for whom the early stages of the zombie apocalypse are nothing so much as an irritating distraction from her growing interest in boys and the challenges of puberty. John Llewellyn Probert’s ‘Ring Around The Roses’ records consultant pathologist Dr. James Lancaster’s extensive medical notes on the gradual transformation of nurse Susan Jenkins after she is bitten by a violent patient in A&E, right through until her final demise and reanimation. What builds up from these and all the other contributions is a complex web of incidents and the emotional responses of those involved, providing the reader with a genuinely powerful feeling of what it might be like to be caught up in the middle of such a catastrophe.
It’s also worth pointing out that the contributor list reads like a who’s who of the British genre scene, with pieces from such luminaries as Kim Newman, Pat Cadigan, Peter Crowther, Tanith Lee, Tim Lebbon, Jo Fletcher and many others.
‘Zombie Apocalypse!’ may initially sound like just another novel of the undead but it’s far from conventional. The book provides complexity in its world-building and originality in its presentation. It’s also a hugely enjoyable and engaging read. If you like zombie novels but are looking for a fresh approach to the genre, this is well worth a try.
(pub: Constable Robinson, 2010. 574 page enlarged paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84901-303-1)