Rating: 4 out of 5
Spoiler warning: I wanted to talk about some of the events closer to the end, so there are things you will learn in this review that purists might want to experience from the book first. However, I tried to speak in generalities so that the details will still be new to you.
In The Living Dead, writer Daniel Kraus finishes the novel George Romero never managed to complete. Luis Acocella is San Diego’s assistant ME, and Charlie Rutkowski is his diener. They perform the autopsy on what becomes Zombie Zero, and they’re the first to determine that destroying the brain is the secret to destroying what come to be called “ghouls.” This thing is happening around the world nigh-simultaneously, so while it can be spread via bite, it didn’t start out as a contagion. Statistician Etta Hoffman is a neurodivergent government worker at the Census Bureau in DC. She’s the first to see Luis’s uploaded post, and the first to realize this was the start of something big. When all of her co-workers left, she remained behind. She posted her phone number on government websites and started collecting people’s stories of what was going on into an archive.
Greer Morgan wakes up in her trailer park to find her neighbors and her father hungry for flesh, and with the help of other neighbors escapes the park. She goes to find her brother at the high school, only to discover that he’s gone off the rails in a different direction. When she meets up with Muse, the two of them travel together. Greer is the warrior; Muse is a pacifistic musician. Together they become known as “the Lion and the Dove.” Onboard a carrier called the USS Olympia, Master Chief Boatswain’s Mate Karl Nishimura finds himself caught between ghouls below and a mad priest above. All he really wants is to get home to his husband and children, and he makes a pact with pilot Jenny to get back to the mainland. News anchor Chuck Corso, known as the Face due to his attractiveness (and lack of ability), ends up becoming the voice of the apocalypse, remaining on the air just as long as possible. And it’s his unexpected honesty that makes him so entrancing. He and producer Baseman, with a handful of others, stick around to narrate the end of the world.
This book is quite long, and read a little slow to me in parts. But that’s kind of to be expected in a book of this length–too much tension with no breaks would be exhausting.
These zombies are really not what we’ve come to expect. They have some smarts to them. When Greer is trying to hole up in her trailer, they start doing things like peeling back siding and digging up through the floor. On the aircraft carrier, doors stymie the zombies–but only at first. It’s like one or two will remember how to do something, and then they spread that knowledge to the others. Some of the sections are written in the second person, as though “you” are the zombie, and it’s pretty fascinating to see what’s in their heads. Some zombies can be trained to a small extent; others return to favored places and routines. I don’t want to say too much because it definitely becomes important to the story later on.
The book goes overboard, to my tastes, with demonizing all of our electronic gadgets. There’s an over-the-top scene where people text and swipe while being eaten, and the things get complained about pretty much throughout the book. But there’s something to be said for the authors’ notion that seeing things through our smartphones makes them seem controllable.
Early on, there’s a steady theme of Us vs. Them. At first everyone wants to blame the deaths and riots on gangs, which means anyone non-white gets targeted. As the book says, “Self-proclaimed heroes could only exist in opposition to villains.” So the populace invented villains. This is a theme that recurs later on. We also see moments where the humans are every bit as violent as the ghouls, even in one case biting someone’s neck so that they bled out.
The humans deal with trauma in all sorts of ways. There’s a conversation between Karl and Jenny that’s really fascinating for just how they’re talking around each other, each of them traumatized by what they’ve been through. Before we know it, more than 10 years have passed. Eventually there are zombie dogs, chimps, rats, and chickens, and Etta believes she’s stumbled on why. Of note is the fact that none of them attack their own kind: they all hunger for humanity.
We do get far enough to see a group of people trying to rebuild, and trying to figure out what’s going on with a changed and reduced zombie population. Great things happen, but I admit, I found this part of the book depressing. It’s interesting to see people defining themselves now by how they treat the zombies. It’s a time of legends, like that of the Lion and the Dove, or of a mysterious, notable zombie who’s been spotted making her way Westward by a number of people. Zombies come to be seen as literal and metaphorical “leeches” on humanity.
All in all I recommend this book. The people are fascinating, the journeys they take even more so. And the zombies are surprisingly intriguing. My main problem is just how heavy-handed some of the book’s themes are.
Content note for everything you’d kind of expect from this book: slurs, an autopsy, ghouls eating people, mention of childhood sexual abuse, gore, self-harm, sexual content. However, it’s a long book, and the level of gore absolutely suits the topic and serves the story. One oddity that might annoy some readers: a lot of periods were somehow replaced with commas, and it tripped me up at first figuring out where the sentences began and ended.
The difference between total societal upheaval and trivial annoyance was cobweb-thin.