Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
Zombies, eh? They're getting everywhere these days. It seems you can't even step out of your front door without stumbling over yet another shambling horde of the undead. Movies, comics, video games all seem to be full of the flesh-hungry ghouls and even if the product being sold isn't strictly zombie apocalypse-themed, the addition of at least a few zombies is virtually guaranteed to shift a few more units. The question is: are we reaching our zombie saturation point? Is our over-familiarity with the necrotic creatures going to remove any sense of dread and terror that we once felt for them?
There was a bit of a scramble for this one when it arrived on the submissions desk at Booksquawk HQ. I'd read Isaac Marion's rather brilliant zombie romance “Warm Bodies” and had wanted to review it but was pipped to the post by Paul Fenton (who also enjoyed it thoroughly). When Zola Books contacted us to let us know that they would be publishing Isaac Marion's prequel to “Warm Bodies” on the 28th of January, Fenton immediately offered up his services once more. A burning rage took hold of me. Why should Fenton get all the tasty zombie fun whilst I am served up plate after plate of lukewarm Killer Crab crap?
I sprang into action, opening the gate to the deer enclosure and freeing the thirty or so red deer we keep in case of just such an emergency. The deer tore out of the building and into the nearby park. Fenton couldn't control himself. With a triumphant howl, he dropped to all fours and set off in pursuit. Pat Black, hitherto firmly ensconced in his mouldering armchair in the corner of the office gave up toying with the idea of finally releasing “Snarl” on Kindle, leapt to his feet and began to follow. “Fenton!” he yelled as he watched the strange chase vanish into the distance, “Fenton! Jesus Christ!”
With Black and Fenton out of the way, my chance had come.
“I'll do it!” I yelled, perhaps somewhat louder than was necessary.
Disturbed by the noise, Bill Kirton's rheumy eyes snapped open. He lifted his head from the chaise lounge to glance about the room, muttered something about young people these days before slipping back into a deep curmudgeonly slumber.
“I'll do it,” I said once more.
Melissa Conway looked down at me from behind her enormous gold desk. There was pity in her eyes. She could see how much I wanted this.
“What about Nash?” she asked, inclining her head towards the obsidian sarcophagus that stood by the water cooler.
A muffled voice could be heard from within the jet black coffin, telling us all to bugger off.
“Nash doesn't want this one,” I helpfully translated.
“Very well,” Conway sighed. “Just don't piss around with it. Stick to the facts.”
“Of course,” I replied, flexing my enormous biceps.
Perhaps now you see how much I wanted to review this book. Isaac Marion's first novel took the tried-and-tested concept of a zombie apocalypse and ran with it in a totally unexpected direction. A zombie love story? It shouldn't have worked but it did. The film rights were sold and the movie (by the same company that brought us the Twilight franchise) came out last week. In one swift movement, Isaac Marion became the contender for Max Brooks' crown of King of Zombie Novelists. After Brooks' last effort, the hugely disappointing “Closure Limited”, Marion's ascent to the throne seems increasingly likely, especially when you've read “The New Hunger”.
In a genre that is getting alarmingly over-crowded, it can't be easy to make a name for yourself, but Isaac Marion seems to have achieved this. As with “Warm Bodies”, the real strength of “The New Hunger” is not in the author's use of gore or shock tactics but in warm, believable characterisation. Marion understands what so many horror writers don't... if the reader doesn't connect with the protagonist, then they don't care when they are in mortal danger. Sure, it's always entertaining to read about someone being eaten alive by a swarm of decaying zombies (at least I find it entertaining), but when the person being eaten alive is someone that the reader actually cares about, that's when the author starts being able to push those emotional buttons that help transform pulp horror into genuinely great fiction. “The New Hunger” is a great example of this. There are no scenes of graphic violence, bloodshed or zombies tearing people apart for the majority of the novel. Sure, the book has zombies in it and their presence is a constant threat to the main characters but Marion wisely avoids the splatter, instead concentrating on developing his cast of unlikely heroes.
As a prequel, “The New Hunger” does a nice job of (re)introducing the characters from “Warm Bodies” and filling in a little bit of detail about their past. Interestingly, we aren't told how the zombie apocalypse began. We're given a hint that the world went to shit through a wave of wars, economic collapses and natural disasters. To top it all, just when things couldn't seem to get any worse, the dead started getting up and walking around. This lack of explanation might irritate a few readers who expect this novella to detail how it all began but it worked well for me. Non-specific zombie outbreak always seems that little bit more unsettling than one induced by a chemical spill or radiation from a falling satellite. Like the characters in the story, we don't know how it happened nor do we know how it will end and this sense of uncertainty really adds to the gloomy atmosphere. As I said before, this isn't really about the zombie apocalypse – it's about people and how they struggle to make sense of it all.
The story has three separate strands that (briefly) come together at the end. Firstly, there's the story of “the tall man” as he wakes up to his new un-life as a zombie. We're with him as he takes his first tentative, shambling steps. We're there when he experiences his first pangs of hunger for human flesh. And you know what? It's beautiful. Some of the best writing in the book details the zombie's confusion and bewilderment as he explores the world around him. He might well be a monster but Marion enables us to see the world through his eyes and empathise with his situation. The zombie, though hungry for warm human flesh, still clings to the last vestiges of his humanity that are buried deep within his subconscious mind. By the end of the story, we learn that the zombie is R, the hero of “Warm Bodies”... this doesn't really come as much of a huge revelation to those who have been paying close attention but it is nice to see how Marion has interwoven R's story with that of the other protagonists in the novel.
We meet Julie, R's love interest from “Warm Bodies” when she is a twelve year old girl on the run with her parents. Julie clings to the memories of her life before civilisation turned to chaos but we see her optimism being gradually eroded by the horrific things she witnesses. Her father has not yet become the complete tool he is in “Warm Bodies” but is definitely on the way there. Julie's mother acts as a buffer between the two but the cracks are already beginning to show in the family unit.
The final strand of the story follows Nora (who is Julie's best friend and confidante in “Warm Bodies”) and her six year old brother Addis. Abandoned by their junkie parents, sixteen year old Nora is shunted into the role of parent and guardian for her kid brother. She's doing a pretty good job considering the circumstances. Nora tries, as much as possible, to shield her young brother from the true horror of their predicament. Unfortunately for her, Addis is at the age where he doesn't miss a thing. The loving but occasionally fraught relationship between brother and sister is handled extremely well and is undoubtedly one of the book's strongest points. Those emotional buttons I mentioned earlier? This is one of them and Marion chooses just the right moment in the narrative to start hammering on it.
Accessible, engaging and heartfelt, “The New Hunger” is a cracking read. Being a novella, it can comfortably be read in one sitting but I'd recommend taking a bit more time to savour it. Fans of “Warm Bodies” are going to lap this up. Though not as witty as Marion's debut novel, “The New Hunger” displays the same great depth of character and sensitivity. Even those who are unfamiliar with the author's previous work will find much to enjoy in it. This is zombie fiction with both a brain and a great big heart. Although I still worry that we might be nearing the zombie saturation point, Isaac Marion has proven that, for the time being, there is still some life left in the genre.
Hereward L.M. Proops