Once, when I was a boy, my parents decided that a family viewing of George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”, and its sequel, “Dawn of the Dead”, might be a good way to pass a stormy summer night. That ill-advised evening left quite an impression — a bite mark, even — on my young, impressionable mind.
Zombies horrified me, so naturally, I went in search of more of them — not just on-screen, but on the printed page, too. Zombie horror stories in the mold of Romero’s silver screen cannibal apocalypse were hard to find, so when I discovered John Skipp and Craig Spector’s groundbreaking 1989 anthology The Book of the Dead at my local Waldenbooks, I was ecstatic.
Here was a collection unlike anything I had ever read. The book featured plenty of gut-gnashing horror stories, but lots more, besides: post-modern zombie hipsters, zombies in space, even zombie gross-out humor. I read it several times through before I made the mistake of loaning it to a friend who never returned it to me. (The same person also kept my Entertech Uzi water gun. Brian, if you’re reading this, I want my toys!)
Although I’d never see my copy of The Book of the Dead again, I never forgot the stories. Over the years, I’ve read through a lot of zombie novels — some good, some bad — looking for similar thrills. Here are my recommendations for must-reads, especially if you’re just getting into the genre.
Got some suggestions of your own? Let us know in the comments section.
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
by Max Brooks
Consider World War Z square-one. There’s a reason that Max Brooks’ zombie horror novel became a smash hit: It’s damned entertaining. Written as a collection of chronically arranged, first-hand accounts of the zombie apocalypse, World War Z gives the reader a wide-angled view of the terror as it unfolds across the globe. Homemakers, soldiers, doctors, journalists, scientists, and others share what they had to do to survive as the world came down around them. The book is absolutely nothing like the movie, so if you caught the film but never read the novel then you’re in for a real treat.
The Reapers Are the Angels
by Alden Bell
If Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner had decided to write a zombie novel, then it would have probably been something like The Reapers Are the Angels. The book wears its Southern Gothic influences on its sleeve, which you probably already figured out if the book’s title rang a bell. (Matthew 13:39: “The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels.”) Temple and her mute traveling companion are on the run from a killer: a man who isn’t going to let the zombie apocalypse get in his way. Of course, neither is Temple: This God-fearing young lady knows her way around a sharp knife, just fine, thank you, as both the zombies and humans who cross her path tend to learn. If you enjoy Southern Gothic fiction, then you’ll probably love The Reapers Are the Angels. Otherwise, your mileage may vary. I’d say give it a chance, anyway. It’s one of my favorites.
The Girl With All the Gifts
by M. R. Carey
Every morning, a group of armed men strap Melanie into a wheelchair, fit her with a bite guard, and roll her into Dr. Caldwell’s class room. She loves Dr. Caldwell, so why does everyone think that she’d hurt her if she could? Yeah, I know, I’ve been pushing this one pretty hard here at Unbound Worlds, but there’s a reason for that: It’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read. I’m not talking just genre, either: I’m talking best over all. It’s a bold claim, but I stand by it. The movie adaptation came out to rent this week, but I’ve not seen it yet. I can tell you that the book is an absolute winner.
by Isaac Marion
Okay, I can hear you snickering from here. Yeah, it’s a YA novel, and sure, it’s a romance, but you know what? It’s a touching story that is incredibly well written. This horror take on Romeo and Julie begins when a zombie eats the brain of a young male survivor. Something of the victim’s consciousness manages to live on, slowly reawakening his killer’s sense of identity—and a sense of compassion for the man’s still-living girlfriend. I loved this book, and dare you to at least give it a try. Oh, and the movie is pretty good, too.
by Colson Whitehead
This one takes place after the worst of the zombie apocalypse is over. Mark is a member of a three-person civilian clean-up team responsible for removing bodies and salvaging what’s left of lower Manhattan following its reclamation by military forces. Things are starting to go wrong, though. This is as close to what a real military and corporate response to a zombie apocalypse might actually look like as I’ve seen. Imagine popular brands fighting for post-breakdown corporate sponsorship opportunities, and people dealing with the effects of “Post-Apocalpytic Stress Disorder”. That’s some of what you’ll encounter in Zone One.