Sunday, March 1, 2009

NERD ALERT! Brian Keene's Dead Sea

I’m generally underwhelmed by horror fiction because in my experience, it's too often riddled with clunky language and character cliches. Every now and then, however, I brave the library in search of a good gore-filled read to make the subways more interesting and long lines less infuriating.

Brian Keene, author of the well-known zombie epic The Rising, is quickly establishing himself as a major figure in the undead world of corpse-munching bookworms. Dead Sea was published in 2007, and packaged in a conveniently petite package, it’s pure comfort food. If World War Z is a five star meal at an unpronounceable Zagat rated restaurant with three forks and cloth napkins, Dead Sea is a greasy burger oozing in cheddar cheese and served with salty fries.

The novel begins in the projects of Baltimore (complete with a much-appreciated-by-me shout-out to The Wire), where our narrator, Lamar Reed, is struggling to cope with the city-wide infection of Hamelin’s Revenge (as the plague is commonly called due to its origin from rats). Zombies are rampant, in both human and various animal forms. As Baltimore stars to burn, Lamar is forced on the move and quickly befriends two spunky kids and an incredibly useful gun enthusiast/ex-Bible salesman. After a series of undead swarms (one of which includes a tiger), the group boards a retired Coast Guard ship with a motley crew of diverse survivors.

Dead Sea has quite a lot to offer zombie fans. Keene spares no grisly detail as he describes the walking dead so well, you can almost smell the stench of rotting flesh. The concept of Hamelin’s Revenge “jumping species” is truly terrifying and opens up a whole new realm of horror possibilities rarely explored by other works. Any zombie fan living in a coastal area probably assumes that in the event of disaster, the ocean is the safest place. Sure. Because zombies don’t swim. But zombie humans walk. And logic would follow, a zombie fish...well, I’ll avoid spoilers and just tell you to buy the book.

One of the most refreshing aspects of Dead Sea is Keene’s prose. As our narrator, Lamar has a strong and unique character voice, aided by the fact that he’s gay and black in a genre that rarely acknowledges a man like his existence. There are no token romances or overly villainous stock characters, and while Keene does get a little too obvious in dressing up his heroes with blatant discussions on archetypes and Joseph Campbell references, the novel ultimately succeeds in creating people to care about in a world ready to devour them.

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