The Rising and City of the Dead, Brian Keene

Leisure, 2004-2005, ??? pages, C$??.?? mmpb, ISBN Various

The Rising: 2004, 321 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-8439-5201-6
City of the Dead: 2005, 357 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-8439-5415-9

One of my goals in attending the 2007 World Horror Convention in Toronto was to learn more about the field of horror, and to which authors I should pay attention. As it turned out, one of the most interesting panels of the entire convention was a round-table discussion about zombies starring writers such as David Wellington and Brian Keene. Wellington’s work still awaits in my stack of books to read, but if it’s anything like Keene’s debut novels, I’m in for a treat.

At first glance, there’s not much to distinguish The Rising from other traditional horror fare: Evil has escaped, the dead are coming back to life and the survivors must band together against evil. We’ve seen this story before.

But we haven’t seen it quite like Keene had in mind. Because Keene has seen those movies. He’s read those books. He’s familiar with those clichés. So what we get is a self-aware, hyped-up take on zombie mythology. Keene has been credited with part of the recent resurgence in zombie horror, and The Rising‘s full-throttle forward drive shows what a clever writer can go with that material.

It helps that there’s a strong plot-line at the heart of the story, beyond the usual “civilization falls!” atmosphere. In The Rising‘s first chapter, Jim Thurmond receives a cell phone call inside the makeshift bunker where he’s holding off the undead hordes. It’s his son, a few states away, calling for help. There’s no chance that Jim will make it there alive and even less of a chance that his son will still be intact when he does. But he has to try, and The Rising is the story of this quixotic quest.

There are complications, of course. One of Keene’s innovations is that the zombies retain a good chunk of their intelligence, leading to car chases, firefights and ingenious traps. Worse yet, humans aren’t the only ones coming back from the dead: anything bigger than a mouse is also trying to get a chunk of living humans, and that makes THE BIRDS look like a prologue.

Thanks to a good cast of characters (including a scientist who, like those poor saps in so many science-fiction stories, opened the gateway to hell with high-energy physics experiments), we get a sweeping view of the post-apocalyptic landscape, of the desperate bands of survivors trying to figure something out, and of the chilling organized threat that the zombies represent. There’s a delicious whiff of military techno-thrillers and science-fiction in The Rising, another sign that Keene is aware of the tropes he’s playing with.

There’s also enough gore, drama and action throughout the book to satisfy everyone. Despite a few lengths, most of The Rising is a solid horror thriller and a spectacular debut for Keene. Yet nearly every single review of the book has to mention the ending, which steps back from the abyss and remains suspended in mid-air. It’s not that it’s a pessimistic ending; it’s that it’s not an ending. But even Keene admits the problem in interviews, and got the chance to fix it with City of the Dead, which uses The Rising‘s epilogue as its first chapter. Don’t make the mistake of reading the first book without having the second one in reserve.

While City of the Dead isn’t as intense as The Rising, it gets points for a number of amusing set-pieces (including a man with a carnal interest in zombies), and for ending like The Rising should have ended. The mythology behind the zombie uprising gets a massive upgrade, which allows Keene to get chills from plants moving on their own.

But both of those books, as entertaining as they are, are early example from Keene’s career. The author’s biography now includes over a dozen books, from publishers known and less-known. The folks at the World Horror Convention weren’t just mentioning him in panels to be nice; they were simply talking about one of the genre’s hottest writers. Expect more reviews of Keene’s work here soon.

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