Thunder’s Mouth, 2006, 282 pages, US$13.95 tpb, ISBN 978-1-56025-850-6
The recent revival of written zombie horror fiction has its leading lights: Brian Keene, Max Brooks and David Wellington. Monster Island was a sensation even from its beginning as a free serial on Wellington’s blog: The short punchy chapters, consciously written for maximum cliffhanging impact, drew in readers, raised Wellington’s profile and eventually led to a book publication deal for the book. (The online version is still freely available if you’re curious.)
Four years later, as the media landscape has latched on zombies as their New Favorite Monster, is Monster Island still worth a read? Does it keep its interest at a time where books, video games, and even blogs post like it’s the end of the world, is Monster Island a charming curiosity of historical value or a horror novel that is destined to endure?
While it’s still too early to judge its historical posterity, Monster Island still manage to hold its own in 2008. Its audience may not be as hungry for zombie stories as it once was (zombie fatigue may be setting in as even the local cineplex has its zombie-movie-of-the-month club), but the novel itself is a punchy, modern take on zombie tropes with enough winks, chills and screams to keep it all interesting.
The novel barely deigns to describe the zombie apocalypse event itself: it begins a few weeks later, as an African warlord is running out of HIV medicine. The narrator, an ex-UN official reluctantly working for her, thinks he knows where useful medicine may still be found: the United Nations HQ medical clinic in New York. Getting there, of course, isn’t simple: The Hudson is choked with dead bodies, and the island of Manhattan is overrun by zombies. Even the heavily-armed teenage girls traveling protecting the narrator are outnumbered. But there aren’t just zombies on the island: there are bizarrely-organized human survivors, an unusually intelligent zombie leader and a bog mummy with bigger plans.
Wellington’s contribution to the zombie mythology is that it’s oxygen deprivation that makes zombies the dumb schmucks that they are in fiction. If, say, a clever medical student deliberately induced death while hooked up to an oxygen machine, then the resulting zombie would keep most of its mental faculties. Presto: one capable antagonist! There are further complications, of course: Wellington can’t resist stepping beyond the zombies to suggest a far grander mythology at play, one with much bigger implications than the good-old undead-coming-back-to-life stuff.
But the meat of the tale, so to speak, is in the way the narrator’s team encounters and fights the zombies in Manhattan. Here’s where Wellington has the most fun, with advanced weaponry, bulletproof zombies (revived SWAT officers with protective armor), lively confrontation and horror-show encounters with a group of humans led by a self-proclaimed president with more clichés than good sense. Wellington’s a darkly funny writer, and some of Monster Island is tough to digest until one realizes that entire sequences are designed to be macabrely amusing.
Given the novel’s fast pacing and scattershot approach, it’s not a surprise if some elements don’t work as well, or if it stretches the bound of plausibility even for a zombie novel. The bloggish origins of the novel show in how this could have been a tighter novel with a bit more editorial attention and consistency-checking to make sure that the rules of the story remained consistent from beginning to end. The gradual shift away from the zombie genre into a more general horror framework may disappoint some readers.
But the energy of the story and its fast pace do a lot to keep it from becoming dull. As we wait for the zombie craze to crest and go away, the stories with the best chances of surviving are those that will offer the best storytelling experience, not necessarily the most consistent genre element or the most radical innovations. Monster Island is still worth a read, and I give it good chances that this will still be true in a few years from now.
[March and April 2008: Alas, Wellington’s two follow-up novels, prequel Monster Nation and sequel Monster Planet, get sillier and more difficult to enjoy. While Monster Nation (which does describe and explain the zombie apocalypse) has its share of gruesomely enjoyable moments, its conclusion gets increasingly less plausible thanks to increasing doses of mysticism, up to an including a final yadda-yadda about the origins of life, anti-life or whatever. Monster Planet continues in this vein, offering an increasing diversity of critters all jockeying for world domination until is becomes obvious why the book wasn’t simply titled Zombie Planet. Unfortunately, Wellington gets more frustrating the deeper he buries himself in metaphysical nonsense: he’s never as enjoyable as when he’s writing in SF/techno-thriller mode (some of the most fascinating passage of the books are those in which he describes the official military response) and therein lies a suggestion for his next few efforts.]