Brian Keene,
The Rising
(Dorchester, 2004)

Writing about zombies is a hit-or-miss proposition. Lacking the personality and charisma of, say, a vampire or werewolf, zombie characters can become unintentionally silly or just devolve into excessive gore. Zombie fiction is often repetitive and redundant, treading over well-worn paths about mindless and shambling creatures who exist solely to eat brains.

Not so for Brian Keene, whose first novel, The Rising, is a nonstop, tension-filled ride through an America overrun by the slavering dead.

In Keene's world, zombies are not mindless shamblers; they are demons who inhabit the empty bodies of the newly deceased. The scientific explanation is that a nuclear accelerator being tested in a military research facility weakened the walls between dimensions, allowing the demons to flood our world. The theological explanation is that the Siqquism, a race of demons banished to a cold and timeless void long before the fall of Lucifer, are using the new portal to inhabit bodies.

Whichever explanation you prefer, the simple truth is that these zombies rise moments after a person or animal dies. They don't shamble and moan like most zombies we've read about; they plot and hunt and think, and when they catch and feed on living humans, they leave enough of the corpse intact so that another of their kind can move in and join the growing army.

So far as Jim Thurmond is concerned, none of this matters so long as he stays locked in the bomb shelter he built in a fit of pre-Y2K paranoia and stocked after terrorist attacks made the whole world afraid. His wife and unborn baby have already been claimed by the epidemic, and their joined corpses still stalk his neighborhood in suburban West Virginia. But a terrified call on a dying cell phone from Jim's 6-year-old son in New Jersey, where Jim's first wife and her new husband live, motivates him to brave the outside world again.

What ordinarily would be a long day's drive becomes an odyssey as Jim tries to evade hungry, smart zombies who can use weapons, block roads and set traps. Along the way, he crosses paths with an elderly preacher holed up in his church, a former prostitute and drug dealer on the run, military extremists, cannibal survivalists and one of the scientists responsible for the accident that set these beasts loose.

The terror is heightened as the survivors learn that even animals -- deer, birds, rats and your old family pets -- can be zombified, too. Add in the psychology of isolation and a National Guard unit drunk on its own power, and you've got some major-league fear and action on your hands.

The Rising is a tense horror novel that doesn't shy away from gore but also offers reasonable amounts of character development, motivation and -- ack! -- one hell of a cliffhanger ending.

review by
Tom Knapp

7 July 2007

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