You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Friday, August 17, 2012


For an author of zombie novels, Joe McKinney has an unbeatable backstory. For the past twenty years or so, he has been a policeman in San Antonio, Texas, serving as a homicide detective, then in the office of emergency preparedness, and now overseeing the 911 division. It's not that San Antonio has been especially prone to zombie attacks during that time, but cops have seen a lot of the worst parts of human nature. McKinney's protagonists, who tend to be cops themselves, cannot possibly be prepared for the horrific situations they encounter, but they handle themselves cooly and professionally -- at least for as long as such a response is possible. If I found myself in a zombie-infested quagmire, I would want to stay close to one of McKinney's main characters, unless he proved to be one of the immoral bastards the author also throws into the mix.

McKinney's Dead World series consists of Dead City, Apocalypse of the Damned, and Flesh Eaters. In September, 2012, this trilogy will be joined by Mutated. McKinney's titles let you know what you are getting. His initial trilogy has an interesting chronology. Dead City (2006) takes place in San Antonio during the night that the infection plaguing a storm-ravaged Houston first makes its way north. There are those inevitable early police reports: "We got a part getting out of hand down on the east side."Apocalypse (2010) returns to Houston, a month or so after the city has been quarantined. Only if you have never watched a horror movie in your life, you know how well that quarantine is going to hold. The novel follows a band of escapees heading north to a settlement that promises protection for the zombie hordes. Again, unless you have never watched a horror movie in your life, you know how well that is going to work out.

The problem endemic to zombie fiction, on which the floodgates have now officially been opened, is that we have, after all, seen all this before. George Romero created Night of the Living Dead in 1968. To some extent, all zombie films and fiction are a gloss on the Romero original. (I am not countingiearlier zombie works that based themselves on Haitian and voodoo motifs.) Something brings the dead back to life. The deadly, extraterrestrial rays of forty years ago have been for the most part updated to hemorrhagic viruses. The infection spreads by bites or bodily fluids, victims crave human flesh, and there is no cure. The only real question that each author and filmmaker must decide is whether to create fast or slow zombies. I am in the slow zombie camp myself, but I admire McKinney's solution. He allows for relative mobility based on the age and health of the victim.

McKinney' prose has the no-nonsense, laconic rhythm that fits well with his police officer protagonists. The stories are predictable, but the secret here is to make each moment believable and to pace the gross outs with realistic depictions of what it is going to take for each character to live through the next hour. McKinney's novels were getting noticed by those who give horror writing awards early on, and in 2011 he won a Bram Stocker Award for Flesh Eaters. And that third outing is definitely where he came into his own as a writer. Dead City was just like a zombie movie, except it too five hours to read instead of ninety minutes to watch. Apocalypse succeeded in opening up the story, but the climax came directly from accounts of the Jonestown Massacre, only with zombies instead of federal agents on hand for the tragic conclusion.

Flesh Eaters goes back to Houston and the series of storms that not only destroy the city but through chemical spills and god knows what else sets in motion the infections that will change life on earth forever. Again, this is a zombie story, and so we know basically what is going to happen. But for the first time, McKinney creates morally complex characters capable of both courage and betrayal in the face of the unthinkable horrors they confront.

I am not going to become a fan of zombie fiction. The only other example I have read was the well-received novel Feed by Mira Grant and I absolutely hated it. But come September, I feel certain that will be searching out McKinney's latest, even though with the title Mutated I am pretty damn sure I now at least three fourths of what is going to happen. "Good God, they're organizing!"

Read my reviews of McKinney's novels on Worlds Without End

Dead City
Apocalypse of the Damned
Flesh Eaters

Feed by Mira Grant

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