Zombies, as a rule, are more at home in film and video games than in literature. There’s no grand literary tradition stemming back hundreds of years, or even decades for that matter, as there is with vampires. The truth is, the vast majority of zombie novels are utter shit. Even among the good stuff, there’s no single great work, apart from very recent works from Max Brooks arguably, to point to as sterling examples of the form. Well, folks, in a decade or two that will change as David Wellington’s Monster Island becomes recognized for the masterpiece that it is.
Monster Island‘s story revolves around two characters, Dekalb and Gary. Dekalb is a former UN weapons inspector leading a mission to retrieve a stash of priceless drugs for a Somali warlord in exchange for a place for himself and his daughter in the new world order. Gary is a rather unusual zombie – a zombie who can still think, thanks to a clever plan devised while he was still alive. The paths of these two intersect fairly early on, with devastating consequences for Gary, then split, taking a number of fascinating individual twists and turns before meeting again for a satisfying climax. The surprises on each character’s path are so integral to the story and so inherently satisfying it would be a travesty to spoil any of them, but suffice it to say that both must face dire circumstances in pursuit of what they desire, circumstances that change them and their initial goals.
Both characters are exquisitely wrought and developed throughout the story. Wellington manages to make them both sympathetic, even as they do terrible things. Making a zombie sympathetic to any degree isn’t an easy task, but Wellington isn’t your average hack horror writer. An excellent supporting cast surrounds these two characters on both sides, alive and dead. Not surprisingly, since most of Gary’s companions are mindless dead, the bulk of secondary characters that get attention interact with Dekalb, from the teenage soldiers accompanying him in his mission to the survivors they meet in New York City.
The cause of the zombie plague is not revealed, but it appears to be supernatural for a number of reasons (again, revealing those reasons would spoil some excellent surprises). The average zombie is very similar to the zombies of George A. Romero’s Dead series – slow, nearly mindless (due to brain damage from asphyxiation as the person dies but before the zombie rises, it is explained) and always hungry. These zombies eat anything alive though – not just people, but animals, plants, even grass. And when they do, it fills them with vitality in undeath, healing wounds and giving them strength to go on. If they don’t eat, they slowly wither away and rot like normal dead things (well, normal dead things don’t walk, but you know…).
This is one of the finest zombie stories ever told, in any medium. It’s written in a spare, deft style that manages to pack maximum impact into minimal verbiage. There’s rarely a single word wasted throughout the story, from taut action sequences to tender, human moments to mind-blowing metaphysical revelations. Wellington’s mythology is well-developed, fully compatible with the popular view of the zombie and yet strikingly original in the realm of zombie fiction – I can’t wait to see how it develops in the two sequels. His characters are believable, his settings are real and his prose is gorgeous. This is an essential book for zombie fans – don’t pass it up.
You can read it online at the Monster Island website or purchase it from fine booksellers everywhere.
Edited 7/30/2012 to fix minor typographical error and awkward sentence construction.