DYING TO LIVE:
Is it just me or is every third horror book published these days a George Romero-inspired zombie novel? The living dead have long been a horror staple, certainly, but in recent years they’ve all-but taken over the genre. I shunned most of the zombie apocalypse novels currently packing bookstore shelves, but did read DYING TO LIVE: LIFE SENTENCE by Kim Paffenroth, which turned out to be an above-average entry in every respect.
It’s a sequel to Paffenroth’s 2007 novel DYING TO LIVE. I haven’t read that book, but had no trouble getting into LIFE SENTENCE, as its subject matter was familiar to me from the films that inspired it. The author has written a book on the cinema of George Romero (2006’s GOSPEL OF THE LIVING DEAD) and clearly knows the territory inside and out.
Yet Paffenroth has used his Romero-filched elements in thoughtful and literate fashion. There is the requisite gore, of course, and quite a few nerdy movie references (including a store named Argento and a play on the classic ALIENS line about “real monsters”) but the book’s true aims are strictly of the philosophical variety.
The setting is a world where
the living dead rule and a band of non-zombified people subside in an abandoned
museum. The two main characters are Zoey, a pre-teen coming to terms with life
in this nightmare world, and Truman, an “evolved” zombie who was once a
university professor. In his current state Truman’s memories are all-but
nonexistent, forcing him to relearn everything; as his curiosity about himself
and the world around him grows, Truman finds himself rejecting the anti-social
activities of his fellow deaders. Along the way he connects with a fellow
zombie named Lucy, and love (of a sort) blossoms.
The ultimate threat comes not from the undead minions but rival bands of living, breathing humans, and a violent showdown is eminent. But the conclusion is (in keeping with the novel’s overall tone) thoughtful and contemplative, playing down the expected mayhem in favor of a deeply felt, hard-won humanity.
From a writing
standpoint the novel is impeccable. The apocalyptic milieu is convincingly
evoked with oft-disturbing realism, and the central characters are strong and
three-dimensional. I don’t believe (as a back cover blurb states) the book will
entirely satisfy gore fans, but it is ideal for readers wanting more from their
zombie fiction than flesh ripping and intestine pulling.