Brian Keene is the undisputed king of the modern zombie novel. The Rising and City of the Dead are the standard to which all other zombie tales should be held to. Keene is a very rare talent and he certainly deserves every last word of praise that he has received for breathing new life in the zombie genre.
With that said, there is a book that often gets overlooked when discussing Keene’s contributions to all things undead. That book is the masterpiece known as Dead Sea.
The city streets are no longer safe. They are filled instead with the living dead, rotting predators driven only by a need to kill and eat. Some of the living still struggle to survive, but with each passing day, their odds grow worse. Some survivors have fled, frantically searching for a place to escape, even briefly, the slaughter around them. For Lamar Reed and a handful of others, that safe haven is an old Coast Guard ship out at sea, with plenty of water between them and the zombies. These desperate survivors are completely isolated from the dangers of the mainland. But their haven will soon become a deathtrap, and they’ll learn that isolation can also mean no escape!
Simply put, Dead Sea is the best undead tale ever told. Is that too bold of a statement? Absolutely not. Keene wields words with fiery aggression as he pulls the reader into the hell that the Baltimore Inner Harbor has become. He throws us in the midst of the undead hordes with no regard for our well-being. His descriptions of the various Baltimore neighborhoods are enough to make us feel the flames tickling our feet as the characters seek refuge from the growing undead masses as well as a city that is being engulfed in a massive blaze.
Keene’s strength really lies in his ability to craft well rounded characters who have a unique voice and perspective. The best example of this can be found in an exchange that takes place between Williams, a college professor, and the hero, Lamar. The two are discussing what motivation there is to keep living in world that has been overtaken by death and hopelessness:
“My Mother always taught me to be proud and never surrender.”
“I thought as much. And that is a very fine and noble lesson.”
“Doesn’t apply to everybody, though.”
“No, it doesn’t. Others may be motivated to keep fighting because they simply don’t know what else to do.”
“How about you, Professor? What keeps you going?”
“Me?” He laughed softly. “I think I’m like many others. I think we continue to fight because an element of our collective unconscious demands that we do so. Even at my age.”
“What’s a collective unconscious?”
Keene effortlessly inhabits each of these characters with seamless fluidity. Although the characters are polar opposites (at least on the surface) he is able to explore the minor nuances that help to make each character memorable. It is incredibly rare to find an author who can write varied perspectives with such ease and believability.
Keene’s well-crafted characters are also used to incorporate some social commentary into the proceedings. He tackles the subject of racism and homophobia in a masterfully subtle fashion. Our hero is Lamar. Lamar happens to be black man. Lamar also happens to be gay. Keene uses Lamar to expose the dirty side of human nature. The hateful side. There are points in the novel where the reader wonders if the survivors are any better than the blood thirsty ghouls that they are trying to escape from. During these moments the reader is able to examine their soul as well. Turning over ever stone to see if that hatred can be found in them. Again, this is not your typical zombie yarn. This is something so much more.
Dead Sea is defined by its well crafted characters and the crushing sense of dread that oozes from each page. There is no happiness here, just death and futility. This book is not about the dead coming to life, but instead it is the examination of the living who are condemned to life. It is a mirror that we are forced to hold up to our own faces and ask, “What are we really living for?”
The Rising and City of the Dead are in-your-face stories that defined the modern zombie novel. At its core Dead Sea is still a well-told zombie novel, but it is also the work of a matured writer. A writer who is comfortable delving a little deeper into characters and themes. A writer who has mastered his craft and has the confidence to display his talent for all to see. Dead Sea is the best zombie based novel of the modern horror era.
You can catch up with all things Keene at his site. Also, check out the Dreadful Tales review of the sequel to Dead Sea, Entombed.