Monday, May 20, 2013
Dead Sea by Brian Keene
Synopsis From Back Cover:
The streets of the city are no longer safe. They are filled with zombies - the living dead, rotting predators driven by a need to kill... and eat. Some of the living have struggled to survive, but with each passing day their odds grow worse. Others have fled, frantically searching for a place to escape, even briefly, the slaughter around them.
For Lamar Reed and a handful of others, the safe haven is a old Coast Guard ship out at sea, with plenty of water separating them from the grasping hands and tearing teeth of the dead. These desperate survivors are completely isolated, but off 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.
When I wrote my review of Darkness, Tell Us by Richard Lymon, I mentioned I had bought three different horror novels from The Dollar Tree. I also mentioned that I didn't really like one, loved another, and was in the middle on the third. Dead Sea by Brian Keene, was the one I loved, but when I started it, that wasn't what I was expecting. I had tried a Brian Keene book before, Urban Gothic, and I really didn't care all that much for it. Come to think of it, I'm not even sure if I even finished it. I didn't enjoy it, found nothing new about it, and am still surprised I was willing to give another of his books a try.
There is nothing new about a zombie apocalypse destroying all humanity, wiping the human race off the face of the Earth. It's been done so many times, and there are only so many ways the story can be told. I'm not even a huge fan of zombies, and with a rare exception, I tend to go out of my way to avoid them. And if this book had not been a dollar, I probably would have avoided it as well.
What hooked me from the beginning was the character of Lamar Reed. The story is told from his viewpoint, everything that happens is told with his voice, in real time as it is happening. Through him, we get an idea of the genesis of this particular apocalypse. It started with rats attacking humans in New York City. One bite, and the victim became one of the undead. Nicknamed Hamelin's Revenge, the disease quickly spread and nothing seemed to keep it in check. It jumped to dogs, cats, squirrels, goats, bears, coyotes, and even to sheep. Between the infected humans and about every land based animal on the hunt, the human race was quickly overrun. A bite wasn't even necessary to turn someone. All it took was blood or pus getting splashed on the skin, easily done when you are trying to shoot the monsters attacking you. Inhale or ingest even a small piece of debris would do the trick just as easily. The only saving grace, it hadn't jumped to insects, birds, or aquatic life as of yet.
It's in this environment that Lamar has been trying to survive in urban Baltimore. As a twenty-something, black gay male, living in a poor neighborhood, it hasn't been an easy feat for him to accomplish. Before the infestation, he was struggling. He had been laid off from the manufacturing plant he had been working for, was quickly going broke, didn't have anyone in his life, and had just stolen a car from a dealership. Since the trouble started, he has been holed up in his home, sharing what he has with a neighbor. In less that a few hours, he had to shoot his friend in the head after he was bit, and is fleeing the city as it starts to burn.
He has an idea to make his way to the harbor, and along the way he rescues two young kids, after they rescued him. He escapes their burning building and makes it within sight of the docks when it seems the end is near. The entire area is overrun with zombiefied humans and dogs on the hunt, it seems as if every last mobile creature in Baltimore has had the same idea, head to the docks. Along the way the run into Mitch, a man who looks like a biker, but was a Bible salesman before the end came. He was in the city looking for his son, a son he never found. The four, after some harrowing action, escape with their lives onto a ship that is just pulling out of port.
Once on the ship, they get to know the other survivors, the few who managed to escape the burning city of Baltimore. Some of their fellow passengers are good people, others, they could probably do without. But life quickly drops into a routine. Lamar, Mitch, Malik, and Tasha are becoming a family unit, relying on each other to survive the chaos of what has happened to them. After a truly horrific and quickly aborted landing for supplies, the men and women who remain on board seem to be stuck in a malaise of doubt. They aren't sure what to do next. Then the unthinkable happens, Hamelin's Revenge has jumped species once again. What happened on land, is now happening under the waves. A war between the living and the dead is now raging in a world they can't see.
When one of the infected fish manges to get itself hooked for dinner, those who are left alive on board, quickly run out of options. Only four of them make it on board an oil platform far out to sea. After escaping their fellow passengers who wanted to eat them, and being pursued by decaying sharks and whales trying to sink them, the four survivors are exhausted, but they quickly realize they may have found a save haven after all. There is plenty of food and fresh water on board, they have entertainment to keep their brains engaged, and they quickly start to put their lives back together. And just when you think they may be able to ride this out after all, the disease finally jumps to the birds.
I know I said it earlier, but I loved Lamar as a character. He, without realizing itself, has become a man to be looked up to. He becomes a father to Malik and Tasha, and finds a true friend in Mitch. He becomes a leader on board the ship, a man some of the others look up to. He is forced to overcome all his doubts and fears, and become the man and father he never knew himself. The relationship he forms with the kids feels organic and real. And when the horrors finally catch up to them on board the ship, and his biggest ally is ripped from him just as quickly, Lamar steps up to the plate once again to make sure those two kids are taken care of. It's through his actions that anyone is able to survive the bloodbath that ensues, and it's his decision to head towards the platform.
I love that fact that in Lamar, there is a young gay character that doesn't fit into any stereotype. His sexuality never comes into play, who has time for romance or sex when all they can think about is survival. He is a character that just happens to be gay, it's not what defines him or dictates his behavior in the context of the story he is put into.
The other aspect of this book that made total sense to me was the idea of this disease jumping species. It has never made sense to me that the zombie disease would only infect humans. Why wouldn't it cross species, and the manner in which it does in this book is truly horrifying. The scenes on the water, including an amazing scene with a whale, are mind blowing in their scope and allow the reader to grasp the true horror of what has happened to this planet.
With Dead Sea I have found something I never thought I would, a true zombie horror novel that never bored me, kept me on tenterhooks, and made me care about the characters involved. Not sure if lighting will ever strike again, but I'm glad I decided to spend the dollar on this book.