Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Rising by Brian Keene, a review

If there’s one comforting aspect to zombies, it’s the fact that they’re brainless, depicted in most mediums as well below the level of primates. While some of the undead maintain vestigial memories of the person they once were, and might be able to work a door handle or remember the location of a concealed room, they don’t organize or coordinate their attacks. A man with a gun and a lot of ammunition situated on high ground can hold out against them for a long while. Spread out a group of zombies thin enough and a desperate survivor can run right through them, if he’s lucky enough to avoid being snagged by a grasping hand. At worst they might use a tree limb to batter down a door or break a window. They’re deadly in big clusters, but one-on-one they’re manageable. They don’t set ambushes. They can’t operate heavy machinery. They don’t use weapons.

But in author Brian Keene’s universe of The Rising (2004), slow, stupid, Romero-style zombies have undergone a paradigm shift. You thought you were safe behind boarded-up windows, confident they would hold up against the pounding fists of the living dead? Now add a high-speed zombie-driven van into the equation. The man shooting zombies from a roof in The Rising will find the creatures shooting back, or coming around from behind while creatures in front draw his fire. Keene’s zombies can plan, and calculate, and employ tactics. We’re all screwed in this type of scenario, more or less meat for the hungry dead. And that’s before you add in the fact that dead animals are reanimating as well; some of the most dangerous creatures in The Rising are swarms of undead rats and birds, largely resistant to gunfire as they make such small targets.

This all makes The Rising a bleak novel, indeed. But there's a bit more to it than meets the eye.

The basic plot is this: A group of scientists working in a high security, clandestine U.S. government research facility accidently open a rift to another dimension, a cold, dark void in which a seemingly infinite number of demons, banished millennia ago by God, lie in wait. They enter through the rift and inhabit the bodies of the dead, causing the equivalent of a zombie outbreak. The demons are malicious and intent on destroying all life. They hunger for human flesh and happily munch on humans, but leave enough intact corpse for their demon “brothers” to come through the void and occupy.

Jim Thurmond is among the survivors, living in an underground shelter built during the fear and paranoia leading up Y2K. The Rising opens with Jim in his bunker, slowly drifting into depression from his extreme isolation and grief. But a call on his dying cell phone from his son, Danny (whom Jim assumed was dead) awakes him from his torpor and starts him on a hell-bent journey across the gore-soaked wastelands of the Eastern seaboard to save his son. Along the way he falls in with a pair of oddly matched companions, including an old devout preacher Martin and a bad-ass prostitute/recovering drug addict named Frankie.

The Rising does not approach the same level of excellence as Max Brooks’ stellar World War Z but I nevertheless found it highly readable and entertaining, which is really all I’m looking for in a zombie novel. There’s lots of black humor, with many of the zombies cracking jokes in the midst of the mayhem (example: a zombie is hit by a speeding car and thrown through the windshield into the front seat. “Say folks, I appreciate the ride, but don’t you know it’s not smart to pick up hitchhikers?” it says to the horrified driver). Think of a gorier Army of Darkness and you'll arrive at the approximate tone of the book. The Rising is definitely not for the squeamish, with graphic violence galore and other assorted atrocities strewn across its gore-strewn pages. And some of the human survivors are worse than the zombies. An isolated military unit in Gettysburg crucifies insubordinates, uses civilians for slave labor, and operates a trailor called the Meat Wagon, into which women are taken in raped in regular shifts, for example.

In addition to its irreverent spin on Romero style zombies, The Rising and its followup City of the Dead are unique in that they aren’t afraid to mingle in frank discussions of God and the afterlife. In The Rising our world is a fallen one, and God watches (if at all) from afar, without intervention. That means the earth is doomed, along with all its inhabitants. But there is also an afterlife.

Thankfully we’re unlikely to ever experience a demon possessed zombie outbreak. But for those who struggle to reconcile the existence of God with a capricious, callous world in which sun death or a stray comet or a nuclear exchange could end it all for us at any moment, Keene’s view makes sense, and offers consolation. What makes The Rising unrelentingly bleak paradoxically offers an indescribably beautiful vision, for along with murderous demons intent on our destruction, God also exists. You just have to squint really hard to see him through the gore.


Fred said...


A good review. Thanks for posting it and showing me that this will be one I will not read.

Just not my type of reading material. The monsters out in the real world are sufficient to scare me.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks Fred, it is a pretty brutal book.