September 14, 2010

The Horror...The Horror (Review: WWZ; M. Brooks)

To my mind, World War Z is the best zombie title out there.  I could rave about it for hours, but instead Paul from the awesomely titled The Life and Times of Cannonball Jones is here to tell you why this is a book that everyone should read.

World War Z: An Oral History Of The Zombie War
Max Brooks
Crown 2006

It goes by many names: “The Crisis,” “The Dark Years,” “The Walking Plague,” as well as newer and more “hip” titles such as “World War Z” or “Z War One.” I personally dislike this last moniker as it implies an inevitable “Z War Two.” For me, it will always be “The Zombie War,” and while many may protest the scientific accuracy of the word zombie, they will be hard-pressed to discover a more globally accepted term for the creatures that almost caused our extinction.”

So opens World War Z: An Oral History Of The Zombie War, Max Brooks's second foray into the murky waters of zombie fiction. The undead have, for many years, been poorly served by the literary world. Aside from more comedic titles such as Brooks' own The Zombie Survival Guide (what did you expect from the son of Mel “Young Frankenstein” Brooks?) and the more recent Pride, Prejudice And Zombies there has been a lamentable lack of titles to appeal to any other than the most die-hard fans of the genre. Even as an avid enthusiast of the walking dead I struggled to find anything resembling a passable serious zombie novel until I read this book.

Let me get this straight from the beginning. It's not only the hands-down, no-questions-asked, greatest zombie tale of all time but it may also be one of the finest works of journalism and historical record into the bargain. Don't believe me? Read on...

WWZ is no typical novel. As the full title suggests it is an aggregation of a various personal recollections of The Zombie War, tales told by survivors ranging from soldiers to civilians, medics to mercenaries. The accounts are arranged in chronological order to give a blow-by-blow account of the terrifying epidemic which almost ended mankind's time on Earth. From the initial reports in China, Tibet and Brazil, through the explosive spread of the contamination across the globe, we journey alongside those lucky enough to have made it through to the other side, to have witnessed our species' near-downfall as well as our nick-of-time salvation.

You may notice that I'm referring to these events as if they had actually happened, and that is the factor in this book which elevates it head and shoulders above almost the entire horror genre. Brooks crafts his tale so skillfully, subtly and matter-of-factly that you find yourself simply accepting what is occurring on the pages. There are no overblown, twisted plots and subplots, no unbelievable monsters (except perhaps Paul Redekker...) or larger-than-life heroes singlehandedly saving the day. There are simply personal tales, related by ordinary people as flawed as you or I – be they terrified, confused, cowardly, brave, obtuse, even indignant, they all share one thing in common; they are all undeniably human, providing a stark contrast to the menace poised to wipe them out.

Each tale is a simple one-off chapter, some short and some verging on outstaying their welcome, but all perfectly self-contained and relying on no reference to any others. Some of the highlights for me included an action-packed, claustrophobic and ultimately terrifying account of the Battle Of Yonkers, near New York City, when you first realise just how relentless and numerous the enemy is. Knock them down and they keep coming. Kill one and there are a dozen more behind it. This realisation hits Infantryman Todd Wainio square in the face as he mans the front lines of America's first doomed attempt to stave of the hordes of walking corpses. Right from the start his is a tale of woeful incompetence – troops unprepared, misinformed and armed with the latest in high-tech, shock-and-awe weaponry when they would have been better off with chainsaws and axes. Mistake piles upon mistake to build an exceptionally tense atmosphere which is just crying out to be put to film (More on that later).

Another story which hit a particularly sweet spot was a somewhat lighter tale, depending on which angle you view it from of course. T. Sean Collins (voiced with relish in the audio book of this title by a perfectly cast Henry Rollins) is a self-described mercenary, hiring his muscle and guns out to the highest bidder. In the wake of the initial panic he finds himself recruited by an exceedingly rich and influential gentleman who has transformed his luxury house into a well-appointed garrison, a luxury retreat in which to wait out the War. Invited to the soirée are a variety of guests from the sports and entertainments industry, including one who bears more than a passing resemblance to Paris Hilton, each as devoid of personality, tact and humanity as you would expect from the modern celebrity circuit. As Brooks is quick to note, such types are almost like vampires, feeding off attention instead of blood so naturally the mansion is equipped with countless microphones and cameras, beaming their vapid exploits to the outside world. I won't tell you what happens next but I've yet to see anyone read this section of the book without a smile on their faces...

Joining these two are rogue politicians, foot soldiers and heroic generals, all either trying to save their own skins or risking (and in some cases giving) their lives for the survival of mankind. Supporting them are medics trying to heal the infections or at least stave off the tide of wounded, contractors helping to alleviate the more mundane but no less essential logistical problems facing the population. We also have the plain old civilians, people like you or I caught up in the tide of chaos engulfing the planet and alternating between breaking down, performing heroic deeds or simply surviving. This insanely comprehensive cast of characters conspires to grant us a god's-eye view of the conflict, every possible angle being covered so we realise just how close we came to the end.

In the end this is what makes Brooks' book such a compelling read and such a strong title in a variety of genres. His ability to turn a staple horror-film scenario into a believable account of a worldwide catastrophe is, as far as I'm aware, unmatched by any author to date. The humanity of the characters is what creates the magic, with their tales running the gamut of the human condition from heroic highs to villainous lows but neither extreme being so over-the-top as to render the book any less starkly realistic and gritty. Their often-moving and highly personal accounts combine with the sweep and scale of the book, spanning the entire globe and a period of years, to produce an unforgettable piece of historical and journalistic horror fiction which will be difficult to beat for some time.

(On a final note, it is with some trepidation that I must mention an upcoming movie adaptation of this work. Brad Pitt's production company has bought the rights, bringing it out of pre-production hell, and the wheels are slowly starting to turn. Now they may well do a good job but in reality it would require something along the lines of an epic, high-budget TV series to do the book justice. Each tale is so unique in content and tone that they simply can't be blended together into a typical one-size-fits-all Hollywood mess. Regardless it is going to happen and no doubt the publicity klaxons will be blaring come release time. So do the right thing, get in on the ground floor and read it while it's still cool...)

Next up during Week of The Living Dead...
An interruption in transmission for a BBAW New Treasure interview.  I totally managed to get a zombie question in, though... I am dedicated to my cause.


Tara (The Bodacious Pen) said...

I completely agree-World War Z is the best zombie book I've ever read. There are so many moments in the book that really moved me.

Lauren said...

I *want*! This sounds incredible... like one of those books I could become obsessed with.

asamum said...

This does in fact sound too scary for me *shudders*

Splendibird said...

Lauren - I have absolutely no doubt that you would really love this. It is so, so good. You must get a copy!

Emma - it's not actually scary, except when you view it as an allegory... Then it is a bit terrifying.

Clover said...

Hmm. I had this on my wishlist and then removed it and now I'm thinking I ought to add it back..