It begins as many zombie stories do, with a survivor shuffling down the streets of his hometown. Everything has fallen into a post-apocalyptic ruin, the sky has turned a noxious yellow, and there’s some kind of strange mold growing over the broken walls and cracked streets. The survivor remembers that his name is David, but he doesn’t remember much else. All he knows is that he’s scared, confused, and hungrier than he’s ever been in his life.
I reached the end of the first few pages of Tim Waggoner’s The Way of All Flesh (coming in April from Samhain Publishing) with visions of The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later dancing in my head. But by the time David made it to the park and began to fight a woman over a hunk of caged meat, I knew Waggoner had something entirely different in mind. From that point forward Waggoner kept piling on the twists and turns, resulting in one of the most original and surprising takes on the zombie genre I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.
I’ll give you the basic setup, but as usual I’m keeping it vague so as to preserve the journey the author has laid out for you. A plague known as Blacktide has ripped through the world, leaving only a few pockets of survivors amid the hordes of flesh-eating zombies. In the town of Lockwood, most of the survivors have taken shelter in a school building. They’ve set up a rudimentary society within its walls, and with the exception of a few brave souls who venture out on supply runs they are content to hole up in relative safety. One of those brave souls is Kate, and her encounter with her twin brother David sets off a chain of events that transforms the survivors and turns the zombie genre on its cold, rotting ear.
So how is this different? Well, for example, most zombie stories put you in the head of the survivors, showing you the world from their point of view. Waggoner does that as well, but he gives equal time to the zombie’s perspective. Are they able to communicate with one another? Do they fear the living as much as the living fear the dead? Waggoner’s approach to these questions, as well as his ideas on how the world appears in the eyes of the dead, are fresh and fascinating.
Purists who believe that zombies should only behave in certain ways should be warned: Waggoner nods in the direction of George Romero’s rules for the undead, but quickly establishes his own take on how zombies work. Some of the zombies retain trace memories of where they lived and worked, for example, and while their appetite for warm human flesh is fully intact, they aren’t afraid to take a bite out of a fellow corpse if the live pickings are lean.
Waggoner’s explanation for the outbreak is unlike anything I’ve seen attempted before. Things take an existential turn toward the end of the book, shattering any last tenuous connection to traditional zombies with one giant revelation. It’s the kind of thing that could lose readers in a hurry if not handled with precision; fortunately, Waggoner is more than up to the task.
In The Way of All Flesh, Waggoner has pulled off the impressive feat of embracing some core aspects of living dead stories – the chaos, the isolation, the tension, and the copious gut-munching – while repurposing the idea for something ambitious and new. The human characters are interesting, but it’s the elevation of the zombies that really makes the book work. Even if you’ve grown weary of zombie stories, this one deserves your time.
The Way of All Flesh by Tim Waggoner from Samhain Publishing (April 2014)
Blu Gilliand is a freelance writer of fiction and nonfiction. He covers horror fiction at his blog, October Country, and contributes interviews to the Horror World website. Follow him on Twitter at @BluGilliand.