In This Dark Earth, author John Hornor Jacobs wastes no time in upsetting the proverbial apple cart. Within pages of unleashing a zombie uprising on a small hospital in Arkansas – an uprising that begins with disquieting scenes of physical distortion and self-cannibalism – Jacobs unlimbers a series of nuclear strikes that take out most of America’s major cities, leaving small pockets of inhabitable land in which a few straggling survivors can try and rebuild their lives.
Two apocalypses for the price of one? Consider me hooked.
You’ll be hooked, too, and Jacobs doesn’t let you off that hook, not once in his novel’s blistering 335 pages. He’s smartly broken the book into seven chunks, each told from a different character’s point of view. He also isn’t afraid to jump years ahead in the narrative, which keeps the familiar plot of a society trying to emerge from the ashes from getting bogged down in minutiae. But the most powerful tool in this writer’s arsenal is his ability to create complex, compelling characters, and the depth of the reader’s investment in these characters is what makes This Dark Earth such a stunning success.
Jacobs doesn’t waste a lot of time trying to build up the living dead as a credible threat; he knows that we understand by now what they are capable of. They are not forgotten, not by a long shot – whether it’s the occasional loner that sneaks up on the living, or hordes numbering in the thousands flowing toward our heroes like a wave, the presence of the zombies is a constant and unforgettable component. But Jacobs realizes that the living, with their emotions and egos and agendas, are by far the most interesting (and, at times, the most monstrous) creatures walking the earth. The heroes in this book struggle to do the right thing, yet still succumb to weakness, to fear, to petty jealousies. The villains are drawn a little more broadly – a power-mad general, a man who wants to be king of this new America – but aren’t so cartoonish as to take you out of the story entirely.
By far the most compelling character Jacobs creates is Gus, who is a ten-year-old boy when we meet him near the start of the book. Rescued by his mother Lucy, a cancer doctor who becomes determined to discover what raises the dead, and Knock-Out, a trucker who saves Lucy as the world begins to fall apart, Gus goes on to become a leader of sorts to a small band of survivors. Gus is a prodigy, possessed of intelligence that he himself doesn’t fully understand or know how to wield. It makes him both the most important member of their growing group and an outcast from it. Jacobs is careful to show the struggling young boy at the heart of the character, a boy who can design an effective compound to keep his people safe but still doesn’t know how to talk to girls.
Most books these days seem to be designed to kick-start a franchise, or at the very least a trilogy. Although Jacobs gives This Dark Earth enough breathing room at the end to continue the story if he chooses to do so, it doesn’t feel like a set up. It’s that most rare and precious thing, a complete story with a beginning, a middle and a satisfying conclusion. Personally I’d love to see what happens next, but if Jacobs has said all he cares to say about this particular world, no one should complain.
I’m constantly amazed at authors that find new and fresh things to say with zombie stories. I usually find that it’s the books that focus on the living that are most successful, and with This Dark Earth I’d say John Hornor Jacobs has written one of the most creatively successful and accomplished zombie novels in recent memory. It’s got action by the bucketful, it doesn’t shy away from the wet work when it’s time to kill some zombies, and it’s got a great cast of characters. I just hope that people will pick this one up and make it one of the most financially successful zombie books in recent memory. No, I won’t see a dime…but I might see a movie version, and I would like that just fine.
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.