In a top-secret research facility buried deep beneath the Appalachian mountains, an elite group of scientists has finally succeeded in opening a pathway to another Earth – a world that is strikingly similar to our own, but fundamentally different in some important ways. This new Earth once had a civilization much like our own, but something has all but wiped it out. Now that something has moved through the breach into our own world, and within hours everything we know is falling to ruin.
It’s an unconventional setup for a zombie novel, one that’s more science fiction than straight horror. Rather than moldy corpses rising mysteriously from their tombs and shambling out of fog-enshrouded graveyards, we’ve got a ravenous disease that doesn’t crave brains or flesh; it only craves survival. To that end, its hosts move fast, spreading it with bite after bite after bite.
Coldbrook may step away from the characteristics of the Romero films, the Brian Keene novels, and the majority of books and movies and stories that have kept the zombie subgenre rolling for so long, but it doesn’t step away from the things that make good horror fiction work; namely, characters you become invested in, an engaging premise, and moments of knuckle-whitening terror. Author Tim Lebbon, who cut his teeth in horror before branching out into fantasy and science fiction (he’s got a Star Wars novel coming out later this year), brings elements of all three genres together in this giant page-turner, released at the end of 2012 by the new publishing imprint of Hammer, the infamous (and beloved) horror movie studio that’s in the midst of a colossal comeback.
Speaking of colossal, this is a really big book – over 600 pages. Lebbon pulls off the amazing trick of making a book of this size read like a novella; you reach the end thinking that, surely, there must be more. That’s not to say that there isn’t a satisfying conclusion. Although many questions are left unanswered, and many problems are still waiting to be solved, the book ends in a perfectly logical place – a place where much has been lost, but great hope still remains.
One way Lebbon manages such a huge block of manuscript is by juggling a number of narrative threads. There’s the story of Jonah, one of the leads on the Coldbrook project, and one of the last people alive in the facility after things go wrong. There’s Vic, a member of the Coldbrook team who took to the hills to save his family, turning the plague loose on the world in the process. There’s Jayne, a woman already ravaged by disease when this new horror is unleashed on the world, and her unlikely protector, Sean; Jayne, it turns out, may be the last hope for our version of mankind. And then there’s Holly, another Coldbrook team member, who makes her escape into the breach, where she discovers a whole new world, and becomes a bridge of sorts in bringing these two Earths together.
While there are definitely elements of science fiction in Coldbrook, Lebbon never forgets that horror is the order of the day. The breach, the existence of another Earth, and the details of the disease are all important elements, but the emphasis remains on the terror of a crumbling society and the fear of a predator that can’t be slowed down or reasoned with. Lebbon juggles all of these different ideas and concepts with considerable skill, resulting in a story that’s epic but personal, tragic but not hopeless.
At the end of the day, your feelings toward zombies or parallel universes or sci-fi should take a backseat when considering whether to give Coldbrook a try. Just ask yourself if you like top-rate storytelling, and if the answer is yes, Coldbrook should be your next destination.
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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.