Rot & Ruin (Simon & Schuster, 2010)
by Jonathan Maberry Review by Cory J. Herndon
Jonathan Maberry’s short story “Family Business” in the 2010 New Dead anthology was a character-driven piece that gave some needed warmth and heart to a sometimes bleak (but never dull) volume. It’s a story about family that isn’t cloying or sentimental. In fact it’s a pretty engaging coming-of-age adventure that just happens to take place fifteen years after a zombie apocalypse. Rot & Ruin marks Maberry’s expansion of that short story into a young adult novel that fully realizes the potential of the world glimpsed in “Family Business.” This is a dark, gripping, hilarious, horrifying, touching, dangerous, and most of all real place that’s populated with believable characters–even the teenagers. Rot & Ruin is the Huckleberry Finn of zombie apocalypse novels.
Rather than simply use the original story as a jumping-off point, Maberry completely reshapes and expands the narrative by adding context, back story, and menace–not just the ever-present threat of the undead, but all-too-familiar human villains too. The author spends much more time with protagonist Benny Imura as he faces his impending birthday, his fifteenth since First Night. Benny was just a baby when the worldwide zombie outbreak struck a decade and a half earlier, and remembers only terrifying glimpses. But he is certain he remembers Tom running away from their home with Benny in his arms, leaving his parents to the walking dead. Benny lives with his older brother Tom in a mountain community that hides from the dangerous, zombie-infested world outside behind makeshift walls and guard towers.
In short, Benny has come to believe his older brother is a coward, while local bounty hunters with nicknames like Charlie Pink-Eye and the Motor City Hammer represent the height of human achievement (an admittedly low bar at the end of the world). And so for Benny’s entire life he has blamed his brother for the fact he’s grown up with no parents in a makeshift hometown that might not last.
As if the end of the world wasn’t enough, fifteen is the age at which the community cuts your food rations unless you start contributing to the greater good. Benny now has to find a job, and is ready to do anything that doesn’t involve apprenticing to his brother.
In a sequence which neatly fills in readers on how Maberry’s zombie world works and how people survive there, Benny tries his hand as an apprentice in just about every field except zombie killer. He tries locksmithing, important because locks help people feel safe even if they’re not needed against the dead. He tries fence-testing, acting as human bait to lure in “zoms.” He tries pit throwing, which turns out to be a polite term for mass gravedigger.
Further attempts include tower lookout, fence builder, and “erosion artist” who sketches zombified versions of undead friends and relatives so people might recognize them if they ever see them out there in the wide world. A world into which no one but Tom Imura, Charlie Pink-Eye, and those who brave the post-apocalyptic roads to deliver supplies between survivor towns dare to tread. After finally failing as an artist, too, Benny asks his brother to take him on as an apprentice. It’s his last resort.
Once Benny makes his decision and the die is cast, Maberry keeps the attentive reader glued to the page with tantalizing hints about unseen characters, places, and events past and present. A few clues seem to indicate this zombie apocalypse is the zombie apocalypse–Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead, that is. These clues are as well-placed as they are fun and unexpected for a fan of the genre. The author also develops a rich, vibrant supporting cast of friends, neighbors, and enemies for Benny that he dares the reader to get attached to, always a dangerous prospect in a story like this but a welcome one. (At Shock Room Horror, we don’t shy away from danger as long as it’s aimed at fictional characters.)
Maberry pulls off a delicate trick here. Fictional teenagers Benny’s age can easily come off as annoying to readers and to other characters in a story. Maberry has created a fifteen-year-old with plenty of reason to be bitter, and he is. Yet you sympathize with Benny, even when he’s treating his brother Tom, his only family, worse than he’d treat a zombie, or when he’s trying to impress the thugs and killers he idolizes.
It helps tremendously that Maberry never leaves Benny’s point of view. As the youth learns how things really work outside of town, where survivors don’t always fear the dead and humans can be more dangerous than biters, the reader’s own perspective on the seemingly familiar setting changes. Without relying on Twain’s first-person style (knew I could work that in somewhere) Maberry’s persistent adherence to Benny’s POV naturally stokes the slow-burning, uneasy dread. For much of the first two sections (Maberry divides Rot & Ruin into three parts) the potential horrors of Benny’s world lurk in the shadows and only emerge often enough to keep you turning page after page. But in the final third? Answers. Revelations. Twists (naturally). Fear for characters you’ve grown to love, hate for those characters who would harm them, a riveting conclusion that’s impossible to put down, and the welcome possibility readers haven’t seen the last of this extremely expandable setting.
This is the book’s finest accomplishment. Through Benny’s eyes the reader sees how a typically heroic “zombie killer” would, in the real world, be nothing but a pathetic, murderous, and evil grave robber at best–and a cruel sociopath at worst. We learn how a collection of seeming lunatics who dwell unarmed among the dead–sort of like beekeepers working naked and covered in honey–might not be so foolish after all. We see how Nix, a girl and a friend (but not a girlfriend) Benny has known all his life, might be something more to him. Along with Benny, we learn what the family business really is, and what it really isn’t. It’s all masterfully done.
All due respect to the popular “zombie mashup” horror genre typified by Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Night of the Living Trekkies, and anything where Dracula and Sherlock Holmes team up to fight Cthulhu monsters with H.G. Wells’s time machine; this is how to combine classic themes from American literature, terrific characters, original storytelling, and the remorseless shambling hordes of the living dead. If I may paraphrase one of the great film zombies of the last century: Send more books.
Cory J. Herndon is an author, game designer, and unlikely to last beyond the “trapped in a farmhouse” stage of the coming zombie apocalypse.