On judging books by their cover

Posted: December 3, 2010 in Musings
Tags: , , , ,

I’m a bit of a reader in my spare time (read: on lunch breaks at work) and I love zombies. Imagine my joy on walking into Waterstones a few weeks ago and seeing this looking down at me:

That is one hell of an amazing image. Zombies, chaos, a devasted London shrouded in the fog of war, a genuine sense of panic. What really sealed the deal for me is the survivors gathered on top of St Paul’s Catherdral. I’m not sure why, it just jumped out at me that it must be a great book based on that single part of the image alone.

You know the old saying ‘never judge a book by its cover’? Well, I wasn’t about to fall for it that easily, so I read the blurb on the back as well. The idea seemed to be a brilliant one; a series of text messages, emails, transcripts and so on that are all written by different people, all of which interweave and tell a larger story in little ways. Based on that alone, I was sold.

The saying about judging books really needs an addendum: ‘never judge a book by its cover, or the blurb on the back. If really in doubt, scan the first few pages quickly in the bookshop, else you’ll be ripped off.’

This book is awful. Words cannot stress this enough. ‘Zombie Apocalypse!’ is single-handedly the worst piece of crap that has ever been shat across the pages of a book. I’m actually angry that trees were felled to mass-produce this godawful pile of wank.

Where to begin? Well, due to the fact that it’s written by lots of different people, there are massively inconsistent shifts in tone throughout. Ninety-nine percent of the stories here are appalling. The other one percent is usually saved by some convincing writing (shout outs here to Lisa Morton’s ‘They’re Coming to Get You!’ and Kim Newman’s ‘Minutes of Meeting’, both of which are engaging and entertaining, though are let down by shoddy endings.)

Because most of the chapters in the book are recordings of interviews or transcripts of discussions, most of the characters within the book talk in a way that no human would do, ever. My favourite example of this is near the start, in a transcript of a female journalist’s dicataphone recording as she breaks into a secure government digging project (smart move, that). In order to set the scene, she narrates the dimensions and the appearance of the rooms she moves through, everything she can see.

‘Shit, I just bashed my head on the ceiling, which is really low.’

It’s like reading a Garth Marenghi horror novel. The best part is the ending, where she bumps into a real zombie – the first in the entire novel – and realises that it’s actually her friend, who arroused her suspicions about the site to begin with. What does she do? She stands there, telling her clearly dead friend all of the damage that she has on her face! Seriously-

‘Something has half-eaten your eyes and there’s something reddish-brown inside your mouth and you’re still moving, what happened-?’

Imagine that this sort of dialogue took place across the entire novel. Oh yes, it really does. It starts off funny and then becomes painful. Then I realised I’d spent what little money I had on this book.

Naturally, the need to have everything be bleak and to have the zombies destory everything wins out over the need to tell an enjoyable narrative. This usually means, then, that each chapter ends with the narrator dying, becoming infected or doing something completely stupid. The only thing this does is break down all th realism that had been built up. One of the worst offenders is a diary written by a thirteen year old girl. It’s fairly interesting, but far too long – it’s broken down into three different chapters – but really suffers from having a stupid ending. She gets a scratch on her hand – not deep enough to break the skin – by a boy she knows, who himself is not infected. Somehow she then becomes infected and, we’re left to imagine, kills everyone she’s hiding out with.

Perhaps the book’s biggest offence is the fact that the zombies have no story-to-story consistency. While Max Brooks’ outstanding zombie epic ‘World War Z’ not only took the established zombie conventions but improved on them, ‘Zombie Apocalypse!’ has the zombies doing whatever the writer wants them to do.

In one chapter a zombie:

-Lurches forward so fast the man chasing loses sight of her
-Recognises the danger of an oncoming SWAT van
-Veers out of the way of said van
-Climbs over an industrial fence
-Escapes from sight
-Grabs a police dog
-Impales said dog on a fence
-Overpowers the staff of an ambulance while the vehicle is moving
-Drives the ambulance by herself
-Continues driving even with one tire shot out

That’s ludicrous. The zombies veer wildly between being the shuffling dead of film lore and being the fast moving zombies of recent years. There’s no continuity to any of it. One chapter states that the dead float in water – it’s a plot point that prevents a character from crossing a river. Two chapters later, the dead not only sink in the water, but there are enough of them to pull down a plane that has crash-landed in there with them. Zombies are eithe rdesperate to get in and attack survivors, or, in one case, will calmy wait outside, smiling up at the person inside who is infected and wait for them to take the people out. Zombies can also write letters, diary entries and text messages. The best part is when a several hundred year old zombie a) spots car keys on the floor, b) picks them up, c) opens the car door, d) starts the car, e) drives the car down the road, f) crashes the car and g) climbs back out and continues stumbling around.

The human characters are even worse. One man even posts on Twitter while he’s being attacked, another goes mad and decides to go and hunt down any survivors, one is force-fed cooked zombie meat (which has the strange ability to make her immune from attack) and then decides to go and eat other humans as well and all of them go on and fucking on about their personal histories and and their loves and hates. It doesn’t add depth or backstory, it’s simply another thing that nobody would ever talk about in real life.

Adding to this the fact that everybody knows where the zombie came from and you’ve got a horror without anything horrifying. ‘World War Z’ gave one tiny hint as to their origin, but never pushed it. ‘Zombie Apocalypse!’ rams it down yours throat for the entire first half of the book. Apparently the specific church that the government are tearing down was a) a burial site for religious devouts who believed in a certain type of reincarnation and b) was also a plague pit in the 1600s. The plague idea gets dropped and picked up again every few chapters (someone usually mentions fleas) and everybody in the world seems to know the names of the two diabolical men who built the church. Nothing that gets explained ever seems to make sense. Most of the time, the writers just repeat what other chapters have already laid down and act like it was their idea.

To call ‘Zombie Apocalypse!’ the worst book I’ve ever read would be an understatment. ‘Zombie Apocalypse!’ is the only book in my entire life I’ve ever taken back and gotten a refund for. And I’ve read Tom Cain’s ‘The Accident Man’ (shudder).

So this really a warning – don’t judge books by their cover, their title or even their blurb. Until someone invents a device that can detect books that you’ll like simply by pointing at them, we’ll just have to keep using handheld consoles for entertainment.

  1. Jack says:

    That book sounds fucking hilarious.

    The zombie driving a car reminds me of Garth Merenghi’s seminal “The Apes of Wrath”, with a gorilla on a bike.

    I want more quotes from the book.

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