Hallowread, Part 2: Brian Keene’s Dead Sea.

It’s October! The spookiest month. And that means I get to read a bunch of horror novels. Woo?

Funny thing is, there’s at least three non-horror new releases coming out in October that I’ve been looking forward too for a couple of months … and yet I feel kinda obligated to read some messy horror novels in the meanwhile. So, uh, we’ll see how long I can stick with it. Doesn’t help that I finished this book a couple days ago, but haven’t had the chance to write out the review ’til now. (I may have been playing MGS5 a bit, too. Shhhh.).

But yeah, let’s take a look at Brian Keene’s Dead Sea.

The Zombie genre is an interesting one, as it’s the most modern (or arguably postmodern) horror monster out there. It all started with Romero, of course, but it’s still fun to muse over the origins of today’s zombie craze. Depending on how you want to look at it, the modern zombie plague either started with the first Resident Evil game in 1996, or possibly the Dawn of the Dead remake from 2004.

No matter where it started, you probably know the rules already. If a zombie bites you, you turn into a zombie. Aim for the head, it’s the only way to be sure. Everyone you meet is bound to be an asshole, and so on. Heck, just typing those tropes out kind of makes me want to go back and re-play The Last of Us yet again. Joel will end you.

Which brings us to the modern day. Zombie Apocalypse tropes have been pretty much established for years now, and they’re more wide spread than ever, thanks to shows like AMC’s The Walking Dead. As a result, a Zombie novel (or movie, or comic, or whatever) kind of needs to put its own spin on things, in order to stand out. Peter Clines combined zombies and superheroes, for example.

So Brian Keene took a more biblical spin on things. He uses the Dead Sea Scrolls to tie zombies into the story of Lazarus …

Just kidding! Dead Sea is about Zombies on a boat.

Cue lonely island.

That’s … about it. Dead Sea is a bog standard Zombie Apocalypse story. On a boat. At least it’s somewhat diverse, as Dead Sea is written from the perspective of Lamar Reed, a gay black man from Baltimore.

Okay, a DIFFERENT gay black man from Baltimore.

Funny thing is, the last four novels I’ve read and reviewed have all been from a first person P.O.V. Sadly, Lamar’s voice is the most generic amongst them. There’s no particular turns of phrase or frame of reference to really make him stand out as a narrator. Every now and again, Lamar goes on a slight tangent about how much of an outsider he is, since he’s both gay and black, but it doesn’t really influence how the novel plays out, apart from a few of the asshole characters calling him a fag. (Don’t worry, they get eaten first).

Maybe I’m a bit jaded as a reader, or maybe I’ve thought a little bit too much about this sort of thing, but a lot of stuff in Dead Sea doesn’t hold up once you think about it too hard. For example, the survivors hole up on a Coast Guard Museum Ship. Fair enough. It’s just that the class of ship that Keene uses had a crew compliment of 200 … and yet they manage to get the ship more or less running with only 20 people, of whom only two have ever really done boat stuff before. Kaaaay.

Or, on a different note, there’s a matter of timing. I get the feeling Keene hasn’t really thought out his zombie apocalypse. For example, early on in the book, Lamar scavenges a bunch of canned food from a grocery store. Except … civilization has been collapsed for a few weeks, at least long enough for all the milk to spoil and all the meat in the butcher’s department to go all rotten and maggoty. Considering how I’ve seen grocery shelves get stripped bare before a non-zombie emergency, it made me kinda wonder if Keene hadn’t thought the logistics through. Heck, the zombie plague itself seems like it’d burn out pretty quickly. See, the nasty thing about the plague in Dead Sea is that it can infect nearly anything: people, rats, dogs, and so on. It starts with a surge of zombie rats in New York, which has the potential to be absolutely terrifying- but considering a bite (or just coming into contact with infected fluids), is enough to kill and zombify you in a matter of hours, I can’t quite see how the plague would spread worldwide as quickly as it does. The nastiest diseases have a long incubation period– if they just kill a victim outright, they tend to ‘burn out,’ as they run out of uninfected people in the area.

Or hell, I’d think the zombie rat thing would be the worst part, considering how pervasive rats are in urban areas. I mean, it’s easy enough to blockade an area off against people-zombies, but tiny little rodents that can climb and wriggle through the smallest of gaps in your barricade and creep up on you in the night? You’d be screwed. And yet, multiple characters in Dead Sea are able to hold out in their respective hidey holes for weeks at a time without having to worry about zombie rats wriggling in. Huh.

I get the feeling Keene didn’t think all the implications of his zombie plague through; he’s more interested in the gooshy gory bits. As again, the zombie plague is ridiculously infectious. Keene certainly gets his mileage out of this. He has the sensibilities of a 7th grader who just got a subscription to Fangoria magazine: “blood and guts and gore and guts and blood! And exploding heads!” To be fair, I admit Keene doesn’t go for the full middle schooler mindset, as there’s a distinct lack of boobs in the book, now that I think about it.

The gore really is the point of the book. Keene takes every opportunity to trot out every kind of mutilated zombie he can think of, across a variety of species. This verges on the ridiculous when you start getting into stuff like zombie fish and zombie whales, though. Things kind of tighten up a little once Lamar and the rest of the cast (zombie movie cliches all, including Biker Dude, Scrappy Kid, Asshole Cop, and so on) get on the Coast Guard ship and away from the chaos of Baltimore- but again, this being a zombie novel, things invariably go to shit. Some people get eaten, some people get shot, and every little drop of oozing grey matter is described in loving detail. The emphasis on gore and action over a coherent narrative leads to little bits like an 8 year old head-shotting a zombie, from a rooftop, with a shotgun. This is another of those moments that made me go “wait, what?” That’s never a good thing for a book to do.

And, uh, that’s about all there is. Apart from a little tangent towards the middle in which an English professor who’s amongst the survivors goes on about Joseph Campbell’s mythological archetypes, and how Lamar fits as a “hero,” but this comes off more as filler than as an actual theme.

Dead Sea is at least a quick read, so it has that much going for it. But overall, I wasn’t that impressed with it. Maybe if you’ve run all out of Walking Dead episodes, and you really need something to scratch the proverbial zombie itch, you might enjoy Dead Sea, but there are better horror novels, and heck, probably even better Brian Keene novels to read.


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