Ordinarily, my taste in horror fiction runs to tales of middle-aged academics having nightmares about huge, rugose, iridescent cones, or kindly, whimsical wizards being plunged into reality-warping horror- the scariest book I've ever read is a short novel about one man's helplessness in the face of an indifferent universe. This time, though, I thought, "Why not give zombies a chance?"
Why not, indeed?
Rise Again, the debut novel by Ben Tripp (yo, check the blogroll), is an effective horror-thriller. While cleaving (heh- I kill me) to many of the conventions of the pulp (I do not use this term disparagingly, as a perusal of any book reviews I've done on this blog will attest) horror genre, Mr. Tripp's novel transcends them with its careful characterizations, satirical content (although the "zombie apocalypse" genre lends itself to Juvenalian satire of the most bitter kind), and the author's flair for descriptive language.
Synopses of the plot can be found elsewhere on the web, so I'll touch on other aspects of Mr. Tripp's novel.
I've been hip to Tripp through his illustrations, and it comes as no surprise that he has an eye (not safe for the squeamish) for imagery- three of my favorite examples being:
Features whipped past: stark forms of rock, skeletons of trees and bushes, fences flashing their Morse code of posts and rails.
Two of the corpses by the scooters were dressed in dusty, worn-out ordinary clothing that had been washed too seldom, and yet too often. Locals.
His skin was so wrinkled, each line as sharply defined as a razor cut, that he almost appeared to have been shattered and reassembled by someone unhandy.
Of course, what would a zombie apocalypse novel be without buckets of gore? If you're squeamish, or just about to dine, you might want to skip the following phrases describing the carnage that defines the genre:
fountains of blackened meat and streams of blood…
rivulets of melted fat running out and sizzling…
rags of brown meat…
gobbets of reeking flesh…
stank of grilled meat, a smell that left a taste in the mouth.
His face was a symphony of yellows and browns, with notes of deep blue like the USDA ink stains on a side of beef.
Man, Mr. Tripp really has a predilection for portraying meat, an invaluable skill for an author of a horror tale. I can see it in my head, a few years from now, a college course titled Comp. Lit. 302: The Esthetics of Meat- Imagery in the Fiction of Ben Tripp.
The narrative is not unrelievedly bleak, however- there is a hint of humourous leavening (one throwaway one-liner had me chuckle out loud), and there are sendups of reality-show culture and political triangulation. Mr. Tripp also pays homage to the pop-culture antecedents of his novel, with shout-outs to the works of Georges Romero and Miller.
He also has a skill for portraying emotion with nuance(a welcome addition to the horror genre)- his protagonist is driven by her sense of duty to maintain a tenuous grasp on order, and to search for her missing sister. The other main characters grow into their changed roles in believable fashion. The final sentence of the book is a devastating blow- the carpet is pulled out from beneath the reader, who is left with a hauntingly ambiguous ending to ponder when the book is put down.
All told, Rise Again is a good, gripping read. Like the best works of horror, it reminds us that we have the potential to be the worst monsters of all. Here's a hearty high-five and a pat on the ass to Our Man Tripp. Now, when's the next novel coming out?
Postscript: Let me just add that Rise Again is not the scariest thing that Ben Tripp has written.