Rot & Ruin
Simon and Schuster, 2010
At first glance it might be easy to peg Jonathan Maberry’s Rot & Ruin as just another zombie novel. However, doing so does this teen-centric title a huge disservice. Rot & Ruin for all its violence and actions manages to tell a fascinating and emotionally engaging story about life after the rise of the undead. The novel focuses on the life of young Benny Imura. Benny, about to turn 15, must find a job or have his rations cut by half. His utter dislike of his zombie hunting older brother Tom sees him trying to find somewhere, anywhere else, to work. Unfortunately for Benny (or so he thinks) circumstances force him to take an apprenticeship under his brother.
The most clever thing about Rot & Ruin, and something I have never seen in the burgeoning mass of zombie fiction is precisely what the zombie hunters are hired to do. Benny, like the reader, are seriously misinformed to some degree about the role of zombie hunters. For Benny his perceptions is informed by his earliest memories of his mother being brought down by his zombified father; his hatred of zombies sees him focus on that part of the zombie hunter’s job. Readers, likely informed by past experience with zombie media, are similarly biased. However the true nature of the zombie hunter job, particularly as it is perceived by Benny’s older brother Tom, is something completely different.
Those of us who grew up on the seminal zombie classic, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (and the original Dawn of the Dead) often have our own preconceived notions about zombies and zombie fiction. Those notions are so ingrained that it is often difficult to see beyond what we know to the large picture. Finally with the explosion of zombie presence in a variety of media (television, comics, video games, books, movies all in the last 3-5 years) we art starting to see some works beginning to explore some aspects of zombie fiction that we have yet to see. Books like World War Z, Rot & Ruin, The Dead Tossed Waves, and even John Ajivde Lindqvist’s Handling of the Undead owe more to novels like Earth Abides than they do to the world and works of George Romero. It is extremely rewarding to see these novels starting to tackle the social, political, and emotional effects that the walking dead have on people beyond the immediate need for survival. It is easy to focus on the horror of the living dead. It is much more difficult to extrapolate the emotional impact of the living dead; thankfully Rot & Ruin handles it with a deceptive and often surprising ease.
In addition to crafting a believable emotional landscape for his characters Maberry also deftly casts a believable post-apocalyptic world. Using and liquid made of rendered zombies (I think that was the primary component) to mask human scent, the notion that zombies naturally gravitate downhill, and a cult centered around the living dead all represent some small touches Maberry uses to give his world a more fleshed out feel. The brunt of the novel rests on the shoulders of its characters and their relationships. Maberry crafts a believably complicated relationship between the Imura brothers, with Benny’s childish resentment for his brother slowly changing over time as the nature of Tom’s work becomes more apparent. The confused teenage romance between Benny and his friend Nix is also handled deftly never overdrawn it manages to be cute without be cloyingly sweet and Benny’s stumbles over the course of the relationship are amusing foibles of youth.
While many people might be growing a bit weary under the deluge of zombie fiction that seems to have been flooding the market over the last few years it is still refreshing to see that author’s can shed the cliches and tropes of the genre to craft fascinating and original stories. With Rot & Ruin, Maberry has cast a familiar world with a fresh light. While the zombies are certainly a pervasive presence the real focus is on the people that exist in this world. Rot & Ruin is a novel about being human in face of inhumanity; even when that face is a familiar one (and not always undead). Rot & Ruin is the first in a series and the second novel, Dust & Decay, should be available today.