First published back in January of 2005, ‘City Of The Dead’ formed the sequel to US author Brian Keene’s debut zombie-apocalypse novel ‘The Rising’ (2003). The series was later followed on with ‘The Rising: Selected Scenes From The End Of The World’ (2006) and then the prequel ‘The Rising: Deliverance’ (2010).
Upon arriving into New Jersey following their troublesome trek from West Virginia across the undead infested landscape of America, Jim Thurmond together with his travelling companions, the black preacher, the Reverend Thomas Martin, and the ex-hooker, Frankie, pull up outside of Jim’s ex-wife’s house where he hopes his son, Danny, is located. Whilst Martin and Frankie wait outside by the Humvee that brought them to the house, Jim races into the building to rescue his son.
However, when they hear shots fired from within the house, Martin and Frankie race inside to help Jim with whatever undead trouble he has encountered. And as the three take to the attic where Jim’s son Danny has been hiding out, a growing mass of the undead converge upon the suburban house.
Knowing that they have Jim and his companions trapped in the house, the demon possessed zombies set the house alight, with the flames quickly engulfing the lower levels of the premises. And now with their option quickly running out, the trapped survivors erect a flimsy interconnecting-bridge, using a ladder which they stretch between their attic and next door’s building where their neighbour, Don De Santos, is alive and hiding away.
However tragedy befalls the group when Frankie slips from the ladder into the swimming pool below them. Still alive and in one piece; Jim, Martin, Danny and Don rush to Don’s garage where his car is waiting. And as they burst from the now equally compromised home, they find Frankie desperately fighting for her life in front of the two buildings.
Very badly injured but nevertheless alive, Frankie is pulled into the waiting car as the undead swarm around them. Speeding out from amongst the hordes of the undead, the escaping band of survivors quickly realise that they’re not quite out of the woods yet, when the Humvee which they had travelled to New Jersey in is now being driven by the undead and forces them off the road.
The demon possessed zombies are once again upon them. Regaining consciousness, Jim wakes just in time to save his son from the grips of the clawing undead. Using his cunning, Jim manages to entice the remaining zombies away from Don, Frankie and his son. Reverend Thomas Martin was less fortunate, and upon reanimating, is dispatched by an emotionally-torn Jim.
And it’s as the undead are once again drawing closer, with zombiefied birds also swooping in for the kill, that the group’s surprise rescue comes to the their aid. From out of the blue the eccentric billionaire Darren Ramsey’s private helicopter pick up the desperate survivors and flies them off to the safety of the billionaire’s disaster-proof skyscraper, located in the heart of Manhattan, New York.
Meanwhile Professor Baker has succumbed to Ob, the invading demon’s leader. But the Ob’s time inside the professor’s body is short and upon being shot down, he reanimates inside a new body. A body that retains the knowledge of the NYPD’s weaponry reserves. And with that simple transferal of vessels, Ob knows that he now has the means to finish off the Siqquism’s war upon mankind.
With the demonic armies spreading across the globe, killing off humanity as they go, Ob focuses his immediate attention on those holed-up inside the seemingly impregnable Ramsey Towers. The building where the man who has proven to be the demonic leader’s nemesis, Jim Thurman, is hiding out with his companions. With the towering skyscraper now surrounded by a vast army of his undead fighters, it’s only a matter of time before those inside fall...
After you’ve recovered from the heart-in-mouth intensity of the first fifty-or-so pages where Keene began the novel by launching head-first into the thick of the undead action, it slowly begins to dawn on you how much Keene’s writing style and general prose has improved since ‘The Rising’ (2003). Indeed, almost every aspect of the author’s delivery is tighter, more well-rounded and of a general higher standard. That’s not to say that the author is the next William Faulkner. Far from it. Keene is still a colourful B-movie-esque writer whose writing is simplistic and nevertheless often somewhat shallow. But where Keene really excels is with his over-the-top plots and bizarre imagination. There’s always an absolute tonne of crazy-ass-horror-action going on in his novels, with a completely no-holds-barred approach maintained to delivering the uncensored madness.
So you’re past the seemingly relentless barrage of chaos that the novel opens with. What should you expect from here? Well, firstly don’t think that Keene’s going to take his foot off the accelerator for more than the briefest of moments. And those moments of pause are only to (quite ineffectually) lull the reader into a false sense of security. Yep, it’s that old chestnut again. “They’re safe...they got away....they can finally rest-up for a while”...oh no they can’t!!!
The violence and gore that are utilised within the novel are up to the same in-your-face levels as with ‘The Rising’ (2003), if not even more so. Throughout the novel Keene wallows in a constantly churning mass of visceral gore, whilst chucking in scene after scene of intense action, and increasingly explosive scenarios that together make for an exciting and utterly entertaining read.
Don’t go into the novel expecting to be scared witless. It’s not that kinda party! Instead, in an almost ‘The Evil Dead’ (1981) fashion, Keene delivers the adrenaline-pumping goods with his tongue ever-so-slightly in his cheek. Our principal antagonist, the demon leader Ob, likes to throw in as many cringe-worthy one-liners as he can muster up. He’s a nasty piece of work, with a barbaric arrogance that makes him seem all the more idiotic. Whether this works in creating a plot-defining bad-guy is pretty much down to personal preference.
For the first third-or-so of the novel, the storyline reads very much like your average run-of-the-mill zombie apocalypse road-trip, without a great amount of purposeful direction. It’s pretty much just the intensity of the unrelenting action that keeps propelling the storyline along. That is, until our little group of wandering survivors is picked up by Darren Ramsey’s men and taken back to his heavily fortified skyscraper. From here the novel introduces a whole host of new (but on the whole pretty unremarkable) characters. However, with a vast sea of undead now converging on the area surrounding the giant skyscraper, all of which are under the direction of Ob (who by now has a pretty big chip on his shoulder) the whole dynamic of the story takes on a new, much grander twist.
Obviously we all know what’s going to happen. There’s no chance that our pals are going to be safe in Ramsey Towers for long, despite the promises of the tower’s adamant inhabitants. And when the proverbial shit hits the fan, Keene gets right back into the swing of things with more violence and breathless running-about-the-place like there’s no tomorrow.
What’s surprising in the novel is how willingly (and easily) Keene is to allow a number of his principal characters to die. They’ve all come a long old way since the beginning of ‘The Rising’ (2003) and all of a sudden Keene’s trimming down the protagonist list to make way for all of the newbies. Fair do’s, it does add an element of unpredictability to the tale which can’t be seen as a bad thing. But it is nevertheless a bit of a shame to see how easily (and quite unceremoniously) they can be dispatched.
Admittedly the novel is packed to the rafters with clichés (a bit like this review, now I think about it) alongside wooden characters bleating on with the same old tired dialogue. Yeah, Keene hasn’t progressed all that far with regard to this particular aspect of his writing. But much of this can be forgiven in the face of such energy and imaginative mayhem.
Keene does also have a tendency to over-explain the complex intricacies of his fantastical cross-dimensional demon war to the nth degree. At times the author gets bogged down in a veritable quagmire of explanatory rules and mind-boggling complexities to the plot. This unfortunately makes the overall pace of the novel stutter during these (admittedly never overly long) periods of plot detailing.
The novel ends well, with Keene wrapping up all (and I really mean absolutely every single one) of the loose ends. A few twists and last minute surprises are thrown in for good measure, with a fittingly downbeat final chapter that, although a somewhat twee message is slipped in as a sort of afterthought, keeps with the gritty ‘who’s-next-in-line-for-the-slaughter’ approach that Keene has kept to throughout the length of the book.
So unplug your brain, cast away any snobbish hang-ups you may have, and simply enjoy the novel for what it is – and goddammit if it isn’t one hell of a wild read!
The novel runs for a total of 357 pages.
© DLS Reviews