First published back in August of 2001, US author Len Barnhart’s debut novel ‘Reign Of The Dead’ formed the first part in the action-packed ‘Reign Of The Dead’ zombie holocaust trilogy.
Jim Workman has been having a tough time of late. With divorce proceedings cutting away at him and his job just wearing him down, he needed a break from it all. And so he upped and left for the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains for a three week long holiday, with no means of contacting the outside world whatsoever. And that’s when it all happened. Whilst Jim was taking some much needed rest and recuperation way from the trials and tribulations of modern-day life, the world was collapsing.
Returning from his refreshing time away, Workman is thrown head-first into the thick of a horrifying new world. Mankind has been ripped apart by a highly contagious virus that has reanimated the dead. All across America, the recently deceased are rising up and attacking the living. The zombie outbreak has begun.
Taking shelter from the manic slaughter that is taking place across the country, a large group of survivors converge on a local rescue centre, desperate for protection against the escalating zombie threat. Arriving at the Riverton Rescue Station, Workman joins the hundred or so survivors that are cowering behind their hastily erected barricades. But the shelter is becoming too overcrowded. The survivors need to move on to a larger, more secure premise. And that’s when they formulate the plan to break into the nearby Whitepost Prison. Its high walls and excellent overall security offers the perfect protection from the hordes of flesh-eating zombies that are roaming the land. They just have to get there.
Meanwhile, in his isolated home not too far from the rescue facility, the Reverend Robert Thomas Peterson is trying to make sense of a world that seems to have been abandoned by his God. This must be a punishment sent by God for man’s unrelenting sins. And so, the Reverend begins to pull together an army of willing followers. Guided by visions and internal voices that plague his mind, the Reverend is convinced that he has God’s work to do. His disciples will help him in his quest to rebuild a society the way his God wishes it to be. To start again from scratch, this time under the guidance and direction of the Reverend Peterson. And those that don’t fall down and follow in his wake will feel the wrath of God. The reverend has much work to do.
Elsewhere, in the Mount Weather complex - a vast secure underground governmental facility buried away within the hard stone protection of a mountain range- scientists struggle to find a cure for this devastating new plague. But tension amongst those living within the mountain installation is quickly escalating. The military want control, and they have the weapons to get just that. Humanity is on the brink of annihilation, and mankind’s only chance at survival is to work together. But it is in times of utter desperation, when humankind usually collides.
And the end result is never pretty…
Starting off in a very similar way to George R. Stewart’s classic post-apocalyptic novel ‘Earth Abides’ (1949) whereby our principal protagonist is out of touch with society when the proverbial shit-hits-the-fan; Barnhart’s ‘Reign Of The Dead’ certainly begins as it means to go on, with unashamedly re-using and recycling ideas from a whole host of post-apocalyptic and zombie-specific work.
Indeed, much of the book treads some very familiar ground to so many other novels of this pulpish subgenre. Barnhart clearly knows what ideas have worked well, and craftily pulls together a multitude of these scenes, scenarios and threats, to build up an ambitiously action-packed thrill of a ride through a paint-by-numbers zombie holocaust.
Characterisation is as clichéd as it comes, with the two main polished-to-perfection ‘heroes’ of the tale - Jim and Chuck, seem to be cut out of the same mould as an average lowbrow b-movie hero. However, in direct contrast to the obviousness of these two uninspired main characters, Barnhart still manages to create a good number of well-defined and instantly likeable characters. And it’s funny how easy it is to get caught up with these very easily contrived characters. For all their simplicity, they still keep you gripped with their ordeals and what ultimately happens to them.
Furthermore, Jim Workman’s growing relationship with Sharon Darney adds a predictable but easy to manipulate love interest. Darney’s escape from the Mount Weather complex and the possibility of her alone having the key to solving the zombie dilemma (oh yes, it’s as delightfully unrealistic as that) just crams in yet another inter-woven layer to the whole already over-the-top plot.
What’s great is that Barnhart quite obviously doesn’t care how unrealistic the novel is. It’s a post-apocalyptic zombie romp for god’s sake! Who needs realism when you’ve got the non-stop thrills and spills of an adrenaline-pumping zombie-fest!
Throw in a rogue militia causing problems for our heroic band of survivors - ala ‘Dawn Of The Dead’ (1978) etc, and you’ve got another delightfully unoriginal threat to bundle along with the main zombie problem. Is that enough for Mr Barnhart? Certainly not! We need a psychotically delusional ‘Jim Jones’ style religious-nut with outrageously scary ideas of grandeur thrown in for good measure. That’s right...we’ve got it all going on here.
So, with so much going on, with the tale flipping back-and-forth between the various storylines for each chapter (which incidentally make Shaun Hutson’s chapters look lengthy in comparison), there’s never any time to sit back and reflect on the sheer madness that’s going on.
And by far and away the greatest section of the tale is when our group of survivors, led by Jim Workman, have taken over the Whitepost Prison. Such a great place to hole-up for a while, with almost the highest level of security against the hordes of undead (and thuggish militia) outside of a nuclear style underground bunker...which of course comes later!
All in all this is a non-stop zombie thrill-seekers ride through an already well-trodden post-apocalyptic backdrop. Expect no great surprises, no outstanding originality, or any great wordsmanship (the writing is a little on the untidy side). However, what you do get for your money is a thoroughly exciting and entertaining zombie yarn, with so much going on that you quite simply can’t find a place to put the book down.
In March of 2003 the tale was followed on by the second instalment in the trilogy entitled ‘Reign Of The Dead: Apocalypse End’ (2003). The first instalment was also re-worked and then re-released under the new title ‘Reign Of The Dead: Reloaded’ in August of 2011, which included further expansions on the characters and a general tidying up of the tale.
The novel runs for a total of 272 pages.
© DLS Reviews