First published back in September of 2016, British author Paul Kane’s novella ‘The Rot’ was the third publication from Horrific Tales Publishing’s premium novella line (a series of beautifully presented hardback novellas released from the incredibly well-respected horror publishers).
Adam Keller had been locked away within a secure military facility when the disease first hit. He had been there as part of an experiment. A test subject for the military’s latest invention. As a former flight lieutenant, the government deemed him the ideal man for their trials. Someone trusted enough to test the highly advanced survival suit. The ‘Survivors Kinetic Integrated Network’ (aka SKIN) was the only such survival suit of its kind in existence. A prototype. A second skin, powered by the user’s movement, designed to protect the user from the cold, diseases and toxins. It could filter out impurities in the air – even make air that was previously unbreathable safe for human consumption – keeping the user ticking along indefinitely.
Keller knew it was undoubtedly the SKIN that had kept him from becoming infected. It had kept him safe from whatever it was that had gotten to everyone else. The contagion that had messed with their heads. Turned them into violent lunatics hell-bent on killing everything and everyone.
Keller had only just managed to escape from the facility with his life – to find the same horrific madness was everywhere else. A good hour from the facility he’d been approaching a town whereupon his helicopter had suddenly died on him. The last thing he remembered was plummeting to the ground with little hope of surviving the crash.
Somehow he’d survived. Pulled from the wreckage by a small group of survivors, it had been Keller’s second lucky escape in as many days. Once again he knew his survival was down to the SKIN. It had kept him going. Kept him alive.
That was then. This is now. Close to three months since the world had been brought to its knees. These days Keller felt like a ghost drifting through this new world. All around him he saw how it was all deteriorating. How the rot was setting in. Reducing everything to nothing.
He had to find an answer to what had happened. He had little else left. A lone man walking a world devoid of anything but rot. Little hope left. Little of anything. Nevertheless time was running out…
Introducing Paul Kane’s novella we have fellow author, Tim Lebbon, who offers up an appetite-whetting four-page introduction in which he talks of his and our draw to apocalyptic fiction, how Kane’s offering takes us down a whole new path, and the careful balancing act at play within the novella. It’s a fabulously praise-filled foreword that sets the mood perfectly for the bleakness to come.
I use the word ‘bleak’ but trust me, there’s a hell of a lot more to Kane’s novella than just a bleak apocalyptic vision where humanity is just gradually reduced to nothing. Yeah, it’s fucking depressing at times. Emotions are conveyed in the rawest, most delicate and damaged of states. Yet at times there’s also the beginnings of hope - clawing at the grit and grime – attempting to break through. There’s so much honest-to-god humanity within the pages - you feel crushed and cut down, only to be resuscitated and nursed to some iota of health…at which point the incessant cycle starts up again.
The story itself is written via our protagonist – Adam Keller’s – recorded version of events, recalled them over the three months following the outbreak to where he is now. Undoubtedly one of the novella’s key strengths is the prose of this first person narrative. It helps deliver that much-needed human element. There’s an honesty to the dialogue. A believable voice. It pulls you in – putting you behind Keller’s eyes and inside the character’s head.
Essentially the story kicks off with a textbook post-apocalyptic setting. Our principal protagonist is flung into the thick of the end of the world, with violent chaos erupting everywhere and absolutely no idea what’s going on. The horror of it all comes hurtling in within these first few pages, with Kane unleashing scene after scene of barbaric violence to underline one of the principal symptoms of the disease.
Indeed, aside from the ‘Rotting’ element (which I’ll come to in a minute) the rest of the novella reads like a reasonably toned-down ‘Crossed’ instalment merged with Richard Matheson’s ‘I Am Legend’ (1954) along with a touch of ‘Earth Abides’ (1949) and ‘The Purple Cloud’ (1901). Yes there’s plenty of violence and adrenaline-pumping edge-of-the-seat action thrown in. But there are also layers of emotional turmoil, loss and longing in there. Our protagonist’s journey isn’t so much a character arc as it is a systematic deconstruction and then reconstruction of one man’s crumbling psyche.
Behind all of this, like an overshadowing and ever-present cloud of oppression, is the Rot. Its presence is a gradual decay. There are hints of things deteriorating, scattered through the early pages. And then suddenly the gravity of the rots impact upon the world hits like a breezeblock to the face. Buildings are crumbling. Streets are caving in. Vehicles are breaking down. It’s like a malignant cancer, spreading throughout the world and destroying absolutely everything in its wake.
Even if you feel that you’ve already read more than your fair share of post-apocalyptic fiction, I urge you not to dismiss Kane’s offering to this otherwise overly saturated subgenre. The backdrop may be reasonably well trodden ground, but it’s with the depth of characterisation, the voice given to our protagonist, the purpose given to each and every one of the secondary characters that Kane introduces, and the magnitude of the emotional warfare at play, that the novella stands taller than the majority of tales it rubs shoulders with.
A veritable masterclass in emotion-rich post-apocalyptic fiction.
The novella runs for a total of 134 pages.
© DLS Reviews