Max Brooks’ “Oral History of the Zombie War” is lushly detailed and terrifyingly possible. The Undead have risen, the pandemic has taken over the whole planet. Starting with rumours in China, suspected to be a criminal underclass revolution, then revealing itself to be even worse: hungry, mindless Zombies, very quickly spread about the world before people even realised what was happening.
Styled as based on extensive interviews with survivors of the War, this book is almost structured like the seven stages of grieving. The narrative forms chapters themed as: Warnings, Blame, The Great Panic, Turning The Tide, Home Front USA, Around the World and Above, Total War, Good-Byes. The introduction frames our journalist/narrator as having flown around the world for a post-war UN report, interviewing key players and survivors, capturing their oral history. This report is rejected: it’s too subjective, not enough facts, not enough perspective. Nothing stops our journalist though, and he turns those stories into this book.
The stories are in the voices of the survivors, each chapter taking you around the world: the first rumours in China, the first battle in the USA, the view from the International Space Station. There is little journalistic/authorial intrusion, and each of these voices is distinct, with it’s own particular experience. Only some of these characters are repeated and the story is told though this whole world of perspectives: the army dog rehabilitator, the civilian patrol, the US politician, the South African mercenary. You get skerricks of stories that cross over and fall into one another, painting a picture of a whole world fighting the same Undead enemy.
And here is where it gets good: this is a good, entertaining book; a fantastic example of story-telling. Brooks has manipulated the oral tradition into this format extremely well, making it really feel like a diversity of voices contributing to the same narrative. But what gives this book an extra special something is how terrifyingly real it all is: the response, the blame, the terror, the selfishness; that behind the guff the complete unpreparedness for a real threat. You could replace the word “Zombie” with any word in your time and it could be the same, unnerving story: for those playing along today, try “ISIS”. Of course, there are some graphic details and facts about “Zack” that make it all more gruesomely real which don’t fit in the game, but the general narrative, the international response, the crash of societies: all potentially possible.
And on that note this is not a book I could read while eating in my lunch break: there is almost a sick amount of detail about the Zombies, and you can tell from Brooks’ other published books that this is his pet subject. The rotting and bloating of Zombies reanimated early in the war; the brown ooze that replaces blood; the sheer detail about the horror of being confronted with a rotting face; a Zombie clawing at you, desperate to bite in and eat you, infecting you and sentencing you to an unlimited future as a Zombie yourself; the bone cleaved through flesh, entrails trailing, pulling itself along the ground toward you. Not good for the digestion.
I’ve never been one before for a zombie story, but this is more than that: Brooks imagines humanity under threat and gets the characters to tell the stories of those that met the challenge, and those that succumbed. It’s a great story, and a fantastic way of telling it.