Imagine my confusion for a moment. The solicitation for review copies of The Dead by Mark E. Rogers looked, upon first inspection, like a comic book. I took one look at that cover and was sold. I’m always up for zombie horror, particularly indie zombie horror when it sports sweet artwork like that. Then the book arrived. It’s a novel. No matter. I’m’a read this bitch anyway. It took me some time as novels tend to do. Book reviews are hard business when you’re the world’s slowest reader but I got around to it. The confusion didn’t end with the format, though.
In Mark Rogers’ The Dead, family and acquaintances of the Holland clan turn out to the Jersey Shore for the funeral of the family patron. As this is happening, the dead begin to rise and in a hurry, the reanimated corpses all around the world commit overnight genocide, either tearing the living limb from limb or going through the paces to make the living part of the dead army. The surviving members of the Hollands, armed with a few guns and deeply conflicting views on spirituality, will spend the next few nights of the apocalypse running from basement, to sewer to storm cellar in an attempt to outrun the dead and find a safe haven but as the plot progresses through a series of intensely violent zombie encounters, it doesn’t look like they’re going to find one in the conventional sense any time soon.
The Dead isn’t your average zombie novel. As a matter of fact, for fans like me, tired of the usual shoot ‘em in the head antics that lift every move from Romero zombie movies, Rogers’ novel is a breath of fresh air. These aren’t exactly zombies as they don’t behave in the mindless shambling way of established undead eating machines. These are razor sharp hordes of killers that are impeccably fast, horrifically strong and completely unstoppable. A bullet to the head does not put these things down. Decapitation doesn’t even stop them. Mutilate these corpses all you like, they’re going to kill you sooner or later. The twist doesn’t end there, though. The dead don’t rise because of a virus or because of radiation. Understand this: Mark Rogers’ dead rise because it’s The Fucking Rapture! You’d better believe it. This is a Christian apocalypse novel in the vein of, say, Left Behind (though a brief note from Rogers claims that he wrote first draft of this novel in the early 80’s, way ahead of Tim LaHaye). I was at first put off by this quality of the novel. I have a severe allergic reaction to that Old Time Religion and believe you me, this is about as Catholic as the end of the world gets. However, Rogers’ writing is a cut above the rest. He is, in fact, a very good writer and The Dead is a compelling read if I’ve ever seen one.
Early establishment of character is the books strongest suit. Though nearly every major player represents some facet of spirituality, everyone is textured enough to make them more than just some archetype to pit against the other archetypes. The cast is a bit overwhelming and as the pace builds, this person or that is easily confused with others. Our setting and circumstances are also engaging and easy to step into. The Rapture starts slowly and then explodes into a horrific wave of death. From here on out it’s action, action, action and it’s practically nonstop. Nonstop, that is to say, apart from the punctuating passages where everyone hunkers down to discuss the end of the world and their faith (or lackthereof) in deep theophilosophical discussions. Each side presents cogent arguments in favor of their particular bent but putting myself in their shoes, the moment one of my survivor comrades pipes up about his personal lord and savior in the middle of a zombie invasion, he’s getting a slap in the mouth for a serious fault in his priorities.
The Dead falters in the second half of the novel as our massive cast of characters spend most of the time watching the carnage around them while having animated discussions about God and Armageddon. These portions drag on endlessly but the third act unfolds in the same compelling method as the first act and it’s tough to put down. Though the theological angle of The Dead is hamfisted, it’s directly Christian message is in stark contrast of it’s vivid descriptions of zombie on human violence. Rogers, for all his apparent faith, loves to tell you, the reader, in grotesque detail exactly how these humans are dying. It makes for some serious cognitive dissonance.
Apart from an unwieldy and wildly unexpected Christian message and some seriously long drag-on moments that act as nothing but filler, The Dead by Mark E. Rogers, is a surprising entry for fans of zombies and apocalyptic fiction.