Jonathan Maberry’s new novel is a terrifying horror story, a tightly-wound thriller, and a sobering, relevant political statement, all wrapped up with a giant, bloody bow. It’s a compellingly entertaining piece of work by an author who has lately been ratcheting up his already considerable game, and it’s an intoxicating breath of fresh air for a subgenre that literally refuses to die.
Dead of Night, due out from St. Martin’s Griffin on October 25, comes along at the tail end of a very strong year for zombies. The Walking Dead rules comic shops and cable TV; the Centers for Disease Control has posted a zombie apocalypse preparedness guide on its website; and the now-expected annual avalanche of zombie books has yielded some exceptionally strong titles. It’s been a strong year for Maberry, too, whose Joe Ledger series continued to pick up steam with The King of Plagues, and whose young adult zombie series saw its second entry, Dust & Decay, achieve critical and commercial success.
It could be argued that Maberry has already had his breakthrough, but I see Dead of Night as a book that could really bring him a new level of success. For one thing it’s a standalone book, a bit of a rarity for Maberry and something that will serve as a great entry point for new readers. For another, it’s a compulsive page turner that, once picked up, proves difficult to put down.
Like the Joe Ledger books, Dead of Night mixes elements of science and horror in a fascinating brew. Notorious serial killer Homer Gibbon’s execution date has arrived, and the prison doctor – Herman Volker, a man with a deeply-buried and volatile past – figures Gibbon to be the perfect patient to receive a serum he’s been developing for years. The experiment goes as planned…until Gibbon’s body is claimed by a previously-unknown relative in Stebbins County, Pennsylvania. The body is routed there for burial, and before he can act to stop it, Volker’s secret is out – and it’s wreaking havoc.
Finding themselves on the front lines of this sudden and inexplicable disaster are Dez Fox and JT Hammond, a couple of rural cops more than capable of handling the drunken parties, fender benders and occasional domestic disputes they’re called upon to deal with in Stebbins. They are, in fact, better cops than Stebbins requires, at least until Volker’s dark secret comes calling. Dez may be the best of the duo – she’s seen military action in Afghanistan, and it takes a lot to rattle her – but JT brings his own mix of calm and authority to the table. Plus, Dez is battling a nasty set of interior demons, a potent mix of abandonment issues and anger management deficiencies that make her difficult to deal with at times. But once the plague Volker and Gibbon bring upon the area starts spreading, both are forced to step outside of their own needs and a lead a fight for survival in which the odds keep turning against them.
Zombie stories have long proven to be effective metaphors for a variety of themes, and Maberry uses Dead of Night to examine the puzzling and disheartening ways that people often react to the loss of control. Dez, whose whole life has seemed out of control since losing her parents at a young age, lashes out at those who get too close and cloaks herself in the faulty armor of alcohol, rage and one-night stands. Billy Trout, a talented reporter wallowing in a dead-end job, finds undiscovered depths of professionalism and bravery when faced with the loss of the things and people he has grown to love. And the U.S. Government, faced with the loss of control over secrets they thought were safely suppressed, reacts with…well, I’m not about to ruin that for you.
Dead of Night is a blistering read, and easily muscles its way into the upper echelon of zombie fiction. Thought-provoking, gripping and unsettling, it’s the perfect book to settle down with as the Halloween season creeps ever closer.