A group of friends find more to trouble them than a hang-over when they wake from a Stag Party in a remote country cottage in Sussex. The world has gone mad, infected by a disease that turns people into ravening, mutating, flesh eating monsters. Who or what is the cause of the outbreak? Will they survive and find their families and loved ones alive and un-turned? Is there any hope for humanity? How far has the plague spread?
What sets this very bleak but effective apocalyptic thriller apart from the groaning weight of it’s undead filled cousins are the monsters themselves, and their mysterious origin. The origin is very sketchily explained and this is both strength and weakness. I’ll come to that later. But the monsters, what you become if you are unlikely enough to contract this plague, are basically every combination possible of the mutations in John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and then some. The body horror also nods to David Cronenberg, but the main respectful nods must be to “The Thing.” Fanged mouths and eyes generate in very odd places indeed, as do slimy tentacles and spider legs and all kinds of weird animal shapes that really do reference that film. As do the grotesque ways the monsters consume their prey, from just chowing down to absorption.
The horror is merciless and the tone relentlessly bleak, even for a genre not known for casual optimism. The characters are well drawn and the writer knows how to develop them, their reactions are heartbreaking and believable. The survivors find a small child, a girl, which ups the ante, as they fight to keep her alive. The pace of the narrative is fast. Short chapters will speed by in a blur. That this is managed whilst maintaining the generations of suspense, mystery, and character development is testament to good writing.
What was more problematic for me was that a bit of ‘slow burn’ in a plague or zombie outbreak’s origins is something I usually enjoy, the gradual exponential dread, the story of a patient zero and the ripples outwards. We don’t have that here, there’s something like a spontaneous mass infection. And what spares our protagonists, and the uninfected they meet? Why some and not others? Yes it’s spread by bites and scratches as usual, but the initial mass outbreak was caused by huge, mountainous organic alien ships in the sky (full marks for originality and creepiness). But how exactly did they kick things off? I’m hoping these things are unpacked in the next few books in the trilogy.
It’s bleakness and gore is “Walking Dead” strength (the graphic novels) so be warned. You may need to lie down and / or watch a Pixar movie on finishing this. Definitely a strong brew, but a good one.