Ginger Nuts of Horror
Zombie apocalypse fiction. Love it or hate it, a difficult sell, even before the days of The Walking Dead, in which every half way animate corpse and its Mother have attempted at least some passing reference to the sub-genre.
That's not to say that the subject has been entirely plumbed or that it can't be good; it's just so saturated and profoundly codified that, in order for it to be so, it must be either fantastic or fascinating; it must do something with the tropes, the subject, the setting, that other stories simply don't or haven't considered.
Bennet Sims's A Questionable Shape does realise this, to its credit, opting for what much of the very best undead apocalyptia does; a close focus character study, treating the sudden stirring of humanity's dead as an ambient or environmental phenomena which humanity has to adapt to. The story focuses primarily on characters examining and redefining their status, their relationships; their humanity, in the wake and depths of this situation. In that, it is to be applauded; it treats its characters with a fair degree of respect, for the most part, each of them responding to the phenomena in fairly complex and interesting ways (from the narrator Michael's escalating isolationism to his girlfriend Rachael's pragmatism and denial, there's a lot to get to grips with here; some interesting character dynamics, that form the core of the story). As for the undead themselves, they represent a new set of pressures and contexts to which the characters have to adapt; whatever explanations or summations are provided concerning where they come from, why they exist, what they mean for humanity, is largely left up to the intuitions and biases of the characters, which provides a degree of realism and ambiguity that is often somewhat lacking when these stories attempt a more general, “God's eye” perspective.
Plot is largely foregone in favour of a series of moments, which, again, works in the book's favour; it allows the writer to concentrate on exploring the characters and how their perspectives on the situation; how their relationships and states of mind, shift over time; how experience transforms them. Michael, in particular, experiences a state of disintegration that is suitably slow and agonising, eating himself, fittingly enough, as surely as the “zombies” would. Much of what drives the narrative consists of characters seeking some semblance of stability; clawing to hold onto what they presumed of their lives and relationships before the outbreak, which, to its credit, is much slower and more distant than most such narratives; something that occurs on the edge of central of events, slowly creeping in on the central characters until they can no longer deny it.
The resultant floundering isn't necessarily as a result of the writer not knowing where to go with the subject matter as much as the characters legitimately not knowing how to respond to their changing circumstances or what they should do now that all stability has begun to crumble beneath them. This, of course, can lead to moments in which it feels like the narrative is spinning its wheels or navel gazing; much of the book consists of recollection, introspection and analysis, but this is more a matter of taste than technical error; it is what the book is designed to do, and whether it appeals or not will largely depend on that.
There are, however, a number of technical issues that undermine the intrigue and atmosphere of the piece: one of the central conceits involves footnotes; a deliberate stylistic choice the metaphor of which the book itself explains, but which doesn't quite work. The footnotes themselves tend to be somewhat over-long and rarely add anything beyond redundant detail to the story. Whilst this might have worked as a means of adding depth or texture, owing to their length (some actually occupying more space across a page or two than the central text), they more often than not come off as a redundant or distracting, to the point whereby I began to simply ignore them at one point during my reading, the story losing little as a result. One cannot help but feel that their inclusion is somewhat synthetic; a means of distinguishing the text in a saturated genre, but which is far from essential to the story or to the overall work.
What might be some strange formatting errors (or perhaps baffling stylistic choices) also serve to jar the reader from the world the text tries to evoke: dialogue is generally problematic, characters often speaking on the same line, without any break to distinguish who is speaking, which scans badly to the reader (it makes the text feel as though it is stumbling or slurring too quickly through the dialogue, and also appears quite unattractive on the page; as a slab of text). Also, it is often difficult to distinguish who exactly is talking, especially when conversations go on for longer than a few lines.
The authorial voice often serves to distract from the setting and situation, often coming across as too distant from events; moments that should be immediate and evocative communicated in a distant, almost documentary style, in the manner of 19th century fiction (which may be deliberate; a means of evoking those self same stories, to which the sub-genre and horror in general owe so much), which serves to blunt or soften moments of trauma, of anxiety, of despair. The narrator is also extremely verbose in his recapitulation of events, most of which are told retrospectively, in the lead up to his current situation, the language utilised sometimes too literary given the character and situation, as though he is someone analysing the events as though he might analyse a written or cinematic narrative, as opposed to one experiencing them first hand. Similarly, there are occasionally shifts in tense that (whilst definitely deliberate), are faintly jarring to the reader in terms of their placement and inconsistency; moments of first person, present tense narrative sitting incongruously between past tense, almost journalistic accounts of events that preceded them.
If you can forego these issues, then you may find something quite compelling in terms of its ideas and the unusually close focus, autopsy-like perspective it brings to bear. However, many may find them to be simply too pervasive and consistent make this one work for them.