Ginger Nuts of Horror
Exploring The Labyrinth
In this series, I will be reading every Brian Keene book that has been published (and is still available in print), and then producing an essay on it. With the exception of Girl On The Glider, these essays will be based upon a first read of the books concerned. The article will assume you’ve read the book, and you should expect MASSIVE spoilers.
I hope you enjoy my voyage of discovery.
Keene’s debut novel was released in 2003 and was a smash hit, the kind of out-of-the-gate success most writers can only dream about. It’s been widely credited with kickstarting a new wave of zombie fiction which, with shows and comics like The Walking Dead, is still a huge part of not just the horror industry but pop culture in general. Despite that, and the fact that it’s an apparently perennial bestseller (a recent Amazon 99p/99c sale of the ebook saw the novel break the top 10 again, 14 years after its initial release), no movie or TV show has so far been made. Still, The Rising is undoubtedly considered by many fans of the genre to be a kind of ur-text, and for the generation after mine, Keene, and this novel in particular, are often cited as being as important as, say, King and It were to me, in terms of impact and influence.
And apparently, Brian Keene doesn’t like The Rising very much.
According to Keene (speaking at a live panel for Scares That Care IV, and later broadcast as part of The Horror Show With Brian Keene podcast, Episode 126) : ‘The Rising is 15 years old, at this point. I haven’t read that book in 15 years. And I had to go back and re-read it to get myself in the frame of mind for The Rising 5, and I hate it, it’s terrible… going back and re-reading it, I’m like “How much crack did they do before they published this? How did this end up a bestseller?”’ (though, in fairness, in the intro to Blood on the Page, Volume 1 of his collected short stories, he says ‘I usually don’t like the things I’ve written after I finish them’ - so maybe we shouldn’t read too much into that).
Jim Mcleod, editor in chief for Gingernuts of Horror, has this to say:
"When The Rising first hit the shelves the zombie genre was already showing too many signs of rigour mortis, Keene's novel grabbed it by the metaphorical throat and shock some much needed life into it. The Rising is in my opinion the most important zombie novel published in the last 30 years"
So when I picked up the novel in the aforementioned Kindle sale (the Author’s Preferred Text edition, just to be clear) I’d say I was cautiously optimistic - I have to admit to being partial to a bit of punk rock, and one thing I really enjoy is a horror writer who is willing to go there.
Someone who is willing, if not eager, to try and bite you.
And yeah, I kind of loved it.
FIrst off, I can see Keene’s point - there is a certain roughness around the edges of the prose, in places. Certainly coming off ...Glider (my only prior experience with Keene’s work) I could see how he’s developed in craft and voice since this was written.There’s a bluntness to both the storytelling and the prose with is often admirable, and occasionally devastatingly powerful and brilliant, but once in a while, a statement or line would feel a little too on-the-nose, where a touch of finesse might have conducted an idea or moment better, or caused it to cut a little deeper.
That said, I think the reason for this particular flaw is also a large part of the strength and power of the book overall, which is Keene’s stubborn refusal to look away. He creates a world of horror in this novel that is as unflinching and brutal as any I can immediately think of, and he peoples it with characters that you immediately grow to care about, and worry for… and then confirms, as the story unfolds, that you are very right to worry.
Actually, let’s get into that first, because I feel like it’s an aspect of the novel that seems to be discussed less that I feel it really deserves: I’ve joked before now on social media that the phrase ‘a startling new twist on the zombie genre’ has, itself, become cliche in the five years I’ve been slinging words seriously, and I suspect that joke predates my reengagement with the horror community. Nonetheless, the cause of the zombie outbreak in The Rising is original, I think - or, certainly, unusual. Instead of government chemical/virus or mysterious (biblical) comet, with The Rising, it’s a particle accelerator that is the culprit for the outbreak - the machine has torn a hole in the fabric of reality, and let in The Siqqusim - effectively demonic entities that can possess dead bodies and bring them to life.
I guess there’s shades of Evil Dead, there, not to mention a shout out to the Voodoo religion that is the source of the zombie myth, but I like the sci-fi angle, and as the book progresses and we learn more about these creatures and how they operate, it becomes clear that they are essentially interdimensional locusts, who descend on a given reality, consume all, then move on to the next. So sure, there’s the Romero zombie influence (they eat the flesh of the living, though mainly internal organs rather than limbs, to preserve mobility for when other Siqqusim inhabit the corpse), there’s Evil Dead, there’s Voodoo, and there’s also a Lovecraftian cosmic horror angle, but by the time all that is in the blender with a sci-fi concept (alternate dimensions) that has a pretty good grounding in theoretical physics, it really does feel like more than the sum of it’s parts - a frankenstein creation with a life all its own.
I mean, not to get too far down this particular rabbit hole, but there’s a theory of social development called The Great FIlter, which posits that the reason the universe appears to be devoid of other intelligent life, despite the mind boggling size and therefore number of similarly inhabitable planets to Earth (we really should be able to hear radio broadcasts from somewhere for example - Earth is, in cosmic terms, noisy as fuck - but so far, nada) is because, well, intelligent life tends to destroy itself. It’s total supposition, of course, and there are other possible explanations for the apparent emptiness of the universe, but at the same time, as a child of the tail end of the cold war, I can’t deny the awful plausibility of a theory that suggests any life form that becomes sufficiently advanced to become aware of the universe and some of how it works, will also develop the tools and means of it’s own destruction - and then use them. And the mythology of The Rising supports that theory very handily, positing that it’s particle acceleration that will ultimately cause the split in reality that allows creatures from the void to inhabit our dead and destroy us all - a pretty hand-in-glove Great Filter type idea, in essence.
And, of course, there’s also the zombie animals.
Who are - and I really can’t emphasise this enough - fucking awesome.
It starts with a fish, in the lab where the outbreak began. It should be funny - and it kind of is, for the first paragraph - but Keene turns the moment quickly, and then is smart enough to let the implications of the idea just sit with the reader - any creature with a brain stem can be animated by these creatures, as long as that stem is intact.
That, alone, is a fucking brilliant idea.
There are at least three sequences that really stood out, for me, that utilised this idea to superb effect. The first is in the zoo, where a protagonist hiding out encounters a zombie lion. The descriptions of the animal are just perfect - the noise it makes, how it moves, how it smells… It’s brilliant because it both plays on our primal fears of the big predators that probably ate the slower of our ancestors for breakfast, but also finds a way to make them genuinely terrifying and predatory for a modern audience. The second involves a swarm of rats in a sewer tunnel, that felt to me to be at least in part a loving tribute to James Herbert (and all the better for it), and the third involves a hunting trip that features, amongst other things, zombie squirrels. It should be hilarious, but it isn’t - it’s bloody terrifying, especially when the hunters realise they’ve been the hunted all along. Glorious.
Add it in with the intelligence of the animating forces, though, and it becomes even more terrifying. For my money, apocalypse fiction in general lives or dies on the sense of dread and foreboding it can instil in the reader, so the idea that the zombie horde includes all dead animals, not just humans, and that they can share intelligence between them … and you’re left with a situation that sits right on the border between doom laden and utterly hopeless.
And that line seems to be where The Rising comes to life the most. Jim Thurmond’s desperate quest to get across the country to find his son feels from the very beginning like a close to impossible task - a classic quest through peril, but one profoundly unlikely to reach a happy resolution. Similarly Frankie’s opening - running from a gang with the heroin she stole from them, hiding in the toilets of the zoo from both the gang and a fucking zombie lion… seems powerfully unlikely to end well. And later, in the miserable fates of the civilians who fall under the ‘protection’ of Colonel Schow and the National Guard, we’re left with vision of a world where it’s not just the living dead that are driving the handcart to hell.
The comparison there is interesting, actually. Keene’s zombies (the Siqqusim) can talk - and talk they do, explaining who they are and what they do. They’re also smart enough to use weapons, though they struggle with physical coordination. This again feels like a departure from other stories in this genre, and adds a new layer of menace to a familiar threat. At the same time, these creatures are cosmic Others - they do what they do because it is what they do. Though they exhibit cruelty and malice, it also seems clear from what they say that this is the only way they can exist in the world. They are evil, in other words, but that evil is baked into their nature, an irreducible core of what they are.
The soldiers, on the other hand - some of whom we visit with, as the narrative unfolds, third person close, sharing their thoughts - rationalise their treatment of the civilians they ‘liberate’ (enslave would be a more accurate word) in a kind of cod-Darwinian ‘might makes right’ code. Like gangsters, they offer ‘protection’ in exchange for, well, anything they want, basically. In the process they develop a cruel caste system, with the men in uniform getting the prime cuts of any spoils or materials, and the citizenry left with whatever scraps fall from the table.
It’s brutal stuff, and Keene doesn’t shy away from that brutality, including sexual violence. I found some of these moments to be genuinely shocking and unsettling - especially from the pen of a man I know served in the US Navy himself. At the same time, there’s a terrible plausibility to it all - once the wheels really come off, after all, what’s to stop the men with the guns and the training writing whatever rulebook they want?
It’s as the book develops, and our protagonists get trapped between the remorseless wheels of these two equally vicious but antagonistic forces, that the dread really kicks into overdrive, along with the pacing. The last third of the book really does feel like an elevator with the cable snapped and the brakes failing, and my stomach was in my mouth for much of it. Some of that is down to the characters, of course - I haven’t really gotten into that yet, but Keene has an incredible gift when it comes to crafting real people. By that, I mean flawed, damaged, sometimes even broken protagonists, but also, more importantly, I mean characters who ring true. The dialogue, internal and external, and the actions all flow organically, and feel like authentic responses to the situations these poor sods find themselves in. It’s the kind of thing that it’s easy to take for granted, but trust me, once you’ve read it done badly, you start to appreciate just what a gift it is to be able to do it well - and Keene does it as well as anyone, I think.
He also has a flair for action - again, something easy to undervalue, but incredibly hard to do well - and there are sections of the finale as fluid and exciting as a big budget action movie. The climax of the book is exhilarating, terrifying, and brutal, and Keene resolutely refuses to let anyone have an easy ride - especially not the reader.
I guess I should touch on the ending, briefly - apparently, many people felt the book had an ambiguity to how the finale played out. I have to say, I don’t see it - although the final scene between Jim and his son is played out off camera, as it were, it seemed obvious to me what had happened. I wonder about that, too - I wonder if, as a father of a young child himself when the book was written, maybe Keene just couldn't quite bring himself to take us into that house for the denouement. I certainly wouldn’t blame him if that was the case.
As I think back on The Rising (at time of writing, I finished it about a month ago), I think most of all I’m struck by just how much Keene bleeds onto the page. It’s a little tricky, this, as I’m basing that partly on information I’ve gleaned elsewhere - both from his podcast and The Girl on the Glider - but it feels to me that, especially with the central quest, Keene himself is all over the character of Jim Thurmond, and his quest to recover his son. Similarly, the emotions Jim experiences around his divorce and the limited contact he has with his child is a nerve so raw it’s practically bleeding. I don’t mean, to be clear, that it’s self indulgent, or lapses into either cheap sentiment or raging misogyny. Rather, I mean that these passages have a searing, unflinching authenticity that practically burn up the page.
And I think that’s the quality I come back to the most; authenticity. It’s a dangerous word, I realise - painfully open to interpretation, and the poor bugger labeled with it forever after faced with the inevitable cry of ‘sell out!’ should they ever stray from some reader-imposed ‘true path’- but I can find no better word to describe Keene’s work in The Rising. This is a harsh, often ugly book, with many unflattering things to say about the human condition, and a sense of terminal doom that escalates throughout to a brutal crescendo. It is utterly unflinching and unsparing. And in many places, it’s downright nasty, and not just, or even mainly, because of the zombies.
Still, there’s a ring of truth to it. In the characters, in their voices, in how they react and act, live and die. In the choices they make. They ring plausible. They ring true. And so does the whole book. There’s the crackling energy of angry youth here (and sure, some of the excesses of that condition, too), but at it’s heart, this feels like a very honest book. It feels like Keene looked inside, saw what was there, and then put it on the page as best he could.
So, yeah, I kinda loved The Rising. And I’m excited as hell to have taken my first step on this journey.