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.
2. City of the Dead
Written alongside Terminal, City of the Dead is a direct sequel to The Rising. In the foreword to the Deadite Press Author's Preferred Text edition of CotD, Keene with typical candor explains that initially, this was the book he didn’t want to write. As he’d said in his introduction to The Rising, though a lot of reader feedback for that novel complained that the end was ambiguous, he felt it was pretty clear that Jim and his son were dead (with Frankie and Martin likely not far behind), and he didn’t want to go back to it.
As I noted in my previous essay, about The Rising, I can see his point. Certainly the ending of the book didn’t feel ambiguous to me, and it wasn’t immediately clear to me where another novel length story was going to come from. Perhaps more fundamentally, given the emotional state The Rising was written under (”I wrote it as a form of therapy… quite frankly, I wrote it to keep from killing myself...” - The Horror Show with Brian Keene, Episode 6), you can see how Keene might not have been relishing returning to that world and it’s characters - especially as he also had Terminal vying for his attention (and indeed he wrote both novels at the same time - Terminal in the mornings, CotD in the afternoons).
That said, he also notes that once the writing got underway, he increasingly found himself caught up in the narrative of City of the Dead. He also discusses his ‘pantser’ approach to writing novels, with a premise, opening sentence, and a vague idea of the finale - other than that, he’s making it up as he goes along. He describes his growing pleasure with discovering the novel on the page, and how looking back, it was one of the most fun writing experiences of his career.
Jim Mcleod, editor in chief for Gingernuts of Horror, describes City of the Dead like this:
The City of the Dead proved that Keene's zombies were probably the most important development in the zombie genre for our generation. And cemented Keene's place in the pantheon of writers we should be paying attention to.
As for me - I had a blast. Again.
I wasn’t expecting to, to be honest. I can be quite militant about stories ending at natural break points. I was a big Buffy fan back in the day, but I’ve only seen seasons 6 and 7 once, and looking back, I wish that I hadn’t bothered - the finale of Season 5 was written as the show closer, and it works perfectly as that. And my position on RoboCop sequels is even more militant. Given that, and my feelings about the ending of The Rising, I shared Keene’s antipathy about returning to these characters. But that feeling melted away almost instantly once I started turning the pages.
You can almost feel Keene’s enthusiasm catch on the page, as the book unfolds. The action in the first third of the book is relentless, as Frankie, Martin, Jim and Danny try, with the help of neighbour Don, to escape from the trap they’ve backed themselves into. Set piece flows into set piece, with the same cinematic qualities and flare of the last third of The Rising, albeit on a smaller scale - though interestingly, despite that, the stakes feel higher, as I’d come to really care about these characters by this point.
A particular highlight for me was the moment the cast have to cross to the attic window of the neighbour’s house across a ladder, while the zombies (some of them armed, remember) swarm below.
It’s a classic movie scene, and Keene put me right there, heart in mouth, as the characters made their way across - and when Danny made the mistake of looking down, and froze at the halfway mark, I was far too caught up in the sweaty tension of the moment to be worried about the relatively predictable nature of the event.
Sidebar: I’m only three books in (including Clickers), but one thing I’m already discovering; for me, as a reader, I’m far less bothered by cliche than I might have supposed. Because the freeze-halfway-across thing is an absolute staple of pulp storytelling, be it action or horror. What I’m learning is simply this; that doesn't bother me, as long as the story is well told and I believe in and care about the characters. Because an eight year old freezing in that moment of existential dread may be predictable, and dramatically useful, but it’s also, well, realistic. Not only did the moment not bother me, I was totally caught up in it, freaking out right along with Jim, and hoping like hell Danny wasn’t going to end up in that pool. It’s only now, a month or so later as I sit to write about the experience, that it’s occured to me that this was an absolute stock horror/action moment.
There’s probably a lesson about storytelling in there somewhere.
In the event, it’s Frankie that ends up taking the unscheduled high dive, and I gotta tell you, I was pissed about that. Frankie became one of my favourite fictional characters somewhere between her escape from the Zoo and her cold turkey session in the sewers - but at the same time, this is my second Brina Keene novel, and I know damn well he could quite happily kill her off. It’s an enormous strength of the storytelling, as I think back on the novel, actually - in The Rising Keene makes it clear that no-one is safe, and it gives sustained action sequences like this one a considerable extra layer of bite (pun intended).
It’s also a brilliant bit of misdirection, as Frankie takes injury after injury, seemingly fatally wounded… and then it’s Martin who is killed as the car crashes. The moment worked well for me, underlining the peril the group were facing, and of course Jim having to smash the head of his friend in with a rock as he turns is a reminder of the merciless nature of The Rising’s world.
I really cannot emphasise enough how ferocious the pacing is in this sequence, especially following the car crash. The peril is enormous and sustained, for a second almost convincing me that Danny was going to get ripped apart, and Frankie’s back-from-the-dead intervention was a pure punch-the-air moment (did I mention she’s my favourite yet?) The desperate scramble to the parking garage, the last minute rooftop rescue… It’s just pure adrenaline, and by the time the characters were pulled aboard the chopper, I was almost as out of breath as they were.
Two other narrative strands also develop as this sequence unfolds. The first is the reintroduction of Ob, a leader of the Sissquim, who featured prominently in The Rising. His initial sequence I wasn’t wild about - his delivery of a gloating monologue to a captive prisoner, explaining more about the Sissquim and their background, felt like a clumsy info dump to me - especially with Ob having become a POV character. I’d have prefered to learn his background more organically, perhaps as internal dialogue as he planned his next move. It’s particularly annoying because the mythos itself is such an interesting one, and I wished there had been a more elegant way to introduce it.
That said, the loss of Ob’s body, and his subsequent locating of a new host (during which we learn how that process works, and Ob gets an update on the global progress of the Sissquim) worked well for me, and his subsequent plans to complete the purge of New York City felt appropriately sinister - and, of course, neatly and plausibly put him back on a collision course with Jim and his people.
And then there’s the small matter of Ramsey Towers.
Again, in the intro to the book, Keene discusses the similarity between his setting of Ramsey Towers and the plot of Romeo’s Land of the Dead. And his basic explanation is, hey, it was 2005 - with Bush starting his second term, the founding of the DHS and the Patriot act, megalomaniac American despots (albeit paternalistic ones), with dead eyed second-in-commands who wielded most of the real power and smarts were very much the order of the day.
But I have to say, reading this in 2017, having a eponymous tower in New York, owned by a billionaire with a tendicy to masterbate while staring out of his top floor office window at the city below, utterly delusional and convinced of his own brilliance, even as the entire world crumbles around him… was it Twain who said ‘history may not repeat, but it does rhyme’? Because, damn.
Anyhow, leaving aside the genuinely unsettling effect of reading a book written in 2005 that nonetheless seems to be a dead-on satire of the 45 President of the USA and his isolationist fantasies, there’s so much to enjoy in the setup. The legend of the ‘impenetrable’ tower, at least according to its owner (even as his number 2 is more clear eyed) serves as a nice thematic microcosm for the mythos as a whole - a small, fragile chink of light and warmth we call society, surrounded by a consuming darkness that could sweep it all away at any moment (and also, the meaning of The Tower as a symbol in tarot) - but also works well on its own terms. The idea that someone post 9/11 would want to build a siege-and-bomb-proof tower in Manhattan rings plausible (especially a billionaire real estate developer - would he’d gotten the idea before forming an exploratory committee, and yeah, okay, I’ll stop now). The power dynamic between delusional Ramsey and hyper competent Bates is quickly established, as is the atmosphere of a fragile, frighteningly vulnerable order barely holding together.
Similarly, seeing Jim and the gang explore the community that’s rescued them, Jim in particular feeling his way around the edges of it, trying without being impolite to see what’s really going on, is well told, and the Jim/Danny relationship is just heartbreakingly well drawn. The situation is a parenting nightmare, and I found it affecting to see Jim trying to negotiate the impossible task of helping his son prepare for life in this new world, while still needing him to be a kid, as much as possible. It really is possible to see the outline of the Carl and Rick relationship from The Walking Dead being sketched out here, albeit in a more compressed form, and the whole sequence rings painfully true.
As with the climax to The Rising, I was really impressed by how well the final third of the novel flowed. Keene deftly introduces elements - the truly twisted doctor and his captive zombie, the increasing morale problems with the guards, Ob’s gathering of his forces and planning, and the power struggle at the very top between Ramsey and Bates - and weaves them together deftly, switching between groups to heighten the sense of dread and impending violence. It’s really skillful storytelling, particularly when you consider it was for the most part being discovered on the page.
And when the dam bursts, the onslaught is every bit the equal of the previous finale - action packed, relentless, and brutal. Again, Keene’s flair for cinematic action is put to great effect, relentlessly chewing through characters (often literally) as the dwindling band of survivors makes a last desperate bid to escape via the sewers. Again, I’m reminded what I love most about good pulp entertainment - this commitment to utterly command my attention as a reader, through sheer force of incident, character, action - and what a joy it is to read, done well.
The final confrontation with Jim and Ob is suitably high stakes, and Jim’s sacrifice to save his son feels earned, especially knowing Danny will have Frankie to protect him. That said, I did find the coda ending hard to take. I can’t argue with it in narrative terms - it’s the right, probably the only real ending the story can have, and at least Danny and Frankie get to go out relatively quick - but it still landed like a suckerpunch in the moment. It’s early days, but it feels like with both this book and The Rising, there’s a nihilism at the core of Keene’s work - a notion, crudely, that we’re all fucked, and that our journey to our final destination is unlikely to be peaceful or pleasant.
That makes for uncomfortable reading, at times. But it also makes for great horror. And City of the Dead is another great pulp action horror novel - brimming with thrills and spills, blood and guts - and also a raw humanity, real characters in impossibly bleak circumstances, pushed beyond any reasonable limit and making the best choices they can.
It’s pulp, sure - in the best possible meaning of the term. But it’s also got a lot of heart, and so far, that’s what elevates Keenes work, for me.
I look forward to seeing if that theme continues in Terminal.
check out the other entries in this series