When is a zombie novel not a zombie novel? That's a question that horror fans have been arguing over since the undead first crawled out the grave. It is a matter that has thrown up some great debate over the years. Personally, I'm of the opinion that it doesn't matter, the only real issue is "is it a good book?"
Paul Kane's The ROT, the latest Horrific Tales premium novella series, is certainly a zombie novella by any other name. The world has gone to rot, both literally and figuratively thanks to some unknown pathogen that has the dual effect of turning all those it infects into crazed self-mutilating rampant killing machines reduced to their most animalistic nature. Where the tribalism of humanity has been reduced to the most basic pack mentality, with hordes of the rotted hunting out the last few remaining survivors of the human race.
The pathogen also has a secondary effect, as well as rotting that which makes us human it also rots everything it touches, machinery fails, wood rots, food spoils quicker than it should, the world is falling apart the seams. Standing alone against the Rot is Adam Keller, an ex-test pilot for the Air Force, who after a near fatal accident now test highly sensitive and experimental technology for the military. His latest test subject is the only reason he has escaped the rot, an experimental survival suit/exoskeleton called SKIN. SKIN has effectively sealed him off from the outside world, bonded to his body like a proverbial skin, he is a prisoner in his own body. The suit forms a complete barrier to the outside world, it filters the and recycles the air that he breathes, and more worryingly the very food he eats. Adam never needs to eat as the suit reclaims everything that he processed before being sealed in and refeeds it to him in a neverending cycle of poop food.
Adam must battle both the hordes of the changed the battles of being a man alone in the world and psychological struggles of losing those who become close to him, in a world gone to total rot and ruin in the quest to find sanctuary.
THE ROT is a powerful, and disturbing novel told in the diary style with Adam making vocal diary entries in a log. Initially, this form of narrative is a little jarring, due to the protagonist's voice. However, once the reader clicks with his voice, everything falls into place and becomes one of the many highlights of the novella. Writing a novella which is so heavy in dialogue is a task not to be taken lightly. In many cases the dialogue either doesn't ring true due to the speaker not sounding natural, and sounding more like a writer writing dialogue. You know the sort of book, where the "average Joe" protagonist comes across sounding like someone with a doctorate in English Language Studies. Kane has found the perfect balance between making Adam seem like a real person, while not dragging the narrative pace down with dialogue that sounds too native. The personal nature of the story allows us to bond with Adam and feel his plight as he struggles to find salvation. Every move he makes we are there side by side with him rooting for him, hoping that he finds what he is looking for.
Kane expertly introduces us to secondary characters throughout the story and we feel the pain that Adam feels as their fates are laid down on the page. There is a section near the end of the novella that is truly heartbreaking, and the narrative stye of the book adds an extra layer of emotional depth to an already emotive section.
As befits an apocalyptic story THR ROT is filled with scenes of extreme carnage, this is not a book for the faint of heart. There is a lot of really unpleasant nastiness going on here, but Kane never loses sight of the human element of the story amid the destruction on show here. With nods to many zombie sources and in wonderful tip off the hat to Matheson's I AM LEGEND, THE ROT is a novel that successfully gets beneath the skin of the genre and takes a thoughtful look at what makes us tick as human beings.
If you are looking for a zombie novel that does something different then this is the perfect book for you, even if you have to take a deep breath at some of the dodgy science on show here, but hey it wouldn't be a good zombie novel without some dodgy science would it?