Take a moment to imagine a pop culture alternate history scenario with me for a moment. Take George A. Romero, legendary director of horror films like Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead and many, many more. A man who defined the zombie horror genre in film, and influenced it for decades afterwards. Let’s find him at the height of his film-making prowess – maybe in the late 1970s or early 1980s, in between Dawnand Day. What if, while focusing on his other horror projects (like Creepshow and Monkey Shines) Romero had experienced a particularly intense fever dream after watching a late-night showing of The Empire Strikes Back? Maybe it was also back-to-back with Galactica 1980, and he’d also caught the latest serial of Blakes 7 in the afternoon before going to the cinema? Waking up groggy from the fever-dream, he begins furiously scribbling into a notepad he left on his bedside cabinet, suddenly inspired to write a stand-alone zombie film set in the darkest depths of space.
If that film were to be transcribed into the format of a book, then I do believe that it would look almost exactly the same as Xinners, the latest title by author Wayne Simmons and published by Infected Books. The cover blurb for the novel describes it as “ZOMBIES IN SPACE, baby” and that really is one of the most accurate and succinct summations of a title that I have ever come across. A rag-tag crew of bounty-hunters decide to try and pick up some easy money by killing a target in a scummy planet-side bar on a distant colony and collecting the bounty, only for one of their number to antagonise a group of marauders by deciding to rescue the dancer the marauders were targeting. Fleeing through space, their damaged ship winds up taking them to a deserted system populated by a mysterious, deserted mining vessel. Desperate for supplies they board it, only to find that the crew have succumbed to some kind of virus or plague that has turned them into a horde of flesh-eating undead. Soon they’re hip-deep in space zombies, blood and gore, and a corporate conspiracy as they try and survive long enough to repair their ship and flee.
I’ve read a few stories by Wayne Simmons previously, primarily the material he contributed to Infected Book’s excellent undead anthology, Year of the Dead. I was impressed by both his writing style and the imagination displayed in his stories, and was glad to see that both have transferred to a longer piece of fiction such as Xinners. That imagination is fully on display here, and he is able to effortlessly transfer that onto the page; the opening chapter in Helo, a sleazy bar/strip-club on the colony of Dardga, is fantastically atmospheric, Simmons instantly conjuring up something that seems like an even grimmer and more dangerous version of the Mos Eisley Cantina. There’s a range of alien species on display in the club, as patrons, bar-tenders and the crew of marauders, and they’re easily some of the most interesting I’ve encountered in a while, Simmons achieving in a few carefully-chosen words what would take a crew of makeup artists to achieve on film. A particularly good example are the Stokians, the marauders chasing our protagonists; a race of tall, bony aliens who dress in close-fitting rubber suits to compensate for a rumoured lack of body fat, they’re easy to imagine as the kind of alien that Romero might have developed with an eye on horror and budget, and Simmons descriptions of them are genuinely unnerving at times. The fact that their spaceship is, essentially, a giant skull only makes them creepier, and is exactly the sort of weird, pulpy influence that I can imagine Romero showcasing in a sci-fi horror film.
The protagonists, the crew of the corvette Oz, are also a well-defined little group. Although they fall into the tropes of the genre – the intelligent, slightly untrustworthy leader, the loyal and lethal warrior-woman, the charismatic and world-weary front-man – Simmons is able to flesh them out over the course of the story to ensure that they don’t just become two-dimensional characters you’re impatiently waiting to see be devoured by zombies. Simmons has a particularly good eye for dialogue and character interactions, and after only a few pages you readily get the sense that this little band have been together for a long time, playing off of each other and working just well enough to pull in money to survive without really prospering. It reminded me of the crew of the Firefly, that simultaneous combination of camaraderie from sharing so many escapades together, and just the slightest hint that, if the offer were good enough, each of them might be tempted to turn on the others. The character of Xin, the mysterious dancer rescued from being captured (and presumably killed) by the Stokians was particularly interesting and noteworthy; Simmons slowly developers her character, taking her from simple dancer to someone with strange and worrying powers, and uses her to throw the relationships between the rest of the crew into chaos and create a new power dynamic.
The writing is excellent, the characterisations written with a keen eye, and there some fantastic imagination in play – but what about the horror? What about the zombies? Well, they don’t take too long to show up, and once they do the novel goes full-on Romero, blood and guts being thrown left, right and centre. There are times when you can really see the Romero influence to an extent that I half-expected to witness Tom Savini throwing buckets of fake intestines onto the floor; and there are several scenes that replicate the shock and nausea brought on by the infamous death of Captain Rhodes in Day of the Dead. In fact, there’s a scene about half-way through the novel, as Rev and the others are moving through the ships’ chapel that seems like it was directly sourced from Romero’s brain. Simmons’ horror-writing pedigree is very clear when the zombies are ‘on-screen’ – they’re fast, blood-spattered and terrifying, and the author doesn’t hesitate to provide enough flesh-biting, throat-tearing violence to sate even the most hardcore of zombie fans.
The whole of Xinners is fast-paced, Simmons just leaving enough time between action scenes to sufficiently develop the over-arching plot, which is itself a great homage to classic horror and sci-fi films, in particular Aliens with similar overtones of corporate greed and focus on the profit-line over the lives of its employees. There’s also some excellent universe-building, which is often quite subtle and helps to make everything a little more grounded and believable; from the DNA-scanner onboard the Oz which the crew use to confirm a bounty, to the references to some kind of conflict between Earth and its colonies, not to mention the casual xenophobia between humans and aliens, this is obviously a universe that Simmons has been planning in detail, and I look forward to see how it’s developed in future publications.
Unabashedly pulpy, deftly written with some impressive world-building, and featuring enough blood, gore, zombies and action scenes to satisfy any reader in the horror or undead genres, I cannot recommend Xinners enough. It’s also another impressive publication from Infected Books, who look to be fast becoming one of the leaders in publishing imaginative and high-quality horror and zombie fiction, and another great horror title from the pen of Wayne Simmons.