Where The Dead Go To Die
Crystal Lake Publishing
Aaron Dries and Mark Allan Gunnells
I will readily admit that I have something of a soft-spot for the zombie horror genre, and it’s a rare occasion when I don’t have one or two titles downloaded to my Kindle so that I can read them in between horror or alternate history books. At its best, a zombie horror title will make use of the living dead – in whatever particular iteration – to highlight the horror that comes from the disintegration of human society, and having to fight not only against the disintegration of human social mores after the fall of law and order, but also the anonymous horde of undead that attack, relentlessly and in almost unlimited numbers. Unfortunately, in my experience there are now very few titles that have managed to locate an original take on the structure and tropes of the genre; instead, the vast majority simply take the easiest path, following an individual survivor, or perhaps a group, as they struggle through the post-apocalyptic landscape and fight off zombies and those uninfected who have decided to debase themselves by becoming predators. The undead will feature prominently, and there may even be some vaguely-interesting examples of how they have evolved – speed, intelligence, deformities and so forth – but they will feature only as obstacles to be eliminated or avoided, with little to no examination of the undead themselves or their situation.
These sorts of titles can be entertaining reads, but almost all of them simply fall by the wayside once I’ve finished reading them, giving them little to no thought afterwards. So it was a distinct surprise, searching through the Kindle listings one day for my next undead fix, when I came across a zombie title that not only managed to avoid all of the tropes and clichés of the genre, but had actually found an original and intelligent take on the undead apocalypse. Where The Dead Go To Die is co-authored by Aaron Dries and Mark Allan Gunnells, and is published by Crystal Lake Publishing. I’ll always pay attention to anything published by Crystal Lake, given my universally-positive experiences with their titles in the past, but once again, as with the majority of the books I review, it was the cover art that initially drew my eye scrolling through my Kindle. It’s another cracking piece of art by illustrator Ben Baldwin, who also did cover art for other Crystal Lake publications I’ve reviewed, such as William Meikle’s The Ghost Club: Newly Found Tales of Victorian Terror and the anthology Twice Upon An Apocalypse: Lovecraftian Fairy Tales. With some wonderful use of subdued colouring, a hand holds a crystal ball, through which we can see the hospice that the novel revolves around, covered in snow; blood is spattered on the street outside, and even the ball itself is shattered, allowing the cold from the ball to seep outwards into the rest of the cover, which is covered in patches of ice. It’s incredibly evocative, conjuring up the intense sense of claustrophobia and futility that are key components of the atmosphere within the book, and really sets the tone for the reader.
What I discovered, once I’d finished admiring the cover art, is that Where The Dead Go To Die is indeed a rare beast within the zombie horror genre. Not only do Dries and Gunnells posit a reality where the initial undead outbreak has eventually failed and humanity has managed to survive (albeit at an incredibly high cost, both physically and morally), but they also ask some extremely difficult questions about the nature of the undead. For in this universe, the disease has an incredibly varied infection rate, to the extent that those infected can last months, even years, before finally succumbing. Although initially killed as soon as infected, various events after the worldwide outbreak has been contained lead to laws being passed outlawing the killing of infected individuals. Instead, the Smilers – so-called because the incredibly painful progress of the disease stretches skin and muscles, particularly around the face, gradually transforming the victim’s face into a horrific, smirking mask – are cared for in hospices and care homes across the globe. The victims are left to expire naturally, monitored and cared for by an underfunded, understaffed group of nurses and carers. It’s a bold and deeply intriguing idea, and it’s one that cuts straight to the heart of the genre, daring to ask questions that so many of the titles in the genre shy away from. Is there value in the life of an infected individual? How are they dealt with? Who cares for them? What about their quality of life, and the quality of life of their loved ones? To the writers’ credit, very few of the questions they raise throughout the book are answered by the final page. Instead, the reader is left to ruminate on them alone, and I’ll readily admit I’ve yet to come up with many answers that truly satisfy me.
The plot of the story revolves around the protagonist, Emily, who joins the staff of one of these hospices in post-infection Chicago. A single mother struggling to raise her daughter, Lucette, it isn’t entirely clear why she would find employment at the hospice, when far better paying jobs are available; jobs that come with better – any – perks, and don’t have a permanent set of protestors who harass the staff and occasional visitor, haunting the immediate area and demanding the death of all of the Smilers. As she works at the hospice, we’re drawn into the lives of those who work and live in the hospice, and the authors have done a first-rate job of recreating the atmosphere of a grim and dreary hospice haunted by an atmosphere of oncoming, inevitable death and the accompanying feeling of hopelessness. There’s an engaging and diverse cast of characters, and again the authors are smart enough not to fall into many clichés; each character is sufficiently fleshed-out to be notable, and even amongst the staff there are some nice intra-character conflicts due to differing attitudes. We really get a sense myriad reasons why people would work there, underfunded, underpaid and extremely overworked, and Emily’s story arc is well-integrated in flashbacks, as we see the Smiler-related tragedy that led to her becoming widowed; and the themes of attempted redemption after tragedy, but also being doomed to repeat mistakes of the past despite her best efforts.
The Smilers themselves are another great aspect of the title, Dries and Gunnells creating a disturbing and intense form of undead that creates a low-key tension throughout the novel; although we see the Smilers constantly, it’s half-way through the book when we see the first one in the wild, attacking someone in any detail, and not until the very end of the book when we see the full, horrifying result of a Smiler fully succumbing to the disease they’re infected with. It’s an incredibly vivid and nauseating scene, particularly when the creature’s speed, and manner of feasting, is taken into consideration, and all the more so because for the majority of the time, the resident Smilers in the hospice are portrayed entirely sympathetically. The extended length of the infection, the way that muscles are draw back in the face to create the distinctive smile, the fever dreams and hallucinations – Dries and Gunnells pull no punches in how destructive this disease is, evoking emotions from the reader as a result with an intensity that is rarely found in other titles in the genre. Indeed, the authors subtly build up the atmosphere for the finale through this portrayal, particularly the plight of the young Robbie, brutally attacked by a Smiler and doomed to linger on for a little longer as a Smiler; and it’s the violent, wilfully ignorant protestors who come across as the real zombies – a mob who want nothing more than to act on impulse and wipe out those who have been infected.
Finally, there’s the interesting idea that is laced throughout the narrative, of the way in which world society has evolved as a result of the infection; or, at least, in the United States. Society has essentially become even more polarised and turned into an insular and radically conservative country, where supernatural and undead media are banned, and a mysterious ‘Ministry’ has become the sole agency allowed to finally end the lives of those Smilers who have progressed to the final stage of the infection. I would have liked to see more detail about the Ministry and the ‘Crowners’ that it sends to the hospice, but what the authors provide is both grounded, plausible and entirely chilling. The anonymous nature of the Crowners, and the way they are semi-randomly chosen when sent to attend a Smiler’s execution, really creeped me out, as did the nature of the ‘Crown’ that is used to end Smilers; they authors managed the difficult feat of imagining a device that is simultaneously realistic and yet deeply disturbing in function and operation. Even the ritualised manner of the execution is designed to be quietly unsettling, and only increased my desire to know about this agency and its background.
Intricately plotted, very well-written and with some brilliant characterisation, Where The Dead Go To Die strikes me as one of the best undead horror novels that I have ever read. The depth and breadth of imagination on display is deeply impressive, particularly in the thought that has been put into the nature of the Smilers and those that work with them, and the original nature of the setting; and Dries and Gunnells have deliberately and purposefully put a number of incredibly difficult questions to the genre that I’m unsure it’s able to answer as a whole, if it ever will be able to do so. If you want an original, engrossing and thoughtful take on the undead genre that immediately stands out from amongst its many, many competitors, then you can do no better than to purchase a copy of Where The Dead Go To Die.