Venturing into the zombie apocalypse genre at the moment is, quite frankly, something of a crap shoot. As I scan through the listings on the Amazon Kindle marketplace, browsing the endless numbers of undead novels, novellas, anthologies and individual short stories, they all start to blur together. There’s usually a zombie of some kind on the cover, flesh peeling away, arms raised menacingly towards the reader; or perhaps it’s the backpack-hefting back of our grizzled white, straight, veteran/cop/prepper protagonist, ready to strive determinedly into the coming apocalypse. The blurbs tend to be the same generic text as well – there’s only so many times that I can read about Generic Protagonist having to traverse the shattered remnants of the United States (it’s always the United States) to save his wife/ex-wife/children/siblings before the flesh-eaters consume them before my eyes cross and I lose higher brain function.
So that’s why author W.J. Hegarty’s The Roaming grabbed my attention and refused to let me go as I scrolled through my social media feed and saw the cover art for it and its sequel, The Roaming: The Toll. The illustration for each novel, by artist Edward Moran, is striking, gorgeously abstract, and entirely memorable; they look like old-fashioned movie posters, with their broad use of blocks of colour and artful blending of individual elements. Take the cover for The Roaming: you first see the browns, reds, oranges and yellows of the trees that form the backdrop of an isolated cabin, then the cabin itself, and only after several seconds do you see the shambling corpses at the very top of the image. I saw the illustrations and knew I had to review both novels, almost regardless of the content; although fortunately the back-cover blurb matched the illustrations for piquing my curiosity. The novel follows Captain Miller, a US Army officer, as he leads the remnants of his unit out of undead Philadelphia and tries to find somewhere to make a stand. I rather liked that – the military usually feature as a background element to zombie apocalypse novels, and rarely as the central feature, and I was reminded of the excellent The Retreat series by Craig DiLouie and his colleagues; by far the best series I have read and not yet reviewed on this blog.
Given all of that I was overjoyed to receive review copies of both novels, and after basking again in those cover illustrations, I cracked open The Roaming and dived yet again into a hellish zombie apocalypse, with rather more relish than I usually did. Hegarty certainly develops a varied and interesting array of characters – within only a few pages we already have Captain Miller, two Israeli Defence Force liaison officers, as well as a pair of distinctly incompetent Greek-American mobsters. While the officers deal with rising unease and outright rioting in Philadelphia, the mobsters discover that the undead have already made it into the distant backwater villages and forests of the Eastern Seaboard. The undead begin to spread throughout the major cities and then towards the smaller towns and villages, and Hegarty paints an all too realistic and depressing scenario of desperate resistance combined with government inertia paired with violent overreaction, which in turn only helps the spread of panic and the infected themselves.
Having concisely laid out the downfall of swathes of the continental United States, Hegarty then begins to shift focus onto the small rural town of Pepperbush, and their attempts to barricade themselves (literally and metaphorically) from the infected and refugees fleeing the chaos. He deftly highlights the many problems that such a town would face – not only the infected, and refugees, but also how to build a defendable perimeter, as well as the losses of those residents who would not be able to bear the mental strain of the apocalypse. There’s also a brewing conflict between the Mayor and his thugs, and local security forces trying to keep the undead out. Throw in some clashes between locals who find themselves removed from the usual legal, social and moral constraints of pre-apocalyptic society, and you have an explosive and highly engaging background for the undead chaos that Hegarty slowly and skilfully unleashes upon the citizens of Pepperbush and those who manage reach the dubious safety of its defences.
The plot moves along smoothly, aided by a current of underlying tension as it becomes obvious that the masses of undead that swamped the nearby cities will not magically miss Pepperbush, and Hegarty really brings to life the barely-restrained chaos that would be unleashed in a poorly-defended and underprepared rural town that’s seen major urban centres fall despite being heavily defended. It’s actually rather nice to have a local focus on the zombie apocalypse, rather than the usual country-spanning or globetrotting storylines of so many titles in this genre, and that emphasis is one of the reasons that makes The Roaming such an intriguing and engaging novel. In addition, there’s a diverse and fascinating cast of characters all of whom react in a variety of expected and unexpected ways to the coming zombie apocalypse, making an enjoyably chaotic blend as the tension rises and the town eventually comes under siege. The undead themselves, although only present in ones and twos until the last few chapters of the novel, are well-represented; Hegarty gets across the inherent danger of even a single shambling, inexorable corpse assaulting a town, and that’s only multiplied when they begin to amass in real numbers. There’s even some nice descriptions of the physical decay of the zombies, something that often gets overlooked in similar titles; the author really brings to life just how much these creatures would deteriorate after death, and how fearsome they would become as a result.
The Roaming concludes with an intense, adrenaline-pumping ending that sees tens of thousands of undead assault Pepperbush while its citizens and military defenders desperately fend them off, creating what is effectively a literary cliff-hanger that makes the reader want to do nothing more than dive into the next book; which, fortunately, is also available, and you can guarantee that I’ll be reviewing The Roaming: The Toll on this blog before too long. Tense, chilling and masterfully written with a thoughtful and engaging plot, The Roaming is another first-rate example of the type of novel that the zombie apocalypse genre so desperately needs to reinvigorate its rotting flesh and sluggish pace. Mr Hegarty has definitively made his mark with his debut novel, and I will be following his writing career with great interest to see what he does next; I suspect that editors and publishers in the genre would be doing themselves and their readers a great service by doing the same.