Body Farm Z
If all zombie apocalypse books were of the high quality exhibited by Deborah Sheldon’s Body Farm Z then the genre as a whole would be in a far better place than it is at the moment, as moribund, lifeless and bloated as an actual undead corpse. After being highly impressed by the novelette she had published with Demain Publishing, the chilling, twisted and incredibly weird Hand to Mouth, I was intrigued to see what else she had written. I was delighted to see that she had had several novels published by another of my favourite publishers, Severed Press, those ever-reliable purveyors of zombie, cryptid and dinosaur-related apocalyptic novels. I have several of them marked down as novels to be read and reviewed later on, but one caught my eye immediately because of its eye-catching cover and strange title. I was vaguely aware of the nature of body farms – isolated, secure and often secretive locations where forensic pathologists monitor and study decaying corpses in the hopes of gleaning information that might aid in particularly difficult or gruesome police investigations. I didn’t know that much about them, but using one as the location for a zombie apocalypse novel seemed like exactly the sort of imaginative and original angle required to stand out in the genre, and I was already aware that Sheldon was an absolutely phenomenal horror writer. It therefore seemed like exactly the sort of title to help ease me back into the horror genre as a whole, and I was excited to start reading.
Rather like Alister Hodge’s excellent Plague War series (which remains at the top of my ‘Urgently need to find time to write up my review’ list), Sheldon’s novel is set in Australia, a welcome change in location when you consider that approximately 99% of zombie apocalypse novels are set either in the UK or the United States. The Victorian Taphonomic Experimental Research Institute, or VITERI, is the focus of the novel; a huge facility sequestered away in the middle of nowhere, its exact coordinates a closely guarded secret and its collection of buildings and acres of decaying bodies guarded by high walls and the sort of gates found in high-security prisons. It’s a distinctly grim and foreboding location, consisting of a small cluster of administrative and bunk buildings for those staying at the facility, and then acre after acre of carefully-maintained grounds dedicated to dozens of dead bodies in various stages of decay and erosion. Some are naked, some are fully clothed, others have been placed in specific locations or restricted in some manner to replicate a certain manner of decay; and while many of the corpses are human donors, they’re outnumbered by the dead pigs, a species close enough to humans to be worth studying for necrotic effects. From the very first page of the novel, Sheldon begins developing a certain, unique atmosphere for VITERI, one that follows us as readers through the novel, and permeates the entire narrative. Here is a place where every aspect of death is closely monitored, catalogued, measured and utilised as data, rotting bodies existing alongside sensors and cameras and a dedicated band of scientists and maintenance staff. Death is quite literally the business – the sole business – of VITERI and its staff, and Sheldon deftly illustrates just what a role can do to a person; and how each character in the novel adapts in a unique manner to working alongside rotting corpses. It all makes for a deeply fascinating and compelling setting, and is one of the reasons why Body Farm Z is so successful compared to its many competitors.
The key to why the setting is so engaging becomes obvious within the first few chapters of the novel: the sheer amount of research that Sheldon must have conducted into the business of body farms, the science fields around how how they operate, and a cornucopia of related issues, such as the research that is conducted by the staff and visiting researchers, and police investigations that require use of the corpses kept and studied by the body farm. The time that Sheldon spent on that research pays off in spades when combined with her skillful writing and prodigious imagination, as things that might have been incredibly dull in another author’s hands – such as the transport and setting up of corpses into the body farm – become integral to the tense atmosphere that develops throughout the novel. In addition, it felt like I finished the novel with a huge amount of in-depth knowledge about body farms and its operations, and how it cooperates with agencies like police forces; it’s all flawlessly integrated into the story, and is yet another reason why Body Farm Z is such a bloody good read.
The setting is engaging, the research helps make the plot become engaging and believable (as far as zombie apocalypses are of course) and the writing is absolutely top-notch throughout the novel. But those individual elements wouldn’t work very well without high-quality characters and suitably terrifying zombies, and Sheldon is more than capable of delivering both. For the latter, the undead are imbued with a real sense of dread, Sheldon using their uniquely-decayed nature to create a genuine sense of stomach-churning terror, especially in regards to the undead pigs and other animals that suddenly come back to life and start consuming the unwary human inhabitants of VITERI. I particularly enjoyed the utter alien nature of the undead mammals and birds, especially the fearsome red kangeroo that proves a particularly lethal opponent; the Australian wildlife in particular act as another original and unique element of the novel.
The quality imbued in the undead is matched in regards to the cast of characters in the novel, all of them being distinct and fully fleshed-out individuals to a remarkable degree, even those who are killed off early in the outbreak. Sheldon creates a set of men and women who are all intimately connected to VITERI and make for interesting protagonists and occasionally antagonists; I particularly enjoyed the two detectives who travel to the body farm to try and solve a long-standing unsolved murder, a particularly grisly one that only VITERI could help resolve. In fact, such was the level of detail that Sheldon put into that subplot, and with such emotion and vigour, that I would genuinely have read a straight murder-mystery that followed the two characters and their investigation.
I don’t usually mention endings to novels for fear of spoiling anything, and I’ll refrain from spoiling anything for the ending of Body Farm Z specifically, but I absolutely have to mention that the way Sheldon wraps up the novel has to rank up there with the best in the genre. It’s the culmination of excellent characterisation and a fast-paced, incredibly tense plot; but also a carefully curated sense of ambiguity as to whether the undead outbreak has been focused solely on the VITERI facility, or has in fact spread further afield. It’s an utterly nail-biting last few pages, and I’ve agonized ever since over whether I desperately want a sequel, or want to keep the perfection of those closing paragraphs. It really is utterly fantastic, never setting a foot even vaguely wrong, and that truly sums up Body Farm Z for me. Perfectly paced, intensely atmospheric, gory in all the right places and with just the right level of blood splatter, and with a real heart that speaks to the amount of time, skill and passion that Sheldon poured into it, Body Farm Z is what the zombie apocalypse genre should aim for; and I can only hope that Sheldon revisits the undead as subject matter, whether it’s in the Body Farm Z universe or not.