Terry M West
Terry M West’s novella Transfer is one of the best pieces of weird horror fiction I’ve ever come across, and would readily rank it alongside the works of those I consider to be the master of that particular subgenre: authors like Jonathan Raab, Matthew M Bartlett and Christine Morgan. It was intense, bizarre and twisted throughout, and used the unsettling aesthetic of VHS tapes to create some thoroughly original weird horror. It provided clear evidence that West was a talented and highly imaginative horror author, and I decided to read and review more of his titles when I had the chance. When I saw on social media that he had a new novella coming out, intriguingly titled The Plumbers, I knew I had to read it and was lucky enough to receive a review copy. The cover art was delightfully bizarre, a slightly nauseating yellow background colour and vivid, blood-red font text artfully blended with two smirking, sinister-looking plumbers in the foreground and a trio of zombie-like creatures in the background. That was further supported by a back-cover blurb which promised gruesome horror and crude humour as plumbers Liam and Pierce fought to keep the infrastructure of a crumbling, post-apocalyptic society functioning in the face of undead ‘plaguers’. It certainly seemed to promise as great a journey as Transfer, if not even better, so I decided to jump in and follow along with Liam and Pierce.
We’re introduced to the two men on the morning of Friday the 13th, a year into the events that unleashed the ‘crud’, the plague that has infected much of humanity and led to them becoming the deadly, shambling ‘plaguers’. Liam and Pierce are plumbers and sanitation workers, one of many overworked and underappreciated workers who struggle on a daily basis to keep water pipes flowing and toilets from overflowing, amongst many other duties. After making their way along the motorway, now reserved only for those maintaining law and order and city infrastructure; and slowly being processed through a police checkpoint, they’re allowed into the Orange Zone, one of the more dangerous areas, where plaguers roam almost unchecked. The only place more dangerous is the Red Zone, well beyond the protective barricades and where plaguers are in control. A terrorist attack that unleashes a horde of plaguers, and an arrogant homeowner and complex plumbing job, are only the prelude to a horrifying discovery that threatens to take the lives of not only the two plumbers, but hundreds if not thousands of innocent people behind the barricades. A day that begins like any other takes on the mantle of the ‘cursed’ Friday 13th as the two plumbers are brought to the brink of death, multiple times, while also having to contend with the simultaneously depressing and terrifying realities of society a year into the apocalypse occurring.
There are layers to this novella, ones which I really didn’t understand or truly appreciate until I’d read it through a couple of times. On one level, West has given us a gory, plaguers-filled horror novel that at times acts like a literary B-Movie, with hordes of undead biting and devouring any uninfected people that they can find, and brutal action scenes that see plenty of blood and lead being spilled, especially towards the end of the narrative. It meshes well with that lurid piece of cover art, and if read solely as that then The Plumbers certainly provides a highly entertaining read. Yet there is far, far more to it than mere blood ‘n guns, because there are other issues to consider as one reads the novella. One of the most interesting things West does with the novella is present us with what I can only describe as a far more pragmatic, working-class view of the plaguers and the ongoing degradation of society as Liam and Pierce go about their job. To an extent, they neither know nor care whether the plaguers are truly undead, or merely so ill and insane that they effectively become zombies; regardless of overly-bureaucratic government-mandated questions, the two men know that the plaguers are lethal, and need to be put down regardless of any wider philosophical questions. They have a ground-level view of the plague and its victims, and have a more limited understanding of its causes and effects (smartly West avoids the usual tired and stale trope of discussing how the plague broke out) but ultimately don’t care because they have a job to do. It’s a dirty, difficult and poorly compensated job that is nonetheless crucial to the survival of society, and that is what they focus on – doing the job, getting out alive, going back to their families and hobbies. But on yet another level, when Liam and Pierce do discuss the plague and its effects on society in general, and their own lives specifically, there are some fascinating, Romero-esque philosophical conversations around the inevitability of the plaguer apocalypse, and whether society deserved it,which gives the novella a rather haunting atmosphere that lingers long after you’ve finished actually reading it.
In addition to that excellent atmosphere and the deft, carefully-plotted narrative that constantly drives the story along without any pointless diversions or dead-ends, West provides us with two absolutely first-rate characters who you’ll quickly grow to appreciate given the usual shallowness of protagonists in the zombie apocalypse genre. Liam and Pierce immediately strike you as fully fleshed-out people, rather than the usual humdrum two-dimensional characters found in the genre, easily meshing together in a way that demonstrates how long they’ve worked together, and the bonds they’ve forged both during the apocalypse and their work beforehand. They have a fantastic level of banter that flows between them, a mixture of cod-philosophy, dirty jokes (supremely well executed) and more mundane subjects like family and hobbies, even the latter being stained by the existence of the plaguers and the uncertain nature of existence. West presents us with two old friends who have comfortably settled into a groove, inside and outside of their truck, successfully completing extremely dangerous jobs because of how well they work together. There’s a focus on the little things they do to try and make life bearable, like a book club or beloved takeaway joint, or long-running crude jokes that are funnier because of the company than the actual content. It all comes across as real and unforced, to an extent that I’ve rarely seen in any of the innumerable competitors in the genre, and Liam and Pierce are one of the main reasons to purchase the novella.
The Plumbers provides us with a worker’s view of the apocalypse, an almost unique viewpoint long neglected by the genre, and therefore an invaluable addition to it. The real heroes of the apocalypse aren’t the survivalists and preppers in their bunkers, or the grizzled veteran who becomes The Chosen One for the remnants of humanity. As West so deftly demonstrates throughout the novella, it’s the workers like Liam and Pierce who keep the taps running and the lights on no matter what. That’s what makes The Plumbers so effective, and made the novella resonate with me to a degree rarely seen in the zombie apocalypse genre; this isn’t a grand adventure that spans a country or the entire globe, with far-reaching consequences. Instead it’s the story of two blokes doing their best during the worst period on human history, and then trying to get back to their families and what remains of their lives. It’s a deeply impressive achievement by Terry M West, a deftly-written, highly imaginative and often surprisingly philosophical look at the zombie apocalypse through the eyes of two critical yet underappreciated workers