It was in the process of putting this review together that I began to realise just how much I owed David Moody, and how influential his early works had been on my teenage years. In fact, I don’t think it’s exaggerating a great deal to state that without coming across his original Autumn series of zombie apocalypse novels – the precursors to Autumn: Dawn – not only would my reading habits have been incredibly different, but this blog likely would not even exist. To explain just how this debt works, let me take you back to an old age, an ancient age, one that to readers younger than me might actually be considered apocalyptic in a way: the early 2000s. I was an avid reader by my early teen years, with hundreds of paperback books on my bedroom shelves: Tom Clancy sat alongside Larry Bond and Bernard Cornwell, and an ever-increasing space was being made for my Warhammer obsession. Sci-Fi, fantasy, military history, crime, mystery thrillers – almost every genre could be found on those shelves except one: horror. That was the one genre I was barred from reading by my parents, and as with all things children are prevented from doing, my obsession was only fuelled by my parents well-meaning but naive decision. And that obsession had a particular focus: zombies, the living dead, reanimated corpses that longed for flesh and/or brains (depending on the authors whims and influences of course).
Fuelled by conspiratorial viewings of the original Dawn of the Dead on late-night film channels, as well as the gorier (and more humorous) Return of the Living Dead, I was determined to try and collect some zombie fiction for my shelves. But it was difficult to try and smuggle such titles past my parents, given the lurid cover art usually employed to signal the content of that particular subgenre; and so, I turned to that new, gleaming hope of many a teenager of my generation: the internet. With my parents unaware of the nuances of this new-fangled technology, I was able to make far greater headway in my search for undead fiction, and soon found myself ravenously pouring through the contents of zombie fiction genre site Homepage of the Dead (which to my utter delight is still around and thriving even twenty years later) and also played the legendary online turn-based rpg Urban Dead (also still around to my amazement). But despite all of this, there was still a problem: everything I was reading was American-written and American-focused. And while I certainly enjoyed stories about chiselled-jawed American soldiers blowing zombie heads off before heading to some isolated rural location to live off the land, their attraction began to pale after a while. After all, if there was going to be a zombie outbreak here in the UK (which for vague and indistinct reasons I assumed was only a matter of time) then it was obvious even to me – a sheltered teenager surfing the web in the Home Counties – that it couldn’t possibly look anything like was being portrayed in these stories, or in the Romero and Savini flicks I watched late at night. After all, I didn’t know anyone who had a gun in my neighbourhood, or might even know where to find one, in comparison to American suburbanites who seemed to sleep with six assault rifles, two missile launchers and a light machine-gun under their pillow each night. And geographically it seemed hugely unlikely that there could be these long retreats into a rural hinterland, trading space for time to wait the undead out until winter came, or insects began to affect them. Everything was close together in the UK for the most part, as I understood it, and especially in really built-up areas like London. So it seemed self-evident that a zombie outbreak in the UK would look fundamentally different to one in the United States; and it was also obvious that there was a dearth of UK-based fiction by British authors.
That’s where David Moody came in.
Sometime around 2003 I came across a link on the internet – possibly through Homepage of the Dead – to Mr Moody’s website, which contained excerpts from one of his early Autumn novels. It might have been the original Autumn, or possibly Autumn: The City – my memory is a bit too hazy to be any more accurate. But regardless, it only took a few pages to be completely and irreversibly hooked on Moody’s vision of the zombie apocalypse in the UK. I remember being enchanted by his sparse, haunting prose, and the atmosphere of quiet dread that he created in his undead version of London and the surrounding areas. There were no gun-toting civilians or heavily-armed soldiers here – the former didn’t exist, and the latter were isolated and faced their own problems in trying to confront the living dead. Instead, Moody focused on a small band of survivors – individuals or tiny groups – whose main tactics were to flee the dead as quickly as possible while searching for food, water, and somewhere safe to shelter. Just surviving another day was a victory of sorts, rather than trying to wipe out the undead or complete some epic quest of vengeance.
It was an enthralling and thoroughly compelling vision, and I eagerly devoured each of the books in the Autumn series as they came out over the years. I came to read Moody’s other books as well, such as the superb Hater series – eventually reviewing some of them on this very blog – but always came back to the Autumn series, as it occupied a very special and unique place in my memories. It was incredibly exciting, therefore, to see the news that Moody was writing a new series in the Autumn universe; and while my time to review books was severely limited by circumstances – indeed, the sort of pandemic that seemed like a precursor to many of Moody’s titles – I had put Autumn: Dawn on my list of books to review as soon as able. I was therefore delighted to recently be contacted by the author and offered an electronic review copy of the novel, and managed to find some time to dive back into the undead world of Autumn.
Moody provides us with several protagonists as we move through the narrative in Autumn: Dawn, each unique perspective giving us another portal to the hellish, undead world the author has crafted. We open with Helen, a shift worker scraping a living in London in a flat share, barely making a living and facing the grim prospect of admitting defeat and returning to Leeds and her parents. Walking to work one day, she avoids someone stumbling around that she assumes is a drunk, only to see waves of people collapse on the ground. The emergency services fail to respond, news and radio just cease to exist, and no-one alive can be seen no matter how far she walks. Returning to her flat, she contemplates suicide, but rejects it in favour of simply locking herself in her room; that is, until the corpses start to slowly pull themselves up and stumble around. Shock and revulsion turn to fear and terror, and then a strange sort of mania where Helen unleashes her set-up emotions on the uncoordinated mass of dead people. But running the undead down in a car, or burning a petrol station to the ground and setting them on fire, provides only brief cathartic relief and does nothing to deny the numbers of this endless horde. Even Spitalfields Market doesn’t have enough space or material to burn the limitless corpses spread through London, much to her frustration. Across the city, three women reluctantly band together and forage to survive, trying to make their way out of London through endless crowds of formerly human flotsam, and fighting both their own exhaustion and the increasingly-violent and predatory behaviour of the undead. Eventually, enough survivors gather together that they can begin to coordinate and plan – but then the questions come. Where do they go? What do they do? How do they do it? The movement from individuals to a group is almost overwhelming in terms of what needs to be done and the resources needed for them; Moody doesn’t pull any punches in highlighting just how desperate the post-apocalypse would quickly and permanently become. The survivors have to develop increasingly complex and quick-witted tactics to outwit the endless hordes of living dead, and also deal with internal strife and deteriorating relationships that threaten to destroy what little they have managed to achieve so far.
Moody artfully portrays the effects of the death of 99.9% of the human population on London and its few surviving inhabitants, using language and atmosphere to bring the post-apocalypse to grim, dark life. There’s a cunningly-crafted atmosphere of fearful tension, with the survivors never able to truly relax thanks to the endless sea of dead flesh trying to smash through their thin barricades and kill them; Moody does a fantastic job of evoking this, to the point that I became quite tense alongside the characters, unable to put the book down until I had finished another few pages, and then another few chapters, just to see how the narrative would deftly unfold and what challenges Moody would throw up in the face of the survivors. Those challenges are always organic, and as much the result of the actions of the survivors as those of the undead themselves; time after time, it becomes apparent that the basest elements of human nature are just as dangerous as the corpses themselves. Not that the undead aren’t a threat – in fact, Moody may have crafted the most terrifying and unsettling version of the zombie in all of the fiction I’ve read over the years. They’re relentless in their desire to close and kill the survivors, and uniquely horrifying because they don’t want to feast on brains or bite to transfer a virus – they simply react like predators, aiming for the next kill. They become a lethal obstacle, much like the Thames that flows through London, millions of undead bodies guided by urban topography and the ruins of a city whose inhabitants suddenly died all at once.
It’s a fascinating concept that I’ve never really considered before, or seen in zombie fiction, and some of the best parts of the novel are Moody’s descriptions of urban decay and how the undead blindly navigate them in pursuit of random noises or the movement of bands of survivors. Paralleling this, the visual and auditory elements of an undead corpse are explored by Moody, in stark and evocative language that I’ve rarely seen in the genre. The dripping of deteriorating flesh, the swilling of dissolved internal organs in stomachs, the scraping and sliding of disintegrating feet along pavements and roads: Moody is the composer of the apocalypse, and these are the elements in his soundboard. Indeed, it soon becomes apparent that this is not a typical piece of zombie fiction, with guns blazing, explosions everywhere, tanks and vehicles rolling around; silence reigns in this version of London, where noise can mean pursuit and then death from thousands of corpses at once. It’s a completely different angle to the genre, one that harks back to masterpieces like 28 Days Later, and is all the better for it – in some ways, Autumn: Dawn is a contemplative piece of horror fiction that eschews many of the tropes and stereotypes of the modern zombie and postapocalypse thriller.
One of the unique selling points for Autumn as a series overall, and especially so in Autumn: Dawn is Moody’s unusual take on the zombie itself. This is not a world in which someone becomes undead within seconds and then turns into a ravenous, flesh-seeking corpse monster. Instead, those who die take quite some time to come back to ‘unlife’ and come back in stages, situational awareness and aggressive behaviour taking time to develop. It’s an enthralling idea that I’ve rarely seen taken up in the genre, authors usually focusing on quick-acting zombies to get right to the heart of the action; by using it, Moody can instead focus on the survivors and their reactions to the end of the world, undertaking character studies to see how these few, lonely individuals react to suddenly being alone and surrounded by an entire population of corpses. Do they fight, or do they flee? How long should they run – and to where? And is there any point in fighting at all if there’s no future to be had? It’s a more introspective and nuanced take on the zombie as a fictional construct, and one that I think the entire postapocalyptic genre would benefit from by studying and adopting in general. By doing this, Moody allows us to consider the nature of the undead, and even has his characters compare themselves to zombies and consider their own mortality in response. Much like Romero, Moody uses the undead to comment on the nature of society and human behaviour, comparing and contrasting the alive and undead, and allowing the reader to judge them as a result. It’s the mark of a truly great writer that Moody can undertake something like this, and bring the reader along with him throughout the narrative.
The survivors in London may have an uncertain future ahead of them, but the same definitely can’t be said for David Moody and his new take on his classic Autumn series: Autumn Dawn is a confident and utterly assured start to a new series, and a clear demonstration that Moody is a true master of the zombie genre. Jarring, unsettling, contemplative and action-packed all in equal measure, Autumn: Dawn is an instant classic of the zombie genre, a superb novel that demands to be read by anyone with an interest in zombie fiction, or high-quality horror fiction in general; and I cannot wait to see what Moody brings to this setting with the next book in this new series.