Floaters: A Victorian Zombie Adventure
Crystal Lake Publishing
Sometimes there’s nothing like a good piece of zombie horror fiction to get me back into the mood for reviewing after real life gets a bit too much and I find myself lacking the time to read very much at all, let alone write up a review. So it was fortuitous indeed that I saw a promotional email from Crystal Lake Publishing to announce the publication of one of their latest titles – the zombie horror novella Floaters by Garrett Boatman. Crystal Lake has always been one of my favourite publishers, releasing some incredible anthologies and novels, so I had absolutely no doubt that Floaters was going to be a high-quality title, and the cover art immediately caught my eye with its vicious, water-logged zombies emerging from the dirty waters of the Thames. In addition, the back-cover blurb seems to promise something different to the usual generic, tired and stale titles bloating out the zombie horror genre at the moment, with its focus on Victorian London (an under-used location and period) and street gangs against hordes of the titular Floaters. So I decided to jump right in and see what Garrett Boatman had in store for me.
After weeks of people from all walks of life – ‘swells’ and ‘toughs’ alike – mysteriously disappearing throughout London, generally in and around rivers and sewers, it suddenly becomes clear that an army of waterlogged, undead corpses are to blame as they suddenly begin surging out of the waterways and into London itself. As the authorities struggle to first understand the scale of the problem, and then how to fend off the horde of zombies now rampaging through the city, possible salvation comes from an unlikely source: the vicious, heavily-armed and amoral gangs that populate the capital’s dark corners and slums. Protagonist Will Tagget is the leader of the Lambeth Walk Lads, one of the numerous gangs in the city, and until very recently only concerned with exacting revenge on his rivals in the Drury Lane Monkeys. But when corpses begin climbing out of the Thames and interrupt a scheduled duel by devouring some of the participants, Will finds himself with no choice but to try and somehow unite the disparate rival gangs scattered across London into a unified force that can fight back against the undead – assuming that he can stop them trying to kill each other in the chaos consuming the capital, and prevent the increasingly-desperate authorities from turning on them as well.
Floaters clocks in at a mere 91 pages, somewhere in the middle of average page-counts for a novella, and that means that there’s absolutely no padding or superfluous detail here; instead, Boatman gives us a stripped-down, lightning-fast and deftly paced slice of cinematic horror with a superb sense of atmosphere threaded through the entire plot. Boatman really brings late-Victorian London and its inhabitants to life, and especially the various rivers and waterways that criss-cross the city. There were frequently times when reading the novella that I could all but smell the vivid stench of fetid rivers and waterlogged corpses returning to (un)life as they crawled out of the water and after living flesh, an even more impressive achievement given the relatively short wordcount. The same level of skill is applied to the characters in the novella, who have a surprising amount of depth despite the fast pace of events and the focus on the undead invasion of the city.
Will makes for a formidable protagonist, Boatman demonstrating the irony of a violent criminal, and a member of the lowest class possible in Victorian society, demonstrating more intelligence and greater aptitude for leadership than the monied and aristocratic classes sheltering away from the undead rampaging through London. His comrade Foley, a policeman and therefore also supposedly on the opposite side of Will in terms of law and order, is another great character; from the same sort of background as Will, and yet having taken another path in life, the arrival of the watery corpses forces him into an uneasy alliance with the gang leader. Space and time preclude me from going though the other characters that appear in the story, but even minor characters have a sufficient depth to ensure they are not just two-dimensional cardboard cutouts. I was also greatly impressed by the deeply evocative descriptions Boatman used for the undead, written in a specific manner I haven’t seen for a long while, and nuanced in a way that reminds me of other talented authors published by Crystal Lake Publishing – Aaron Dries and Mark Allan Gunnells’ sublime classic Where The Dead Go To Die. In many zombie titles, the undead have little to no personality and act merely as an anonymous mass to threaten the cast of characters- but Boatman deftly avoids this common genre pitfall and manages to make the Floaters both distinctive and highly menacing at the same time.
All of this combines together with the gory, Splatterpunk-esque action sequences that litter the novella; the fascinating depiction of Late-Victorian London that anchors the entire plot; and the hugely imaginative narrative set-pieces, particularly the stomach-churning and strikingly original usage of a horse-slaughtering depot to create something utterly brilliant. Taken all together, Floaters is nothing less than an immensely enjoyable, innovative and blood-spattered take on the zombie horror genre, pumping fresh blood into the veins of a stale and moribund corpse in order to bring it back to life so it may consume more living flesh. Floaters is clear evidence that Boatman has a distinctive talent for horror stories, and I look forward to seeing what he produces in the future, hopefully in partnership with Crystal Lake Publications.