London being overrun by zombies, or the living dead, is hardly an uncommon occurrence in the horror genre – indeed it seems to have become a beloved (and distinctly stale) trope to be used by zombie apocalypse fiction authors to demonstrate just how doomed the country/world is; London, one of the oldest and largest capital cities in the world, depopulated and massacred by corpses seeking to eat brains, flesh or pass on their virus, dependent on the scenario. Fortunately for the genre and trope, however, when it comes to the works of David Moody, the fall of London is deftly transformed from cliched catastrophe to sublime triumph. Moody has long dwelled on London as a location for an uprising of the undead, with his long-running Autumn series taking place in around the capital as it followed individuals and small groups of survivors as they tried to outlast the undead, crazed bands of fellow survivors intent on trying to assert dominion over the hellish landscape, and the remaining elements of the military as it emerged from its bunkers. Autumn: Dawn was Moody’s triumphant return to both London and the Autumn series, and when I reviewed it upon its release last year, I was struck both by Moody’s clear and confident vision of the Autumn universe and its on-going central narrative, and the fact that he is one of the best British zombie horror writers currently alive. By the end of Autumn: Dawn, Moody had given us a bleak yet compelling picture of a city in which 99.9% of its population had fallen down dead and then promptly become (un)alive again, fragmented groups of survivors coalescing together to create a fragile bastion against the undead. As always, in-fighting and a band of mysterious opponents had led to unnecessary casualties, but there had been an oddly hopeful air at the end of the novel, as it seemed likely that the remaining humans could expand their perimeter and try and find a way to survive in the long-term. I was intensely curious to see where this would lead, especially as Moody had clearly seeded the first novel’s narrative with a number of plot seeds that had yet to bloom, and his announcement of the second novel in the series – Autumn: Inferno – had me immediately requesting a review copy. Though delayed by work requirements, exams and even contracting Covid-19 myself, I was finally able to settle down just after its publication and see what Moody had in store for those still alive in post-apocalyptic London.
As the novel opens, it’s become clear to the remaining group of shell-shocked, desperate survivors that their current perimeter around the uncertain haven of Monument needs to be expanded – and quickly. They’re short on supplies, room to grow any food, and even water supplies. Under slightly dubious leadership, a plan is made to dismantle part of the vehicular barricade surrounding their sanctuary and advance through the zombie horde, pushing back and eliminating enough corpses that they can secure nearby streets and buildings that can be fortified and looted. That particular operation forms the opening chapters of the book, and I will readily admit that these pages feature some of the most unsettling and even disturbing accounts of violence against zombies I have yet to come across in the zombie horror genre, surpassing even Moody’s own efforts in earlier Autumn works. The author’s vivid, skin-crawling descriptions of just how decayed and putrid the undead have become is almost nauseating at times, particularly when the survivors begin to cut them down and see the impact their weapons have on bodies that have begun to desiccate in the open air. In fact there’s one passage that describes the initial movement of the vehicles from the barricade, and the ‘lumpy tide of once human slurry gushing across the street’ that is the result, that had me putting down my Kindle and dealing with my nauseous stomach for a few moments. And that’s without even mentioning the modified lawnmowers and their stomach-churning abilities that Moody also conjured from a particularly dark recess of his imagination. But even this reclamation is only a temporary and near-pyrrhic victory for the survivors, and more long-term plans are desperately needed. A scheme to sail down the Thames and reach a shopping centre to secure supplies seems feasible, but could potentially be undone by hard lessons not being learnt by those left at Monument allowing their focus to slip, going back to pre-apocalyptic habits. As arrogance increases amongst those nominally in charge, hard questions come to the fore. How can hundreds of survivors last until the dead allegedly rot away? Who is the mysterious terrorist named Taylor, and what is the key to his hidden agenda? And will paranoia, suspicion and violence – rather than the undead – ultimately be the downfall of the last remnants of humanity?
In Autumn: Inferno, Moody once again demonstrates his mastery of the apocalyptic, delivering a tightly-plotted and nuanced story of human survival against the greatest odds ever seen in humanity’s history, one that continues the superb atmosphere and prodigious imagination demonstrated in Autumn: Dawn – and indeed his many other titles over the years. While I usually spend this part of the review focusing on key characters in a novel, or story, I feel like more emphasis needs to be paid to the specific manner in which Moody writes the undead in this novel. Because while his characters are intriguing and three-dimensional, and I’ll get to them in a minute, what Moody does with the undead feels truly evolutionary within the genre – making the zombie as a monster feel dangerous in a manner that harks back to Romero’s original Dead trilogy. What struck me about half-way through the novel is that there is a distinct lack of what I’ll term zombie porn in Autumn: Inferno; I realize now that the exact same thing can be said of Autumn: Dawn but it hadn’t quite occurred to me at the time of my previous review. By zombie porn I mean the sort of excessively over-detailed descriptions of the undead that are now rife throughout the zombie apocalypse genre: sequences where we get an up-close-and-personal look at a zombie, the author almost gleefully describing missing body parts, flayed skin and other decaying elements of the ambulatory corpse. They often pad out the length of a chapter without offering anything substantial to the narrative; as a reader, I know that the undead don’t look great. They shouldn’t – they’re the undead, after all. By comparison, what makes Moody’s attitude towards zombies so remarkable and unique is that the individual corpse is near-irrelevant, so weakened and decayed that they’re no real threat to an alert and armed survivors. What makes them truly threatening is sheer weight of force, and the manner in which their humanity is replaced by an inhuman otherness that turns them from individuals to a decaying mass of dead flesh that threatens to swamp anything still living. Time and time again, Moody masterfully unleashes swarms of undead that are so compacted and decayed that any residual humanity is extinguished, becoming instead an organic force of nature that sweeps aside human resistance as easily as a wave sweeps away debris. I’ve never seen the undead portrayed in this manner outside of Moody’s new Autumn series, and it’s simultaneously one of the most impressive and genuinely horrifying depictions of zombies I’ve seen in the genre for a very long time.
Moody complements this evolution of the zombie with muscular, often poetic prose that he brings to the fore to demonstrate the utter hopelessness of the survivors’ situation in the depths of a decaying and overgrown capital city. Constantly-burning bonfires of corpses seem to leech light and the very life-force from those tending to them, and even the slightest amount of noise brings forth a shambling horde of undead, who must be repelled if there is any hope of surviving. Plus the ever-present threat of internal dissent and conflict, a war on the home front that the remaining living inhabitants of London cannot afford and yet also seemingly cannot avoid. It’s a statis, slowly decaying world inhabited by a cast of haunted characters who often solely seem to be going through motions – or are desperately trying to cling onto the remnants of their pre-apocalyptic power and influence in a dead world that doesn’t care. While there’s quite a broad cast of characters, Moody somehow manages to make each of them engaging and noteworthy despite the relatively short page count in the novel. Piotr, increasingly arrogant and unhinged construction foreman, determined to create his own powerbase amongst the survivors and increasingly less reliant on being the right-hand man of former politician Dominic, the curious and somewhat untrustworthy man currently leading the survivors – a politician claiming to no longer be a politician. David and Holly, frontline fighters against the undead, long since burnt out and running on empty, unable to envision anything other than looming death. And Ruth, Vicky and Omar – a small, coherent group determined to both survive and prosper despite the undead and the actions of Piotr and Dominic. Moody demonstrates the best and worst elements of humanity, amplified by the apocalypse, regularly stress-testing his characters to see how they react to the end of the world and in so doing fundamentally demonstrating that basic emotions like arrogance and jealousy cannot be burnt out by a mere apocalypse.
Autumn: Inferno is another masterclass in writing zombie fiction from David Moody, and further proof that Moody is a maestro at the very peak of his talent as an author of horror fiction. With Autumn: Inferno Moody has once again demonstrated his undeniable ability to revolutionize and revivify the zombie as a staple of the horror genre, reframing the humble, shambling corpse as a genuinely terrifying opponent in a way that hasn’t been seen in the genre for some time. I cannot wait to see what Moody has in store for his remaining survivors, or those small parts of London not destroyed in a second Great Fire of London, and I eagerly await the publication of the third novel in the series. In the meantime, I will be reacquainting myself with Moody’s other works – and hopefully even interviewing him in the near future.