The apocalypse has arrived in sleepy Stebbins County, PA. Death comes riding the pale horse of serial killer Homer Gibbon, executed for his crimes in service to the Black Eye and the Red Mouth. Dr. Herman Volker has other plans for Homer, plans involving an experimental bio-warfare agent that can keep the dead killer’s consciousness aware of his rotting flesh as he suffers from beyond the grave. But instead of being buried in a potter’s field, Homer’s corpse is sent to Stebbins County where the killer will rise again: grotesquely infected, highly contagious, and most of all…insatiably hungry.
Writers are often warned to stay away from clichés; but with genre fiction, cliché defines the genre. In Dead of Night, familiar tropes form the story’s foundation. There is the sleepy hick town where it all begins. A mad scientist with a German accent. A grizzled, not-as-cynical-as-advertised, reporter. Two local cops, one old and one young, in over their heads but doing the best they can. Government officials covering their butts. Shambling undead masses converging on the site of the final battle. But, in this case, the Stoker Award-winning Maberry (The King of Plagues, The Cryptopedia) takes all of the tropes that define a good zombie story and then does them one better, crafting a tale far better than the sum of its parts.
Dead of Night has it all. The action is fast-paced and exciting. The zombies are not only horrific but scientifically plausible. And, most importantly, there is actual horror. Not just squicky gross-outs or jump-out thrills (though the novel does not lack for either), but actual gut-wrenching horror. Maberry achieves this by creating characters that we care about and ensuring that they react in very human ways to the terrible situation that they have found themselves thrust into.
The emotions that Maberry evokes are rooted in true fear for the townspeople of Stebbins. While children are among those in danger, he doesn’t settle for cheap pathos but instead draws on raw, visceral terror. Further, as our heroes are forced to destroy their infected former friends and neighbors, the horror experienced by the main characters rolls off the page and into the reader’s guts. By focusing on character, Maberry pulls off masterfully what all good horror writers strive for: he takes a novel about monsters and makes it about human beings.
Dead of Night is an excellent novel on every level. Highly recommended.