In reviving my Is that an Old Book? review series, I wanted to take a moment to look at a novel that breathed new life into the horror genre at the beginning of the Twenty-First Century and succeeded in becoming a contemporary classic. Before proceeding, it’s worth mentioning the idea behind this review series—the original description is linked here, however, in short, the idea behind Is that an Old Book? is as follows: The Iliad is an old book. Hrafnkels Saga and Genesis are old books. A book published in 1990, 1995, 2000, 2005, is a new book, and reviewed as such.
First published in 2003, Brian Keene’s The Rising quickly became definitive for the renewal of what is popularly termed the ‘zombie craze’ in popular culture. While it may or may not be on the radar of those readers of the blog who aren’t horror fans, it is well known among enthusiasts for the genre as a seminal work of our century’s first decade. And yet, though this is one of my favorite reads, I have not generally approached it as a ‘zombie novel’. Perhaps because I am less experienced in that sub-genre of horror, but more so because it struck me as an original example of another sub-genre, the possession novel. Possession is a theme close to my heart and a concept with which I have much more familiarity. The Exorcist is a quintessential example, however, thinking carefully and outside the box, one could consider King’s Pet Sematary (the novel, making original use of the Wendigo as a creature whose spirit infects the dead) and John Carpenter’s film remake of The Thing (wherein an alien can take over and imitate the appearance of human bodies) as possession stories.
And so I pose the question, how does this possession novel, Brian Keene’s The Rising, remain so essential, relevant, and inspiring across such and broad landscape of stories as we have now, such a mass of stories with, at first glance, similar imagery?
Before going into further depth about this story’s possession themes, I’d like to address some aspects of its “zombie” tropes. I hear two general ideas put forth about what zombie stories have to offer their audiences as regards insight into contemporary life and culture. The first is that the zombies personify apathy and stupidity. People who are dead-within-life, hanging around at malls and letting their brains rot. The survivors are trying to stay “alive” and “vital” in a landscape of the numb-minded. The second is that zombie stories are really about how the living interact in a post apocalyptic situation. About how humans behave and treat each other when the chips are down and desperate acts are required for survival.
With regard to the first instance, I don’t see The Rising as engaging the zombie myth in this manner. Keene’s “zombies” are intelligent, and have the memories of the people who died. They reanimate because some kind of spirit has taken them over due to a scientist opening a rift in the fabric of space. This is why I see the novel as a possession story as much or more than a zombie story. Something intelligent and hostile inhabits these creatures. The chill delivered to the audience feels that much colder when the implications of this are considered. This difference sets it apart from any reading that the story indicts mass-humanity as mindless. And yet this alone isn’t what sets it apart.
As for a reading that emphasizes the way human beings react when faced with post-apocalyptic survival, I would agree that there are certainly elements of this at work in the story. Keene’s dexterous prose keeps action moving while always developing each character’s personal story. His ability to do this with unusual speed sets him apart from others in the genre. Characters pushing each other into the paths of zombies to gain access to shelter, trading food, ammunition, sex for an advantage, as well as showing bravery, generosity, and faith, all these situations factor into the novel’s themes. But they do not dominate, because Keene spends a deliberate and substantial amount of time developing the possessed creatures themselves as characters, as being from another place, a void nearly incomprehensible to the humans who encounter its minions. This takes the story further than standard post-apocalyptic tropes about law-versus-lawlessness, love and apathy, in a chaotic landscape.
So then what is it that truly sets The Rising apart from other novels in the genre and earns it a place as a historic work of fiction? One could say it’s Keene’s superior style, his combination of common slang with complex figurative language. One could say it has a ‘feel’, like a Dickens novel, Lovecraft story, or the world-shattering themes of Octavia Butler. But I don’t think it’s anything so vague.
Rather, I think The Rising has come to occupy its niche as a genre-changing novel for a very specific reason. The fact that the beings the desperate humans decide to call zombies are different than other creatures in other stories offers the first clue. The fact that they move fast, drive cars, shoot guns, speak fluently and are intelligent, this makes them different; but this idea combines with another theme in the tale that creates the story’s true meaning and message—which is that all the rules have changed.
The combination of the zombies who don’t play by the rules and the one thing that all the characters share is that their own rules have changed, this combination, and Keene’s ability to convey it, is what gives The Rising its influence. Each character, from a scientist, to a prostitute, to a soldier, has to recalibrate his or her entire consciousness to the universe that has changed around them, and each in their own way. All post-apocalyptic novels have some elements of this dynamic; few come up with a creature or catastrophe as original for its time. That originality creates an unfamiliarity that shocks the reader more than a typical ‘the government has collapsed let’s run for the woods’ story.
With each turn of the page, Keene swells this palpable shock, that the old rules, the old appearances, the old monsters, no longer behave the way they’re supposed to. If there is any floating signifier in this century’s first decade, “the rules have changed” is arguably chief among them. The Rising came out in a time just before real life economies nearly inverted, when what we call home and what we call work and all interactions across the planet went through earthquakes and shockwaves. Not only does success ride on finding a way to engage the new rules, but basic survival.
This year, 2014, Brian Keene will receive the World Horror Convention’s Grand Master Award. This reflects his successes in authoring a plethora of written works in a broad spectrum of dark fiction subgenres. While taking moment to reflect his full body of work, I would invite those who are already familiar to revisit this classic the way one would play an amazing band’s early album while listening with fresh ears. I would also invite those who don’t normally read horror to have a look at this most jarring and intimate portrait of the psyche of a new century.