Was 2011 a bad year for the horror novel? I’ve yet to read any of the nominees for the 2012 Bram Stoker Award for best novel except Flesh Eaters by Joe McKinney, the winner, and I find myself puzzled. Was this really the best the year had to offer? It’s a competent enough zombie novel, but nothing special.
Flesh Eaters tells the story of the loss of Houston, Texas, to a close series of tropical storms, one after another hitting the city until it has essentially become part of the Gulf of Mexico. As was the case with Hurricane Katrina and the tragedy of New Orleans in 2005, Houston is not effectively evacuated, and is largely cut off from the rest of civilization in the aftermath of the storms. This isolation becomes considerably more pronounced when the combination of filthy conditions, flooding by heavily polluted water, and the proximity of thousands of people gives rise to a new disease. This disease does not cause the dead to walk, but it does cause those infected to lose most of their brain function and to seek to eat human flesh — in other words, they become zombies. In inhibiting brain function, the disease also makes the zombies almost immune to injury except for the destruction of the brain, most easily by a shot to the head.
The story told in this novel focuses on Eleanor Norton, a police officer involved with the portion of the Houston police force changed with handling emergency conditions — precisely like severe storms. Norton is intent on ensuring the survival of her husband and her nearly-teenage daughter, both of whom do not have quite her level of courage and fortitude. Jim and Madison have a great deal of difficulty maintaining their home after the first and second storms, when they are housebound. But things get worse after the third storm tears them from their home and sets them afloat in a rowboat on filthy water filled with corpses.
The other major character in this novel is Captain Mark Shaw, leader of the emergency division of the Houston police force. Shaw is a dedicated officer, one for whom honor trumps all, and he is devastated by his inability to ensure the safety of Houston’s residents. He is loath to report to his superiors outside Houston that zombies have begun to roam the streets, knowing that the news will cause those outside Houston to make it difficult for survivors to escape the ruined city. And despite his honor, he sees an opportunity in this horrible situation in the form of a submerged bank vault and the ready availability, purely by accident, of some underwater explosives.
There are no surprises here. This novel follows the pattern of every disaster movie you’ve ever seen, with the situation getting increasingly worse, the good mostly surviving and the bad pretty much universally getting their comeuppance. Because the novel is predictable, there is little tension in it. I would probably have ceased reading it halfway through if it weren’t that I knew it had won the Stoker; I kept expecting something truly interesting to emerge, but nothing ever did. Perhaps the problem is that Flesh Eaters is the third book in a quartet; perhaps the Stoker was awarded to McKinney as a way of honoring the entire project, instead of just this single novel. I cannot recommend Flesh Eaters as a good read standing on its own, however, and am not sufficiently impressed to pick up the two earlier books, Dead City and Apocalypse of the Dead, or the forthcoming The Zombie King. I’m disappointed.