Dying to Live (2006)
Review by Nickolas Cook
Back when Kim Paffenroth brought us Gospel Of The Living Dead (Baylor University Press – 2006) it was obvious he was a man who knows his zombie lore.
With Dying To Live, we see he not only knows zombies, but that he also knows the human condition as well. It’s one thing to imagine a zombie apocalypse, all the bloodshed and violence, the loss and anguish, and it’s very easy to intellectualize it, make it palatable and even entertaining in a grim sort of way. And that’s what most zombie apocalypse novels tend to do: they make it fun.
Paffenroth takes the tropes and gives them a very human twist.
What does that sort of loss and pain do to real people? And what happens to their belief system when it seems that they are living in a sort of hell on earth?
Paffenroth tackles such philosophical questions using his background in Religious Studies and Philosophy, and his knowledge of such great texts as St. Augustine’s Confessions, to explore what happens to the human heart when thrown into a hell of the undead.
His protagonist carries a very biblical sounding name, Jonah Caine. Caine, separated from his wife and child when the plague begins its rampage, decides to hike cross country to find out what has happened to them. Along the way, he must fight to survive against the ever increasing population of undead flesh eaters. Soon, he meets and is taken in by a small band of survivors who have made their home inside a museum that overlooks a small city.
And what Paffenroth does with this setup is what makes Dying To Live different than any other zombie novel I’ve read so far. He doesn’t send his survivors on some far flung quest to find any mysterious cures or answers to the plague. Instead, he keeps them inside the cityscape, where they learn the essence of good and evil within its boundaries.
He also delivers something unseen in other zombie fiction, in the body of Milton, a man who is inexplicable both living and undead, and who can control the zombies as if he were a shepherd. Here, his characters discourse in quasi-religious matters and the nature of the human beasts – its essential needs, both mental and physical.
But if he must discuss good, he must also show use evil. And he does so when Caine and his friends are captured by a roving band of hunting prisoners from the nearby state pen. Inside its decaying walls we see the true face of the beast. It is a gory and heart wrenching experience, even for the most hardened of horror readers. If you think the undead are the true evil, think again.
But here is where it does tend to get a bit overblown. Because Paffenroth has to give us an evil with no other purpose than just plain being evil. And he doesn’t take into account that people who live inside prisons aren’t always the essence of evil. Even in state pens, there are people who just happened to hit hard luck and found themselves swallowed by the system, deservedly or not. So what I’m saying is that not every single person in prison is going to act the way he so simply portrays.
That aside, he does a fine job making his readers think about the nature of life and good and evil and being human.