Reviewed by Michael R. Collings
Joe McKinney’s Bram Stoker Award® winning Flesh Eaters adroitly manages to perform a number of seemingly mutually exclusive balancing acts.
It is, from the first, a ‘natural disaster’ novel—in this case, the plot depending on the aftermath of three hurricanes battering the Texas coastline in as many weeks—yet the natural disasters are rarely followed closely. One, the third and most devastating, is merely mentioned as having occurred.
It is a ‘zombie’ novel, of course, with zombies appearing from every shadow and doorway, flooding the already flooded (with water) streets of Houston—yet the zombies remain mostly faceless and without identity, a backdrop of horror that counterpoints story and character.
It is an ‘action-adventure’ novel, with shoot-outs, hand-to-hand combat, frantic races to escape…only to find that the one opening for escape is guarded by federal troops willing to open fire on any survivors that attempt it. Yet the frenetic attempts of groups to survive never overshadow individuals and their private suffering and growth.
It is a ‘dysfunctional family’ novel on several levels, but it never becomes clogged in the minutiae of guilt and blame, of recrimination and anger. One family has begun to grow apart; the parents are increasingly separate in their thoughts and actions, while the thirteen-year-old daughter has begun the difficult transition from child to adult. Another is separated by the constraints of family pride and individual greed. It takes a disaster of monumental proportions to help the first discover its true identity and impel the second into final dissolution.
It is a ‘caper’ novel, with seven million dollars at stake, shifting hands among the characters as the plot develops…but the heist never overwhelms the more serious consequences facing individuals.
But most of all, perhaps, it is a ‘horror’ novel that almost revels in graphic description…but that ultimately understands that people are more important than horrors and that they may themselves become the most unspeakable of monsters.
It is all of these, and more—and in a sense none of them.
Flesh Eaters is in fact a multi-faceted, complex narrative that integrates all of these elements into a single, coherent narrative. McKinney moves from one sub-genre to another with seamless facility, balancing each against the other, so that in the end, readers focus on the individual struggles of people they have come to care about. He shows characters faltering beneath the weight of the struggle, succumbing to their greed and pride, allowing themselves to become less than their potential until, eventually, they destroy themselves and each other. And he shows others rising to the occasions, developing beyond what even they might have believed possible, giving their all to protect others, especially those they love. The three members of the Norton family go through the crucible of fire and flood, famine and disease…and zombies—only to emerge larger than they were, more aware of both strengths and weaknesses in themselves and in each other. This growth, this development of potential makes feasible—and acceptable—the final pages of the novel.
McKinney has taken a genre-plot and transcended its inherent weaknesses—its tendency to assume that the more zombies there are, the more mindless blood and guts and sex, the better the story—to deliver a novel that fulfills all of the expectations of that genre and at the same time delivers much more.
Other books by Joe McKinney:
Apocalypse of the Dead. Pinnacle, November, 2010.
Dead City. Pinnacle, November 2006.
Dodging Bullets. Gutter Books, September 2010.
Mutated. Pinnacle, September, 2012.
Quarantined. Lachesis Publishing, March 2009.
The Crossing. Creeping Hemlock Press, March 2012.
The Red Empire and Other Stories. Redrum Horror, January 2012.