Apocalypse of the Dead
Joe McKinney

Paperback, 503 pages, $6.99
Review by Sheila M. Merritt

Zombie attrition as allegory: If the bite fits, wear and tear at it. Joe McKinney, in Apocalypse of the Dead, walks in the lumbering steps of the lore of the mass undead. The lengthy novel is a tale of reactions to a debilitation of enormous proportions. And how a faulty perception of sanctuary can render havoc on a par with the crisis itself. The man on the white horse is a cautionary figure in reality and fiction. Author McKinney saddles up to the vision, and digs in the spurs. He runs his story with skill and gusto; infusing it with a racing heartbeat.

The fundamentals of survival are distilled to an existential point of view, by some of McKinney’s characters. They come to the conclusion that whether combating zombies, or crazed religious leaders, it boils down to this choice: “You either chose to live or chose to die. It was a yes-or-no question, no middle ground. Choosing to live was an acknowledgment that life has some sort of meaning.”

Those who rise to the occasion come from a disparate group. They transcend in their adaptation to the evolving environment. Finding purported solace from zombie attacks in a compound in North Dakota, promotes a cautionary sense of well being among the discerning. On closer examination, the sanctuary metaphorically eats away at the inhabitants; not allowing any deviation from the sanctions imposed by its loony leader. The place has a Disneyland veneer with a Zombieland vibe. As exemplified by the blind and sensitive Kyra, the road to the rural outpost appears predestined: “She had listened to the soft, gritty movement of that blowing sand against the windows of this trailer all her life, until it became a sort of soundtrack for her quiet, comfortable existence. But now it seemed more like an ominous prelude, the first notes of something terrible.”

Factions, fractious and fearsome, converge when survivors of battles with the undead interact in a seemingly benign setting. Those most perseverant are adaptable, if not necessarily heroic, as one of the resilient observes about himself: “He was a cockroach, life’s little symbol of endurance in the face of a dispassionate universe.”

The book focuses on the dynamics of individuals and groups in dealing with an ongoing loss of cultural structure, and personal debilitation initiated by catastrophe. The lure of a messianic leader seduces many of the lost. The attraction leads to strange bedfellows: A rigid military warrior, focused on systematically annihilating the zombie enemy, becomes putty in the hands of the charismatic leader of the compound. The killing machine has finally found someone who comprehends and articulates his emotional burden. The soldier can let down his guard in the presence of the manipulative sociopath, who becomes his master and commander.

Joe McKinney skillfully deals with a large cast of characters; expertly exposing and exploiting their unique attributes and vulnerabilities. He cogently looks at personal responses to the unthinkable: How people cope with calamity and horror, and strive to find comfort in the company of others. The author reminds that a sense of security may be inaccurate, and being wary or afraid is not only understandable; it is often advisable. But, as one character in the novel states: “Once you master your fear of the scary stuff in the story, you can approach the large world, growing up and stuff like that, with a little more self-assurance.” When the flesh eaters nibble away at the vulnerable psyche, descending en masse in an assault of the soul, Apocalypse of the Dead displays McKinney’s mastery of the components of fear; with more than a little self-assurance.

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