(2011) David Moody, Gollancz, £12.99, pbk, 362pp, ISBN 978-0-575-08472-8
Is there no stopping the current spate of zombie novels? Apparently not and we are being overwhelmed! However, on the bright side there are a few that are a distinct cut above the rest. David Moody's Them or Us is one such head and shoulders above the grabbing zombie hoard.
Part of the reason for Moody's treatment being so successful (other than he can really write) is that his zombies are not the traditional sort, in fact they are not zombies at all but this novel does sit solidly in that category. What has happened is that some infection has turned nearly all of humanity into violent creatures whose hatred is largely focussed on the unchanged. And so we have Haters and Unchanged. However the Unchanged have ruined Britain (and presumably much of the rest of the world) with atomic weapons leaving just a few enclaves of Haters to carry for what now passes as civilisation on. That there is now a nuclear winter does not help.
Danny McCoyne is one such Hater who is trying to survive in the relatively untouched small coastal town of Lowestoft in the east of England. The Lowestoft community of haters is the biggest settlement of what now passes for civilisation in the region but is harshly controlled by the ruthless Hinchcliffe and his crony thugs. With the last of the Unchanged all but gone, there is nothing onto which the Haters can focus their hate, and with everyone living off of the dwindling consumables that past civilisation left behind, the settlement has its tensions.
However Danny McCoyne has a special ability: he can control his hate and so is able to mingle with the Unchanged undetected. This power made him useful to Hinchcliffe. This ability also enables McCoyne to think more rationally than most Haters: this makes him a worry to Hinchcliffe. As the numbers of the Unchanged are now so low, McCoyne abilities are of less use and so he realises that his days are numbered and that perhaps it is time to get out. Furthermore, if he encounters any Unchanged he has to make a choice: Them or Us.
Them or Us is a horror-thriller delight. Not only is it a good exemplar of the recent spate of post-apocalyptic novels, it has its own take, a properly fleshed out protagonist character, and a wonderfully constructed story arc, all of which propels the readers through to the very final page. What more can a reader want?
This novel can be read perfectly well as a stand-alone story, and this is how I came to it. However as you read it you realise that some events have taken place prior to the novel's own setting and it is clear from the ancillary blurbs accompanying the book that there are two titles that precede this one: Hater and Dog Blood. I have to say that having read Them or Us I will be keeping an eye out for Hater as I would like to see how it all began; this is not a post-apocalyptic trilogy but an apocalyptic one that takes us on the complete journey from civilisation through the catastrophe that befell humanity and out the other side. So you have a choice to either start at the beginning of the sequence or jump right in here; and as said this book reads perfectly well as a stand-alone so the choice you have is a genuine one.
David Moody is also known for his 'Autumn' quadrilogy that starts with Autumn itself. I gather (not having read these books) that this is a more conventional zombie sequence, and that it has had a film based on it (that has not itself attracted much critical praise). However having seen how David Moody writes, I suspect the novels are superior to this film. Yet given that both 'Autumn' and 'Hater' stem from the same apocalyptic stable I do wonder whether David Moody is capable of giving us SF/F/horror stories using different tropes. I sincerely hope so as Them or Us is one of the best post-apocalyptic novels I have read for a couple of years.
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