(2013) Peter Stenson, Windmill, £8.99, pbk, 297pp, ISBN 978-0-099-55883-5
The TV series Breaking Bad was regarded as a classic, but it had one missing ingredient that might have made it truly phenomenal – zombies.
Yes, when your heroes are completely off their heads on Crystal Meth and a range of drugs William Burroughs would have probably politely declined, the last thing they need is to find themselves waking up to find themselves in the middle of a full scale zombie Holocaust. It takes them a while to realize that it is not just one hell of a bad trip.
In many zombie, werewolf or monster novels, the junkie would be among the first to die horribly. Not so in Stenson's work. They are the only ones left breathing from the start.
The trouble is that these zombies were not raised by another zombie's bite or by voodoo; they are just everyone on Earth who was not injecting or snorting drugs - everyone just fell asleep and woke up undead, except for the seriously far gone needle-users.
This is a get high or die world. What would you do? If you are not already a junkie, it is too late to decide anyway.
The main hero, Chase desperately wanted to kick the habit, but what if going straight turned him into one of them? The same thing goes for his girlfriend, KK. How long can they stay zonked?
Getting out to the chemists to raid fresh supplies is getting pretty dicey, and for once the police are the least of Chase's problems.
Funny, in being Sean of the Dead with hardcore drugs instead of beer, but also brutally violent, as in its opening image of a young child dismembering a live Rotweiller. Some scenes are very Sean of the Dead, as with Chase having to kill his own zombified mother, and characters not noticing the strange behaviour outside is more than just people behaving oddly until they are directly attacked.
Fiend is a totally apt and great ambiguous title, referring to both the giggling zombie hordes and the drug taking few holed up with their indifferent dealer.
The zombies are slow moving, but relentless, and having them laugh as they close in on their prey is a pretty cool and sometimes blood curdling selling point.
Nice characterizations, especially Typewriter, so-called for his writing ambitions.
Stenson makes his unlikely heroes credible in a superb and very original variation on a now well worn theme.
By the time the heroes move to a small prison (where the narrator had previously once been incarcerated) this starts to have echoes of 'The Governor' story arc in The Walking Dead comics and TV series, but Stenson's treatment is quite different, parodying the usual assumptions the public have concerning the easy availability of drugs in prisons, but as bad trips kick in, and paranoia means people want control of a finite stash, trouble is just a heartbeat away.
Though saved by his cravings, Chase does act totally selfishly because of them to, which in itself has tragic consequences for his closest allies.
Many junkies picture a utopian future with free unlimited access to drugs, but Stenson sees that level of dependence on a high as virtually akin to being dead anyway. The zombies crave blood, while the Crystal Meth is just another desperate all consuming fix that leaves its users moving but dead inside.
While seen through the eyes of serious drug-addicted characters this is in no way a pro-drugs work. There is just a terrible irony in that being clean, means the squares become the undead, but at least we get to laugh.
The heroes realize that their avenues of hope are running out, one by one. The town centre chemists stores attract zombies. The main drug dealers attract other interested parties and the chemical processing of the crystal meth is to complicated for the average user to accomplish. Prison has rather obvious pitfalls even without being full of zombies ultimately able to push through even solid steel. So where does the next high or fix come from?
The finale seems rushed, if inevitable, but still rather sad. Throughout, this proves to be a very interesting take on the zombie theme, and a great trip in its own right.
There are insightful flashes of dark satire but the full on horror elements rather overshadow that side of the work, which has tremendous, even relentless pace, with the increasingly desperate dwindling group of heroes struggling to make sense of a world gone very mad indeed.
See also Iain's review of Fiend.
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