The sub-genre of apocalyptic fiction has really taken off as of late. It seems that everyone and their mother are now penning a book dealing with the End of Days, and I’ve read my fair share of them—particularly when it comes to the subject of zombies. I’ve had a love affair with the meandering undead since I was a wee frightened lad, and ever since then I’ve torn into whatever material I can when it comes to this subject matter.
I have found, however, that with the sheer quantity offered, many of these novels blend into one huge, intestine-chewing lump in my brain. It takes a special sort of zombie novel for me to remember not only the plot (if there is one; many zombie tales end up being nothing but expositions on gore), but the emotions I felt while reading; which, to me, is undeniably more important than anything.
The Infection, the wonderful new tale of woe and man-eaters by Craig DiLouie, is one of those “special” books.
In DiLouie’s world, the end starts with a strange malady that causes one-third of the world’s population to break out screaming, suffer massive seizures, and then fall into a state of catatonia. Then, three days after the event, these “Screamers” wake up. They are violent, fast, and driven to both eat and spread their infection, which fully afflicts its victims after a rather sparse three-minute incubation period.
Society breaks down in a matter of days, leaving roving bands of survivors to try and seek a safe haven. It is at this point that The Infection begins, introducing us to a varied group (including a preacher, a school teacher, a cop, three soldiers, a sixteen-year-old boy, and a rather tainted homemaker), who traverse across greater Pittsburgh in their Bradley (basically a tank with a smaller turret designed to be a quite-deadly armored personnel carrier) in search of somewhere, anywhere, that they can rest their weary bones for a night, perhaps longer. The Infected are always at their heels, as well as a few other (rather ingenious) beasts, which, when added together, create a nice little mystery as to why this outbreak happened in the first place. Is it the wrath of an angry God? Aliens seeking to eliminate the local inhabitants so they can re-populate with their own kind? The text offers clues, but never says the answer outright, which makes for a nice little mystery in the middle of all the madness.
The plot of the book is rather simple—folks run from monsters, find shelter, run again, find shelter again, discover they don’t know how to live like real people anymore, and go destroy a bridge to stop the Infected and friends from crossing the river. As I said, not the most complex plot in the world.
But plot isn’t where The Infection gains its significance. Yes, there are zombies (or pseudo-zombies) and other assorted baddies, but this is a book about them as much as The Telltale Heart is about a fancy puzzle box.
DiLouie does a cut-up job of presenting what it would really be like if everything were to fall apart. The human element is on full display here—the longing, the despair, the paralyzing fear. There is sadness aplenty, and much longing for loved ones lost. The book’s structure is excellent in presenting this—it is told in present tense (which adds to the tension), with constant flashbacks pertaining to the individual journey of each character. Every one of them has lost something important—some more so than others—and all must come to grips with the fact that no matter if the planet recovers or not, they, as individuals, will never be the same again.
To say that I found The Infection to be astute and poignant would be an understatement. It’s inventive and fresh, offering an insider’s perspective on pain and terror. The characters are wonderfully flawed and likeable, and I felt for them whenever I discovered what horrible events had played out in their pasts. The action scenes are concise and easy to follow, and DiLouie seems to have done his homework when it comes to the more technical aspects of modern warfare.
This is a really good book, folks. It made me edgy, sad, joyous, and angry—sometimes at the same time. DiLouie is an author who knows his voice, and he uses it to near perfection. I will definitely be reading more of him in the future, and if you have any appreciation at all for tales of the apocalypse, this small-press offering is just about as good as it gets.
Originally appeared in Shock Totem #4, July 2011.