Excuse the pun, but zombies have been done to death haven’t they? They went from the next big monster fad, to dulled by repetition before most of us even had a chance to get scared. But for those wanting their next scare, I implore you to rethink any zombie burnout you may have, and check out Charlie Higson’s (yes, that Charlie Higson) frankly terrifying and incredible horror series.
In the author’s own words, the seven volume series (of which six have been published) is about ‘a disease has hit the planet that only affects the older people. It kills most of them outright, and the lucky few who have been left alive are so badly disfigured by the disease, their brains and bodies rotted away, that they behave as classic textbook cannibal zombies. Gangs of kids try to survive on the streets of London whilst trying to rebuild a world without adults, whilst also trying to avoid being eaten by their parents.’
Yes, it’s a Young Adult series, but then again all the most interesting genre fiction is these days isn’t it? It seems that writing for a young audience often frees the adult author from any pressure to conform, and the result is as free-wheeling and exciting as a child’s imagination. In my interview with Charlie Higson he quite rightly points out that kids love to be scared, and the only real difference between his Young Adult and adult novels is a lack of explicit sex and swearing in the former. So if you only read books for that, then you should probably go elsewhere. But if you fancy pulse-pounding set-pieces and page-turning plot, distinct and gripping characterization, gripping cliffhangers, and a clever twist on zombies, then The Enemy series might just be your next read. Oh, and there’s also the brain-twisting chronology and interweaving plot-lines and different characters of the series which will have you rifling through previous entries to make sure you catch it all. To wit, second novel, The Dead, takes place a year before The Enemy, and then catches it up. Book three, The Fear, begins five days before the end of The Dead and book four, The Sacrifice, eight days after the end of The Fear. Number five. The Fallen finally catches up with the heroes of The Enemy, while book seven, The Hunted, completely leaves London and shows you what’s happening outside of the capital.
It’s a brave move to follow up your successful first novel by writing about a completely different set of characters. But rather than backfire, it allowed Higson to genuinely make a post-apocalyptic world of real substance. The writing is so clear and concise that you’re never lost in the myriad plot developments. It also helps that Higson is never afraid to kill off a character (or characters) so what at first glance seems an overwhelming amount of people to remember is easily followed by even the most attention lacking readers. It also helps that Higson develops a lot of character and plot through action scenes which truly have the pulse racing – an early search through an abandoned swimming pool/leisure centre in The Enemy will keep you on the edge of your seat, while a description of a massed battle over Lambeth Bridge in The Dead wouldn’t be out of place in a war movie. The latest book ends on some incredible gladiatorial games, which for my money every post-apocalyptic series needs. Each also provides key moments for the characters involved, and sets the pattern for their future behaviour. Always tricky in a film, let alone a book, we’re actually being shown rather than just told by others why x character is such a bad-ass/damaged goods/great leader.
Higson also creates new and interesting riffs on the zombie monster. His creatures, while acting exactly like the zombies you’re familiar with, are actually not dead but instead late-stage diseased adults. This gives Higson the chance to personify certain ‘sickos’ as the series progresses, again adding another fascinating layer to the story. Can you emphasise with the devil? Charlie Higson certainly leans that way with his insights into their diseased minds, while also pointing out that not all the survivors are heroic characters. As many nasty kids survive and thrive as the good-guys. But underneath it all, as in all great dystopian fiction, is the belief that things can get better. Hope unites the kids and drives the plot onwards. It also keeps you reading, wanting to know just how these seemingly helpless kids can beat this apparently insurmountable threat. You also get to learn what keeps humanity ticking. As Higson freely admits, much like George A. Romero did before, his zombie thriller is as much social commentary as it is horror spectacular. Not for nothing is one of the lead ‘sickos’ nicknamed ‘bluetooth’, while elsewhere the need for scientists and study is in the long-term far more vital than those who can fight. While It’s much more subtle in the books than I’ve just pointed out there, there’s lots to uncover in the pages.
Higson also makes recognizable London landmarks key to his series, and uses them in new and inventive ways. Buckingham Palace is now the HQ of a power-mad teenager complete with zombie royals locked in a throne room. The Natural History Museum is a warren of shadowy rooms where ‘sickos’ lurk. The Tower of London is the only safe place in the City. Even lesser known places, such as the Waitrose on Holloway road, are lovingly reimagined as bastions against the ever increasing threat of being eaten by your parents. As always, there’s a joy in the familiar becoming unfamiliar and new to you again. It’s a old trick well played by Higson – readers of all ages will know these places, and therefore instantly imagine themselves and the action there, lending yet more depth to the immersive world being created. I for one can’t wait to see which place he takes the characters next.
So, if you’re a genre fan in search of your next hit, then I really couldn’t recommend this series more. Sharp, frightening, and funny, The Enemy has got me scared of monsters again.
The Hunted is out now, published by Penguin, priced £7.99.
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