Until I started writing books, no one ever gave a hooey what I was reading. Now, I get asked all the time what's on my nightstand; it's practically a requisite question for any interview. Alas, more often than not I disappoint the interviewer because usually I'm not reading the hottest, newest, swankiest horror on the market. More often than not, I'm scanning nonfiction -- reference volumes, forensic case studies, paranormal investigations, catalogs of mythical creatures/defunct religions/bizarre history, or disaster chronicles.

I'm particularly fond of disaster chronicles. Call it voyeurism or morbidity or whatever, but I find them fascinating. Weird things happen when folks find themselves threatened on a grand fist-of-God scale. You'll never get a better look at people -- who they really are, what they're capable of, how virtuous or wicked they might be -- than when real danger looms.

Which brings me to the zombies.

Right now I'm about halfway through World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks, the same fellow who brought us The Zombie Survival Guide. And yes, yes -- I know. It's fiction, despite the peculiar shelving practices of a library or two.

This is an oddball volume, one that's a little tough to describe or explain, but here goes: roughly contemporary with our present, a worldwide zombie outbreak has occurred. It nearly wiped humanity off the map, but eventually we tool-using monkeys adapted to the threat; and now, a decade after the almost-apocalypse sort-of ended, a researcher is gathering first-person survivor accounts and assembling them in this collection. The book itself is is dozens of stories, dozens of essays and observations. But this is not to say that it is not one story.

That's the beauty and terror of it. It is one story. It is the story of a world too fractured on every single level to unify against a worldwide threat. It's the sad fact of nations, states, cities, towns, and individual families too broken from the inside out to muster a practical and effective response.

Our narrator/researcher presents his findings in interview form. He tries to be invisible and let the victim-survivors speak, and the result is this astonishing little compendium of accounts told from every conceivable nationality, political leaning, social bias, and military angle.

World War Z is a masterful work of genre fiction, even though it is all too easy to forget, as you read, that this is a work of genre fiction. The living dead themselves are only a half the threat.* The rest of the problem -- the compounding factor that wreaks true global destruction -- is the response of the living. The zombies are frightening. But the civilization breakdown that results from their appearance is truly terrifying, purely because it is so amazingly plausible despite its B-movie premise.

Don't get me wrong. I think zombies are scary. Really scary. I mean, other monsters are scary, but nothing really resonates with me from a strict, literal fear standpoint like zombies do. Vampires? I grew up in the Era of Anne Rice. As far as I'm concerned, vampires are sexy and special and foreign, and they live forever and wear nice clothes. Werewolves? Suffer from what is usually a temporary (if recurring) condition. And besides, it sounds so illicitly liberating -- this ability to sometimes, with a very good excuse, indulge your inner animal.

But zombies. Oh man, zombies. Zombies are the anti-vampires. They are decay, and numbness, and perfect, consuming conformity. They are an inevitable slow threat, something that happens gradually and then suddenly. They look manageable at first, and by the time the situation is out of control, the situation is so out of control that there's nothing you can do. And part of the horror of the "other" -- part of what makes them so incomprehensible and appalling -- is that zombies don't want anything. You can't negotiate with them, and you can't appease them. They are coming for you, and you have to get out of the way -- but you can't stay out of the way, because they're going to follow you, and they won't stop until they get you.

Oddly enough, the creeping unraveling of this "oral history" reminds me of nothing so much as The Lost Museum, a book I read a few years ago about the Nazi acquisition of Europe's great art treasures.** That book gave me nightmares, I swear, even though it's frankly quite boring in places. For all the things I didn't like about it, The Lost Museum did very effectively portray the dawning terror of watching someone else's deadly problem become your deadly problem.

That's what World War Z does, and does beautifully. It conveys the wrenching truth the every moment you survive merely forestalls the inevitable.

Part of the horror from this book's creeping, widespread calamity comes from the guilty knowledge that if YOU (or your family, or your city, or your country) could have gotten your act together in time, you could've done something about it. But you didn't. Maybe you were misinformed by your government; maybe you figured it was someone else's war to fight; maybe you were too busy arguing with your neighbors; maybe you just didn't believe the threat was credible or possible. I'm sure you had a very good reason.

It doesn't matter. Now it's in your lap, gnawing on your brains -- and it's your fault as much as anyone else's.

World War Z is choppy and necessarily episodic. It's dispassionately accusatory with a feel that's somewhere between the second-person present-tense of Bright Lights, Big City and Eric Schlosser's "don't get mad, get the reader mad" style of journalistic fact hashing. It feels authoritative and compassionate, even as it insists on the hideous, morally flexible, ethically questionable facts of survival. Because at the end of the day, the book isn't about dying -- it's about living, and how hard that is, and how tough decisions get made about who makes it and who doesn't.

And worst of all, this is only barely satire. If you replaced "zombie" with "bird flu," "dirty bombs," "nuclear winter," or any number of other things -- only a few specifics would change; and I strongly doubt that many of them would be different in this country's upper management, if you know what I'm sayin'.

But I'm glad Brooks went with zombies. I'm glad he pulls this absurdist situation out of the sky and says, in effect -- You people see war, but it isn't right in front of you so it doesn't impress you. You see catastrophic storms wipe cities clean, but it's not your city so that doesn't move you. You see continents devastated by famine and disease, but it's not your continent so you don't care -- and you can armchair quarterback a response to all of these things, because you're smarter and better than all those other poor bastards. But what if it happened to you? What if something totally unexpected and completely unimagined threw you into a set of circumstances that threatened your life, your family, your home, and everything you'd ever known and loved? What would you do? How would you behave? Who would you rescue, and who would you kill -- what rules of logic would you break? What impractical actions might you risk?

Max Brooks reaches the only conclusion he can: people are people, and human nature is the one constant in the universe. There will be heroes and villains on every side. But when people are scared for their lives, it won't be orderly and it won't be efficient. It'll be a mess.

And when the apocalypse comes, whatever form it takes ... you, me, everybody -- we will all have some ownership in it.

* If that much. Half the fun of this book lies in how easy it is to argue about its hindsight politics.
** Since I'm well aware of Max's dad's persistent approach to Nazis in his own canon, I wonder if the die-and/or-be-assimilated parallel was deliberate.


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