Zombies! They just won’t go away, both in the stories featuring them and in popular culture. Now we could engage in a long discussion as to why zombies strike a chord with us, how they reach a primal part of our psyche, how an unrelenting, implacable, remorseless enemy that cannot be reasoned with is so terrifying, and so on. But instead I am just going to give you a top 15 countdown of good zombie reads.
Whether you like your zombies slow or fast, created by government scientists or plants or space viruses, mindless or intelligent or what have you, there should be something you find…palatable…in this list.
#15 Death Troopers, by Joe Schreiber
What better way to kick off our zombie list than with Star Wars. I’ll let that sink in for a moment. Set about a year prior to Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, it tells the tale of poor souls trapped on an Imperial prison barge that is overrun with zombies. The chief medical officer leads the survivors on a desperate mission for escape with the help of a certain scoundrel and his furry companion, a pair well known to all Star Wars fans.
The prequel to Death Troopers, Red Harvest, is set 3500+(!) years earlier. It feels a little more zombieish to me, but the Star Wars setting in that one will be less familiar to most readers.
#14 The Living Dead, edited by John Joseph Adams
This is an anthology of zombie stories featuring some top echelon authors, including Stephen King, George R. R. Martin, and Neil Gaiman. As with many anthologies the stories vary in quality and style, but most are well worth the read. The opener, “This Year’s Class Picture”, by Dan Simmons, is perhaps the best.
The second volume I haven’t gotten to read yet, but seeing how it features stories from several authors that appear on this very list I will surely get to it soon.
#13 Cell, by Stephen King
An interesting thing about zombies is that they are more varied in books and movies than we realize. In this particular case people are driven into a zombie-like madness from using their (no real spoiler here considering the title) cell phones. Those who avoid being afflicted have to fight for survival versus more than one type of threat in a world rapidly disintegrating.
This may not be King’s best work, but is still a good read. And it is notably shorter than many of his other books, so it is a pretty quick read as well.
#12 Devil’s Wake, by Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due
Barnes and Due, both accomplished writers on their own (and also married to each other) collaborate on this solid zombie tale. A group of teens must use all their wits to cross zombie filled territory to reach the promise of a safe haven.
While the zombies at first seem to be pretty standard, virus-infected biting killers, they turn out to be something more. To find out exactly what the zombies are you’ll need to read all the books in the series.
#11 Allison Hewitt is Trapped, by Madeleine Roux
When the zombie outbreak occurs Allison Hewitt finds herself trapped in a bookstore. Not the worst place to start the end of days, I suppose. Allison and her fellow survivors make a good go of living in the shop, but must soon venture out into the world, facing not only zombies but the evil that lurks in humans as well.
If you like Allison’s story you can followup with Sadie Walker is Stranded, Roux’s second zombie book.
#10 Rise Again, by Ben Tripp
A small town sheriff, still recovering from her tour in Iraq, finds herself right in the middle of the zombie apocalypse. She has to fight to protect her people (from both zombie and human predators), she has to protect herself, and she has to find her kid sister, who is out there somewhere. Personally I felt that after a pretty good opening this book lost its way in the middle, but the ending makes it worth the read.
In fact the clever and chilling ending has me eager to read the sequel.
#9 Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austin
Where do we start with this one? How about with the fact that besides zombies we also get ninjas? Grahame-Smith (who also brought us Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter) took Austin’s book and added segments to it, which is where the zombies come in. Turning the Bennet’s into proficient zombie killers, while keeping the original plot intact, is quite an amazing feat. The concept is original, and the writing is sharp.
There is both a prequel and a sequel, written by Steve Hockensmith, but I haven’t read them yet.
#8 Zombies vs. Unicorns, edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier
The second anthology on my list, and one quite different from the first. In this one Black’s Team Zombie stories alternate with Larbalestier’s Team Unicorn ones. They write an intro for each story, and in the end the reader decides whether zombies or unicorns are better. Choose a side!
The book features stories from some of the best Young Adult writers in the business, including Scott Westerfeld, Meg Cabot, and Garth Nix. Some top notch writing here, stories that made me want to read more. And I must say that I think Team Zombie scores a decisive victory here.
#7 The Forest of Hands and Teeth, by Carrie Ryan
What a great title! Teen Mary lives in a secluded village in the forest, fenced on all sides to keep the zombies out. Of course things are not all as they seem, and Mary’s curiosity and questioning leads to danger.
One of the things I liked here is that the story is set a couple of hundred years after the zombie apocalypse. It gives the story a very different perspective. The two sequels take us out of the forest and into “civilization”. A related story appears in Zombies vs. Unicorns
#6 Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament, by S.G. Browne
Told by the point of view of Andy the zombie, Breathers shows the zombie side of things. Still self aware, Andy falls in love with a zombie girl, and fights against his urges to eat the living, which his parents (who are letting him stay in the basement) appreciate.
While billed as a rom-zom-com, the story stays true to the zombie genre and has its fair share of dark parts.
#5 Feed, by Mira Grant
Appropriately, the heroine of Feed, Georgia Mason, is a blogger. Society is for the most part holding together and keeping the zombies at bay. The chronicles of Mason and her news team catch the attention of senator embarking on a presidential campaign, and they are drawn into a world of political intrigue. Plus zombies.
The first installment of the Newsflesh trilogy, Feed has all the elements of a socio-political thriller as well as satisfying zombie action. And while Grant may not have quite the same knack of predicting future technology that such luminaries as Heinlein, Bradbury, and Gibson did, she does give us an idea of how our current social media habits may evolve in the very near future.
#4 The Walking Dead, by Robert Kirkman
In 2003 Image Comics published The Walking Dead #1, and black and white comic book written by Robert Kirkman and illustrated by Tony Moore (Charlie Adland took over the art after issue #6). It kind of became a big thing.
The Walking Dead tells the story of a group of survivors facing one crisis after another. Food, supplies, and shelter are a constant concern, as are bad people and of course the zombies. The comic (which is still an ongoing series, with over 130 issues so far) spawned a hit tv series, and Kirkman has written Walking Dead novels as well.
One warning about this series: it is unrelentingly grim. No real comic relief, just one tragedy after another.
#3 The Reapers are the Angels, by Alden Bell
A Southern Gothic zombie novel? Yes, please! While the protagonist here is 15 year old Temple, this is not a Young Adult book nor a light read. All that Temple knows is zombies, having been born after the outbreak. She travels through the south, interacting with both the good and the bad survivors, trying to find her place in the world.
It is these interactions that make up the backbone of this terrific book. The zombies are always there, but the people are what we focus on. And Temple finds that there are consequences to her actions.
#2 Zone One, by Colson Whitehead
I don’t think anyone expected Pulitzer-nominated Whitehead to write a zombie book, but he did. And it is good. In the aftermath of the zombie plague “Mark Spitz” is working on a clean up crew in New York City, eliminating remaining zombies and disposing of bodies. As he works he ruminates on the past, giving us flashbacks of what happened at the beginning, how he survived, and how he came to be called “Mark Spitz”. And of course the zombie plague isn’t as over as we think.
Zone One is as much literary fiction as it is a zombie book, and is not a casual read. Definitely not for everyone. But for those of us it does work for, it works very well.
#1 World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, by Max Brooks
Well, no one should be surprised at this. It is, to me, the acme of zombie fiction. Brooks (son of Mel Brooks) first wrote the Zombie Survival Guide, a book that described zombies and the ways to defeat them in great detail. This led to WWZ.
World War Z is told in vignettes, as related to an unnamed United Nations agent some 20 years after the war. The vignettes, presented as interviews, fill in the details of the zombie war, from the start of the outbreak, to humanity being pushed to the brink, to the ruthless and startling tactics used to fight back, and finally on to triumph and the clean up.
Some of these stories are better than others, of course, but the scope of the book is breathtaking. From the Kansas woman, now in an asylum, who as a toddler was a lone survivor and can still recall the events in harrowing detail, to the military disaster at Yonkers, to the decisions of the worlds leaders, World War Z leaves no part of the war untouched.
And so that is my Top 15 zombies reads countdown. But it is just my countdown, and is subject to change (Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion, is sitting on my shelf at home waiting. Let’s hope it makes the cut). For fun I took a look at how these books are rated by Goodreads users:
#15) Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
#14) Zone One
#12) The Forest of Hands and Teeth
#11) Death Troopers
#10) Devil’s Wake
#9) Zombies vs. Unicorns
#8) Allison Hewitt is Trapped
#6) The Living Dead
#5) Rise Again
#3) The Reapers are the Angels
#2) World War Z
#1) The Walking Dead
Hmm. Some pretty close, and some not. Please share your thoughts on my list, and let me know what other zombie titles need to go on my reading list. Also, do you think we should have a zombie movie list as well?
Here is a list of all the titles mentioned in this blog: https://fontana.nccardinal.org/eg/opac/results?bookbag=28267;page=0;locg=155;depth=0