May 6, 2009

Monster Island by David Wellington (Review)


Monster Island: A Zombie Novel

Author: David Wellington
Running Press: 2006

RATING: 5 / 5 zedheads

Here is an author who gets it – David Wellington’s Monster Island is a thrilling, thoughtful, and vividly written horror / adventure zombie novel that puts a new twist on the idea of the zombie. David Wellington takes the reader on a grisly, exciting ride through a hellish zombie nightmare that will make you rethink your expectations about zombie fiction.

Monster Island is set one month after a global disaster precipitated by a zombie outbreak. The brain-intact dead have returned to life as slow-moving but persistently ravenous monsters. Desperately hungering primarily for human flesh, they will in reality eat anything – animals, grass, tree bark – they consume all life. America and the rest of the developed word has fallen to the crisis and now the only relatively safe places in the world are the despotic, oppressive regimes of dictatorships or third-world theocracies and war-lord protected nations.

The plot of Monster Island is told from the point of view of two characters, Dekalb and Gary, whose paths cross in what remains of undead-ravaged New York City. Delkab is an American weapons inspector for the UN. Finding himself stuck in Africa with his daughter while the world goes to hell, Delkab makes it Somalia where he is promised protection if he can find anti-HIV drugs to preserve the life of Mama Halima, a powerful warlord with a cult following. Unsuccessfully able to find the required medications in Africa and the Middle East, Delkab and a team of Somali child soldiers make their way to New York City in the hopes of finding the medications at the abandoned UN building.

In New York, they meet Gary, a doctor-in-training who has joined the ranks of the undead. However, Gary is special – he has found a way to retain his identity and preserve his mind after death. This is only the beginning of Gary’s journey, however. Soon, he discovers something startling about the nature of the zombies around him and his own role as one of the undead. The man he becomes takes the novel in a completely new and unexpected but brilliant direction.

The first third of Monster Island follows the trajectory of a conventional zombie-siege story, but after the first act, it takes off on an incredibly new plot line that introduces a new undead power into the story. I do not want to spoil anything about what to expect because I was unspoiled and new direction surprised and fascinated me. What I can tell you is that the story will sink its teeth into you and drag you non-stop to its startling conclusion.

On the surface, Monster Island may seem like a conventional example of violent, gore fiction but I think there is more to it. First, The novel is expertly written. Wellington does not waste a word – every plot beat is carefully executed and his details are judicially chosen for maximum effect. Wellington has an obvious flair for writing and creating immersive details that are clever and insightful. Although the chapters are short and the book is only 282 pages long, the story is stuffed so full of ideas and events and character development that the story felt epic. Second, and most strikingly, Wellington manages to balance shocking depictions of gory violence with genuine humanity without compromising the wonderful pace of the story. This achievement came a breath of fresh air since I was reading another zombie novel at the same time that was shambling at an aimless pace even a zombie would find slow. Simply put, Monster Island was a joy to read.

Finally, Monster Island also takes the zombie apocalypse formula and introduces surprisingly refreshing elements. For example, characters of colour from Eastern nations are active players in this novel, and they aren’t the typical villainous Muslim stereotypes. Even though Delkab’s companions are Islamic child soldiers from Somalia, and most of us would agree that use of child soldiers are a terrible human’s rights abuse, Wellington challenges such knee-jerk reactions. He explains early on that they belong to a group called the Glorious Girl Army of the Free Women's Republic of Somaliland. Their leader, Mama Halima, formed the fundamentalist Islamic group to protect women from sexual abuse, violence and mutilation such as infibulation, the practice of sewing closed the outer lips of the vagina as a form of sexual oppression. Like the humans, the undead characters are also shown in a more complex and sympatheticly human way. The plot device (which I won't spoil) that Wellington introduces into the story allows the reader to get a sense of what it must feel like to be a zombie, a state which is both frightening and saddening. Make no mistake, the novel is primarily an action / adventure story, but moments like these offer a complexity to the world that is intriguing and often lacking in such stories.

You owe yourself to read Monster Island. It began as an online serial, but you can read the novel and its prequels/sequels in its entirety ONLINE. However, do yourself a favor and buy a copy! There is a pleasure to gripping a collection of pages in tension as you thrill at zombie hoards approach your heroes that you just do not get online. You will not regret it. Monster Island will make for exciting summer reading!

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite parts that captures some of Wellington’s gift for details and flair for writing. Delkab and his team are arriving on Liberty Island, and they find a ghoulish welcoming party dead ahead:
One of the girls opened up with her rifle, a controlled burst, three shots. Chut chut chut chopping up the grey water. Chut chut chut and the bullets tore through the red windbreaker, tore open the woman’s neck. Chut chut chut and her head popped open like an overripe melon and she sank, slipping beneath the water without a sound and still, pressed up against the railing on Liberty Island, a hundred more reached for us. Reached with pleading skeletal hands to clutch at us, to take what was theirs.

Your huddled masses. Give me your dead, I thought. The ship heeled hard over to one side as Osman finally brought her around, nosed around the edge of Liberty Island and kept us from running up on the rocks. Give me your wretched dead, yearning to devour, your shambling masses. Give me. That was what they were thinking, wasn’t it? The living dead over there on the island. If there was any spark left in their brains, any thought possible to decayed neurons it was this: give me. Give me. Give me your life, your warmth, your flesh. Give me.