September 9, 2011

Dead Beyond the Fence (Review)

Dead Beyond the Fence

by Brian Kaufman

Dark Silo Press: 2010

3 / 5 zedheads


I've thought long and hard about this review but, at the end of the day, I just don't have much to say about Brian Kaufman's Dead Beyond the Fence. In short, it's a passable zombie novel that doesn't do anything particularly new, and it's probably too bleak for its own good

Taking its cues from the films of George A. Romero, Brian Kaufman's Dead Beyond the Fence is a bleak novel of the zombie apocalypse in which people -- not the zombies -- are the greatest threat to survival. Like the zombies in Night of the Living Dead, Kaufman's zombies are slow and virtually mindless, but they become a great danger when they congregate en masse. It's the living you have to watch out for. Their pettiness, short-sightedness, emotional problems, and personal drama will get you killed. This is what our protagonists, Kevin and Angel, learn after they leave an apartment complex that is becoming increasingly unsafe. Vacating before the zombies breach the apartment's defenses, Kevin and Angel travel through the devastated remains of a Colorado college town. Their journey ends at a research facility surrounded by a fence that is only barely keeping the undead at bay. Inside, scientists and researchers from the deserted college are working on unlocking the cause of the zombie plague and building a model society free of the egotism and selfishness of the past, or so they like to think. When Kevin and Angel are given a place to stay at the facility, however, they upset a fragile social dynamic that's barely functioning. Suppressed rivalries flair up, and you know how the old story goes -- man turns against man at a time when survival depends most on cooperation. All the while, the dead beyond the fence are starting to push harder and harder against the boundary, which is ready to collapse at any minute.

The writing style in Dead Beyond the Fence is fairly humorless and devoid of metaphor or symbolism; it's very by-the-book. On the plus side, this style allows the novel to offer a realistic look into the zombie apocalypse. However, the story's premise -- the disintegration of a community -- is a common formula we've seen played out in numerous other zombie films, books, and video games. Therefore, while the book is competently written and built on a tried-and-true premise, the familiarity of this premise is also the story's greatest weakness. The story simply lacks a compelling momentum and emotional center. The story is not very compelling. It's a bleak story from start to finish. Also, the characters aren't very compelling. Dead Beyond the Fence is populated with single-serving characters. By "single-serving characters," I mean characters that serve their purpose in the story while you're reading but leave little lasting impression after you put the book down. They're not badly written characters, mind you, but they're not particularly fresh or interesting either. They do what they need to do to move the story along, but not much else.

As I mentioned previously, Dead Beyond the Fence is also too bleak for its own good. See, Dead Beyond the Fence is actually two stories. First, it's a sad novel about Kevin and Angel that ends with a somewhat ambiguous but ominous fate for our protagonists. Following the novel, Kaufman has included a short novella called Dread Appetites that carries us seven months into the future and face-to-face with an even bleaker fate. I guarantee you that whatever fate you imagine befalling Kevin and Angel at the end of Dead Beyond the Fence will pale in comparison to the oppressively grim and painful outcome that Kaufman outlines in his matter-of-fact detail.

I have nothing against stories that are bleak. When authors take the premise of the zombie apocalypse seriously, they rarely produce stories abundant with smiles, sunshine, and happy endings. With that noted, bleak fiction must also be enriching to read if it's going to be successful. Take, for example, Cormac Mccarthy's The Road. It's a relentlessly sad and gloomy vision of post-apocalyptic society, but it's beautifully written and rich with metaphor and lyrical, inventive prose. As a result, even though the story is soul-crushing, the writing is inspiring and a joy to read. It strikes a fine balance. Kaufman's narrative style, by comparison, is not what I'd call beautiful. Kaufman's writing is clear, literal, and matter-of-fact, but it also lacks emotional resonance. The only emotions it evokes are horror and sadness. While this helps Kaufman establish a depressing world plagued by zombies, this style doesn't make Dead Beyond the Fence very engaging or enriching to read. I can't honestly say I enjoyed the story as a work of entertainment because of how disheartening it became.

I hate to say this about a competently written book, but Dead Beyond the Fence doesn't bring anything to the table we haven't seen before. Every time I thought about starting a new chapter I had to think, "What's there to keep me coming back to this world of death and sadness?" Most times, I didn't have an answer.

Dead Beyond the Fence is a standard zombie novel, but it just didn't grab me.