This Dark Earth is about zombies the way that Othello is about interracial marriage.
Sure, it has zombies – it pretty much jumps right in with them. And their introduction is as terrifying a passage of fiction as I have ever read. A hospital that in a few pages goes from a place of healing to the mouth of hell. A plague introduced not only in its implacable horror, but also in its wrenching humanity. From that passage on, John Hornor Jacobs forces readers to remember that every zombie, every shambler, every ravenous walking corpse staggering through his stunning vision of post-apocalyptic Arkansas was once fully human. A newly undead child biting its mother’s loving arms was only sentences earlier an ill and frightened babe. A staggering rage in a housecoat and fuzzy slippers was, just a day before, a loving woman who kept a tidy home. An unfamiliar horror in the basement of a family home is the raving remainder of a father who’s last human impulse was to save his son from what the father knew he was about to become.
For the reader, this beginning offers everything you could want – adrenaline-laced excitement, skin-crawling fear, and the promise that you are in the hands of a writer who knows how to tell a tale that will keep you turning pages even as he has you afraid of what the next page might hold.
Reading this as a writer, though, I found this beginning to offer so much more. It is a master class in starting in medias res. Characters are introduced as wholly human, with unique motivations, histories and faults. A different kind of post-apocalyptic vision emerges, one tainted with a new horror and a new danger. A sense of place that you can not only see but also, sometimes to your regret, taste and smell, develops as if through your own senses. And it is all revealed with artful grace and economy through the events themselves, not through the disruptive exposition on which too many writers rely.
But this impressive beginning is just the foundation for This Dark Earth’s true story, and that story is not the zombie apocalypse. Because what are zombies really but just another plague? Just a new force of nature – even if, as is hinted here, it is nature perverted by human hands?
This Dark Earth is a story of family – of humanity’s impulse to find in each other the hope that a dark world tries to tear away. It is the story of man’s hunger for community, for order, for society – and of the personal sacrifices that striving for the greater good sometimes demand. (A timely lesson in a political environment where too many of our leaders are encouraging us to focus on our selfishness and to deny the debt –and the taxes – we owe if we want a true and just nation). It is a story about what leadership means – and what it costs.
But it is also a story about the corrupting allure of power. Of the tyranny that too often fills the vacuum left behind when a society breaks down. Of men who choose to be governed by their appetites and lusts instead of governing them. The men who make that choice are the book’s true monsters – not the mindless corpses that wander the woods.
This Dark Earth is a parable, really, about the ascent of man, about our drive to assert our dominion over our world, and about the choices that requires us to make. Do we choose might or right? Do we choose to build or destroy? To grow or just to consume?
This Dark Earth does not settle for the easy Facebook meme questions about how you would survive the zombie apocalypse. It forces the reader to confront a much larger question – what type of world would you have? And what are you prepared to sacrifice to achieve it?
This Dark Earth is a staggeringly effective novel on all levels. A riveting story told at a blistering pace. An arresting new world deftly imagined and peopled with full and compelling characters. And a story that dares to reach beyond the bounds of its genre to explore the theme of what it really means to be human, to be a society.
Read This Dark Earth. If you don’t like it, drop me a line and I’ll send you a copy of my short fiction collection, Old School, for free.