Before these two novels, I had read Keene's novels Gathering of Crows and Darkness on the Edge of Town. Both were enjoyable and made it obvious that Keen had a thing for mass havoc and the destroying the world. It's no surprise that his first novel was a zombie apocalypse novel. Quick disclaimers: The version of The Rising that I read is the original version from the now-defunct Dorchester Publishing. The version currently imprint from Deadite Press has a lot of extra material. Also, one of Deadite's editors sent me a review copy of City of the Dead. Now that that's out of the way...
Jim Thurmond has managed to stave off the zombies that have taken over the Earth and hole himself up in a shelter. What he misses most is his son Danny, who is several states away with his ex-wife. When he gets a call from Danny and realizes he's still alive, he sets off to save his son. Along the way, he meets a preacher struggling to keep the faith, an ex-prostitute and junkie,a guilt-ridden scientist who had a hand in bringing the zombies to life, and a demented military officer.
The Rising is just a fun read. It's not hard to see why it won a Bram Stoker award for first novel. This is the kind first novel that signals the beginning of a long and fruitful career in horror writing.
In addition to being fun to read, Keene has a unique take on zombies. As well as being fast, the zombies are also intelligent enough to speak, use weapons, and organize. It's not just humans that come back as zombies either. Birds, dogs, bats, rats, and cats all come back from the dead as well. To make things worse for the human race, a body doesn't have to be bitten to become a zombie. Any corpse that dies comes back as a zombie. With all of these advantages on the zombies' side, it's very easy to believe they would quickly overwhelm humanity and cause societal collapse.
One of the stronger parts of The Rising is how well he balances the world at large with the lives of the individual characters. Given the unique zombies it would have been easy to get lost in the complexities of them and lose the human element altogether. Keene doesn't do that. There's enough back story to most of the characters to make them feel like more than pawns in the grand scheme of things. From the preacher Martin's attempts to figure out how zombies fit in with his concept of the divine, to Frankie the ex-whore kicking her heroin addiction, and of course Jim's determination to reach his son, The Rising is driven just as much by its characters. This said, one of the biggest flaws of the book (or at least the version I read) is that there are enough characters that they could have stood to be fleshed out a little a more. The sadistic Colonel Schow is almost kind of cartoony in how evil he acts.
The plot is actually fairly simple. In fact, the way Jim and the companions he meets on his journey go about, it feels rather episodic. This isn't a bad thing really. It gives us a chance to see this world of Keene's zombies from different perspectives, and it still manages to culminate in a fun climax. A lot of people were pissed off by the ending (which I won't spoil) when this first came out, but I personally think it was a ballsy move on Keene's part to give us this kind of ending. Either way, there was enough demand for a sequel that he eventually wrote one.
Buy The Rising Here
City of the Dead
(Warning: Spoilers for The Rising ahead)
Built to withstand almost anything, Ramsey Tower in the heart of New York City is humanity's last stronghold against the zombie forces. Ramsey, the corporate executive who owns the tower, is doing everything he can to round up survivors and bring them into the tower. Among one of the several rescued is Jim Thurmond, his son Danny, Danny's neighbor Don, and Frankie. Reunited with this son and his story of traveling across the zombie infested country to save him an inspiration to the other survivors, it seems like we've got our happy Hollywood ending. That is, until the zombies start to become more and more organized and double their efforts on attacking the Tower.
Like The Rising, City of the Dead is a fun page turner. In contrast to the previous book which had Jim and his friends running all over the ravaged countrysides and small towns of the east coast, this book takes place almost entirely in New York City. Specifically in the Ramsey tower. The atmosphere here is incredibly claustrophobic as a result. This doesn't make the book feel any smaller though. Keene gives enough detail to how the rest of the world is falling down to remind us we're in the middle of an apocalypse.
Like with The Rising, Keene introduces so many characters, he doesn't get a chance to properly flesh them all out. Don, the new member of Jim's crew, feels especially generic and like he doesn't get much to do. Also, while the moments between the reunited Jim and Danny are usually touching, there are a few times where it slips into bathos.
None of this detracts from the book too much. City of the Dead manages to continue Keene's zombie apocalypse story without succumbing to simply repeating the first book. In fact, City of the Dead could very well be read on its own.
I would highly recommend both The Rising and City of the Dead to fans of zombies and to fans of horror in general.
Buy City of the Dead here.