Beware The Moon Publishing's 'Red Ruin' Lends Kiwi Flavor To New Zealand-Set Zombie Apocalypse Novel

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In 1968, a minor television commercial director helmed a low-budget black-and-white production in the pastoral American barrens outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and irrevocably altered the course of entertainment history. George A. Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead--with its stark survivalist plot, graphic gore and uncompromising ending--was unlike anything seen on the silver screen and became the forbearer of a wave of socially relevant horror untethered from the old-world monsters of previous generations. The undead gut-munchers assailing that backwoods farmhouse weren’t suave vampiric counts from some far-off land or melancholy noblemen afflicted by a loathsome lycanthrope curse--they were us, humanity reduced to its ravenous primordial impulses, a mindless mass, capable of crushing our fragile civilization with the sheer weight of their ghastly numbers. Indeed, the driving idea behind Night’s continued importance--the ‘zombie apocalypse’, has become a creative cottage industry in its own right, begetting innumerable cinematic iterations, television shows, video games, books and graphic novels; the notion of an undead overthrow has permeated contemporary culture even to its uppermost echelons: no less a force than the U.S. Department of Defense has a contingency plan for the spread of an actual zombie contagion. And while some would argue the subgenre has reached its saturation point, like any good revenant, just when you think the creature has perished it rises hungrier than ever.

One of the most successful modern interpretations of an undead end times scenario is Danny Boyle’s 2002 tour de force, 28 Days Later. Romero-esque in essence yet featuring a far more realistic threat in the form of ‘infected’ individuals rather than actual reanimated ghouls, it popularized the concept of a zombie outbreak spreading via viral contamination, a set-up that clearly influenced authors Denver Grenell and Ian J. Middleton with their recent collaborative Beware The Moon literary release, Red Ruin.

Like Boyle's celluloid counterpart, the novel begins with a prologue detailing the animal origin of a curious rapid-onset affliction that causes extreme homicidal aggression in its victims that extends post-mortem. The plot focuses thereafter on twenty-something Carla Gallo, freshly fired from her cushy cruise ship job, as she begrudgingly returns to her hometown of Christchurch, New Zealand. Having left prior to the 2011 earthquake that devastated the city, Carla feels adrift amid the rebuilt metropolis, and after a somewhat disappointing reunion with her brother Antonio (‘Ants’ to those near and dear), Carla feels the reawakening doomy pall that initiated her departure years earlier.

Carla’s humdrum anxieties about job stability and reuniting with her parents, however, end once an injured Ants, having been attacked on his way home from work by a crazed homeless man, quickly mutates into a blood-drooling engine of destruction. After he's put down (twice) by law enforcement, Carla’s existence becomes one of pure self-preservation: escaping the city just as the new plague destabilizes civil order, she wanders the countryside until coming upon a farmhouse occupied by a no-nonsense father willing to defend his kin at all costs…

While epic in scope, the world-building in Red Ruin wisely never overshadows the main narrative; throughout the novel, we earn snatches of what's happening around the rest of the country, but unlike Max Brooks' equally impressive undead-Armageddon classic, World War Z, the emphasis here is less on global calamity or the ramifications of societal collapse. At its heart this is a personal tale, spotlighting characters, their motivations, thoughts and inner drives. Until arriving at the farmhouse, the storyline feels purposefully disjointed; reeling from the transformation and subsequent death of Ants leaves Carla with recurring post-traumatic stress; far from being some cookie-cutter action star, she is instead portrayed as a real person with faults and unique disadvantages (unused to navigating without the internet, she struggles to read regular paper maps), and her city-girl attitude sharply contrasts (and conflicts) with the rural clan who eventually grant her shelter.

As the other primary protagonists, that family--hard-nosed patriarch Phil, Maori wife Ana, teenaged Tia and younger daughter Manaia--are as tight and self-sufficient a unit as can be. Like with Carla, Grenell and Middleton spend much careful time crafting each relative into fully-realized, three dimensional figures; Phil, for instance, initially portrayed as gruff, authoritarian and unyielding, is revealed later to be loving, friendly and as uncertain about his choices as anyone else. Similarly, Ana, seen early on as little more than a frightened housewife, soon takes her place in the story as Phil's equal, just as outspoken Tia sides with Carla to upset her father's often stubborn outlook regarding their new situation.

While both writers possess considerable individual skill (Grenell’s previous short fiction collection, The Burning Boy and Other Stories, and Middleton’s evocative sci-fi horror novel Ghosts of Gion are equally entertaining reads), Red Ruin thrives mightily on their collaboration. Unlike many co-authored works, a cohesion exists that renders each storyteller’s separate footprints invisible; Grenell and Middleton’s minds are enthusiastically conjoined, and their combined energy propels the narrative with a viciously vivid velocity. Fast, hypnotic prose bolsters furious set pieces--the sequence detailing the family's exodus from their barricaded abode is both riveting and flawlessly thought-out--yet they never trade characterization for gratuitous violence. As the novel progresses and the circumstances becomes bleaker and the stakes of failure higher, it's that strong emotional depth that snares a reader’s attention: we care, and deeply so, about the fate of Carla, Phil and his family, which ratchets up the tension during displays of menace.

If there’s any weakness to Red Ruin, it’s a sense of overfamiliarity. One consequence of the subgenre’s zeitgeist overload is that so many permutations of Romero’s initial premise now exist that innovation has become increasingly difficult, if not impossible. Like the aforementioned 28 Days Later--itself steeped in homage to 1979’s Dawn of the Dead--the structure of Red Ruin will be recognizable to anyone even casually acquainted with zombies: the bewilderment at the first infections, Carla’s flight to the countryside, being trapped with strangers at an isolated locale, finding sanctuary only to have it ultimately overrun. On the whole, however, this isn’t the fatal setback one might assume; many a modern rock band has been inspired by The Beatles, but does that make the efforts of those current musicians any less enjoyable? The same logic applies here: Red Ruin may revel in its influences and hit some expected story beats, but the overall delight remains undiluted. Buttressed by those powerful characterizations and an unstoppable intensity, Grenell and Middleton have created one of the best zombie outings yet written. The setting itself offers a singular strength; wielding the backdrop, customs and slang of New Zealand with rapier precision, the native-born Grenell and longtime Welsh expat Middleton lend a distinct Kiwi flavor to the shenanigans that unabashedly sets this novel apart from both its predecessors and other ghoul-centric fare.

Exciting, thought-provoking, expertly written and dangerously addictive, Red Ruin earns the full 5 (out of 5) stars on my Fang Scale. Highly recommended for those horror fans needing a fix of pure adrenaline. And the best part? A sequel is already in the works. May there be many more!

5.0 / 5.0