I love an apocalypse road-trip, but even some of the ones I’ve enjoyed can be rather derivative. Every now and then one breaks the surface to actually deliver an experience rather than just a story, and “Slowly We Rot” is very much one of those.
It’s more than 6 years since a zombie infection destroyed the world and we meet Noah, a young man who lives alone in a mountain cabin. Self-sufficient, he spends his days hunting, reading, smoking weed, yet always battling against the loneliness of his existence. It’s an age since he’s seen another human, and even the occasional zombies that drag themselves up to his cabin have rotted away so much that they pose little physical threat. Isolation is his real enemy. With so much time for introspection, fantasy and guilty memories, his thoughts weigh heavy with suggestions of suicide.
But his hermit existence is interrupted when his presumed-dead sister Aubrey turns up with Nick, an ex-military hardcase. Uprooted from his mountain sanctuary, Noah decides to try and find Lisa, a woman with whom he had an intense and troubled relationship at college. With nothing but an old California address to go on, several states away from his current location, Noah is aware that the chance of a happy reunion is microscopic. But deciding he has nothing to lose and glad of a purpose in a world gone to hell, he embarks on his sprawling mission.
“Slowly We Rot” has an immediately engaging voice that ensured I was absorbed from page 1, and builds on this with convincing characters. Noah is the perfect guide for this kind of tale. He’s flawed, full of guilt, regret and bitterness, but has just enough stoicism and survival instinct to stop him from ever pulling that suicidal trigger. And even at the times when we get frustrated or annoyed with him, he’s all we’ve got, and it’s impossible to leave his corner. This lack of choice creates the right vibe for a tour of this sparse and deadly world.
Noah’s sister Aubrey and her companion Nick are also investable, the big man being a foil of common sense to her emotional impulsiveness. The author manages to keep their actions unpredictable but still believable, which is no mean feat.
I also like Bryan Smith’s vision of the apocalypse. The format and consequences of the plague are fairly standard, but the time lapse makes it interesting. There are very few survivors left, and the original zombies have decomposed to the point where you’re more in danger of being bitten by an unseen rotten head in a footwell than a shambling humanoid. Other survivors are also a threat and Noah is naturally suspicious of those he meets, especially as the years of numbing solitude have left him socially inept. While people are few and far between, Noah covers some serious miles on his journey and meets thrill-killers, slavers, and other damaged souls of all kinds.
He also has a problem with alcoholism and with no-one to talk him out of it – and plenty of liquor to be scavenged from derelict shops and homes – he hits it hard. As he makes his way across the country, Noah loses himself to fantasy. The back story is filled in perfectly and we slowly learn why he’s obsessed with Lisa, the problems they had, and other memories that have made him the man he is today. There are subtle links to what has gone before, and plenty of wise insight into the human condition.
Like any quality apocalypse fiction, this novel is not actually about zombies, which is where so many fall into mundanity. This is a character drama that just happens to have a brutal and grisly setting, and what we’re actually carried by is a man’s struggle for survival against his own capsizing mental health. And boy does he capsize. Noah starts to lose track of fantasy and reality, and things get very strange in the second half. His booze-addled, deteriorating brain layers fiction and memory over the tangible reality, and we end up just as lost as he is, truly joining him on his journey. There’s a superb sense of displacement as he unravels, though he never loses sight of his mission to find Lisa. The moments of numbing drudgery and loneliness are just as powerful as when he actually encounters other survivors or gets attacked, and when a zombie does show up, its rarity just adds to the alien atmosphere.
There are plenty of violent shocks and shivers, but I found that the truly standout scenes were of the quiet variety. One night at the cabin when Noah hears laughter out in the pitch-black woods gave me a genuine chill, and I’ll never forget a vignette in which he dances with a weak and snapping zombie. The two of them pirouetting in the middle of a deserted town is the most haunting and darkly beautiful thing I’ve read for a while.
Overall, this book is much less sick than Bryan Smith’s “Depraved” style stories, focusing more on Noah’s internal destruction to keep us turning the pages. But it still packs a punch when it needs to, and there’s enough gruesome violence to give the extreme fans their kicks.
I spent much of the story wondering if Noah would complete his almost-impossible quest to find Lisa alive, and even if so, how would that pan out? A happy ending would surely be unconvincing, but at the same time, a complete fail would be disappointing. How would the author avoid presenting either a contrived or frustrating finale with a plot such as this? Of course I won’t spoil anything, but I will say that I found the conclusion muscular and very satisfying. So just relax. Bryan Smith’s got you.
An engrossing adventure through both a zombie holocaust and a man’s disintegrating psyche “Slowly We Rot” is pleasingly grim and familiar, yet injects some real substance and humanity to keep it all fresh. Recommended.