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The Dead


The Dead

THE DEAD is the second book in Charlie Higson's terrifying and action-packed horror series, in which everyone over the age of 16 has been infected with a disease that turns them into flesh-eating monsters. Set one year before the events that occur in THE ENEMY, it fulfills the promise Higson made in his interview with last year: "More zombies! More blood! More flesh-eating!"

The book begins with a group of boys battling their way out of their school. Encountering zombies in the hall who used to be trusted teachers, the violence in this sequel is personal. Not only do the characters have to battle what remains of people they once knew, they also see several of their own become infected by the disease. In many ways grimmer than Book One, THE DEAD is about how kids handle the crisis as it first emerges and how they start building the organizations for survival.

THE DEAD also features a completely different cast of characters. Schoolmates Jack and Ed find their friendship tested by the crisis. The battles taken for granted in THE ENEMY are new to these kids, and many of them are squeamish about fighting, even when their own lives are at risk. Likewise, there are the kids who are physically smaller or weaker. The team quickly has to decide who gets protected and who gets left behind. Holing up in the Imperial War Museum, they have a safe shelter, clean water, and plenty of weapons. The only trouble is they don't know how to use them and ammunition is scarce.

Bookworm Chris discovers that his coping mechanism --- reading --- offers more than escape in this new world. Locating training manuals in the museum archives that can show kids how to operate the weaponry, he realizes that, with the adults infected and the electricity and computers down, only books hold the key to the future. Kids will need them to figure out how to get things working again. Higson writes: "If Chris knew one thing, it was that knowledge is power. And where was all the knowledge in the world right now? In books."

Chris starts the book reading fiction (including Philip Reeve's distant future dystopia, FEVER CRUMB), but as it ends he has appointed himself as a kind of guardian of knowledge, packing up the volumes he deems most useful when the museum is threatened by fire. He believes he's protected by the Grey Lady, a ghostly presence rumored to haunt the stacks.

Chris is not the only one to encounter this type of religious experience. Matt also emerges as a kind of apocalyptic visionary. His conviction that they all will be saved by the Lamb --- a Christ-like figure without actually being Jesus --- is chilling at the same time as it offers some of the book's rare moments of humor. Convinced that they need a banner to rally other kids to their cause, he repurposes one of the banners from the museum, placing a drawing of his vision on it and captioning it "Angus Day," a misspelling of Agnus Dei. But what's truly spooky about Matt and his visions is that, by the end of the book, one of them comes true.

Not only does the violence seem more personal and the body count higher, these are kids just learning their strengths. They are adapting to a new situation and finding their limits when it comes to skill and the will to survive. At one point, Ed and Jack discuss what makes the biggest difference when it comes to survival. Jack concludes that it's random: "It's luck, that's all. Makes no difference one way or the other what skills you've got, what training you've had, what school you went to… When a bomb goes off, it doesn't choose who it blows up."

Likewise, Justin, who, along with Chris, is one of the kids in the "Brain Trust" --- nerds unaccustomed to brawling --- describes how their society will need more than fighters: "You can't just have a society of warriors. What are they going to eat? Where are they going to live? What clothes are they going to wear? You need some fighters for protection, yes, but it'll be like any functioning society, you'll also need farmers to grow food, scientists and engineers and doctors to make things and to keep you healthy, you're going to need artists, musicians, and actors to entertain people…. We need lots of different people with lots of different skills. That's how we can survive, and why we'll defeat the sickos, because we're cleverer than they are, and we can build a society, but they can't."

This necessity for civilization over sheer violence has been one of the biggest themes in Higson's series. What makes THE ENEMY and THE DEAD so fascinating is its vision of children doing it on their own, from scratch, without adult guidance or control. And if there's an optimistic vision in these books, it is the capability of kids to face enormous odds and still come out fighting. The adults are not just corrupt, they are literally monsters who feast on the flesh of the young. As one smart aleck pipes up when one of the self-appointed leaders accuses them of behaving like a bunch of kids, "We ARE kids." And I suspect THE DEAD will appeal more to younger audiences than the kind of adult who might try to prevent them from reading it.

Reviewed by Sarah A. Wood on June 14, 2011

The Dead
by Charlie Higson

  • Publication Date: May 20, 2014
  • Genres: Horror
  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
  • ISBN-10: 1484721454
  • ISBN-13: 9781484721452