I’ve always found the concept of epistolary stories (that is, stories that are told indirectly, through diaries, newspaper stories, lab notes, voicemails, letters, etc. – this is similar to, but not the same as an oral history like World War Z) to be extremely interesting, and I’ve always thought that it would make for an really cool zombie novel. The Mammoth Book of Zombie Apocalypse! is the only book to date that tries this approach, at least that I’m aware of. While it isn’t completely successful, it did make for a fun, and very fast read.
The story is that, in the not-too-distant future, Great Britain is trying to hold some giant festival to help boost the morale of its citizens, which is becoming catastrophically low – there’s a lot of talk about a terrible economy and an increasingly fascist government. They push through all the preparations, even though they require things like digging up a medieval plague pit full of victims of the black death. This being a zombie book, you can safely assume that those bodies kick off a new plague, only this time the dead come back and do what zombies do.
The book gets into trouble right away by falling into the trap of explaining far, far too much about the source of the outbreak and how it works. I won’t get into too many details, but let’s just say fleas play a very important role, but the explanation is silly and makes suspension of disbelief a struggle. Zombie outbreaks work best when people are too busy trying to survive to look for the root cause, because any explanation for it is going to be a tough sell, and it gets tougher as you pile more and more details on. Thankfully, the nature of the book means that we see things from a lot of different perspectives. Naturally, the sections that focus on everyday survival work a lot better than those focused on the nature of the outbreak.
While The Mammoth Book doesn’t make this super obvious, this is actually a collection of short stories versus a single novel by a single author. The interesting thing is that they’re all telling a part of a greater tale and they all have to adhere to the same basic plot and set of rules. It’s a pretty cool concept, and not one that I’ve seen before. Like most anthologies, some authors are better than others, but there are enough good ones to make the book come out on the positive side of the equation. Unfortunately, most of the poorer writers seem to be front-loaded into the book, so you have to get through a couple uninteresting stories to get to the better stuff.
The most interesting thing about The Mammoth Book is the presentation. If the story you’re read is, for example, told via a twitter feed, the pages are mocked up to actually look like a Twitter feed. A thirteen year old girl’s diary (coincidentally the strongest story in the book)? It’s on lined stationary in a nice handwritten script. The book takes a lot of pains to make the stories look like they’re a collection of data versus a single narrative, and it works really well. The only downside, and I really don’t understand why this was done, is that there are no page numbers. Not a really big deal, but it makes finding out who wrote what far more difficult than it should be.
The Mammoth Book of Zombie Apocalypse! isn’t a great book, but it’s a fun read with a couple unique elements. I actually found myself looking forward to the next section of the book just to see how they would lay it out.