On the first page of my copy of Zom-B is a letter from the author, Darren Shan, in which he quotes a plea made by Alfred Hitchcock: “Please don’t give away our ending. It’s the only one we have.” I am lucky enough to be reading an proof edition of Zom-B, an early version of the book sent out to booksellers and reviewers, and Shan is keen to make sure we readers aren’t tempted to give away the two walloping twists when the inevitable raving about Zom-B begins with our customers. “See if you can find a way to discuss Zom-B with those who have not read it, without giving away the cataclysmic plot twists,” he urges. It’ll be harder than you might think right now, he says, and it turns out, of course, that he’s right.
Darren Shan is known for his love of horror, for not shying away from blood and gore and all things that ooze when writing his books. He says it like it is, which is probably why hundreds of thousands of people, young and old alike, can’t get enough of him. He is a taboo breaker and this is hugely influential. Zom-B is the first in a new series, and I’ll give any reader two guesses on the subject matter - but if you need to use the second one, don’t bother.
B is a tough nut. London teenager, bit of a down-and-out family, dad’s not too nice a guy. If B lights up the teacher’s eyes at school it’s more likely to be in terror than admiration. Naturally skeptical, when reports hit the news about zombie attacks in Ireland, complete with gory footage, B dismisses it as a hoax - there are bigger things to worry about, like how can you love your dad when he’s a bigot and a bully? How can you be so desperate to get his respect when the only way to do so is by behaving in a way you know is wrong? Plus there are weird dreams with killer babies and weird people with owl-like eyes to contend with, and all that’s even before the zombies start to become a real problem.
“Good fantasy is always about the real world, reflections of it,” Shan told me a couple of years ago when he visited the branch of Waterstones where I work - “however fantastical it is, you’re writing about the world you know.” This continues to be true of Zom-B. The theme at the forefront of the story is racism, and B is caught between two worlds: dad’s racist politics versus the better path; disgust at witnessing racism in others versus the pull of using racism as a bullying tool. The story really finds its pace when B’s class is taken to a Holocaust exhibition, and Shan spells it out pretty clearly: this is where racism leads. Genocide is the ultimate conclusion to racism run out of control. Is that a price that B is willing to pay?
Zom-B is very easy reading at a bare 200 pages long, but it’s full of twists and turns and several little threads dangled temptingly in front of my eyes. Who are the Owl Men? What is with the scar on B’s leg? Is the zombie attack an experiment gone wrong, movie story schtick, or some grand, racist genocidal plan being played out by those that be? Who would I rather meet down a dark alley at night: B or a zombie?
And what about that double twist at the end Shan has warned about? Yup, I’m trying desperately not to give it away; it’s really not been easy, but it’s worth it. Zom-B kicks ass and eats brains, and will definitely satisfy all those die-hard Darren Shan fans out there waiting on the edge of their seats for the new installment.