Horror (in all its forms) has been a huge part of my life for the better part of thirty seven years now, going back to the ghost story books I’d get through Scholastic Books and the episodes of Amazing Stories and Unsolved Mysteries I would watch with my parents (sometimes through the cracks between the fingers covering my eyes). Early on, I decided Dawn of the Dead was one of my all time favorite movies (it still is). I’ve seen the zombie movie genre move from its cult-classic section, “nerds only” position to its current status of mainstream popularity. New zombie movies now star people like Brad Pitt, while tv shows featuring zombies are among the most popular shows on right now. It’s gotten to the point that zombie stories need to exude a fresh, original story and approach to even hold my attention in the slightest. Enter Max Booth III, with his newest novella, Black.
Booth is no stranger to dark fiction. He not only has two short story collections already under his belt (True Stories Told By a Liar and They Might Be Demons), but he is also the assistant editor of Dark Moon Digest as well as the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, a small press that specializes in dark fiction of all kinds and seems to be gathering steam with each passing day. He also has two new novels coming out in 2014. But it’s with Black that Booth breathes new, um, undead life (?) into the zombie genre.
We open with our main character, Charlie, stuck in a jail cell. But before you get the wrong idea, this isn’t a story of a wrongly accused man trying to fight for justice and much deserved freedom. No, by all accounts Charlie belongs in jail. He had attempted to rob a carriage at gun point, shooting and killing a couple people in the process, but got stopped by the marshal before he could get his money. Actually, he got killed by the marshal, which brings us to another key point. Charlie can’t die. Never could. And so what we’ve got with Black is a zombie western with elements of black magic and the supernatural as well as a touch of Bill Murray as Punxsutawney weatherman Phil Connors from Groundhog Day. Like I said before, this isn’t your normal, everyday, blood and gore zombie tale (that also happens to be set in the old west). Booth makes sure that his book gives you more than that, makes sure you have to think a little bit while watching heads splatter.
When Charlie was young, his father’s new horse kicked him in the head, killing him instantly. Charlie’s father lost his mind, killing first the horse, then the family from whom he bought it. It was then that he realized the only way his boy would ever come back was with help from the Devil himself. And so, without his approval, Charlie’s soul was sold to the Devil for him, in exchange for his life. And now, judging by the blackness that is enveloping the city around him, the Devil has come to take back what is owed him. And the undead horde growing in size outside the jail only further illustrates how bad things are going to get.
Booth writes with both skill and knowledge. He brings the reader in with a good command of the language, then keeps us reading on by writing his characters with depth and realism. And he knows his horror, dropping enough familiar tropes to draw us in, then smacking us upside the head with new plotlines and unique, memorable details.
Another thing I really like about Black is its layout. Not only does it feature amazing cover art by Matthew Revert (let’s be honest, every cover by Matthew Revert is pretty amazing), but after the story concludes, it has bonus materials included in the final pages. I’ve been noticing this more and more lately, whether it’s Stephen Graham Jones’ “deleted scenes” style extras in The Last Final Girl or Jeremy Robert Johnson (among others)’s author notes giving us a behind the scenes look into some of the stories we have just read (see JRJ’s We Live Inside You for an example). Max Booth III’s Black gives the reader a little extra after the story is finished, but he opts to include an interview with zombie horror writer Joe McKinney (author of the Dead World series as well as Flesh Eaters and many others).
Weighing in at just under ninety pages, Black is a great first novel(la) from an up and coming writer. Where many other stories of this length can either feel like a short story with a lot of added (read: unnecessary) filler or an unfinished novel, this guy knows what he is doing. And much like a typical approaching zombie horde, I imagine he’s only going to get stronger.