By Matthew Sprange
Reviewed by Peter Tennant
So, zombies. Enjoying a bit of a renaissance at the moment, with the box office success of films such as Land of the Dead and Shaun of the Dead, while in bookshops we've seen the likes of Brian Keene and David Wellington doing well with the dead guys and gals, and a case could even be made for King's Cell being a zombie novel by any other name. And, of course, the hunt is on to do something different with this cherished horror archetype, as with 28 Days Later in which the living dead don't just shuffle around but chase after their food like Olympic sprinters with the finishing line in sight, or Omnibucket's Brainchild concept (reviewed elsewhere on this site), a spirited attempt to transform the love child of Romero and Fulci into an exquisite coffee table book.
And now new kid on the block Abaddon Books are bringing us Tomes of the Dead, one of four 'shared world' franchises launched to much acclaim in 2006. It's early days yet and I could be wrong, but my first impression is that this isn't a shared world in the proper sense of that term, with continuity, recurring characters and an all embracing story arc, but a case of finding interesting historical backdrops and adding zombies to the mix in the hope that something different will transpire (a ploy used to glorious effect in Somtow's novel Darker Angels). Death Hulk, the first in the series, comes on like a cross between Night of the Living Dead and Hornblower, though given the maritime background it's not hard to imagine that somebody had another money-spinner, Pirates of the Caribbean, at the back of their mind.
Anyway, we're back in the days of the Napoleonic Wars and the bulk of Britain's fleet is anchored off Spithead awaiting the inevitable French attack, while the jolly jack tars go stir crazy. Captain Havelock receives orders to sail to the Cape of Good Hope and deal with the French frigate Elita, which is preying on British shipping. The enemy vessel is larger and carries more guns, but Havelock is confident that his ship Whirlwind is faster and his crew more proficient than any bunch of Frenchies. What he hasn't reckoned with is the intervention of a second marauder, the Deja, a rotting hulk that was sunk by his Admiral father many years before and has now risen up from the deep with a zombie crew to exact a terrible revenge. It will take all of the good captain's skill and seamanship to outwit his enemies, both the living and the dead.
There's nothing particularly innovative here, but what we do get is good, solid storytelling from a writer who appears to know his stuff. While I'd need to be a historian to say for certain, verisimilitude seems to be well served, with enough background information and vital touches of incidental detail to make the portrayal of life aboard a ship of the line in Napoleonic times convincing. Similarly characterisation is handled with skill, the protagonists all well drawn and with credible motives for the way they act. This is true in the depiction not only of the individuals but also of the two main groups aboard the Whirlwind, the officer class and the common sailors, with Sprange strong on the camaraderie and in-fighting of shipboard life, the inevitable resentments that arise when men are cooped up together, the shared sense of duty and pride that bind them to each other regardless. The book takes no prisoners either, with characters we have come to know and care about mercilessly shredded in the final sections, so that we can't be certain about anything and tension is maintained till the very end. The battle scenes are perhaps where Sprange is at his best, with a real knack for action writing and giving us conflicts that grip the reader, real edge of the seat stuff, with plenty of twists and turns of fortune.
Bottom line, if you're looking for a new direction for the zombie subgenre then this isn't the place to be, but taken on its own terms Death Hulk is a lot of fun, a fast paced and undemanding adventure yarn that's worth a few hours of anyone's leisure time.
Death Hulk by Matthew Sprange. Paperback, 277 pp, £6.99. Published by Abaddon Books and available in all good bookshops, or online from Amazon
Website: - www.abaddonbooks.com
Return to Whispers review archive