Dying to Live by Kim Paffenroth

I’ve noticed that there are a lot of zombie novels around these days. Most of them are of the small press or self-published variety. Why is this? Well, I can speak from personal experience and say that zombies sell. Back in the early 1990s, in my late teens, I co-directed and starred in a no-budget zombie flick, Zombie Genocide. This movie simply will not die. Regularly, I get requests for DVDs, while the other – and arguably better – movies I’ve made since then simply sit there and stagnate.

Even though zombies are my favourite movie monster, I’m loathe to jump too far into this sea of fiction, for fear that I will be drowed by waves of poorly written cash-ins on a tried-and-tested formula. Dying to Live, however, piqued my interest more than the others, because the author, Kim Paffenroth, has a degree in Theology (to the unfamiliar, that’s the study of God). Zombie scenarios, to me, have always seemed like the perfect vehicle for discussing life and death, the existence of God, heaven and hell, etc. I was very interested to hear another author’s thoughts on something I had already mused upon.

Dying to Live fits snugly into the mythology created by George Romero. The zombies are slow-moving, hungry for warm flesh, and they go down with a bullet in the head. There’s nothing new about the creatures themselves, and I personally don’t think there needs to be. We begin the story many months post apocalypse, with a solitary man, Jonah Caine, who spends his days wandering from place to place, scavenging for food and hiding from the dead. Right at the start, we see him waking up one morning in a tree-hut to the sound of a lone zombie groaning up at him from ground level. After dispatching this irritation, the neverending quest for food takes Jonah dangerously far into a nearby city, where he ends up surrounded by an army of the dead. He is rescued by the skin of his teeth by a band of survivors who have made a home for themselves inside a museum. Most of the rest of the story revolves around this place: who the survivors are, how they came to be there, and their unusual way of life within those walls.

The book contains various thrills and spills regarding zombies, but doesn’t get down to anything really high octane until about three quarters of the way through. I hesitate to raise this point as a criticism, because I have to remember how much I love the old 1970s Dawn of the Dead, and the 1980s Day of the Dead, both of which had a similar story structure. And like those two films, the real threat in Dying to Live comes not from the zombies but from man’s own wickedness, and we end up with frenzied battle involving the good, the bad and the putrifying.

The book is vey well written. There were times that I paused and thought, “Wow,” at a particular description or observation. I wish I had noted down a few references to share with you now, but take it from me, the whole book exudes an atmosphere that makes you mentally say to the author, “Dude, you have been spending way too much time thinking about this stuff.” Paffenroth has no doubt enjoyed many, many daydreams in the land of the dead – which is, of course, exactly what we want! Consequently, the prose is rich, and you can’t help but think, “If I were Jonah, this is exactly how I would feel in his shoes.”

As well as the philosophical observations, the book will also appeal to those who like a more straightforward horror story. There is plenty of zombie blasting of offer, and when it’s human versus human, the author is not afraid to be mean and nasty to the good guys.

Overall, a worthwhile read, written by an author who is passionate about his subject matter.