We're witnessing a veritable zombie renaissance in the horror genre, thanks in no small part to the good folks at Permuted Press and promising new authors such as Kim Paffenroth. As I've said elsewhere, this horror fan had never been that interested in zombie fiction in the past. In and of themselves, zombies are pretty darn boring creatures, just stumbling and moaning around all the time with no real sense of purpose; they're not even evil per se because they have absolutely no higher cognitive functions. Zombies themselves, with their extremely limited capabilities, really haven't changed much, so what explains my enthusiasm over zombie novels such as Dying to Live? It is the authors' newfound focus on the survivors themselves. There's plenty of kill-or-be-killed action in Dying to Live, but the book's strength is its exploration of the human condition. Questions of morality, good and evil, and theology are woven adeptly into the story, thereby earning this zombie novel the distinction of being named "a thinking man's horror novel" (one critic even called it a zombie novel for philosophers).
You have a lot of time to think when you're, as far as you know, the only living survivor of a zombie apocalypse. For months, Jonah Caine has wandered from place to place, struggling to survive on his own. Zombies are seemingly everywhere, leaving him no choice but to kill or be killed on many an occasion -- but each kill rests somewhat on his conscience, for he can't forget the humans who once inhabited the horrible walking corpses. Eventually, though, Jonah discovers a group of survivors and joins their society, finding at least a measure of safety behind their museum-turned-compound's walls. There is much variety in the makeup of his new friends and allies, particularly in terms of their feelings for the zombies. Some of them could care less whether the whole thing is the result of an experiment gone wrong, divine retribution, or dumb luck; they just want to kill zombies. There are more practical warriors such as Jack, the group's de facto leader, who brings a military mind to the organized struggle for survival. There is even a somewhat spiritual figure in the form of Milton, a deep and unusual thinker who holds a unique sway over the undead.
As the next few months pass and Jonah becomes more and more a part of the society, sharing many a stimulating conversation with Milton on the theological and cultural implications of the zombie infestation, a true spirit of optimism over the future of both man and his humanity begins to emerge for the first time. Unfortunately for all concerned, however, a new threat suddenly emerges, one far more horrible and cruel than the even the worst of zombies -- a second group of survivors who epitomize evil and the complete breakdown of human society.
Clearly, it is author Kim Paffenroth's background that makes for his unique, somewhat philosophical approach to this zombie-infested world. I would be willing to bet that Paffenroth is the only zombie novelist to hold a position of associate professor of religious studies. While he credits George Romero for basically defining the meaning and cultural importance of zombies in mainstream society, Paffenroth draws perhaps even more influence from the writings of St. Augustine, which explains why questions of good and evil in the human mind and soul serve as the true foundation of this impressive novel.
Just because there are all these intellectual ideas floating around, though, you don't have to worry that there won't be much action or a minimum of blood and gore. Fighting zombies and human monsters is pretty bloody work, and Paffenroth doesn't hold anything back in that department. The inhumanity witnessed in the last few chapters is particularly disturbing, so I don't think horror fans will be disappointed in the least, especially as the action moves ahead at a brisk pace throughout. You really should sit back and reflect on some of the big picture issues Paffenroth raises in the context of everything that happens, though, for that type of intellectual interaction with the story makes for a much richer, absolutely unique zombie reading experience.