This Dark Earth by John Hornor Jacobs

This Dark Earth
Recommended to Carol by: Seak (Bryce L.)
Recommended for: committed zombie readers only
Read on April 11, 2013
★ ★ ★ 1/2


And the award goes to Gallery Books for Most Deceptive Cover Ever, with a second award for the Most Misleading Book Blurb in the Zombie Genre.

My blurb? Seven interconnected stories follow a doctor, her son and a trucker as the zombie apocalypse goes down. The son is a cold-blooded Messiah figure while the trucker provides him with emotional guidance. Humanity remains largely cruel and selfish, although some people will martyr themselves for the good of the herd. Let the rebuilding commence!


The first section starts off very well, leaving me deeply engrossed in the story. Near ground zero a pathologist, Lucy, discovers that there’s something odd about the people overflowing the waiting room. They seem to be seizing, febrile, violent, or gnawing at their own fingers and lips. Uncomfortable with the drama, Lucy and a pediatrician friend concentrate on a woman with a sick baby. Lucy starts problem-solving the illness until her pediatrician friend pulls her away from her myopic focus on pathophysiology, and raises the larger issue of their safety. They escape with the woman and her baby as heavily armored officers storm the E.R. Shortly after, Lucy hitches a ride with Knock-Out, a trucker, as she attempts to avoid the containment zone. Surviving the nuclear fallout and finding Lucy’s son Gus quickly becomes their focus.

By giving the reader a close-up of the drama unfolding at the hospital, we get a feel for the human tension of early disaster and the obligations of a healer. One of the interesting components of zombie stories is the reaction at the outbreak. What will happen? Will it be recognized? Ultimately, it all depends on how fast the disease travels and the incubation period, and so far no one has done it better than World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. (Well, Brooks and the people writing the reports on bird flu). Jacobs gives us an inside perspective with a doctor and a possible initial official response, and it’s the kind of insight that can really lend an interesting twist to a traditional zombie survivalist story.

Jacobs writes well, with non-stop action and skilled structure and imagery. One of the initial views of the zombies:
“Again, milky eyes glared at her. Lucy couldn’t pin it down exactly, but there didn’t seem to be any awareness in those eyes. It was as if some deep-sea creature felt eddies and currents spun off a passing fish and moved to attack, working on pure instinct.”

Meeting Knock-Out, the trucker: “The trucker who picked her up was a brawny, thick man, bristly and unkempt. The cab smelled of cigarettes, energy drink, and corn chips. But the fecund normalcy of the man almost made Lucy want to cry.”

Unfortunately, the book fails to shine for two significant reasons and one small one. The first is the structure of the collection itself. Sections centered on seven different characters are all too loosely connected to result in a satisfying story gestalt. As bit character pieces, they range from decent to outstanding, but as a plot, its an unsatisfying way to build tension and consistency.

The second major reason the book falls apart is the point-of-view switching. If the plot isn’t enough to pull it together, characterization can’t save it either, especially when Tessa only gives us a minor, outsider version of the trio of Lucy, Knock-Out and Gus, and the engineer Broadsword isn’t involved with them at all. We barely get to know either of them besides the immediate context of the apocalypse and their relationship to the main characters, so it doesn’t carry the emotional weight it could have. The sections vary considerably in length, but are shorter toward the end of the book: Lucy’s is 48, Knock-Outs 73, Tessa’s 47, Gus 79, Barbara 24, the engineer 35, and the final section 22 pages. It destroys the pacing to be dropped into another person’s head so irregularly. Making it more challenging is the ‘minutes’ entry style of Barbara’s section, incongruous with the rest of the narratives.

The final, ironic quibble: when you write well, the expectations are higher and missteps more obvious. Rhiannon Frater’s The First Days is somewhat similar to the section on Lucy’s experience– intricate detail in recognizing and surviving the beginning of an epidemic. However, Frater’s writing is written at a simpler level, so the enjoyment comes out of the fast-moving plot and willingness ignore language problems. Jacob, on the other hand, is clearly a talented writer, so oddities are stick out more. The pediatrician’s initial “Why are we here? In this town” line smacked of entry-level writer’s introduction. Then there are the patients in the waiting room–for the life of me, I can’t figure out how someone can “swallow her own lips.” As a medical person, I’ve heard of swallowing a tongue, but as Jacobs clearly loved the lip imagery, it remained distracting. I won’t bore you with the rest of the ‘hmm’ moments, but they were there.

Finally, I get it. It’s the apocalypse. A story doesn’t need to have rape in order for us to understand inhumanity. Authors: as tempting as the cliche is, try to reach a little higher.

Good writing, standard zombie survival story, messy narrative. Recommended for readers who want to cover the genre, or are able to treat it as short stories in a connected setting.

One star and another star and one other star and a little bit extra of a star equals three and a quarter stars.

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
This entry was posted in Apocalypse & dystopia, Book reviews and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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