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Spotlight on: Deathbringer by Bryan Smith

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Deathbringer by Bryan Smith Bryan Smith, Deathbringer

John Donne said, "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind." If he were alive today, he surely would have added something about what the reversal of that death did to him, as well, because for the last few years, it seems that zombies have been everywhere. From innumerable novels and chapbooks to all those [Noun] of the Dead movies, it seems like everyone has put his stamp on the marauding deceased. (I'm sure it won't be long until someone combines Land of the Dead with Dawn of the Dead to come up with Lawn of the Dead, about the crabgrass that homeowners struggle to kill, but that just keeps coming back.)

Now it's Bryan Smith's turn. Deathbringer, Smith's follow-up to his 2004 debut, House of Blood, is the latest in this surprisingly popular and long-lived string of sauntering-stiff stories. Set in Dandridge, Tennessee (not far from my hometown -- yikes!), Smith's story is a marked improvement over his previous effort, especially in keeping up the pace. More fully developed characters and some surprising situations mingle with full-throttle action and a few unexpected twists at the end to result in a completely satisfying pulse-racer. (The cover illustration is equally effective, but I do wonder what the Reservoir Dogs are doing off in the distance?)

Planning for her upcoming nuptials to a local police officer, Hannah Starke is gunned down in cold blood by goth chick Melinda disguised as a schoolgirl selling magazine subscriptions. A few days later, Hannah's grieving fiancée, Mike O'Bannon, finds a strange, leathery book entitled Invocations of the Reaper on his doorstep and is compelled to read the last page out loud, in a language he doesn't even understand. This page contains a spell to raise the dead, and he has just set into motion the Deathbringer's plan. (The Deathbringer is one of a race of Reapers, and looking at his face causes an instant cardiac arrest.) Hereafter, everyone who dies in Deathbringer will come back to life as a flesh-crazed member of the undead. Hannah is the first to reanimate, making her the all-important "Prime" who must then find Invocations of the Reaper before the Guardians do. I could tell you who the Guardians are, and go on with the complicated plot, but it is so smoothly executed that I could only do it an injustice.

The zombie territory, as I said, has been covered again and again, so it's hard to call anything about Deathbringer original. What sets it apart from other books like Brian Keene's The Rising or Stephen King's Cell is Smith's new perspective. Other stories usually focus on the people fighting the rising epidemic of undeath, neglecting the thoughts and feelings of the true victims: the zombies themselves. For the first time in memory, Smith allows us inside the minds of these unheralded fall guys. These zombies are no longer the shuffling moaners so long representative of the breed (in fact, these are firmly in the 28 Days Later camp -- fierce, fast, and ferocious). Smith's zombies are thinking people who are merely different in their hunger cravings, and their newfound strength.

Hannah remains a major character throughout Deathbringer, despite her new form; her conflicting emotions serve to make her sympathetic, not just another bloodthirsty creature. (For example, on her road trip to retrieve the book from Mike's house -- which offers up some highly amusing detours -- her bloodlust and the joy she will feel in seeing his facial expressions contrasts with the horror she feels at the thought of harming her lover. It just goes to show that death is not a guaranteed escape from neuroses.) As for the villainous Deathbringer himself, Smith tells us he is really just a guy doing a job -- a job anyone could do, given the opportunity -- his job is just a little more interesting, and a little more difficult to describe in résumé bullet points.

In approaching the cantering-cadaver chronicle from another direction, Bryan Smith has created a narrative that feels new even while it remains faithful to its predecessors. Zombie fans expect a certain kind of tale, very much like the ones they have enjoyed previously. At the same time, an author tries to make his story stand out from the rest. Smith has done a terrific job in finding this balance; Deathbringer fits firmly into the canon, but only Bryan Smith could have written it quite this way. He combines sensitivity with energy, and a taste for gore with a sense of humor, culminating in a novel that has something for everyone -- or at least everyone who likes zombie novels.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Page Horrific. Copyright 2006. Reprinted with permission.

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