Pariah: A Different Approach to Zombie Horror
Pariah, by Bob Fingerman, is an engrossing tale about a group of NYC residents who are trapped within the safety of an apartment complex on the Upper East Side after a zombie outbreak ravages humanity on a global scale. Months have gone by since the initial outbreak and their food and water supply is rapidly dwindling. When it appears that hope is truly lost, the survivors spot a lone teenage girl walking amongst the undead, completely unharmed and seemingly able to repulse them.
Normally when people think of zombies, they think of George Romero, Resident Evil (or at least I do), and the trademark brainsss, blood, guts, and gruesome deaths associated with the genre. Over the years we’ve seen the zombie evolve from a shambling, festering corpse to a fast, almost cunning horror. Keep in mind that whether we see the resilient flesh-eaters or the rabid, murderous “zombie” found in 28 Days Later or The Crazies, one consistency has always been that 9 out of 10 times zombie outbreaks occur from either a toxic chemical or airborne virus that’s part of a very vague top secret military and/or pharmaceutical experiment. The other constant is that the characters in these stories usually serve as nothing more than zombie chow, so it’s very refreshing to read an intelligent, thoughtful narrative where human psychology takes a step forward while typical zombie fare gracefully bows down.
The world of Pariah is truly gripping and the characters themselves are what makes the story so great. It’s very rare to find a book where you feel like you are a part of that world. This book was so engrossing that it took me a mere day to read all 365 pages. I shared in their loss, their apprehension towards each other, and in their futility as they stared out their windows for hours at a time, throwing bricks, papers, or even spitting at the undead below to kill time. For those of you who are worried that the story is pure psych and not enough violence, don’t worry: there is definitely a fair amount of blood and gore. It wouldn’t be zombie lit if a few people didn’t get mauled. Now would it?
Pariah evokes a few comparisons. The Walking Dead will definitely come to mind (graphic novel or tv adaptation). In both, the story is focused on the survivors with zombies as a backdrop. Pariah’s survivors are not kick-ass zombie slayers but instead are very real, frightened people trying to deal with a horrific new world. However, unlike the characters of The Walking Dead, the survivors of Pariah are at an impasse; if they leave the building, they’ll be torn to shreds by the millions of zombified New Yorkers, and if they stay they will eventually succumb to sickness and malnutrition. They have no means of travel or finding others like them. They are the last living souls on their block, and possibly in all of New York. There is definitely a greater sense of cabin fever, claustrophobia, and hopelessness that you just don’t get from The Walking Dead.
Pariah also reminded me of the book version of I Am Legend. Now, I want to make it clear that I am aware that Legend’s protagonist, Robert Neville, is completely devoid of any human contact and that his undead are vampires (and thus more human). However, both he and the survivors of Pariah must come to terms with the depressing fact that they might be all that’s left of humanity. Both sets of characters feel angry at their circumstances and both must endure the psychological strains that come with detachment, futility, and that nagging question, “Why am I still here?”
However similar Pariah might be to other undead apocalypses, the addition of a strange, quiet girl that is repugnant to the zombies adds a very interesting twist. I won’t say much more about this other than the fact that I’m sure you can guess the survivors use the girl to their advantage, which drastically alters everyone’s relationship to one another, as well as how they see their predicament. In some ways, the girl is a blessing, and in other ways, she raises more questions and doubts in the survivors’ minds. “How and why is this girl immune? Could she be a vital link to finding a cure? Can this young girl somehow be our last hope?” Despite the fact that she hardly speaks, her presence is paramount to the plot.
Considering that we’ve been bombarded with zombie-based films, video games, and literature over the past few years, it’s very easy to dismiss anything featuring the festering dead. So believe me when I say it gives me great joy that Pariah comes as a refreshing surprise to the zombie genre. Bob Fingerman’s take on an undead apocalypse is definitely not “just another zombie story” and is well worth reading.