Most importantly, would you expect these questions to be the focal point in a zombie novel?
These and other philosophical questions are the driving forces in Severed, the latest novel by Gary Fry. A mysterious powder is unleashed in London as part of a terrorist act. Individuals who come into close contact with the substance become infected. And their minds are severed from their bodies – literally. A ghost-like essence separates from the body and floats skyward joining other “souls” in a rotating spiral over the city (check the cover for a cool depiction). The body that remains earthbound has lost all moral restraint – leaving a vicious zombie-like thing that goes on a rampage. Those they bite become severed. The zombie numbers increase exponentially as do the ghost-like souls rotating above the city. London quickly becomes a chaotic mess.
As luck would have it, a university professor whose scholarly focus includes the study of violent behavior from this mind-body perspective is available for consultation (he just lost his position after having a sexual relationship with a student). Unfortunately, Professor Stephen Hobbs is a narcissistic and hedonistic individual. He destroyed his own marriage with his infidelities and otherwise treated his wife like dirt. Also, he never visits his mother who lives nearby. He is not exactly the type of guy you want on the front lines to figure out how to handle morally unrestrained zombies. But, author Gary Fry makes him our go-to hero – and it is a great choice. Initially unlikeable, Hobbs grows on the reader as more is revealed about him. As his previously repressed memories of his childhood are exposed, you realize there is a conscience in there somewhere, and you just hope his awareness jolts this part of his personality into action in order to save humankind.
Dr. Fry, a psychologist by training, has a lot of fun with psychological symbolism. The zombies are driven to satisfy brutal and self-destructive urges of physical and sexual violence. The moral decay associated with these unconscious drives manifests itself in body parts that rot and fall off at an alarming rate. The ascetically driven spirits floating above the city are drawn to a higher sense of spiritual well-being and moral superiority (they even form the huge rotating halo over London). The strategy (what follows is a slight spoiler – but only in the most general sense) to cure the ongoing disaster involves an antidote (medication), the bolstering of our hero’s inner ego strength, and the appropriate harnessing of moral reasoning. Short-term psychodynamic therapy, anyone?
The author is at his best when his characters are reasoning about the philosophical and psychological implications of the events. The suspense is keenly felt when they struggle with inner demons. While some people might be turned off by the philosophical arguments, I loved this aspect of the story. (As an aside, this inner dialogue is true of his some of his other works including two of my favorites: Menace and Lurker). Dr. Fry is less adept at describing action sequences, however. Characters become a little too reflective of their circumstances when in reality they would be operating on pure adrenalin. When this happens, suspense is disrupted – but this doesn’t occur frequently. For the most part, momentum is maintained throughout.
Overall, I enjoyed Severed – especially the inner dimensions of the characters. I was also thrilled with Gary Fry’s attempt to juggle zombie violence, psychoanalytic metaphors, 17th century philosophy, and Descartes. Have you ever read a novel with this combination before? I haven’t. And, any story that can take a boring academic and transform him into an action hero is okay with me.