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The Condemned / David Jack Bell

thTheCondemnedCover.jpgDelirium Books / January 2008
Reviewed by: JG Faherty

The Condemned has earned advanced praise from such luminaries as David Morrell, Thomas Monteleone, T.M. Wright, and Jack Ketchum, and there’s a reason: This is a damn good book. 2007 has been a banner year for fresh, new horror, at least in my experience. Having read some of David Jack Bell’ previous stories, I expected The Condemned to be good.

I didn’t expect it to be great.

On the surface, The Condemned is another entry in the zombie category; reading the back cover blurb doesn’t do the book justice in this respect, though, because The Condemned is much more than a zombie tale. It’s a whole new kind of zombie tale, where the zombies are living, breathing victims of a terrorist attack of dubious origin, and the government - who may or may not actually be responsible for their plight - has given over our country’s cities to the zombies - City People, they’re called - in order to focus all its efforts and resources to fighting an unnamed war overseas.

The basic premise of The Condemned is that the book’s protagonist, Jett Dormer, has returned to work as a metal reclamation driver following the death of his partner at the hands of the City People during an unexpected ambush. Jett is a hero in the Rambo sense of the word: world-weary, filled with self-loathing for letting his partner die, and only interested in fulfilling his promise to his partner’s widow that he’ll somehow make things right.

What Jett decides is that to make things right, he somehow has to recover his partner’s body and bring it out of the city for a proper funeral.

Jett gets saddled with a borderline homicidal maniac veteran, who agrees to go along with Jett’s plan on the condition that they kill as many City People as possible during the process. Jett reluctantly agrees, and soon finds himself snared in web of conspiracy and betrayal as he digs deeper to find the truth about his partner’s whereabouts.

Another writer might have stopped here, delivering an action-thriller with the subplots of Jett’s internal struggles and his ever-increasing problems at home. But David Jack Bell isn’t an ordinary writer.

Instead of settling for a run-of-the-mill story, Bell has layered his book with subplots, and filled in the spaces with deft commentary on America’s war against terror, the follies of the Bush administration, and the plight of the homeless.

In Bell’s world, Jett’s betrayals don’t just come from the outside - the government, his partner, his boss. They come from the inside as well, as he’s forced to go against his better judgment in order to achieve his goals. He needs his new partner’s help, but in order to get it, he has to become a murderer. He gives up his relationship with his wife and child, because he has to honor his promise to his ex-partner’s wife. He allows himself to become embroiled in a criminal conspiracy, just so he can get the information he needs.

And, like any tragic hero, when confronted with the truth about the City People, he sacrifices himself in order to expose the government’s lies.

Bell’s City People are shambling, dirty humans who hide themselves away in the daytime and come out at night to scavenge for food. They are the homeless in any big city, the ones whose populations we see growing every year and yet the government does nothing about. In The Condemned, the idea that the government, and not a terrorist group, has poisoned the water supplies of the cities and created the City People, is broached more than once as a possibility.

And who among us can’t see this as an entirely real possibility, the idea that our government might just try to wipe out all the homeless in a single blow, only to have their top-secret project explode in their faces? Especially if, as in Bell’s story, the government uses the supposed terrorist attack as an excuse to go to war? I remember when people were saying the same thing about the Twin Towers, and the anthrax scares. In fact, if you know someone with a real fear of government conspiracy, it might be best to keep them away from this book, or you could be in for weeks of “See? It could happen!”

Bell doesn’t limit his sly commentary to the terrorist angle, either. Jett’s new partner (‘the Kid’) talks about being involved in the torture of prisoners of war, and being sent to a combat hot zone - where he loses a leg but gains a new perspective on authority - when the torture results in the death of a prisoner.

At one point, Jett talks longingly about going into the city as a boy to see baseball games, and how even before the City People took over, the neighborhood around the stadium had gotten so bad you feared for your life just going to a game. Living in New York, I know that fear - any time I go to a Yankee game, or a Mets game, I wonder if my car will be there when I come out. And you don’t dare go near Yankee Stadium on mini-bat giveaway day, not if you value your skull.

All of this adds up to a fine book, but there is one more thing that elevates The Condemned from the rest of the pack - Bell’s writing. I don’t remember how long he’s been writing fiction, but I do know that a couple of years ago I had the opportunity to read a manuscript of his that hasn’t been published yet, and it was incredibly real. So I wasn’t surprised that The Condemned has the same quality - you feel like you’re there with these characters, part of the conversation. Belief is hoisted up and suspended as if it weighs nothing more than a feather, all thanks to Bell’s dialog and prose.

Take a look at this conversation between Jett and the Kid, just before Jett brings his new partner into the city for the first time:

“You must have seen some shit over there.”

“Oh yeah. It was ate up.”

I nodded to show I was impressed.

“You’re in the city now. You haven’t seen anything like it.”

Later in the book, Jett and the Kid meet with a man named O’Neill, a subversive who has information on the City People.

“And what exactly do they do?” I said.

“The same thing anybody does. They look for food. They fuck. They look at the stars and moon and say to themselves, How the fuck did I get so screwed? They live their lives.”

“Sounds like my life,” the Kid said. “Except for the fucking part.”

I had to laugh. O’Neill grinned like a withered jack-o-lantern.

If I had any complaints about The Condemned, they would have to do with the ending. I won’t give it away here, but it didn’t have quite enough closure for my taste. Of course, other readers will undoubtedly feel differently, and it certainly isn’t the kind of vague, ending-without-an-ending you see all too often these days. More importantly, it’s no reason not to go out and grab this book as soon as you can. Because The Condemned is something you don’t see every day.

It’s more than just a horror novel.

It’s literature. And anyone who thinks horror can’t be scary and literary at the same has spent too much time living at the paperback shelves of Barnes & Noble or the local drug store.

Purchase David Jack Bell’s The Condemned.

Posted on Friday, December 7, 2007 at 11:33AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off

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