Just when I was about to give up on zombies, Weston Ochse has resurrected the trend. Empire of Salt isn't a good zombie book - it is a good horror book. Brilliant writing doesn't follow trends, it stands (or shambles) on its own two feet.
Empire of Salt takes place in Bombay Beach, a moribund Californian town perched precariously on a massive saltwater lake. The town, never booming, has been declining for decades, but has truly hit its nadir at the start of the book. The population is almost entirely misfits and outcasts: an ex-revolutionary Elvis impersonator, an assortment of ex-criminals, a couple salt miners (the only "industry" in town), a nudist preacher, some drunks and a mad scientist.
Well, to be fair, there are also a few thousand zombies.
It seems that, across the lake, a government "energy plant" is actually doing some work on the space race: breeding astronauts that don't need to eat, drink or breathe. You can see where this is going, right?
The story's protagonists are a pair of newcomers - the Oliver kids. They're initially excited about the change of scenery ("California!" "Beach!"), but quickly realize that Bombay Beach is possibly the most miserable place on earth. Did I mention that it stinks of dead fish and has regular earthquakes? It does. While their father tries to drink himself to death, the kids are left on their own to see what the town has to offer. (Zombies, mostly.)
Ochse has the Stephen King knack of creating a small town, populating it with empathetic pen-portraits, and then killing everyone off in increasingly horrific ways. While the Oliver kids guide the reader through the main story, the reader is treated to countless vignettes of heroism, despair and treachery on the side. Perhaps the most compelling is a lonely woman who is trapped by a zombie intruder. She slowly starves to death while the zombie relentlessly scrabbles on the bedroom door... Yeeks.
Like all good horror, the monster is actually irrelevant. The damningly catchy part of Empire of Salt is the well-developed atmosphere of terror. When the full-on zombie invasion comes, it is a release of tension. Fleeing from the zombie hordes isn't exactly relaxing, but it comes almost as a relief. At least people believe the kids now!
In fact, the only slow part of Empire of Salt is the slightly-ponderous explanation of the backstory. A mad scientist explains, somewhat clinically, absolutely everything about the super-secret government program. (Not sure why his teenage audience would sit still for that long.) The backstory is clever - I like the astronaut zombies - but to a certain degree, I don't care. We don't need world-building in good horror, and Empire of Salt is good horror. If Weston Ochse wants there to be zombies, I'm with him all the way.
This book restored my faith in zombies. There's no higher praise than that.