VM Zito

Hodder and Stoughton    

ISBN: 978-1-444-72518-6

Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack

Generally speaking, I avoid horror novels. It’s a genre that doesn’t particularly connect with me. And yet this novel – unmistakeably horror – absolutely mesmerised me. Kept me up reading, just one more page to find out what happens next … and one more page … and one more… You’re doing something right when someone who doesn’t like the genre can’t put your book down.

In The Return Man, Zito has deliberately used many familiar tropes – a zombie apocalypse, the US divided into two, social collapse, government conspiracies, and nasty viruses, to name just a few. However, he’s managed to infuse them with a sense of freshness and verve that’s likely to strongly engage most readers.

A zombie apocalypse has engulfed the US. No-one knows quite how it started or why, but within days large portions of the US had to be evacuated. Within weeks, the West was virtually abandoned, with those uninfected and surviving retreating to the East. The West of the United States is populated by a lurching horde of zombies – who eat meat whenever they can find it, and just quietly rot away when they can’t, waiting for an unwary person or animal to venture close enough to be eaten. And if they get hold of you but don’t eat enough of you – you’ll become a zombie too.

The East is full of stunned survivors, many of whom lost loved ones in the first outbreak or the horrors of the evacuation. Those who saw their family and friends eaten are sometimes the lucky ones; others live knowing that someone they love is now a mindless ravening beast, “living” endlessly and suffering who knows what. Some of these people contact Henry Marco. Marco deliberately evaded the evacuation, searching for the wife he became separated from in that early chaos. He believes she must be a zombie, and stayed to search for her and put her out of her misery. Even if he finds her, he’s stuck now, of course; there’s no way he’d be allowed into the uninfected East after all this time.

So Marco scavenges for what he needs to survive, and kills zombies, while searching for one particular zombie. And sometimes he accepts a commission to find someone’s husband, daughter, lover – and put them out of their misery. If you blow a zombie’s brains out you can, finally, destroy them.

Homeland Security finds Marco. They need him to find one particular zombie, at the place where the apocalypse began. He needs to unearth an important secret, and return it to the Government. And in return, he will receive vital supplies, and will be allowed to enter the East when he wants to – and right now, they won’t kill his  business partner in the East. Marco isn’t thrilled by the mission, the sense that he hasn’t been told everything, or the blackmail. But in the end he concedes, and begins the trip to California.

This novel works brilliantly for a number of reasons. The plot is tight; the action is really well written; and Marco is a character you’ll empathise with from the first page. There were times I actually winced for him, and it’s really not easy to get me that involved with a fictional character.

As noted, the plot is tight. Although Zito has based his novel on a number of familiar ideas (deliberately, according to his afterword), he has taken the trouble to ensure that it’s underpinned by something a little original, something that makes credible sense. A lot of the plot (though not all) pivots off Marco’s emotions and reactions. These are rendered very vividly. You’ll really feel for Marco, and want his pain to end while recognising that there may in fact be no realistic way for him to escape his psychological torment. At the same time, it’s entirely possible to believe in the choices the authorities have made, and the world created by the zombie outbreak. The situation which puts the novel’s events into train is credible; and although it’s action and emotion which carries much of the story, there aren’t holes to pick in the plot once it’s over. It all comes together.

This is one of the best action novels I’ve read for a while. There’s a lot of action, given that Marco has to work almost every minute to survive. It’s well visualised and conveyed; not only will you get involved in the physical struggle, you’ll also feel Marco’s emotions in every fight and every tussle. This gives it a dimension which lifts it above many action-oriented novels.

And finally, Marco is a really convincing creation. We are given a good picture of how he got from who he was before the outbreak to who he is now; it’s a believable development. We can believe in his story of survival, and his struggles, and his decisions. Zito puts us inside his head, and it’s not always a comfortable place to be. We both admire him and shake our heads at some of his decisions – would you do the same for someone you loved?

The Return Man is an exceptionally good novel. I really enjoyed it. It is complete in itself, but there is also an opening for another novel set in this world. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, Zito does with that. But in the meantime, he’s produced an impressive debut novel. This is strongly recommended; those who enjoy classic horror will appreciate it, but it should also find an appreciative wider audience among those who enjoy well written, well plotted stories with very strong characterisation.