Well, since I was in the mood for a 1980s horror novel, I thought that I’d take a look at a rather interesting second-hand one that I found online several weeks earlier. I am, of course, talking about Gary Brandner’s 1980 novel “Death Walkers”. Interestingly, looking online, this novel was originally titled “Walkers” (which seems to be the most well-known title) and the edition I read was retitled for some reason.
So, let’s take a look at “Death Walkers”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
The novel begins at a pool party in Los Angeles, attended by a woman called Joana Raitt and her boyfriend Glen Early. During the party, a trained disco dancer called Peter Landau tries to ask Joana out but, when he realises that he won’t get anywhere, he gives her his business card instead. After all, he has a nice side-job as a psychic counsellor. The party continues and Joana decides to take a dip in the pool.
However, she has eaten less than an hour before swimming and her whole body is seized by painful, paralysing muscle cramps that cause her to drown. She sees a tunnel with a white light and a benevolent figure at the end of it. But, as she floats down the tunnel, something seems to be pulling her back. So, she decides to try going back. The tunnel turns fierce and menacing in an instant, as the souls of the dead begin to emerge from the walls. Shortly before she leaves, they give her a cryptic warning that they will keep coming for her and that she will return to the afterlife by the Eve of St. John.
Joana returns to life beside the pool, resuscitated by Glen. A doctor living nearby, Dr. Hovde, checks Joana over and, although she is still haunted by the ominous warning, she is fine. A couple of days later, she goes into the city to do some shopping and is almost run over by a car that crashes into some nearby shrubbery. When the bystanders rush to the crashed car, they find that the driver is dead. Curious about this strange turn of events, Dr. Hovde decides to ask the local pathologist to show him the autopsy results. To his surprise, the driver died a day before the crash…
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, even though it has a slightly silly/contrived opening segment, it’s a really cool horror thriller novel that also does some innovative things with the zombie genre too. But, if you’re expecting a typical “1980s video nasty”-style horror story, then I should probably point out that whilst this novel was published in 1980, it was very clearly written during the mid-late 1970s.
Which brings me on to the novel’s horror elements. Unlike the typical zombie novels of the 1980s, such as Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus“, this novel is very much a 1970s-style horror story, where there is a lot more focus on things like suspense, the paranormal/occult (and, yes, both ouija boards and the “Death” tarot card make an appearance) and traditional old-school macabre/death-based horror that the kind of intense gory horror that you’d typically associate with the zombie genre. Yes, there are a few slightly gruesome moments, but this focus on relatively bloodless traditional horror actually lends the story much more of an ominous and “realistic” tone (that is also vaguely reminiscent of old 1950s horror comics).
Likewise, the focus on death and near-death experiences gives the novel a timelessly creepy feel that is reminiscent of horror films like “Flatliners”, “Final Destination” etc… or novels like Kaaron Warren’s “Slights” or Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle’s “Inferno”. Plus, the ominous warning from the realm of the dead casts a dark shadow over the story, whilst also allowing for all sorts of brilliantly suspenseful moments and other cool horror movie style stuff. Whilst this novel isn’t outright scary, it is certainly gothic, suspenseful and creepy at times 🙂
It’s also a refreshingly different take on the zombie genre too. In addition to the fact that the zombie-based scenes are relatively bloodless and have more of a focus on the macabre, suspense and the paranormal, this novel is also notable in the fact that it doesn’t feature a zombie apocalypse.
Instead, the only reason that invididual zombies occasionally return from the dead is to chase Joana and drag her back to the afterlife – so, not only are there relatively few zombies (which actually makes them scarier), but they are a bit more intelligent/agile, they follow a different set of “rules” to typical Hollywood zombies and the fact that only one appears at any one time gives the story much more of a suspenseful slasher movie-style atmosphere too. Seriously, if you want an innovative zombie story, read this one.
Likewise, thanks to all of the suspense, this novel is also a bit like a traditional thriller novel too – something also helped with the classic thriller technique of having several different plot threads that focus on different characters (eg: Joana & Glen, Dr. Hovde and Peter Landau). Whilst this novel is still very much a horror novel, these thriller elements really help to keep the story compelling and to make the rest of it feel a bit more “serious” after the hilariously silly opening segment.
In terms of the characters, they’re reasonably ok. Whilst you shouldn’t expect a huge amount of in-depth characterisation here, they are realistic/interesting enough to make you care about what happens to them. Even so, they’re probably a little bit on the “stock characters” side of things. Still, the story remains fairly compelling nonetheless.
As for the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is mostly fairly good. The narration uses a reasonably informal (by mid-late 1970s/early 1980s standards) and “matter of fact” style that also includes a decent number of descriptive moments and, for the most part, is very readable. However, the very beginning of the novel isn’t as well-written as the rest, with the first few pages being written in a slightly stodgier way (eg: “telling” narration, slower-paced descriptions etc..) than the rest of the book. So, don’t judge the writing by the first few pages.
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is excellent 🙂 Not only is it a lean and efficient 222 pages long, but the novel makes brilliant use of suspense and thriller genre techniques to keep the plot compelling throughout. Not only that, although you’ll probably see at least one plot twist coming a mile away (if you’re paying attention to the story) and might guess the nature of another one (if you’ve seen enough horror movies and are paying attention to the page numbers), this novel has one of the most gripping endings that I’ve seen in a horror novel during the past few weeks.
In terms of how this forty-year old novel has aged, it has aged surprisingly well. Although the novel has a wonderfully retro 1970s-style atmosphere (similar to an early episode of “Columbo”), the scenes of suspense and macabre horror are still very compelling. Plus, for the time it was written, this novel was also a fairly progressive one, and although a few moments may seem mildly “politically incorrect” by modern standards, the novel as a whole has aged surprisingly well.
All in all, this is a really compelling 1970s-style horror novel that also does some innovative stuff with the zombie genre too 🙂 Yes, the beginning is a bit silly and the characters can feel a little like stock characters at times, but this novel is still a really good retro horror novel.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.