A Review of Vincent Todarello’s The Lazarus Impact. 2012. Pp. 284. $12 paperback, $3 Kindle
After releasing his very first and quite successful entry into the world of mythopoeic fantasy literature with The Return of the Fifth Stone, Vincent Todarello returns to the literary scene in a surprising and rather shocking splattering of flesh, carnage, and mayhem with The Lazarus Impact. He promises to return to his complex fantasy myth in the near future, but for now, he’s cutting his literary teeth on gritty SF realism, exploring new narrative techniques, developing engaging characters, and letting more of his dark humor shine through. I’m not much of a horror fan, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this book, even though I knew it had something to do with flesh-eating zombies, desperate survivors, and lots of blood. With this zombie apocalyptic novel, Todarello delivers a wild ride that is richly entertaining, surprisingly funny, and deeply thought provoking.
But hasn’t zombie horror run its corpse, I mean course? Hasn’t apocalyptic SF been done to death? Well, some may think so. After all, how much undead and apocalypse can we take, with Dawn of the Dead, World War Z, Warm Bodies, The Walking Dead, Cell, Dead of Night, City of the Dead, Zone One: A Novel, I Am Legend (OK, those creatures are more like vampires, but I’m counting it), The Road, and countless others. Yet as with any genre or topic, there will be excellent representations as well as shoddy efforts. Take fantasy, as an example. Come on, how many stories about swords, wizards, elves, and orcs can there be? As it turns out, quite a lot, and much of it garbage, but some of it enriching, inventive, and entertaining. The same is true for zombie horror, and The Lazarus Impact is of the latter sort. Sure, there are derivative elements, but how can there not be? You can’t have a contemporary zombie story, set in the present geo-political context, and not have military elements, hospital scenes, mayhem in a big city, and undead road-rage on the highways. It’s unavoidable. So, yes, when you read this bloody fun novel, you will be reminded of scenes from Dawn of the Dead and The Walking Dead. You can either obsess about it and get your survivalist panties all in a wad while reading in your parents’ basement, or you can accept it and go on enjoying the end of the world as the dead rise and wreak havoc on the world of the living.
The novel is framed by Todarello’s signature prologue and epilogue narrative construction. The book opens with an Indiana Jones archeological dig of Mayan ruins, and ends with a Hurt Locker military scene taken in Afghanistan. The prologue serves here as an excellent hook, raising interesting questions connecting ancient wisdom, contemporary hair-brained fears (wasn’t the world supposed to end in 2012?…), and the zombie conceit. I found this a novel way to introduce the zombie theme: zombie events in film and literature usually are new or unexpected phenomenon that happen for unexplained reasons or result from the release of some militarized, biological agent. Todarello’s zombie event, or Lazarus Impact, has happened before, when Mayans encounter a meteor thousands of years ago. Unfortunately, the archeologists do not have time to figure out the truth behind the strange archeological discovery before another Lazarus Impact hits their reality. I’m not sure if this was intended or not, but here’s my read of that prologue: sure, it introduces the coming zombie apocalypse, but it also foreshadows hope. After all, there still was life and civilization after the Mayan zombie event, so maybe humanity can survive it once again. However, Todarello gives us no such assurance, for his epilogue ends in sweet, savory, and bloody ironic poetic justice for the Islamofascist terrorists of our age (I’ll not ruin it for you), and we are left wondering what will become of human civilization.
The deliciously ironic final scene may offend some, but it had me laughing and cheering, for in the midst of this numbing horror there are glimpses of justice, and I relished such moments. When on the macro scale there is so much death, destruction, and seeming hopelessness, where else can we find some encouragement for hope but in micro victories and justice? Todarello gives us many such micro triumphs throughout the onslaught of death, destruction, heartbreak, and hopelessness, thus opening up potential for increase in faith. Moreover, I found the dark humor not so much sinister as actually buoyant in the midst of such horror. Usually, dark humor depresses and disgusts me (the movie The War of the Roses immediately comes to mind—that’s an hour and a half of my life I won’t get back); however, contrasted with the reality of humans becoming a fleeing buffet for eternally hungry zombies, Todarello’s sarcasm, irreverence, and smart-alec slapstick is a welcomed relief. Again, some readers may be deeply offended by much of this humor, and so be it. But I found myself smiling, giggling, and even howling out loud at many outrageously funny scenes. Without ruining it, let me just say that my favorite scene involves a frantic New York City couple, a morbidly obese friend, and a broken toilet bowl. I’ll leave it at that.
Todarello’s narrative style and characterization have developed significantly since his first novel. Even though his first novel is an excellent read, I find that his writing is much tighter and his narrative structures more sophisticated in this second novel. It is great to see him mature as a writer, and I’m confident that as he continues to write, he will explore new techniques and develop further as a writer. Foregoing the long quest episodes of his first novel, Toderello writes shorter scenes about individuals or groups of characters. Each chapter is devoted to major characters, and each of their stories begin literally worlds apart—geographically, culturally, and ideologically. His characters are quite diverse and come from radically different backgrounds. He shifts effortlessly and smoothly between episodes, while gradually bringing each narrative strand closer and closer together, curiously without readers fully realizing it, until finally the various narrative paths begin to cross. This was a bold departure for Todarello as a writer, and he succeeds wonderfully.
Though the novel is very entertaining, as a zombie apocalyptic SF novel should be, it also offers some excellent ventures into politics, personal relationships, religion, theology, and ideology. I particularly appreciated how Todarello explored the issue of violence and evil, asking what is evil and if violence is ever justified, and he gives clear, reasonable, and biblical answers to these questions, through the thoughts, dialog, actions and interactions of his diverse characters. And, he does so without grandstanding or blatant authorial intrusions into the narrative. I also appreciated that the overtly Christian character, a convict who found God, religion, and faith through a prison ministry, is represented honestly as a real human being struggling with truth, faith, and morality and striving by the strength of the Holy Spirit to live properly according to the Word of God. Most films and books present mere caricatures of Christians, representing them as mean-spirited fundamentalists or licentious hypocrites. Todarello deconstructs that reductive cultural construction and turns the tables on such simplistic views, even casting a progressive character as the intolerant, mean-spirited, sarcastic, and ignorant hypocrite. However, unlike most popular (mis)treaments of Christians and Christianity in the media, Todarello redeems his misguided progressive character, for he is not rigidly stuck in his ideological perspective but, instead, realizes the error of his perspectives and changes some of his views and actions. Kudos to Todarello for such literary courage.
Does Todarello break new ground in zombie horror? No, not really. Colson Whitehead tried that with Zone One: A Novel, attempting to fuse postmodern savvy with SF zombie horror. It didn’t work, in my humble opinion, and resulted in a pretentious and hopelessly boring novel. Todarello takes a popular genre and makes it his own, creating very believable characters, interweaving complex narratives, showcasing his darkly irreverent humor, and spinning an entertaining story, all while inserting some sophisticated thoughts and perspectives not common in the contemporary horror/SF scene. The Lazarus Impact is a fun read, and if you’ve written off zombie thrillers, maybe this one will resurrect your interest.