Columns > Published on June 21st, 2013

The 10 Books Every Zombie Fan Must Read

Let’s face it, vampires are played out. Sparkles and sexiness vanquished their frightfulness in a way garlic and holy water never could. But the world needs a monster, particularly in tough times, so zombies have spent the last few years shambling in to fill the pop culture void. We play Plants vs. Zombies on our phones, watch The Walking Dead on TV, go on zombie walks, run zombie-themed races, and will almost certainly make World War Z (based on the 2006 book by Max Brooks, released today) one of the highest-grossing films of the summer. According to the Today show, the "zombie economy" is worth more than $5.74 billion in the U.S. alone.

There is simply no better time to brush-up on zombie fiction, but with so many undead-related titles to choose from, it's hard to figure out where to start. LitReactor to the rescue. Here are ten not-to-be-missed zombie books worth their weight in rotting flesh. Um, we mean worth their weight in something much more valuable than rotting flesh. Even if you don't consider yourself a horror buff, you might be surprised to find something here you'll love. After all, most good zombie novels are more about the humans than the monsters, and you'll find everything from political intrigue to romance to Southern Gothic literary fiction on this list...

10. Patient Zero  by Jonathan Maberry

There were a few zombie books we could've chosen by Bram Stoker Award-winning author/zombie aficionado Jonathan Maberry, and this one barely won out over Rot and Ruin and Dead of Night, but Patient Zero deserves a spot on this list because it is a zombie novel for people who don't like zombie novels. Detective Joe Ledger is a tough guy leading man to rival anyone you've seen on the big screen. As part of a government task force whose mission it is to keep terrorists from deploying a bio-chemical weapon that turns us all into zombies, Ledger is full of so much bravado, action, and manly knowledge of advanced weaponry that he's almost cartoonish, but if you want a fast-moving, creepy book full of explosions, b-movie-style jumps, and evil geniuses (oh, and zombies), Maberry's got your number.

For fans of: Jonathan Spy thrillers, tough guys, Jack Bauer from 24, The A-Team, zombies

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9. Day by Day Armageddon  by J.L. Bourne

Day by Day Armageddon describes the downfall of humanity through the diary of a U.S. naval officer. To keep the personal, intimate feel of a journal, Bourne originally wrote the story by hand—complete with scratch-outs, underlines, and margin notes—and uploaded the "journal" piece by piece to his website, where it became a cult hit among zombie fans. Bourne was eventually approached by Simon & Schuster, who did a 50,000 copy first print run, and have since published two sequels. The plot is fairly standard "zombie apocalypse happens, guy defends his house, guy picks up other survivors and travels for a while, group of survivors holes up in a missile facility and defends against the living and undead" style stuff, but the presentation is suspenseful, personal, and engaging. This is a quick read that feels almost voyeuristic at times.

For fans of: Reality TV/voyeurism, military terminology, first-person narration, old-school slow-moving zombies

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8. As the World Dies: The First Days  by Rhiannon Frater

When a book starts with an abusive father gnawing on his three-year-old, it didn't come to mess around. Especially when it's described like so: "She found Lloyd hunched over Benjamin, eating away her baby's tender flesh." There's not much of the baby left. Probably because "Lloyd always was a big eater." These are the first images in Frater's trilogy, which was self-published before being picked up by Tor Books, and the gore, dark humor, and action just keep going. Abused (and, to be honest, fairly annoying) housewife Jenni joins up with lesbian attorney Katie for a zombie-killing road trip across Texas to pick up Jenni's step-son. This is not high-brow literature, nor is it feminist parable (goofy love triangles and catty comments abound), but it is a fun apocalyptic read.

For fans of: The Walking Dead, love triangles, gore, dark humor, Thelma and Louise, zombies

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7. Forest of Hands and Teeth  by Carrie Ryan

Like most teenagers, Mary has a crush (two actually), teen angst, a mistrust of authority, and a desire to escape from the rule-laden world where she was raised. Unlike most teens, Mary lives in an isolated village separated from a forest full of flesh-eating zombies by a single fence. This—the first book of Ryan's well-received YA trilogy—could, in some ways, just as well have been set in an urban gated community with violent gangs outside its walls. The metaphor of the teenage desire to buck rules and build an adult life would have stood up, but as a general rule, if you can add zombies to a plot, go ahead and do so. Same with unicorns. Mary's own parents are among the "Unconsecrated" (religious terms and imagery are plentiful, and Mary's world is ruled by a religious order known as The Sisterhood). But before her mother started wandering around the Forest of Hands and Teeth as one of the zombified, she told Mary of a thing called the ocean, and Mary's desire to see the mythical beaches makes her consider risking everything.

For fans of: The Hunger Games, teen crushes and angst, YA supernatural fiction, fantasy, Shyamalan's The Village, zombies

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6. Zone One  by Colson Whitehead

Thoughtful turns of phrase, biting dark humor, careful satire, and zombies, Colson Whitehead's Zone One isn't going to give you non-stop zombie-shooting head-smashing action (though the flashbacks to the outbreak are intense), but it is worth a read. Mark Spitz is a "sweeper," clearing away stragglers from Manhattan's Zone One district after the zombie attacks. These trapped souls are malfunctioning zombies, destined to ceaselessly repeat mundane acts they carried out while alive—filling balloons at a party store, working the copy machine, flying a kite with no wind. More lyrical than many zombie novels, Zone One provides careful wartime satire mixed with bleak allegories about modern life.

For fans of: Satire, uber-dark humor, New York City stories, the place where literature and genre novels meet, zombies

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5. Breathers: A Zombie's Lament  by S.G. Browne

The most ridiculous (in a good way) book on our list is S.G. Browne's entertaining debut about modern life as a zombie. After Andy Warner dies, he has trouble adjusting to his new life as one of the undead. And who could blame him? He has to live in his parents' wine cellar, isn't allowed to go to the movies or even use the internet, and is constantly harassed by frat boys and other members of the living (aka "Breathers"). Things change after he meets Rita, a recent suicide who eats cosmetics for their formaldehyde content, and Jerry, a car crash victim who loves Renaissance porn, at an Undead Anonymous meeting. Together they learn the delights of devouring human flesh and find new ways to stand up for the rights of zombies everywhere.

For fans of: Max Brooks's The Zombie Survival Guide, Shaun of the Dead, black comedy, Warm Bodies, rom-coms, zombies

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4. Feed  by Mira Grant (aka Seanan McGuire)

Do you want the good news or the bad news? Let's start with the good because the bad is a doozy. The good news is that, according to Feed, we have managed to cure both cancer and the common cold. The bad news? Combining those two cures reanimates the dead. It's pretty inconvenient. A zombie apocalypse story, a political thriller, and a cautionary tale about the state of modern media all at once, the first novel in Mira Grant's Newsflesh trilogy is as much about the state of the world post-zombie outbreak as it is about the zombies themselves. Our snarky heroes are three bloggers who—in a world where mainstream media almost let everyone get devoured by zombies—are, along with their blogging brethren, responsible for getting the truth to the people. In the way of the truth are zombie giraffes, corrupt politicians, grand conspiracies, and hoards of undead who share a collective consciousness and get smarter in groups. The trilogy is a bit campy and unnecessarily descriptive at times (the first book weighs in at 600 pages), but if you don't mind those minor details, this Hugo Award-nominated book is a fun, intriguing read. (On a side note: I'm fond of the subtle pop culture references to other zombie books and movies woven throughout the books, from characters named Shaun and Buffy to the acknowledgement that George Romero is "one of the accidental saviors of the human race.")

For fans of: The West Wing, political thrillers, sci-fi, campiness, bashing traditional media, blogging, zombies

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3. Raising Stony Mayhall  by Daryl Gregory

In 1968, Wanda Mayhall and her three daughters discover a frozen baby in a snowstorm. He is not breathing and has no heartbeat, but he begins to move. Knowing that authorities would destroy the baby, Wanda decides to raise him as one of her own. What follows is one of the biggest twists on the zombie genre in recent memory. Stony Mayhall (the zombie kid) is raised with his human family, but realizes he is different. He is, for example, shot in the chest with an arrow at one point without pain. As he grows older, he wonders what it means to be human and this heartfelt, emotional book takes on some distinctly philosophical undertones. As an older boy, he meets other members of the living dead but realizes that, because of his upbringing in a living family, he feels different. Layers of civil rights commentary are deftly woven into the plot. If you are not a horror fan, but want an excellent read about the human condition, Stony Mayhall is your man.

For fans of: Coming-of-age stories, Philip K. Dick, heartwarming undead families, science fiction, civil rights, zombies

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2. World War Z  by Max Brooks

Presented as a series of UN-commissioned interviews a decade after the zombie outbreak, World War Z is terrifying because it feels like it could happen. If zombies were real, this is actually how things would go down. And that's true horror. Author Max Brooks—who exchanged the tongue-in-cheek presentation of his 2003 Zombie Survival Guide for a gritty portrayal of loss and devastation—said, "[E]xcept the zombies ... everything else in the book is either taken from reality or 100% real. The technology, politics, economics, culture, military tactics... it was a LOT of homework." At times, Brooks's portrayal of postwar culture hits a little too close to home, forcing readers to confront the darker side of human nature, the dangers of bureaucracy, American isolationism, and corporate corruption in between tales of the murderous undead. Because the book is less about a single story arc and more about how the individuals being interviewed have been affected, it'll be interesting to see how the new Brad Pitt film handles Brooks's bestseller.

For fans of: Episodic presentation, extreme realism, social commentary, military tactics, Theodore Judson's Fitzpatrick's War, Studs Terkel's The Good War, zombies

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1. The Reapers Are the Angels  by Alden Bell

Temple is a 15-year-old girl who has never known a world that didn't involve bashing in the skulls of zombies (here known as "slugs"). She handles these encounters like I handle seeing a spider in my house—as unpleasant but survivable encounters. What she does not handle as well is the guilt, grief, and emotional baggage she drags around during her quest for redemption. The bleak, painfully honest portrayal of Temple's loneliness and self-doubt—not the "slugs"—put this book at the top of our list. In fact, the origin of the slugs is never even revealed. What's passed is in the past, and the narrative lives in the present. "Beautiful" is not a word normally used to describe zombie tales, but this is no ordinary zombie book. It hits you with unexpected moments of joy amidst the horror, and with prose that owes quite a debt to Southern Gothic literature, The Reapers Are the Angels proves that zombie stories can be literary. They can make you cry. They can introduce you to introspective, believable, memorable characters that stay with you long after you've finished reading. One last thing: Don't think that because the protagonist is a teenager, this is a YA book. It's not. You'll scar your kiddos with this one.  

For fans of: Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner, strong female protagonists, zombies

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Ten Honorable Mentions

  • The Walking Dead series by Robert Kirkman
  • Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion
  • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahme-Smith
  • The Aftertime trilogy by Sophie Littlefield
  • Autumn by David Moody
  • Monster Island: A Zombie Novel by David Wellington
  • The Deadworld series by Joe McKinney
  • Zombie Fallout by Mark Tufo
  • The Morningstar Saga by Z.A. Recht
  • The Rising by Brian Keene

Okay, zombie fans, what did we miss? Do you agree with our choices? Sound off in the comments.

About the author

Kimberly Turner is an internet entrepreneur, DJ, editor, beekeeper, linguist, traveler, and writer. This either makes her exceptionally well-rounded or slightly crazy; it’s hard to say which. She spent a decade as a journalist and magazine editor in Australia and the U.S. and is now working (very, very slowly) on her first novel. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics and lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband, two cats, ten fish, and roughly 60,000 bees.

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