If the last decade has proven anything, it’s that people love a good zombie apocalypse. Something about the mindlessness of a shambling horde of undead just feels right to us right now—almost as if we know, somehow, the end of the world is nigh, and it isn’t going to be pretty. Humanity literally wandering around eating itself? We can picture it.
But zombie apocalypses aren’t all created equal. Some have managed to transcend the tropes and conventions to become extinction-level-events we can really get behind. Here are 10 zombie apocalypse books that really give you something to, er, chew on.
BEST USE OF REAL SCIENCE TO EXPLAIN ZOMBIES: The Girl with All the Gifts & The Boy on the Bridge, by M.R. Carey
Many zombie stories handwave the actual zombification, either by ignoring the mechanism completely or muttering something in passing about viruses or radiation. Carey gets a gold star for extrapolating his zombies from an actual scientific phenomenon, the fungus ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which is a horrifying thing that actually exists, and actually turns ants into zombies. The leap to a mutant strain that infects humans is one of the most elegant solutions to the cause of a flesh-eating syndrome in literature.
BEST VERISIMILITUDE: World War Z, by Max Brooks
Too many books detailing the zombie apocalypse suppose either that record-keeping will somehow keep pace during the end of the world, or that the whole world will collapse within a few days once the brain-eaters arrive. Brooks’ stroke of genius is capturing the fractured, chaotic way such a global catastrophe might actually happen, and the oral history conceit he uses paints an accurate portrait of a world operating with different pieces of the whole picture.
BEST REPLACEMENT FOR BRAINS: The Loving Dead, by Amelia Beamer
Established tropes tell us zombies are here for our delicious brains (and flesh and sure, other organs, why not). Beamer smartly wonders why the only primal drive zombies retain is hunger. Her zombie apocalypse comes in the form of a zombie STD that turns its victims into violent but extremely horny creatures just as eager to hook up as crack your head open like a coconut. It could have been retitled “But What a Way to Go!”
BEST USE OF CLASSIC LITERATURE: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith
If we can suspend our disbelief to include the possibility of zombies as a natural pitfall of human evolution, nothing demands the disaster scenario should play out in the modern era—yet most zombie uprisings are imagined to take place in the present or future. But why not the 19th century? Although of course technically not an apocalypse, as society soldiers on and suitable romantic matches are still contemplated, Grahame-Smith’s genius mashup remains at the top of a very small sub-subgenre.
BEST ROMANTIC ANGLE: Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion
Zombie stories tend to focus on the brain-eating and head-smashing and constant survival terror, and for good reason; as anyone who’s ever played The Last of Us or Resident Evil knows, getting swarmed by zombies in a scorched future is no fun. Marion saw the potential for an affecting romance, though—one that not only has the potential to cure loneliness, but that just might cure zombieism, too.
BEST POSTMODERN TAKE: Zone One, by Colson Whitehead
Whitehead, who just won the Pulitzer Prize for Underground Railroad, brings a sorely lacking sense of serious literary business to his story of a zombie-conquered world, and the long work of cleaning up. The lower half of Manhattan has been reclaimed by the living, but straggling zombies remain behind, endlessly repeating the habits of their living years, and they have to be removed. It’s horrifying and thoughtful.
BEST SUBVERSION: Raising Stony Mayhall, by Daryl Gregory
Zombie apocalypses have flirted with the idea of “zombies—they’re just like us!” plenty of times, but few have leaned into the idea as effectively as Gregory, who tells the story of a frozen baby who turns out to be of the undead when found—and adopted by—a local family. Raised in a living household, Stony doesn’t fit in anywhere—not with the living, not with his fellow zombies. This is probably the most tragic zombie story ever written.
BEST TWIST: Ex-Heroes, by Peter Clines
Clines always offers a head-spinning concept or three in his books, and Ex-Heroes is no exception, combining the superhero genre with zombies and producing something unique and exciting. Super-powered men and women once made Los Angeles a safer place to live, but after the zombie plague, they find themselves defending humanity’s survivors against not just the undead hordes, but others of their kind who have broken under the strain of the apocalypse.
BEST TWIST, SECOND PLACE: Suffer the Children, by Craig DiLouie
Technically the children in DiLouie’s book are vampires, but stay with us here. After an epidemic sweeps the globe, killing all the children in the world, there’s a moment of dizzy joy when the kids all come back. Except, they’re still dead, just reanimated—and hungry for blood. Once they’ve fed, they become normal again, just like they were. But it wears off, leading parents all over the world to face the question: how far will you go to feed your children—your children—human blood in order to keep them (more or less) alive? Examining the battle between parental love and the horror of the scenario is pure genius.
BEST EPIC FANTASY ZOMBIES: The Broken Empire series, by Mark Lawrence
Who says zombies can only exist in realistic settings? While other fantasy stories have dealt with zombies (George R.R. Martin being an obvious example), most don’t focus much on the undead, featuring them as smaller portions of a larger story. In Lawrence’s dark epic fantasy, which reads like a hybrid child of Sons of Anarchy and Game of Thrones, the undead are a big part of the story, under the control of The Dead King and acting as an organized, potent threat.
What zombie stories do you think break the mold?