By LLOYD FERRISS
You know you’re reading a live one when you think about the book while having breakfast or shopping, and can’t wait to pick it up again.
Joseph Souza’s long (306 pages) debut horror mystery is that kind of a read. He plans to make “The Reawakening” the first of a three-part “Living Dead Trilogy,” and one hopes he follows through, because this book is a winner.
Souza’s story unfolds in northern Maine, where an experiment in genetically modified agriculture goes haywire. Genes intended to make cows and crops more productive show up in the human genome. The first symptom is fever, followed by death.
But not quite.
Minutes after a victim takes his or her last breath, their eyelids flutter open. Coarse hair or feathers sprout on their bodies. Teeth enlarge as the newly reawakened monster becomes intent on its new mission in life: Biting and eating the first available human.
That bite, as you might guess, starts the cycle all over again.
The result is an army of clumsy yet highly dangerous living dead creatures, all intent on getting their pound of flesh. Brains are their favorite body part.
Souza’s novel is far-fetched and, as just described, may sound corny. But it’s a genuine page-turner.
Its impact on a reader reminds me of the old Stephen King classic, “The Shining.” Like King’s book, “The Reawakening” is far-out graphic horror. Both are suspenseful start to finish. And readers respond with a very willing suspension of disbelief.
Strong, well-defined characters and a suspenseful story line add to this novel’s power. The narrator in the story is a man named Thomas Swiftly. He’s a rich and highly successful novelist from Boston, where he lives with his wife, their son and 18-year-old daughter, Dar.
Dar is recovering from a suicide attempt described in the book’s opening pages, and her father decides that a trip to his brother’s self-sufficient farm in northern Maine will improve his daughter’s mental health.
So Dad and Dar head up to the farm owned by his brother, Rick Swiftly, and his wife, Susan.
Rick is a biological scientist who fled the city a few years earlier. Expecting some sort of apocalypse, he has guns, thousands of rounds of ammunition and enough food to last two years.
Not long after the city folk arrive at the farm, cows start acting crazy. When one bites Susan, she dies of fever before morphing into one of the living dead.
“What the hell was going on out here in the northern regions of Maine?” Thomas asks. “Was nature finally rebelling against all the abuse and toxicity that mankind had inflicted upon her in the last hundred years? Or was there (another) explanation for this activity?”
The writer who concocted this imaginative tale grew up near Boston and graduated from Northeastern University. Although he has degrees in history and education, Souza has been a cab driver, lobster picker, bouncer and garbage collector – in addition to coaching wrestling and serving as an intelligence analyst for the Drug Enforcement Administration, among other things.
He lives in South Portland with his wife, a son and daughter, and the family’s 17-year-old dog.
One of best things about “The Reawakening” is the realism of the characters. Dar is probably Souza’s best creation. Weak and discouraged in Boston, she turns into a superwoman when confronted by murderous creatures in northern Maine.
“We’re in a war against the dead,” she tells her father. “And somehow I feel I’ve been reborn with a clear mission to kill. I feel more alive than I’ve ever felt in my life.”
I highly recommend this book. But be forewarned: Scenes are graphic, and language is rough.
Lloyd Ferriss is a writer and photographer who lives in Richmond.