We’ve just recently started dipping into BookTok, and specifically \#horror, to see what Tokkers are Tokking about this Tok (sorry, go carried away).
BookTok is an interesting sub-sub-subgenre of book-readers, and though we’re seeing tens of thousands of views on many of these books, the active community seems to be relatively small … or at least closely associated one to the other. They talk to each other as much, maybe more, than the Outside World, but then that’s the nature of algorithm-driven social media – not just TikTok, but Instagram and Threads and all the rest (and those three are the ones where you’ll find @zombieworldnet uses, by the way). And in the constant tsunami of new titles never ceases – from traditional publishers, small indie publishers, and efficiently marketing self-publishers – it’s kind of amazing how many of the same titles keep cropping up on the five-best or ten-best Toks that pop into our feed almost every day.
Some of the books and authors that are mentioned over and over are ones we’re familiar with and deeply appreciate – Paul Tremblay, T.Kingfisher , Grady Hendrix , Stephen Graham Jones – some of whom have written some damn fine zombie-stuff, as it happens. But other authors – lesser known outside TokLand – also crop up all the damn time. At the top of that list is British writer Iain Rob Wright, author of a zompoc series called The Spread, among many others… and a short, more-like-a-novella-than-a-novel story called Sea Sick.
Sea Sick is where we started our tour of the Wright oeuvre. The reviews on TT have been almost universally good – very good. Best book of the month or year, can’t put it down, one I keep thinking about, etc. etc. Not just with one creator, but with a bunch. So this seems like a good place to get our critical toes wet.
Insert SPOILER ALERT HERE. Don’t read past this point if you haven’t read or intend to read Sea Sick … but come back later!
At the outset, it seems like a simple premise, if a little gimmicky: a zombie outbreak on a cruise ship. The main character – a vacationing cop (we found out eventually, though he sure doesn’t act with the self-assurance or presence of a policeman) on his first cruise meets a few mildly cliched characters, takes a nap in his cabin, and wakes up to find the passengers rapidly becoming classically famished fast zombies. He even gets himself killed in short order… only to wake up back in his cabin, apparently unharmed. He quickly realizes he is living the same day of the outbreak on the S.S. Idon’tthinktheyevertellus over and over and over.
Yeah: Day of the Dead at Sea mashed up with Groundhog Day.
As far as we’re concerned, that’s one gimmick too many in a genre that’s already rife with tropes and cliches, but Mr. Wright is just getting started. We see Main Character going through the normal Groundhogging – realization of the sitch, followed by testing the premise by dying a few more times, then dying a whole bunch of times in attempts to break the cycle (and in this case, not just failing to do so, but learning very little that helps along the way). Eventually, he sees this is a virus-based version of zombie-ism that doesn’t require head-severing, just grievous bodily harm, and he also discovers an ally – a young woman who is going through the same cycle. He even discovers a third “rotator,” a security guard hiding below decks, guarding some mysterious boxes and crates. Our Guy gets led around by the nose by both of them, dying more times, still learning very little more, until the woman finally lays it out for him. (No, he doesn’t figure it out or cleverly manipulate the situation… she just tells him.)
Turns out – (excuse me, I need a drink. There. Better now.) — it turns out that some nameless terrorist organization, for reasons that are never even speculated about, put this close variation of the Rage virus (see 28 Days Later) in hand sanitizer that was blorped into almost everyone’s hands as they came on board the ship. This made people who sanitized very sick with a terrible cold, who then transferred the virus to almost everyone else with sneezes and coughs, turning everyone into Ragers within hours. And unfortunately, it worked far better than the nameless terrorists imagined it would; if it escapes from the ship when it docs three days hence, it will swiftly bring about the end of the world. Boom.
For what reason? Don’t know. By whom? Don’t know. Why were these three people immune? Don’t know.
And why does the woman in question know all this? Well, apparently she is part of some ancient secret magical society that keeps Horrible Things like Zombie Apocalypti from happening, and she or her peeps are the ones that put the “time loop” spell on the ship to keep it from spreading – well on most of the ship, but not the lower decks (for… reasons?), which is why the security guard isn’t looping, And the security guard may have raped her at one point, or maybe not, and she killed him in cold blood … probably … and he also had a couple of crates of crazy-powerful high explosives down there with the contraband he was guarding. In between all the baffling revelations, the main characters change sides, tell secrets then change their minds, and continue to die and come back – mostly — while the fast zombies themselves get pushed into the background. Ultimately Our Guy gives up on coming up with a clever solution and simply detonates the explosives in the cargo hold, destroying the whole ship.
Ultimately, Sea Sick is a mish-mosh of half-baked, half-stolen ideas, from the Rage Virus to Happy Death Day. The characters have no depth at all – we don’t even know what the three main characters look like, what motivates them, or what they care about – and the almost random addition of smuggling, sexual assault and secret societies (secret societies? Really?) makes it even messier and more unsatisfying. Its one greatest asset is that it’s short. It also turns out to be the first of a trilogy, and maybe some of the questions are answered there, but the storytelling and characterization and simple plot-logic is so second-rate and wearisome we really have no desire to see what the sequels reveal.
And the one abiding mystery is … why is this so popular on TikTok? It’s not good zombie fiction. It’s not good fiction period. And yet it’s waved around over and over. Almost as if… as if the day were … were repeating itself… endlessly.