On April 15, 1912, the RMS Titanic hit an iceberg, causing the ocean liner to sink and 1,502 people to die. But the new novel Deck Z by Chris Pauls and Matt Solomon imagines that many of those doomed passengers were already dead, or, to be more specific, undead.
Zombies do have a habit of getting around. They've found their ways into Jane Austen novels and the Star Wars universe, so why not aboard the Titanic? In some ways, the Titanic is the perfect venue for a zombie outbreak: It's large enough that it would take a while for some folks to notice the outbreak, but enclosed so that total infection seems inevitable. If it makes it to its final destination, it risks infecting all of New York, or it can come to a rest at the bottom of the ocean.
There are two ways that Pauls and Solomon could have composed their maritime zombie episode. They could have composed a zombie story and grafted bits of Titanic history onto it. Fortunately, they chose the other route, telling Deck Z as a historical fiction novel and weaving zombie elements into it. We start out with a bit of wartime intrigue. Theodor Weiss is a German scientist researching a cure for a devastating plague, one that killed his own sister. In the process, he learns of a strain that is even more terrifying: it ravages its victims' bodies and minds until they become like the walking dead, hungering for human flesh. But when he realizes that the German government plans to weaponize the plague, he destroys his lab and flees, taking with him the only remaining sample of the disease, which he has dubbed the Toxic.
Weiss decides to head for America, where he hopes to set up a private lab and continue his research free from government interests. So he books passage aboard the Titanic under a fake name. But he hasn't escaped Germany unnoticed. A mysterious and deadly Agent has failed to acquire the Toxic once before, and now he's followed Weiss aboard the ship.
Once we're aboard Titanic, though, we spend more time with actual historical figures: Edward Smith, the popular captain, Thomas Andrews, the naval architect who designed the Titanic, and J. Bruce Ismay, the White Star Lines executive whose survival aboard one of the lifeboats branded him the "Coward of the Titanic. Pauls and Solomon have great fun exploring the excited early days of the voyage, when the first class passengers gossiped about a ghost who haunted the walls of the ship and gambled on squash matches. These sequences draw us into the world of the Titanic and help build a sense of unease about what's coming next.
Eventually, of course, all undead hell breaks loose. Don't fret, aspiring zombie slayers, Deck Z gives us an undead bloodbath, but the characters don't jump straight from realizing the dangers of the infected to stabbing or shooting every zombie in the head. The authors try have respect for the fact that their characters have never seen a zombie movie and these zombies used to be (and may still be) human beings. Once the killing gets started, they do find a couple of particularly innovative ways to off the cannibalistic passengers (not everyone is handy with a sword or a gun). At the same time, the authors explore some of the themes that are familiar to the story of the Titanic, such as the very different fates of the first and third class passengers, how White Star Lines (and Ismay in particular) handled the portents of doom, and the chaos of the boat's evacuation.
Deck Z is an enjoyable romp for anyone who likes to mix history and genre horror, but it's a bit shy of a must-read. Pauls and Solomon certainly have the talent and the ability to have written a longer and richer novel that explores more aspects of life aboard the Titanic and how various types of characters are affected by the sudden zombie outbreak. At a little more than 200 pages, it feels a bit more like a movie pitch than a standalone novel. But if that's the case, it would make for a fun zombie movie.