Dead Inside: Do Not Enter: Notes from the Zombie Apocalypse isn't a novel, but rather a collection of notes and, occasionally, photographs.
The book begins with a timeline that spans from February to November of some unknown year. February is when the first incidences of "the super flu" are reported. Camp St. Teresa and similar places are established, initially to care for uninsured super flu patients. Later, these camps become quarantines. By November, the super flu has mutated. A few patients at Camp St. Teresa die and begin attacking others.
The notes and photographs that comprise the majority of the book are described as being the contents of a backpack discovered in a town in Northern California. The notes document various individuals' experiences just before and after the super flu mutated.
When I was a teen, I used to collect things I found in library books. Sometimes I found actual bookmarks, but usually I found scraps of paper, notes, postcards, anything that the previous readers found lying around that could be used as a bookmark. Sometimes I imagined what the people who left those things behind were like. Reading this book had a similar effect on me.
I feel about this book the same way I do about anthologies, which makes sense, I guess, since this book is the result of many individuals' contributions. Some of the notes had a better emotional impact than others. My favorites tended to be the shorter ones, which allowed my own imagination to flesh out the stories of the people who wrote them.
The notes covered a range of situations and emotions. Some of the note writers were angry, afraid, or even happy. They had family members they were afraid for or had had to kill, or they were alone surviving however they could. In some cases, they knew they were about to die, and the note included in the book was likely the last bit of evidence of their existence.
The “stories” and messages were at once all the same and all different. Some things came up multiple times: some note writers wrote about having been bitten; some notes were warnings about zombies in the area; some notes contained advice or observations (“the dogs won't go near them, even the ones who were bit but aren't zombies yet. The dogs know”); some notes were apologies for mistakes the note writers had made or horrible things they had done; some notes mentioned theories explaining why this was all happening. I could easily continue the list. Even though a lot of things came up multiple times, the fact that this book was put together using contributions from multiple people was probably what helped keep it from suffering from a feeling of “sameness.”
Overall, the notes struck me as chilling and sad. Unfortunately, a few notes interrupted the generally realistic feel of the book. A couple notes tried to be humorous in ways that made me think more of zombie movies than “this is what real people would write in this situation.” For example, one note referenced The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the sunscreen song, and possibly a few other things. Another note featured “dialogue” between multiple writers, all commenting on the font the original note writer used.
A few of the longer notes struck me as being a touch too detailed, more like short stories than records of real people's experiences. In some cases, I had a difficult time imagining the conditions that could have resulted in the creation of the notes. For example, some of them featured what was clearly back-and-forth exchanges between two note writers. Why weren't these people talking to each other instead? I could usually think up reasons why the note writers had written their conversations instead of voicing them (in one case, I imagined the note writers worrying about being heard by a zombie, maybe not knowing whether it would react to the sound of their voices), but there were a few times when I was stumped.
One thing that struck me as odd about this book was that there was only one note not in English, a one-word note written in Spanish. I hadn't really thought anything about all the notes being in English until I came across the one note in Spanish and realized there should have been more. Granted, I'd have found myself wishing for English translations to be included, but more notes in Spanish would probably have been more in keeping with the book's realistic feel.
Early on in the book, there were a few mentions of how the mutation of the super flu had affected other countries. Overall, though, those interested in a less America-centric look at the effect of the zombie apocalypse will probably be disappointed. I think there was one note, later in the book, that speculated how things were going in another country (“Do you think it's as bad in Denmark?” “Probably.”), but that's it. It's understandable, since I doubt overseas communication and travel would be much on the minds of people who'd have problems even getting from one town to the next, but there was one note that confirmed that the Internet was still working and that the note writer found a website on which survivors were communicating (probably this site). Given that, mentions of other countries wouldn't have been completely out of bounds.
A few other things I feel I should mention:
Most of the notes in this book are handwritten. Not “handwritten” in the sense that the font in which they were typed is based on handwriting, but actually handwritten. Sometimes the handwriting is a little difficult to decipher. I didn't have any major problems, but others might. Also, if you cringe and grammar and spelling mistakes, you may have problems with this book. I felt that the errors contributed to the “notes written by real people in a really bad situation” feeling the book was going for.
Despite the occasional problem I had with the book, I thought it was good overall. The contents of the notes themselves don't necessarily present anything new – it's the experience of reading the book, the feeling of reading accounts from survivors (however briefly they managed to survive), that makes this seem different from all the other "zombie apocalypse" stories out there.
- The Road (book) by Cormac McCarthy - Those who'd like something else bleak and post-apocalyptic might want to try this.
- At the Mountains of Madness (novella) by H.P. Lovecraft - Those looking for another "survivor's account" with a similarly disturbing tone might want to try this. I have written about this.
- PostSecret: Extraordinary Confessions from Ordinary Lives (book) put together by Frank Warren - Those who enjoyed the "notes written by real people" look and feel of Dead Inside: Do Not Enter may want to try this. The book is based on a group art project, in which real people were asked to write down on postcards secrets they had never told anyone. If you like this book, it looks like there are lots and lots of other PostSecret books to try as well.
- World War: An Oral History of the Zombie War (book) by Max Brooks - This book is written as though the author spoke to and recorded the firsthand accounts of people living through a zombie apocalypse.
- I Am Legend (book) by Richard Matheson - Those who'd like another post-apocalyptic monster survival story might want to try this. The protagonist is possibly the last living human, but he still tries, every day, to contact others like himself, humans who have not been infected by the plague that turned everyone into vampire-like creatures.