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Monsters and meth Fiend'

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Debut novel offers fresh take on zombies

As with any art form, trends play a big part in the literary realm. Whenever a genre or subject sees a surge in popularity, more and more authors jump into the fray. This is a mixed blessing at best; while some writers have something new and unique to add to a subject, many others are simply along for the ride, attempting to cash in on something that has achieved a certain level of cultural prominence.

The paranormal has seen such a surge in recent years. Wizards and vampires have had their respective moments in the sun, while a current pop-lit darling is the idea of the zombie. Now, with such a wealth of material out there, it can be difficult for an author to put any kind of personal stamp on the walking dead.

Peter Stenson has found a way. With his debut novel 'Fiend' (Crown; $22), Stenson has managed to tackle the post-apocalyptic zombie with freshness and fervor. 

And crystal meth. Lots and lots of crystal meth.

Chase Daniels is a full-blown meth-head. He's as addicted as they come, ready and willing to do whatever it takes to get his next fix. He's at his best (and really only) friend Typewriter John's house, where the two of them are coming off a week-long binge. They've been high as kites and going without sleep for days, so it makes sense that when he sees something weird going down outside, he blames it on the drugs.

He sees a sweetly giggling little girl out in the yard, playing with a Rottweiler. Only upon closer inspection, she isn't playing with it. She's eating it.

Chase tries to keep it together and maintain, but that proves difficult when John sees the same thing. It turns out that while these two were holed up in John's filthy hovel smoking crank, the world as they know it came to an end. 

They make a run for it, but considering they're both barely-functioning speed freaks, their plan basically consists of making their way to the backwoods cabin of their supplier, who they know only as the Albino. Despite the fact that civilization has crumbled around them, all they can think about is where they'll get their next fix.

Along the way, they learn from other survivors that there was no big bang, no explosive shift. One night, the world went to sleep. The next morning, 99 percent of the population woke up zombified. So the journey begins, a handful of tweaked-out survivors trying to make their way through a world of constant danger and fear, just trying to keep breathing.

Chase has never been what you'd call a stand-up guy. He has disappointed everyone who has ever loved or trusted him mostly due to his all-consuming addictions. But for a guy like Chase a guy who has effectively ruined his life might the end of days be one last shot at redemption? 

'Fiend' plays out as a first-person narrative that is tensely compelling. Chase is not your typical hero, a deeply flawed man who, despite his best intentions, continually gets in his own way. There's something fascinating about watching a story unfold through the eyes of a completely unreliable, yet still well-meaning narrator. 

What Stenson has done is offer a new look at the idea of the zombie apocalypse. There is no meteor strike or virus or anything like that. The zombies justhappened. And while most of these stories feature heroes equipped to some extent for the battle ahead, Chase and his crew are all sadly and perhaps irreparably broken. This is what makes us root for their success, despite the fact that none of them really fit the definition of 'good people.' 

If Irvine Welsh and George Romero were to co-write a novel, the end result would be something very much like 'Fiend.' Part zombie apocalypse, part addiction narrative, part love story 'Fiend' brings its seemingly dissonant parts into a riveting harmonic whole.

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