When an unknown virus is unleashed on London, it turns everyone in its path into violent, zombie-like killing machines, leaving their souls separated and floating away to form a giant halo above the capital. Flesh and spirit, dead and alive, they are both. They are severed.
As a beleaguered government brings in scientists to work on an antidote, the problems become even more complex. The virus spreads. The mayhem grows. There's no solution in sight and time is running out.
Enter Stephen Hobbs, a hard-drinking, womanizing academic with a violent past of his own. Due to his special skill set and experience, he is enlisted to figure out what the virus is and how to stop it. Despite his own demons, Hobbs may very well be humanity's last chance to survive becoming…SEVERED.
About the Author
Gary Fry has a first-class degree and a PhD in psychology, though his first love is literature. He lives in Dracula's Whitby, literally around the corner from where Bram Stoker was staying while thinking about that legendary character. He has been writing seriously for about 10 years, despite dabbling with prose since his teens. His first sale was rather a grand one: a short story, 'Both And', to Ramsey Campbell for inclusion in the international anthology Gathering the Bones.
Gary has had a number of books published, including short story collections, novellas and novels. His first collection included an introduction by Ramsey Campbell in which Gary was described as a "master". All these books reflect Gary's predilection for page-turning narratives, complex thematic development, and compelling characterisation.
Gary has a deep interest in psychology and philosophy; indeed, related concerns inform his fiction. He likes to think that every facet of his thought can be strung together by reading his assorted pieces, each adding to the whole -- a 'vision', if you like, and if that doesn't sound too pretentious. But he's never been one to flinch away from ambition.
Let me just say this straight away: covers are damn important. In fact, it was the above cover that first drew me to Severed. The imagery of London amidst some pretty severe looking phenomena hooked me instantly. Bonus points to the designer for reminding me of an awesome little sci-fi/horror cult flick from the 80s called Lifeforce, too!
[Pardon the derailment here but the film Lifeforce is based on Colin Wilson's book The Space Vampires, which I haven't read. But, the movie's climax involves some trippy special effects as the space vampires start sucking up the souls of Londoners and turns the city into a festival of chaotic derangement, and only NASA pilot, played by Steve Railsback, can stop them! Scream Factory recently released a wonderful remastered edition of the movie, so go check it out. I think once you've seen it, you'll recognize why Fry's book, of which I'm supposed to be talking about, drew my eye. OK, back to the review of the actual work I had intended writing about...]
In Severed, Christmas is drawing near when the horror strikes. People are turning savage, and a strange mist - the souls of those afflicted - is filling the sky. The minds and bodies of those infected are becoming severed, splitting them in half, "rendering one side divine and angelic, and the other mean and murderous," as one character theorizes. The substance at the root of the pandemic is named Agent Descartes, after the French philosopher who posited the separate existence of mind and body. Requiring a more metaphysical cure to this oddity, the British government turns to Professor Stephen Hobbs, an exuberant, overbearing, larger-than-life sort who very nearly tumbles into parody while fancying himself a lecturer in the Indiana Jones vein after having worked undercover with drug cartels and human traffickers for his sociological studies and exposes on human behavior.
Thankfully, Hobbs brusqueness never manages to overbalance the horror nor risks diluting the material to the point silliness. Even better, the academic oddball actually begins to warm on the reader, particularly when thrust before government officials and finds himself warmly in his environment, albeit a bit drunkenly. For his part, Fry never settles too firmly on one single character, dispersing the narrative among a handful of Londoners and quick character sketches for the victims on either side of the viral outbreak. We only get brief glimpses into the lives on display, which prevents the work from having a lot of deeply felt characterization. The focus is more keenly centered on a quickly paced apocalypse, and Fry certainly does that quite well.
One particular problem I had with the book came early on, when separate characters all arrived at the same peculiar word choice to describe the sudden horror. It struck me as unusual, and more than a bit unlikely, that all of those who came into contact with these new-age zombies would independently choose to call them "severed." Nobody was able to come up with another name, or think them merely "separated" or as just zombies and ghosts? A minor caveat, but a bit too coincidental and repetitious for the book's opening chapters. My annoyance lessened dramatically as the book progressed and the phrase grew into a sort of popular, media-borne affectation, but it made for a rocky start.
However, I rather enjoyed Fry's depiction of London in the throes of chaos, as the anarchy grew to a fiery, almost-apocalyptic frenzy. The philosophical twist to his zombie tale is wild and a much appreciated spin on what could have easily been a run-of-the-mill pathogen story. Not too many horror stories turn to French philosophers for their gory crises and this deftness added a unique bit of existential weight to the proceedings that helped lift the story to the next level.
While Fry has crafted an intellectual, philosophical work of horror, he failed to plumb the emotional depths of his characters as deeply as he could, particularly with Hobbs, who, as a child, witnessed his father's murder at the hands of his mother's illicit lover. As a result, Hobbs carries some terrific scars that have shaped his adult persona, but Fry never really goes deeper than the superficial, settling merely for the idea of trauma. Both Hobbs and Fry refuse to look any deeper at the damage such an event has wrought, to the detriment of the reader. And although the topic of this event is broached on more than on occasion, it's never really explored until very near the end, leaving little room for additional development or personal growth.
Ultimately, Severed is a bit of a mixed-bag. Readers won't find much to become emotionally attached to, although the philosophical underpinnings are rewarding enough and the pages turn quickly. One might also be struck by the metaphorical analogs Fry summons by setting his zombie tale firmly in the post-recession present with talk of a too-easy financial collapse, the severance of London's populace, and a blood-thirsty rogue military commander. If Romero's Dawn of the Dead was an indictment of American consumerism, then Severed may very well be Fry's financial collapse equivalent. Despite a few bumps and a couple of sticking points, Severed is certainly an enjoyable read, albeit a slightly unsatisfying one in the end.