Published: October 13, 2009 (US); October 22, 2009 (UK)
Author: Joe Schreiber
Cover Artist: Indika and David Stevenson
Publisher: Del Rey Books (US); Arrow (UK)
Formats: Hardback (234 pages), Paperback (288 pages), eBook (303 pages), Audiobook: (401 minutes)
Timeline: 1-year BBY
When the Imperial prison barge Purge—temporary home to five hundred of the galaxy’s most ruthless killers, rebels, scoundrels and thieves—breaks down in a distant, uninhabited part of space, its only hope seems to lie with a Star Destroyer found drifting, derelict, and seemingly abandoned. But when a boarding party is sent to scavenge for parts, only half of them come back bringing with them a horrific disease so lethal that within hours, nearly all aboard the Purge will die in ways too hideous to imagine.
And death is only the beginning.
The Purge’s half-dozen survivors—two teenage brothers, a sadistic captain of the guards, a couple of rogue smugglers and the chief medical officer, the lone woman on board—will do whatever it takes to stay alive. But nothing can prepare them for what lies waiting on board the Star Destroyer amid its vast creaking emptiness that isn’t really empty at all. For the dead are rising, soulless, unstoppable, and unspeakably hungry.
It’s late into All Hallows Eve, when all the trick or treaters have retired from their hauntings and harvests of candy– the rainstorm sending them home early. You sit in your home. Alone. You are reading your favourite Star Wars news site when suddenly a loud thunderclap rattles your skull. You hear the pop of a transformer from down the street and your home is plunged into darkness. No Wi-Fi. No light. No power. You decide to call it a night and go to bed early, but sleep won’t come. Too tired to sleep, you light some candles. The illuminated room is just bright enough to read by, but yet still dark enough that the shadows dance with the flutter of the candle wick. You pull out a random book from the bottom of your bookshelf, as a good Star Wars book will help ease the stormy night jitters. Star Wars has always been a comfort to you since you were a small child, trick or treating as a Jedi Knight. By candlelight you look at the cover. A hauntingly cracked helmet with bloody matter dripping from the soulless eye. You start at page one. The prose compels you to keep going. Just one more chapter. You will find no comfort from warm childhood memories here. In these pages you will find “only what you take with you.” Fear.
Oil and water don’t mix; and until Joe Schreiber’s chillingly creepy novel “Death Troopers”, it seemed neither did Star Wars and horror (Holiday Special aside). There was an attempt to cash in on the juvenile horror fad made famous by R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps” with the “Galaxy of Fear” series by John Whitman in the mid-1990’s but those are largely forgettable. So, when the cover art for the novel was revealed, and posted on starwars.com in January of 2009: people lost their minds.
That summer, months before the novel’s Halloween release date, members of the 501st were cosplaying as zombified stormtroopers looking for rebel brains. Model kit builders (myself included) and action figure collectors were modding their scale figures to look creepy. The fan sites got into the act as well, with short fiction presented as imperial news blasts. To hype up the novel even more, the on-line game Star Wars Galaxies introduced the zombie filled star destroyer Vector as a playable map.
To say there was a lot of buzz around this novel would be a severe understatement. Like saying Hoth has a few snow flurries, or that Anakin is a little annoyed by sand. A decade ago, Star Wars fans did not have a new movie to look forward to (and the idea of live action tv and a theme park expansion was as remote as Tatooine.) Book announcements, then, were big deals; and “Death Troopers” sparked the imagination of many fans as well as licensees like Gentle Giant, who would produce a wonderfully creepy zombie mini bust. The audience was there for Star Wars horror.
I think Schreiber delivered. His accessible prose sets a tone that is gothic and creepy. Like Edgar Allan Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death”, Cat Winters’s “The Uninvited,” or Brent Abell’s “Wicked Tales For Wicked People,” Schreiber’s “Death Troopers” bombards the reader with descriptions of death and its physical manifestations, of decomposition, of rotting flesh, and of course, reanimation. The setting isn’t a gothic abbey or a dilapidated barn in the American South, but a derelict star destroyer, the Vector. The setting is very much Star Wars, but the genre is gothic horror.
Case in point, the chapter names! Let me share a few of my favorites: Skin Hill, Coffin Jockeys, They Woke Up, Meat Nest, and Lung Windows. Schreiber uses the word viscera more liberally than a med school textbook, as he describes the gore of the science experiment gone wrong. The scene where our protagonists climb a mountain of inanimate body parts to escape past horrors only to discover new ones living at the bottom of the dead heap is still living in my subconscious. I can’t say this book (or any book) had me scared, but it certainly succeeded in creeping the Sith out of me.
Which is to say: this book is fun. Honest. It is a quick read too, with short chapters, neat prose, and an investment by the reader in the lives of the main characters. Some, like brothers Kale and Trig Longo, doctor Zahara Cody, and the two legacy characters that happily show up in the middle of the book (and whose names I won’t spoil), the reader roots for their survival. Most of the characters in the book, however, are horrible, horrible people, prompting the reader to actively root for the zombies. Captain Sartoris in particular fueled the binge read to see if he becomes zombie food.
At the heart of it though, the book is more closely related to the works of Brian Daley then the films of George Romero. It is a fun Star Wars adventure that at times is humorous, despite the dark and creepy prose. The audiobook is excellent too, with a deft narration by voice actor Sean Kenin. Pro tip: don’t listen to the phantasmagoria of the audiobook while falling asleep after a wisdom tooth extraction with the anesthesia still in your system.
Perhaps the true legacy of the novel is the subsequent embrace of horror into mainstream Star Wars. The second season of Star Wars: The Clone Wars had two episodes inspired by “Death Troopers,” “Legacy of Terror” and “Brain Invaders.” The story arc involved parasitic worms that zombified their clone trooper hosts. I don’t think we would have gotten the visual of a Geonosian Brain Worm being force pulled out of the mouth of a white eyed clone trooper in a primetime television show aimed at children if it weren’t for this book. Or, the IDW comic “Return to Vader’s Castle” that Steve has been reviewing.
Perhaps the idea (or rather the profitability) of blending Star Wars with the conventions of other genres was initially spawned with the book’s cover art. We now have a heist movie set in Star Wars in Solo and a war movie in Rogue One. Additionally, we have a romance novel in “Star Wars: Lost Stars” and war novels in the works of Alexander Freed, “Star Wars: Battlefront” and “Star Wars: Alphabet Squadron.”
Joe Schreiber has other horror novels set in the Star Wars Universe; “Red Harvest” a prequel of sorts to “Dark Troopers” set in a Sith academy during the Old Republic, and “Maul: Lockdown” wherein Darth Maul goes to prison to take on the criminal underworld alone. He also wrote the junior novelization to Solo. Yet this book is my favorite of his trilogy of horror. I enjoyed this book the first time I read it and enjoyed reading it now for this Halloween time review.
Even if I did have to sleep with the lights on.