John Blackburn’s The Face of the Lion

I won’t have many more of these to announce in the future (I swear!), but I wanted to point out that another book by John Blackburn has been released recently that contains an introduction by me — The Face of the Lion!



Written in 1976, The Face of the Lion is a rather unusual novel — it can be considered an early novel that contemplates the possibility of a “zombie apocalypse,” so popular in horror fiction today.

When a remote region of the Scottish Highlands is cordoned off by mercenaries working for the laird James Frasier Clyde, the British government suspects that Clyde is planning to test a home-made atomic bomb in a bid for Scottish independence.  It becomes quickly clear, however, that Clyde is not seeking to keep people out as much as keep something in: a horrible disease is spreading among the people of the area, turning them into mindless raging beasts that can spread their contagion with a touch.  As the infection spreads beyond the restricted region, bacteriologist Sir Marcus Levin and Colonel Lawrence of the Internal Security Service race to understand and contain it before the entire country, if not the world, is devastated.

The Face of the Lion is very much a classic style of Blackburn novel: part horror and part mystery.  There is a sinister and complicated force behind the plague, and discovering its origin is just as much a part of the plot as is stopping it.  True to all of Blackburn’s fiction, the story contains many twists and turns, all the way up to its final shocking revelations.

This is not one of Blackburn’s strongest novels: by 1976, he had been writing horror — and about plagues in particular — for nearly 20 years, and the story doesn’t “click” as much as his earlier works.  In fact, the story is reminiscent of even his first novel, A Scent of New-Mown Hay, in which a sinister disease threatens to wipe out the world.  Nevertheless, The Face of the Lion is well-crafted and works well as an introduction to Blackburn’s work, which was hugely popular in his time and had a significant influence on later British horror authors.

I had a lot of fun with the introduction to this book, trying to fit it into the broader genre of “zombie apocalypse” novels.  This gave me the opportunity to present a short history of such novels, stretching back hundreds of years to the first “last man” story in 1805.  The Face of the Lion was very much ahead of its time and I think readers will be fascinated to see how much Blackburn anticipated future developments in the genre.

It’s also worth noting that I had a small part in the design of the cover of this edition!  I provided the basic structure of the lion and biohazard sign and Valancourt crafted it into the excellent cover that is pictured above.  Hopefully it gives the right feeling of sophisticated menace that John Blackburn’s books so rightly deserve.

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