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AUTHOR: David Jack Bell
PUBLISHER: Delirium Books
This is sort of a zombie book the way 28 Days Later was “sort of” a zombie movie. In Bell’s world, the U.S. is involved in a costly & protracted war overseas. Where & against whom is never revealed. Several years prior to the time in which the book is set, in what is believed to be a terrorist attack, the water supply of a major city (which also isn’t identified) is poisoned. The poison turns the city’s residents into mindless, shambling, violent zombie-like creatures. It’s never quite clear whether they’re actually (un)dead or not. What is clear is that they can’t stand exposure to sunlight, and sleep vampire like all day. The military has the city sealed off to keep the “City People”, as they’re called, from getting out and infecting the rest of the population.
Our hero is Jett Dormer. He drives a tow truck. The twist is he drives it into the city to collect abandoned cars, which are melted down for scrap to feed the war machine. He used to have a partner named Vince. Vince was killed by the City People on their last mission together. The book picks up on Jett’s return to work after a brief leave following Vince’s death. He blames himself for Vince getting killed, and is haunted by the guilt. Eventually, he decides that the only way to put Vince’s ghost to rest & assuage his guilty conscience is to go find him. . . dead or “alive”.
I have to admit, I was intrigued by the concept. Maybe for no other reason than because my Dad was a tow truck driver for a while when I was a kid. I really expected to like this book, even if for no other reason than it’d be a fun little zombie yarn. But the execution left more than a little to be desired.
Firstly, this was a very short book, and some of it was kind of abrupt. I’m all for eliminating bloat, but this book could have used a little build up to give it some depth and atmosphere. We are given a good glimpse into Jett’s blue collar worries about paying the bills and providing for his family, with the guilt over his partner’s death on top of that. But that’s really all we get any insight into. The details about what exactly is happening in this world are (probably intentionally) kept to a vague minimum. It would have been more effective, I think, if a real city had been used. Even if the reader had never been there, the use of actual landmarks from a real place would have lent a sense of realism and immediacy to this story that the fictionalized city it’s set in just doesn’t give you. There’s no sense of foreboding or creepy atmosphere, either. In the beginning, Jett and his new partner (a wounded vet from the war with more than a couple screws loose) spend part of each day searching for Vince, and bashing in the skulls of any sleeping City People they find along the way. Not one of them shows the slightest inclination or ability to defend himself, and Jett and his partner always get out before dark, the time when the City People are actually active, so the characters are never in any real danger. And only three or so of these kills are described in any detail. Most of the “zombie” killing takes place off camera, so to speak, and we’re just told about them in one of those “over the next few weeks, we killed as many as we could find. . . .“ kind of descriptions. Bell introduces the idea that there may be more to the City People than meets the eye in a way that’s ripe with potential to scare, and then proceeds to gloss over it and jump right to the next level without exploiting that potential. Bell also does little to explore any of the characters (except MAYBE Jett, and I’d argue even this point) in any depth. None of them is all that interesting. A couple die, and you don’t seem to care much.
Next, the dialogue felt all wrong. Jett (and I have to say. . . that’s one hell of a name, isn’t it?) just doesn’t speak like I’d expect a blue collar tow truck driver to speak. Neither do the rest of the characters, but Jett’s the only character we really get to hear from with any regularity, so this shortcoming is most noticeable in his lines. For example:
“He was a better man than you. A better man by far.”
“You’re going to go out there and tell those guys of the danger they’re in.”
There were a few others. The book wasn’t rife with them or anything, but there were enough that I took notice. The best dialogue shouldn’t stand out in your mind because of its wrongness. There were also a few awkward turns of phrase that I don’t think can be attributed to editing, such as when Jett compliments his partner, after the latter spots a particularly good car for them to tow by saying “Nice see.” Bell teaches at a college in the South; maybe that’s something they say down there, but I kind of doubt it.
There seems to be this need among the writers in the zombie sub genre to add some kind of twist to the George Romero style “rules” of the zombie story: they’re slow, they’re mindless, they eat people, they spread their disease with their bites, head shots kill them. Some succeed (such as Brian Keene’s or Philip Nutman’s thinking, talking, tool using zombies in “The Rising” and “wet Work”, respectively, or David Wellington’s superpowered “lich” zombie form his “Monster Island” trilogy; or at least, the first two books). Some don’t. Bell’s twist in this book, which I won’t reveal so as not to spoil (although if you don’t see it marching down Broadway long before it gets there, there’s probably something wrong with you) clearly falls into the latter category. It just falls flat.
Lastly, and perhaps most unforgivably, there’s almost no zombie action, in either the form of them killing people or people killing them. This is what many, if not all zombie fans buy zombie books for. If you’re one of them, you’re going to be terribly disappointed with this book. There are a few gore scenes, so if you like that there’s some to be had, but not nearly as much as you have the right to expect from a zombie story set in a city teeming with them.
Why You Might Like It: Decent concept. Maybe you’d like the twist on the “Romero Rules” a little more than I did (I admit I’ve read an awful lot of zombie fiction, and maybe I’m a little jaded).
Why You Might Not Like it: Lack of realism, atmosphere or a sense of immediacy/danger. Unexplored potential for scares that’s glaringly obvious. Dialogue that doesn’t fit the characters at all. No depth to the characters. A dearth of zombie action. A predictable, kind of lame twist on the “Romero Rules”.
Overall, unless you’re a total zombie addict – like my brother, to whom I’m loaning this book next time I see him – you can safely skip this one.