Sometimes reading a lot in a specific genre can work against you as a reader. It can make you jaded, can numb you to the things you actually like about the genre simply through sheer repetition. That’s a problem I encounter sometimes as a horror fan. I’ve read a lot of horror, from the obvious works of Stephen King and Clive Barker to the frustratingly lesser-known efforts of Kealan Patrick Burke and Gary Braunbeck and Tom Piccirilli and a dozen others. I’ve read some great stuff, and a metric ton of crap, too. And sometimes, even though it actually goes against what I believe and seek as a reader, I approach a new book thinking that it’s going to fail unless it can show me some new twist on vampires or ghosts or serial killers or whatever.
And then, thankfully, a book like Pray to Stay Dead comes along, slaps me in the mouth and reminds me that a story doesn’t have to re-invent the genre to be good. It can simply work hard in the confines of what we know, and be great. Pray to Stay Dead is a great zombie novel, and a great kickoff for the new Print Is Dead imprint from publisher Creeping Hemlock Press.
I knew next to nothing about the premise of the novel going in, and that worked greatly to the book’s advantage, so I’m going to tell you next to nothing about the plot here. In fact, here’s all the publisher offers in the way of synopsis:
The Summer of Love is a fading memory, the Cold War rages on, Richard M. Nixon is barely holding onto the Presidency, and the dead are returning to life.
Five friends on their way to a week at Lake Tahoe, a Vietnam veteran in Sacremento trying to get home to his daughter in New Mexico, an older cuple idling in a dusty shop in the hills, and a dangerous man who has spent twenty years preparing his strange family for the end of the world…
As civilization collapses, these scattered survivors cross paths, and the hungry dead are the least of the horrors unleashed.
Those who die will walk. Those who live will hope for a quick death, and they will pray to stay dead.
You probably think that tells you a lot; that it may, in fact, tell you too much. I kind of thought so, too – read that synopsis and had a little map in my head of how things were going to go. But oh, how wrong I was.
The thing that Mason James Cole does so well in this, his debut novel, is let the zombie action fade almost into the background while the human drama of the situation takes center stage. Don’t misunderstand – the undead presence permeates each and every page of the book, and MJC does not flinch when it comes to describing the damage the hungry zombies can inflict. (These zombies follow the basic Romero blueprint, by the way, acting mostly on instinct with the occasional glimps of intelligence, moving in a slow, clumsy shuffle and exhibiting an insatiable craving for living human flesh.) But the corpses that get up, walk and eat aren’t the true villains – they’re victims of circumstance. It’s some of those still living, and their reactions to what’s going on around them, that are the evil here.
I’d hazard a guess that MJC was a pitcher in another life, because he has a wicked curveball, and it’s used over and over again throughout the length of the book. After about the fourth time of thinking, “Okay, I see where we’re going now,” and turning the page to find out I was completely wrong, I gave up and just went along for the ride. Characters I thought had it made were unceremoniously chomped, stabbed, or shot, while others I picked as goners somehow made it through alive. Situations that seemed perfectly set up to carry me through the rest of the book changed in a snap, sometimes for the better but usually for the worse. I couldn’t get a handle on the story, couldn’t get comfortable as a reader, and that’s a rare and exciting thing these days.
The action is non-stop and uncompromising, the gore is heaped on by the bucketful, and, best of all, the emotion is real. You’re going to get invested in these people, and you will mourn the fate of some and cheer the fate of others. That, truly, is the highest compliment I can pay an author.
Pray to Stay Dead does not re-invent the living dead genre, it simply takes its place among that genre’s best. It does Romero proud, and it does Creeping Hemlock Press proud, too. The Print Is Dead writers following MJC out of the gate better bring their A Game, because this one is going to be difficult to live up to.