“People are dying. Then they are waking up. Hungry.” This tag-line, used on the back cover of Dana Fredsti’s novel “Plague Town,” pretty much sums up the plot of every novel or movie about zombies ever made. If you’re a fan of those to begin with, chances are you’ll enjoy this book. It’s chock full of all the classic clichés and plot standards we’ve all come to expect from a zombie story… shambling, rotting corpses, a team of people trying to survive against all odds, and (of course) lots of headshots and guns.
Ashley Parker, a woman in her late twenties returning to college after a divorce, is ready to buckle down and earn herself a degree. But her plans (and her entire life) are thrown into chaos when a deadly flu begins spreading throughout the small college town she calls home. Those who die from the flu rise from the dead and develop a taste for human flesh. But Ashley is a special case… she’s one of a few select individuals who are not only immune to the zombie disease, but are granted super-human powers by it as well. She must now bond with her fellow “Wild Cards” and learn how to fight, shoot and survive in a college town which is now home to a massive swarm of hungry, shambling corpses.
If you’re thinking that this sounds a little clichéd, you’re completely right. However, Fredsti does a great job of lamp-shading the clichés by dropping almost constant pop-culture references, both in dialogue and in the main character’s thoughts. While waiting for an approaching zombie swarm, Ashley thinks that the fog looks like something straight out of a movie like “Dawn of the Dead.” However, you can only hang so many lamp-shades before it starts to feel a bit tedious. I certainly didn’t count them, but there seemed to be at least one pop culture reference every five pages or so. The references to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Army of Darkness (on which, interestingly, the author actually worked), Twilight, Aliens, the SyFy Channel and any number of others are dropped with such annoying frequency that I started to dread them more than the rot-infested zombies. It felt almost as if the author fancied herself as Gretel, dropping pop-culture bread crumbs along the path and hoping that the reader would gobble them up and continue following her to the conclusion of the story. I also have to worry about how well this book will age due to all these references. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has a dedicated fan following now, but in ten or twenty years will anyone remember who she is, save for a small handful of Joss Whedon fans? Being as well-steeped in nerd culture as I am, I understood the vast majority of the references, but some fell flat even for me.
The characters (when they’re not spouting quotes from horror movies) are relatively well-rounded and likable. I did have trouble believing that the main character, Ashley, was supposed to be in her late twenties and already a divorcee… her outlook on life and reactions to people around her made her seem immature and a little bitchy. Even after the advent of the zombie apocalypse, after which you’d think she’d mature a little, she continues to rattle off snarky retorts to the other characters. She seemed to be one of those people who are constantly trying to prove to everyone around them that yes, they’re a badass. It doesn’t make her unbelievable as a character, just unlikable, in my opinion. She does have redeeming qualities though, mostly shown in her interactions with another of the main characters, Lily. The friendship which blossomed between the quiet, withdrawn Lily and the boisterous Ashley was well-written and enjoyable. The other Wild Cards had distinctly different personalities and voices and I enjoyed them for the most part, though I never formed a real connection with any of them. When two are suspected to be dead at one point in the book, my reaction wasn’t “Oh no!”, it was “Oh well.”
The descriptions of the zombies themselves, the scenery and the battle scenes were very well-written and engaging. Fredsti has a gift for evoking vivid mental imagery, probably due to her background working in the horror film industry. Several chapters are written from the point of view of some of the zombies, and these were particularly haunting and disturbing. The military terminology was well-handled and accessible even to those who have no military background whatsoever. The few sex scenes were steamy, the romance angle was well-played and believable, and the prose was simple and elegant. Every so often I had issues determining who was speaking because the dialogue wasn’t tagged well, but those occurrences were few and far between. The climax of the novel fell a little flat, but the lead-up to it was exciting and action-packed. This last comment may not bother most people, but for me, it was an immediate immersion-breaker and continued to bother me for the entirety of the novel. At one point, the author chose to use the acronym “WTF” in Ashley’s thoughts. I understand that the choice was probably made in order to hammer home the fact that the main character is a “modern woman,” but if you want to be a serious writer, text-speak is off the table. Unless the character is texting, that is. And even then it should be a last resort. I would expect this in a paper written by a middle school student, but NOT in a published novel.
Overall, I would say that if you go into “Plague Town” expecting unexpected plot twists, rich characters whose situations make you reflect upon the human condition, or cunningly worked prose, you will be sorely disappointed. The novel feels exactly like the B-movies so often referenced in its pages, and if you keep that in mind, you will find yourself with a pleasantly entertaining read following the adventures of Ashley and her fellow Wild Cards.
Discloure: A review copy of “Plague Town” was provided in exchange for this review. All opinions are the author’s own.