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With WORLD WAR Z soon to become a Brad Pitt movie, THE
WALKING DEAD a hit on prime-time cable and Jane Austen mashups flying off
shelves, are the undead beginning to get a bit stale? Maybe not. Although
technically not a zombie novel—monster bites don’t infect victims, they just
hurt really bad—Matthew Costello’s VACATION (Thomas Dunne Books) adds a new
twist to the genre.
Based on an earlier short story by the author, the story
begins a year after a worldwide drought has killed off most of the planet’s
crops and species. Governments have crumbled, replaced by heavily guarded and
fenced-in communities. A strange plague, perhaps created by chemicals in a
secret government-designed superfood, is turning folks into subhuman cannibals.
Given the rising number of “Can Head” zombies—the name grows on you, I
promise—no one is truly safe.
Enter NYPD officer Jack Murphy (good cop name). After a Can
Head attack leaves him with a permanent limp and a dead partner, he’s convinced
by his wife to take the family on vacation. The brochure for Paterville Family
Camp, located deep in the Adirondacks, promises swimming, hiking and real
honest-to-God food, not that artificially flavored synthetic crap Uncle Sam’s
been pushing. Guards on duty 24/7 and electrified fences promise a Can
After making the treacherous drive across the no man’s land
of rural upstate New York, Murphy pulls his zombie-proofed Griswold family
truckster through the heavily fortified gates of Paterville. At first,
everything’s great; even hard-assed Jack begins to relax as his wife and two
children enjoy camp life. But as anyone who’s seen five minutes of an action
film from the last 30 years knows, you can take the cop out of the city, but
you just can’t take the city out of the cop. Jack starts to get suspicious: Why
are security cameras pointed at the cabins and not the outside perimeter? Where
does the restricted service road lead? And sure, the food’s great, but what’s
with the funny aftertaste? (On the plus side, there’s a busty, wood-splitting
maintenance lady eyeing Jack like he’s the daily special. But still.)
Having penned a number of novels and video-game scripts—most
notably the DOOM series—Costello’s no stranger to horror-fiction writing. He
knows how to keep a story moving, and his sparse, punchy style gives the
writing urgency. However, Murphy’s supercop antics can dive into lazy cliché.
After blowing away a horde of Can Heads, he quips, “Yea. That’s what you get
for ruining my f**king vacation.” Yeesh. An ominously abandoned rest stop
somehow doesn’t fail to yield…(SPOILER ALERT)…Can Heads! And toward the end,
the book’s big twist sneaks up on the reader with all the stealth of a
Still, these faults don’t make the story any less enjoyable.
Quickly paced and tightly written, VACATION maintains suspense. The characters
are (excuse the pun) well-fleshed-out and the creatures frightening, as far as
flesheating mutants go. Costello might even be making a metaphorical jab at our
processed/canned-food-eating monoculture, his Can Head prognosis making Mad Cow
Disease resemble a mild cold. (On a side note, when did it become uncool to
just call a zombie by its name? Between the Can Heads and WALKING DEAD’s
“Walkers,” one yearns for the straightforward Romero-esque days of yore.)
In VACATION, Costello manages to wring life from an already
overworked undead. While the novel won’t set off any upcoming miniseries,
perhaps, in the end, that isn’t such a bad thing after all. “A vacation, hm?”
Jack muses after another Can Head attack. “That really would be something.”
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