Published by Creeping Hemlock Press
With the current zombie craze, it’s hard to distinguish what is trite from what is innovative, what is horror and what is someone’s attempt at grossing people out, and what is good fiction and what’s better left unread. To that end, the fine folks at Creeping Hemlock Press launched their “Print is Dead” line, which focuses exclusively on zombie fiction. What they come up with is, most of the time, solid zombie tales that have originality and quality to the writing. Which brings me to Pray to Stay Alive.
The year is 1974, and Nixon’s presidency is slipping fast. The Cold War is at its chilliest, and to make matters worse, the dead have returned to life. Right there the story promises an historic look at Night of the Living Dead/Dawn of the Dead-era American values, social pressures, and zombie fears. However, instead of any grand social commentary on a national scale, we get microcosms consisting of five friends on their way to a weekend at Lake Tahoe, an old couple holed up in a convenience store, and a black Vietnam veteran-turned-trucker trying to cross the country in a story that turns into part Deliverance, part I Spit on Your Grave, with a splash of religious-cult fanaticism thrown in for good measure. And zombies.
Like most good zombie books, the shambling dead take a back seat to the interactions between the living. But after only a few chapters, the story veers off into wild territory with mutilating redneck rape and cultish shenanigans that leave the zombies not just in the back seat but off to the side of the road. To be clear, the rapes, mutilations, gunshot blasts, and filthy, unwashed crazies in the story are written with horrifying detail. In fact, much of it seems gratuitous, placed in the story for no other reason than to have the reader squirm (specifically, a scene involving oral sex and a severed penis).
What Cole lacks in cohesive storyline, he makes up for in vivid characterization. The characters are lovingly drawn, only so Cole can torture them later, and it shows. The reader gets to know the characters to the point that we are concerned when something happens to them, we wince when they’re in pain, and we are outraged at every indignity visited upon them. It’s a credit to his writing style that such vivid characters exist in this book.
What it does not do, however, is deliver on several promises. Yes, there are zombies. Are they necessary to the plot? Nope. In fact, for the meat of the book, the walking dead are an afterthought, thrown over by the redneck cult. Yes, they’re important to one storyline, but it seems that the two storylines came from different books altogether. Another area lacking is the flavor of 1974. Sure, we’re told repeatedly about Nixon, but the things that made the 70’s such a tumultuous time in America seem to be missing, or at least underplayed to the point of being irrelevant. In all honesty, there are many moments where the reader just forgets that this is, in fact, a “period piece” because there doesn’t seem to be anything to distinguish it from the present.
Pray to Stay Dead is not a failure. In fact, it’s a good piece of fiction. Several, actually. For all of its frantic plot-jumping, there are actually two very good stories here. Whether or not they work together is up for debate, but taken separately, they are both disturbing, haunting, and well done.
3 out of 5