Desper Hollow by Elizabeth Massie
This review contains a major plot spoiler so if you prefer to read the book without preconceptions, do not read this review.
It’s always interesting when an old and often jaded reader meets something new. It forces a sudden braking manoeuvre. The smooth flow of word consumption is momentarily stilled. The brain is engaged. Thought begins. So Desper Hollow by Elizabeth Massie (Apex Publications, 2013) has a feature that gave me pause. As is always my habit when my prejudices are involved, I now remind my readers that I am an atheist and leave it to you to judge whether you feel this unfairly colours my opinions of this book.
Well, here we go with Granny Mustard in the Appalachian Mountains, once the best moonshiner in a fifteen mile radius but now no longer at her best. She was the matriarch of Beaver Dam which has been burned to the ground, apparently by another of the Mustard clan. Bobby Boo Anderson, a superhero in his own head, decides to visit the smoking ruin and makes the startling discovery that Granny may not have perished in the flames. He later disappears and his Aunt Dottie gets eaten by a bear (?). Meanwhile Armistead Ciel who had come into Beaver Dam as a hiker, is on the run but, despite his best efforts, he can’t outrun his jailor and is returned to the undead trailer where he’s been kept a prisoner. This gives him the chance to ponder weighty existential matter like who he is and what purpose he has in being. Kathy Shaw, the preacher’s daughter, avoids the flames by virtue of having left town. The best way really. Except she can’t stay away because a dead dog kills her mother but her mother disappears. All of which brings us to Jenkie Mustard who’s been learning some of Granny’s tricks and now has a trailer with four living dead humans and one dead dog, still animate. Except that’s a bit boring after a while. Just think how much more fun it would be if she could sell the story to the press, or television. This defeat of death is something the world should know about. This brings Jack Carroll of Check This Out fame and his cameraman into the mountains.
In a nutshell that gives you the ingredients of this less than wholly serious zombie novel. Taking a modern perspective, the traditional moonshiners continue to distill without permits and, not surprisingly, without paying taxes. If caught they face the prospect of years in jail which is why the Mustard clan police their part of the mountain with such enthusiasm. Their extended kin group has been making ‘shine for generations and they ain’t about to stop now. Somewhat ironically in the real world, there’s a moonshine renaissance with some distillers led by people like NASCAR legend Junior Johnson deciding there’s a market for legitimately distilled liquor. But not even the most powerful recipe around today can match Granny Mustard’s special ‘shine. This is the product of some powerful magic and it works as a great short-term reanimator. Not exactly what you need if, like Granny, you’re powerful afraid of dying. Short term doesn’t cut the mustard as someone once said. That’s why the pressure is on to make the ultimate elixir to confer eternal life after death if you’ll forgive the obvious paradox.
The potential good news is that, once we get past the setup and all the important characters are in place, this turns into a taut and very well-paced chase as relevant warm bodies run from dead bodies. This makes the last third of the book one of the best managed hunt sequences I’ve read for quite a while. Forget this is reanimated corpses doing the hunting. This is just flight from danger done really well. But I say this with two caveats. There’s a slight disconnect from the tone of the first third. In the last paragraph I said this was a less than wholly serious novel. There are some amusing moments and a general invitation to find stereotypical hillbilly antics inherently entertaining. I think the book would have benefitted from slightly more realism and malevolence from the outset. In the middle third, I suspected an explicitly Christian theme emerging and, as the book progresses, it becomes increasingly clear. I’m sorry to say that I think this completely undermines the effect.
There’s a certain expectation that zombies are driven by an insatiable hunger and will not stop until they get fresh meat unless their bodies sustain too much damage to continue moving. The idea that a higher power is disrupting this expectation undermines all the efforts to build and maintain tension. Once the reader realises God is watching and influencing events, we just sit back and wait for the miracle. So I’m sorry to say that I think the book’s excellent potential has been ruined. I understand the temptation for a Christian author to think about the status of zombies. If the soul has already gone on to its appropriate destination, the husk could become a vessel for evil. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, we have a highly intelligent and articulate monster created out of dead body parts. This triumph of science fiction from the early nineteen century could still inspire modern authors who want to explore the balance between “good” and “evil” in a reanimated body. For these purposes, it doesn’t matter whether the cause of the reanimation is the magic of electricity or something more supernatural. All we need is for the body to start moving and then pause to wonder who it is and why it’s doing whatever it’s doing. So, for me, Desper Hollow defeats itself. It could have been an edge of the seat story of zombies rampaging through the mountains, but it throws away all the tension when you know God is already on the job.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.