Monday, April 9, 2012

The Human Face of the Walking Dead: Dana Fredsti's Plague Town

I like zombies.  And I like many things that have to do with zombies--Plants Vs. Zombies, Humans Vs.  Zombies, Shaun of the Dead.  I'm interested in why zombies are so popular right now, different cultural manifestations of zombies, and what it means that zombies seem to be speeding up.

In spite of this, however, I haven't read very many zombie novels.  In fact, I'm not sure I've read any.  I think that Dana Fredsti's Plague Town might be my very first zombie novel ever.

And while Plague Town has a lot of the things that I expected from a zombie novel--death, gore, and a lot of guns--it was also fun, fast-paced read that captured my imagination and even surprised me a bit.

Plague Town tells the story of Ashley Parker, a college student in Redwood Grove, California, who gets attacked by zombies when she and her boyfriend, Matt, are enjoying a romantic picnic in the forest.  Ashley soon learns that she is a rare type of human called a "wild card"--that is, she is immune to the virus that turns others into zombies, and so, even though she got bitten by the zombies, she is still human.  She joins a team of other wild cards, led by her professor, Simone Fraser, and her hottie TA, Gabriel, to fight off the zombie hoard that is threatening to take over Redwood Grove.

Fredsti does a good job of dealing with readers' expectations for zombies--establishing that the zombies in her novel, for example, are slow-moving zombies, and thus incapable of running.  She also thinks through some of the staples of the zombie genre, such as the zombie swarm, explaining how zombies are able to organize themselves in such a fashion even though they are mindless and incapable of strategizing.  Such explanations make Fredsti's novel easily accessible to newcomers to the zombie genre without coming across as heavy-handed or repetitive for long-time fans of the genre.

Plague Town is clearly situated in the 21st century, with numerous references to Twilight, Buffy, and other pop culture phenomena.  And as such, it's a quick, fun read.  I never really felt scared as I was reading, which was a bit disappointing; Ashley and the other wild cards come across as invincible, and at one point, Ashley even acknowledges that "the fear of dying evaporated as the hunt continued."  But in spite of this lack of terror, the action of the novel is fast-paced, and the images of Ashley and her team stuck in my head after I put down the book.

While most of the novel is fun and light-hearted, however, there are a few moments that struck me as noticeably different in tone--and because of them, the novel is richer and more intense.  These moments all come when Fredsti is describing interactions between parents and children, particularly when one of them is, or is becoming, a zombie.  One of the most heart-breaking scenes is that which opens the novel, a scene that describes a mother watching her husband and young son turn into zombies before her very eyes.  Fredsti scatters moments like this throughout Plague Town, putting a very real human face on the supernatural characters--zombies and otherwise--that walk, run, and shamble through the novel.