REVIEW: EVERYONE DIES AT THE END
I'm not often one for the zombie apocalypse theme. I think it's overdone and all too formulaic to be of any real entertainment value. I also just don't find that zombies are a compelling type of villain. Vampires are scary because they are smart AND powerful AND eat people. Zombies just kind of eat people most of the time. Occasionally they are stronger or faster than average people, but a lot of the time they are actually slower. What makes a zombie apocalypse entertaining for most (I think) is generally how the world reacts to a global zombie outbreak. What usually does it for me though, is when the story is more of a spoof off of the ordinary zombie plot-line. Zombieland and Warm Bodies are perfect examples of this. I've yet to find any kind of more serious zombie story that resonates with me in quite the same way as these movies did. I do enjoy Plants vs. Zombies and Call of Duty Zombies mode (Left for Dead was pretty good too) but those are games that don't really tell Zombie stories, they just kind of let you kill them in excessive number. One might then wonder why I would pick up a Zombie novel then, but let me explain.
HOW I CAME UPON IT
I mentioned in my UPDATE: 6/17/2015 post, I stumbled across the author of this on an online forum asking for early reviews of this work. I'm naturally a bit of a sucker for all things indie so I said I'd give an honest review of this in exchange for a copy. It's really short too - only an 87 page PDF file which would probably turn into a paperback length of approximately 100-150 pages depending on page size and font chosen (it could also be way more or way less, but this is a decent guesstimate). The author is a really nice guy and pretty active in the indie community which certainly helped with my decision to offer to try this out. At the time, I was also under the impression that this would be a sort of dark comedy, the likes of which I mentioned above. I can say in advance that EVERYONE DIES AT THE END did not deliver the type of entertainment that I expected and that turned out to be partially a good thing.
HOW I RATED IT
3.5/5 I've never given a half-score to a book before, nor have I ever felt the need to. So as you might imagine, I am a bit torn about how I rate this book. Three stars is a perfectly respectable rating in its own right and it is the rating this will probably be getting on Goodreads from me, but I truly think it deserves a little better than that because it tries to do some things that are different and unexpected. That said, I just don't feel it quite deserves a four in terms of what I look for and expect in a book. It is also worth noting that this is an ARC and there are somethings that will probably change between now and when the book is finally released. I mentioned above that I do have a slight bias against zombies, but I did not find that hindered my enjoyment of the story in any way.
Generally, horror characters are pretty lame. They often fall into stereotypes and just generally fail to be authentic or compelling in any way. They are also normally VERY dumb. I'm very happy to say that while some of the characters in this story are a bit dense, they are all really quite colorful in their own way.
The casting for this is unconventional to say the least. There's junkies, fat men, children, teenagers, bitchy wives/girlfriends, and average joes. It is an extraordinarily ordinary group of people and I think that made the experience feel that much better than it would have otherwise. While I won't get into the details just yet, neither the general outbreak plot-line, nor the zombies themselves are all that different from what you would expect. What makes this a worthwhile read are the unique and interesting personalities that inhabit this space. I don't know if I would go so far as to say that they are all relate-able because there is a lot of surprising brutality and subsequent numbness to that gore that may make some of the characters harder to connect with, but its the little things that they say and do that make them feel true to life. Joey is perhaps the best example of this as he is a loving husband who struggles with his own obesity. His wife, Sara, is a as as hot-tempered as she is attractive and though they seem like an odd pair, they balance each other out and truly do make each other better people. Moments like when he comes up from doing a workout or when she cuddles with him in bed felt real and definitely sold me on these wonderful characters.
The story is kind of split up into two groups, there is the family group that Joey and Sara are a part of and then there is the story of Earl, the junkie who desperately craves his next fix of cocaine. His character is where the story is the funniest but also the most morbid. There aren't really any other main characters that are part of his group, but there is his demon which appears to him in various forms whenever his body begins to feel the need for another hit of drugs. This imaginary figure is there to taunt and torment him, but it is also somewhat motivating to his survival at certain points and I really liked the idea of this imaginary companion having such a big role in these segments of the story. There are a bunch of other really distinct characters throughout the tale, but I found that these four were easily my favorites.
There isn't a ton going on in terms of world intrigue here. The locations feel generally rural or at least suburban and the family side of the story remains pretty much exclusively in one spot for the majority of the plot's duration. Earl gets around a bit, but doesn't seem to go far since he keeps running into the other group. There are some intriguing places like a cannibals' home and a militaristic fortress that the characters run into near the story's conclusion, but these locations aren't really explored in depth. Don't get me wrong, these places aren't bad in any way, the locations visited are simply more just backdrops for the characters to exist within and don't really take on too much life of their own. This is pretty typical for this genre so I got what I needed from the world and had no complaints. If I had a similar opinion of say, a grand fantasy novel, then that would be a different story.
The zombies themselves are a lot of what will definite this type of world space. The ones here are a bit more interesting than the average flesh-eaters, but they aren't a super prominent presence. They are a poignant one, however. The zombies are visually interesting in that they are fungal based in a way that is very similar to how they look in the videogame, The Last of Us. The disease itself is causes by fungal spores that infect people and animals alike. The results are truly gruesome and the way the disease spreads through thick goo that gives birth to the infections fungi was rather horific. Every moment where this disease does show up feels balanced, well-done, and perfectly described. This aspect of the setting is by far the most distinct. While I know zombies are technically people, the way both the monsters themselves and the underlying disease are handled makes them far more a part of the setting than they are cast.
The tone is one area that I was a bit taken back by. Despite none of the marketing or even the story synopsis indicating that this would be a funny read, I did expect that this would be something of a zombie spoof simply based off of the silly title. And in some ways, it is, but in others, it couldn't be further from that. This is just a hard one to tonally pin down because of how gruesome the overarching tone is. Even the funnier moments are humorous in a really grim way. One example of this is Earl's addition. I shouldn't be amused by the fact that someone is so dependent on hard drugs, but seeing someone work desperately for their next fix in the midst of the apocalypse has an undeniable sense of humor to it. A lot of the funnier aspects are very much in line with this example in that they are things that wouldn't and shouldn't be funny other any other circumstances, but because of this story's context, they may actually make you chuckle to yourself. The way certain people like Joey are described also has this really down-to-earth humor to it. Aside from these bits of morbid jesting, though, this is a rather serious and brutal story that you probably classify as a dark comedy, but its not the same thing as the humor found in stories like Zombieland.
One somewhat distracting thing about the book is the way it is formatted. The author broke the chapters down into individual episodes. That might not sound like such a bad thing, but calling a chapter an episode set up an expectation for me that each part of the book would have a sort of theme to it. I figured there would be some sort of little mini story thread that opened and closed within each episode, but that's just not the case. The "episodes" flow into each other in a continuous way like chapters do and really just didn't feel episodic in any way. It didn't necessarily detract from my overall enjoyment of the piece as a whole, but it did make the earlier sections a little harder to get through since I was thrown off by this feature. One other thing that was a bit off-putting was the formatting. While I did read this as a PDF which is not reflective of the final product, none of the chapters had page breaks to separate them from one another, nor was there a table of contents (functional or otherwise). While this was just an advanced copy, I did find myself a little disappointed in these two shortcomings because I'm a "real" reader too and I feel like a book should be formatted with general readability in mind. It doesn't have to be industry standard or anything like that. I've been through the pains of trying to learn all of the "proper" formatting specs for my own book and it isn't easy, but I do ask for the basics and I felt like those were kind of ignored here at least with the version that I was given to review.
I mentioned before that I did have a little trouble getting going with this story. I knew going in that there would eventually be a zombie outbreak, but did not anticipate the contents of the first couple of chapters. The book starts out on Earl's side and throws readers into this really shady scene of Earl and his girlfriend(?) getting into a fight over whether or not Earl is going to share his drugs with her. There's a flurry of domestic abuse where some very unpleasant words are thrown around. While these scenes do set up the root cause of the outbreak, I just don't think that this was the best way to hook readers in. It's shocking/surprising, yes, but probably not in the right way. I plodded through these earlier episodes in hopes that things would get better and they do for the most part. Once the outbreak starts, the adventure begins. The violence and language don't really calm down at all, but they do fit in a little better when there are man-eating fungus monsters running around. I would say that the vast majority of this plot really worked for me right up until the final couple of episodes.
I found myself a little jarred by the ending for a couple of reasons. First, things happen just a little too fast. I have no issue with pacing changes, in fact, I like a good breathtaking conclusion, but that's not really the case here. As the title implies, everyone kind of dies at the end and the majority of these fatalities all happen within the span of about ten pages. If this was part of some super-intense massively devastating event that would be one thing, but the pacing just kind of rolls along at the normal pace except for all the death. There is also a bit of a twist that I didn't see coming and I'm not sure that's a great thing. It would be hard to explain myself without getting into spoiler territory, but I effectively felt that there were some serious logistical/plausibility issues with it all and actually would have preferred a more standard ending to the one that we got which is a somewhat rare thing for me. That said, the author's decision was pretty clever in a way and my only real problem with it was that I'm not so sure it actually made sense, particularly within the context of the first couple of chapters. It also left me with a lot of unanswered questions which isn't the most pleasant way to end a book.
This was a really mixed bag for me. In some ways, I really really enjoyed this work. The characterization and general cleverness of the author made a strong impression on me, but I didn't feel that all of the plot components worked, namely with the first and last chapters. It wasn't really a spoof nor was it a true-to-roots zombie apocalypse, which can be good or bad depending on who you are. For me, this odd mix of dark humor and brutal gore worked and I did feel like I got to read something unique and special. Like I said, it's quite short and can be remarkably easy to get through. If you are a fan of zombie stories, then I'd recommend that you pick this up for sure, especially if you are looking for a short, weekend read or just like to read in short sessions. Either way, this won't take much time and there are a lot of reasons why this is a worthwhile read even if I didn't feel it was on point 100% of the time. I think this writer has some other work already on the market and I was captivated enough by his style to want to try something else out despite this particular story not being a total win for me.
EVERYONE DIES AT THE END does have a Goodreads page, but is not currently available on Amazon for sale. I think it will be eBook only, but am not positive about that. If you're intrigued by a zombie story that tugs at the strings of genre convention, then definitely shelve it for later or reach out to the author since I think he is still looking to give out some early copies in exchange for a review.