I've been on a real indie book bender lately. There's something refreshing about small press novels that I really enjoy, be it the DIY spirit of the venture in general or the groundbreaking ideas that the books themselves contain. I think one of the things that grabs me the most about the small press world is the sheer amount of heart and dedication that go into the production, a feeling that's miles and miles away from the cold, corporate feel that sometimes radiates from Big Publishing.
Don't get me wrong, corporate entities have their place, I suppose, but small presses give me a warm and fuzzy feeling inside, even when they're printing things that shouldn't generate that kind of response.
Drop Dead Gorgeous, published by Permuted Press, is one such book. I loved it, every page and every minute spent with my nose buried in it, but damn is this one of the most heartbreaking books I've ever read. I don't think I've ever read anything quite so bleak before, despite having read literally hundreds of horror novels from my teen years to this day.
DDG is, essentially, the story of a zombie outbreak in and around Belfast, Northern Ireland, but what makes it so unique (and, in my opinion, chillingly effective) is that the focus throughout remains squarely on the characters. Two high school kids, a tattooist, a radio DJ, an aging Loyalist soldier, an IRA supporter, a retired college professor, a twenty-something slacker and several others have found themselves alone, the rest of the citizenry suddenly dead for reasons unknown. People have fallen in their homes, keeled over at the wheel of their cars and dropped dead on the streets, all for little to no reason. Bodies are left to rot where they lay as the city's infrastructure shuts down, and the survivors hole up in enclaves scattered throughout the country.
Some of the bodies, however, defy the rotting process, and become more and more beautiful with each passing day...
I don't think I read the word `zombie' once during the whole novel, though I could be wrong about that. My point to this is, though, that the reanimated dead are never treated as the shamblers found so often in Romero-style zombie stories. Nor are they swift-footed zombies, tearing after human survivors while screaming and clawing at the air. They're dangerous, to be sure, and sometimes form mobs, but the reanimated women are wholly original creatures. Inside their non-living brains reside memories, albeit seemingly hidden ones, and when they return to life their former emotions come very much into play.
DDG is a very slow burn. The horror doesn't come into play for quite some time, instead focusing on the people who've found themselves thrown into chaos and the things they must do to ensure their own survival. These are people who have lost loved ones, sometimes their entire families, and must now make do with a life without camaraderie or the comforts they once took for granted. Simmons handles this heartbreakingly well. Several times I found myself feeling real pity for his characters, wanting them to somehow find their way to happiness. There were times, as well, when I almost didn't want to turn the page, knowing fully well that in horror novels those that die often outweigh those that survive to see The End.
DDG is a wild, highly emotional ride that I'm very glad to have taken. Its sequel, DOLL PARTS, is forthcoming, and I'll be picking it up the moment it hits Amazon.