Joe McKinney’s debut novel, Dead City, is quite an impressive piece of writing for a first-timer. It’s doubly impressive for taking the zombie tale and just making it unfold as one long nightmare with little or no prelude or wasted exposition about what led up to it. McKinney’s novel is not overlong or full of filler chapters that does nothing but try to extend the telling of the tale far longer than necessary.
Dead City is not too different from many of the zombie novels and stories that continues to see a renaissance of sorts these past couple years. McKinney takes a more novel approach in his setting by using the hurricane disasters which plagued the Gulf from Katrina and onwards. It is during the aftermath of a series of non-stop super hurricanes hitting the Texas Gulf Coast where we meet the main protagonist of this novel. Eddie Hudson is a police officer in the San Antonio Police Department who we see balancing the problems he’s having with his wife with that of the devastation left by the passing of the major hurricanes over San Antonio. The action and horror begins pretty quickly as Hudson and his partner for the night head off to a disturbance call in one of San Antonio’s neighborhoods. What they encounter at the scene is one they’ve not been trained for. Confusion and lack of relevant knowledge to combat the newly zombified citizens of San Antonio leads to disaster for Hudson and the rest of his police and emergency services brothers.
McKinney does a great job of showing the confusion and disbelief Hudson goes through as a real-life horror film comes to life in front of his very eyes. There’s the disbelief in seeing their attackers continue to move towards him and his partner with a focused determination despite being pepper sprayed at point-blank range, then hit by shotgun beanbags then to lethal gunshots to the body. It is only when shot cleanly through the head and thus destroying the brain do their crazed assailants finally stop for good. This revelation comes way too late from most of Hudson’s fellow police officers and he’s left to his own dwindling supplies of ammunition and a vow to get to his own family before the nightmare he’s seen reaches them. Along the way Hudson meets up with other survivors from undocumented workers, a high school teacher and amateur zombie researcher, to other fellow officers who have managed to survive the first few hours of the zombie outbreak.
Throughout Hudson’s attempts to get to his wife and six month-old son, more of the extent of the zombie outbreak makes itself know to Ernie and those who tags along with him as they travel the streets of a devastated San Antonio. McKinney gets high marks from this fan of the zombie genre for not shying away from describing the sort of damage these zombies can do to a human body. The gore quotient in Dead City is quite high and I think one that would satisfy any fan like myself. In fact, I will very much like to see how this novel will look like adapted into a film. The story is pretty simple and a horror road trip through a devastated city with the simple goal of a man trying to find his family amongst all the horror he has seen and still to see.
Dead City is by no means a perfect novel and at times it shows. Characters sometimes have a certain cookie-cutout feel to them. From the gung-ho and adrenaline junkie cop whose wisecracking attitude is suppose to balance out the near-desperation and panic Hudson seems to be in all the time. Then there’s the angry black man whose mistrust of the police makes him blind to the need for cooperation. Some characters seem to be there looking to become a major role in the making then quickly gone thirty pages later under the assault and tearing hands and teeth of the zombies. I think the size and length of the novel may be one reason why characterization on some of the people on the periphery got a bit shortchanged. It doesn’t bring down the overall quality of the story but it does show that this is indeed a debut novel. But with the amount of quality storytelling McKinney was able to put together I am more than confident that this writing style will improve with each successive book.
In the end, Joe McKinney’s Dead City is one roller-coaster ride of a debut horror novel which doesn’t pull its punches. The story never lets up for a moment to give our main protagonist a moment of respite from the dangers around him. Like Officer Ernie Hudson, the reader becomes bombarded with horrific images after horrific images and only until the end to we find the respite and time to relax. I hope McKinney has more tales of the undead ahead of him and that he shares it with those likeminded people who displa the same kind of interest in the black sheep of the monster genre. I very much recommend Dead City to those who enjoy a very good zombie yarn.