When four friends went out for a stag party, the last thing they expected to come back to was a world under threat from terrifying creatures intent on infecting or devouring everything and everyone in their path.
Ah, the stag party, that time honored tradition in which men get together to be men. Usually performed for a groom before his wedding, otherwise known as a bachelor’s party, or when any group of guys get drunk enough that they momentarily forget watching porn with a bunch of people is really uncomfortable, the stag party goes back to the beginnings of human civilization. The name comes from when the mighty Ogg, leader of the cave peoples, was about to get married to his beloved Gruel. His closest advisors were worried that the party loving Ogg, who was already known as quite the ladies’ caveman, wouldn’t be able to handle the responsibility of being married. They believed that if they could throw him one last massive party, the young king might be able to take his marriage more seriously, so they gathered bowls of sabretooth liquor (that’s what cavemen got drunk off of right), prepared a large feast, and talked the lovely, if somewhat hairy, Ral to give a sexy dance for the soon to be married Ogg. Unfortunately, when a very drunk Ogg saw Ral coming out of the shadows, he assumed she had to be some kind of demon, and grabbed the first weapon he could find, a stag that had wandered in to be closer to the fire. While everyone looked on in horror as their leader used a living creature as a weapon, his advisors did the only thing they could think to do, they claimed Ogg was setting up a new tradition, the stag party, and though the whole beating of women with a deer part was left out, the name stuck around anyway. Now, I’m not a history professor, or a professor of any sort really, I only recently figured out Denial wasn’t actually a river in Egypt, but I do know my stories, and this one is totally and completely true, and if you tell your significant other that story, she may just feel sorry you bought into it and let you go to your mate’s stag party. You can thank me later.
Joel is supposed to be getting married soon, and nothing says marriage like a good, old fashioned stag party, and his life-long friends, Frank, Ralph, and Magnus, aim to give him the best, taking him out into the country for the man’s last party as a bachelor. The night goes as most nights dedicated to premarital debauchery do, copious amounts of liquor are drunk, a stripper does her thing, and a good time is had by all, but things quickly take a turn toward the strange when Magnus feels a mysterious presence in the sky above him. He seems to be affected by it and passes out as his nose starts bleeding, but when jarred awake, he claims to only be suffering from the effects of far too much alcohol. The next day things only get stranger, pillars of smoke coming from the nearby town, abandoned vehicles with clear signs of injury, and even a horse that looks to have gone toe to toe with a lion, but the worst is yet to come. When they finally make their way to town, only carnage and terror await them. The townsfolk that remain have been changed, into what isn’t entirely clear, but they are fast, they are deadly, and they are very hungry. The four men know that what’s happening there could be happening in their hometown as well, and make the decision to do everything in their power to get back to their families, but between them and their destination are a veritable army of bloodthirsty creatures dead set on either infecting or devouring them.
There are few nicer things, at least to the zombie fan, then sitting down to read what you think is going to be your standard zombie novel, only to find out that it’s something so much different. I’m not sure I would call author Rich Hawkins’ creations zombies though, not entirely anyhow. They certainly have zombie like traits, they crave the flesh of the uninfected, eating or infecting anyone they come in contact with, they seek to create an every growing horde that will spread across the planet, and they will never stop coming until either they or the human race are extinct, but they have a lot of traits that are certainly outside the realm of the zombies we’re all used to including a vampire like desire to drink blood. Last time I checked, your standard zombies don’t morph into grotesque creatures once they turn. Hawkins’ creatures are the stuff of nightmares with their black, spikey tendrils, twisted bodies, and horrific appearances. Once a person becomes infected here, they don’t just go out looking for more people to infect, first they change in any number of ways, no two being exactly alike as their bodies stretch and deform to become disgusting creatures that would have been right at home in the very worst of night terrors. They reminded me very much of the alien from John Carpenter’s The Thing, only more terrifying, they would have easily given Carpenter’s alien a run for its money. What’s even better is how Hawkins takes the time to describe so many various forms for them, coming up with some truly frightening creatures, dozens of them in fact, each one a different form as if every creature takes on a different form once it turns, each more horrific than the last.
I don’t know if I’d call this a zombie tale or not truth be told, it just had so many different elements blending together to make something entirely new. As I read through I could pick out different ideas, the already mentioned The Thing (with the morphing bodies), Lifeforce (cosmic vampires), Slither (parasitic creatures that change their host’s appearance), The Mist (an unknown situation that borders on something possibly religious), Planet Hulk (for my more nerd inclined friends, they’re kind of like the spikes), and even some Day of the Dead. Now, those were just the inspirations I felt, I have no idea if those were some of the author’s inspirations or not (I’m willing to bet the Planet Hulk one is especially my own), but it was interesting to read a book that brought so many of my favorites to mind including movies, books, and yes, even a comic. Then again, I might have one or two of them right since Hawkins places several horror and sci-fi references throughout the book, references that do point towards some of the author’s influences. Many will slip right by you if you’re not paying attention, but once you realize it, it’s quite fun noticing where they are. I actually didn’t even realize myself until I caught a military team with last names like Matheson (legendary author Richard Matheson), Baker (special effects guru Rick Baker), and Boyle (Danny Boyle, director of the zombie flick 28 Days Later as well as cinematic masterpiece Trainspotting). Don’t worry about trying to find them all, this isn’t Where’s Waldo, you’ll catch them as you read through, and it made what was already a great read that much more fun.
As much as I enjoyed the creatures, the references, and the gore (I’ll get to that in a bit), Hawkins’ greatest achievement was in his characterizations. Each of our main characters represents a survival attitude, a differing side in how one might handle the end of the world. Frank and Ralph are the two main focal points with Ralph representing the more practical, if somewhat cold, side of survival while Frank represents the more moral, if naïve, side. Frank wants to try and hold on to his humanity, doing his best to rise above the chaos and the carnage to save those he can, even at the cost of his own life, and regardless of whether or not he even knows them. Frank remains hopeful even when all hope seems lost. Ralph, on the other hand, believes in survival for himself and his loved ones, including his three friends, above all else. Although it seems at first as if he’s a heartless asshole, you begin to see that it’s not that he’s heartless, but more that he simply wants to see those he cares the most about survive, and if that means that other people he doesn’t know have to die, then so be it. They’re both two sides of a coin, and you can’t help but start to wonder where you’d fit in there. Would you try and help everyone you could, possibly endangering not only your life, but the lives of your loved ones, or would you ignore those screaming for help in favor of saving the people closest to your heart? It’s a tough question, one that’s haunted many people throughout the centuries, people that have had to face genocide, totalitarian regimes, and all manner of catastrophic events. It’s one that may come to haunt you as well when you start really thinking about how you might act in such a situation. Furthering this characterization of survival in an apocalyptic scenario are Joel and Magnus who add religion and survivor’s guilt into the mix. The religious Joel wonders if the god he’s always believed in has abandoned them, or if he even exists at all, a comment on religion during the end of the world, and Magnus faces a massive amount of guilt that he struggles with due to problems with his family, and whether or not they’re dead while he still lives.
Of course, if characters aren’t your thing, if you’re just looking for a gory good time, don’t worry, Hawkins’ has you covered there too. Allow me to say this with all the respect that is due, Rich Hawkins is a sick bastard whom I would not want to meet in dreamland, and I do, completely honestly, mean that with all the respect it deserves. He crafts some sick and twisted scenes, scenes that are as disturbing as they are entertaining. It takes quite a bit to make this zombie grimace, but I found myself grimacing often here. The creatures are horrifying enough as is, but the things they do to their poor victims are far worse. People die in terrible ways, and it’s all fully fleshed out (no pun intended) for you to read. What makes it so great though isn’t just the creativity, but in Hawkins’ way with words, describing things in such detail that you can picture them in your head, but without making it overly vulgar or too reliant on shock value, so you don’t just end up with sick descriptions, but well worded, sick descriptions. A favorite example of mine, one that stuck with me, would be, “Her tongue was like a worm looking for somewhere to burrow.” Seriously, just picture that for a second. What makes these scenes all that much more effective are the way that in the middle of something so horrific, you can still find a heartfelt or touching part to them, like a character lamenting never showing their love enough, remembering the good times with friends or the haunting, yet beautiful ending that is as touching as it is disturbing. It melds together in such a way as to make you feel as if you’re being emotionally battered about.
The Last Plague is a twisted, gory, yet moving tale that delves into the darkest reaches of the imagination. It is definitely a must read.
The Undead Review
Published By: Crowded Quarantine Publications
Written By: Rich Hawkins
Rotten Heads: Five Heads Out of Five