Review: Dead Stay Dead

By B.A. Campbell

Jessup, Paul. Dead Stay Dead. The Zombie Feed Press (2011). 82 pp. USD $9.95. ISBN-13: 978-0-9845535-9-4.

Paul Jessup’s new novella Dead Stay Dead, #2 in The Zombie Feed Press’s series, begins with a misnomer: the dead are very much alive from word one. The title is only the first in a string of broken promises, characterizing a novella that feels less like a book and more like a flimsy paper chain of misdirections and missed opportunities. Here’s another one: Aklo Letters, the forbidden, puissant alphabet seen in Machen’s “The White People” and Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror”. It would be an interesting premise for a zombie story, if it were more than a vehicle to get zombies out of the ground. This is particularly disappointing when the reader realizes that the zombies are entirely incidental to the deeper plot, a plot as mangled and prone to collapse as the monsters themselves.

The characters and situations, with more polish and in a different format, might have turned out a memorable story. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work as a novella. The prose often feels hurried, as though the author had too much to say and not enough space to say it. Small errors are frequent.

Paradoxically, there are also times when it seems the author has nothing to say at all: the slim book is bloated with repeated onomatopoeia words that add nothing to the text but ink. “Step, step, step.” “Caw, caw, caw.” “Clang. Clang. Clang.” Flip to any page at random and you’re certain to find at least one such sentence. And, even on the level of the sentence, the book is consistently at odds with itself. The all-important letters are “built up from a world not built on Euclidian geometry.” As early as the first chapter, you get contradictions like this: “Talking like an idiot would not make it understand. The zombie seemed to understand on some level….” Of course, then it shuffles backward: “Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle.”

The characters fare no better. Apparently, character development, exposition and other novelistic embellishments would have slowed the punchy narrative down too much. The first victim of this revisionary butchery is collegiate ghost-whisperer Natasha, or “Tash”, the book’s nominal protagonist. From the first line, it is clear she isn’t your average zombie-walloper: she’s got spunk, the uncanny ability to see dead people (even the ones who aren’t wandering around dripping maggots), and a sketched-out backstory involving a brother who literally vanished before her eyes. From the vantage point of the first page, the outlook is of a character ripe with possible intrigue. Unfortunately, by the last page, the view hasn’t changed a whole lot; it’s just as sketchy as it started. The intrigue’s still there, but the promise is gone.

The supporting cast suffers the same grisly fate. One is killed within the first chapter. Given Tash’s talents, of course, this doesn’t mean he’s gone from the tale, but he might as well be for all he contributes. Tash’s horror-junkie roomie Melissa has the likewise-unexplained ability to explode heads a la Scanners with the power of her pot-addled brain. There’s one other major player, but he isn’t even given a proper name, a deliberate move that might have been more efficacious in the context of a larger, more elegantly executed narrative. As it stands, even his nickname is a promise unfulfilled: it’s a kind of pun in German, according to Melissa, who says, “I’ll explain later” and never quite does.

Which isn’t the only time, by the way, something like that occurs. In her introductory chapter, Melissa reveals that she’s seen a zombie before, instantly adding the illusion of depth to her initially two-dimensional character. Of course, she doesn’t want to talk about it. Just like Tash never quite opens up about why she can see into the spirit world, or just what happened with her brother that day he closed his eyes and disappeared. The novella’s conclusion, just when the story is beginning to move beyond the obligatory zombies into more interesting (read: eldritch and extra-dimensional) territory, is another bait-and-switch.

Taking away all of the not-quite-character-development, we’re left, sadly, with a book about a handful of college students half-wittily bashing their way through the hordes of undead. Hovering always on the precipice of a deeper mystery, it moves at a slightly too-brisk pace, threatening to stumble into the dark abyss. Which isn’t a bad thing, if all you want is a story with lots of disembowelment and cranial explosions, and a little clever banter. In one of its high points, Jessup does manage to suggest the most hilariously logical force to combat a zombie-apocalypse scenario, but like all of the book’s better moments, the reader is whisked away before the clash really has a chance to play out.

The zombie horror subgenre has already been ground to dust beneath so many shuffling literary heels. While Dead Stay Dead offers no major innovations to revitalize it, there is a ghost of creative potential still clinging tenuously to its dull bones. However, the novella form is the story’s coffin, a restrictive space at which it scratches and pounds, but can never quite escape to stretch its pale limbs. Jessup has conjured up a small-but-enticing cast of characters from the loam, and the drama they enact strives toward the epicness of the better of Stephen King’s offerings. Unfortunately, too many limbs had to be lopped off to fit it within its narrow box; the chains that should have tied everything together are left dragging at the end. Dead Stay Dead is the skeletal cadaver of the epic novel it could have been, had it not been streamlined to death.

I won’t go so far as to suggest avoiding Dead Stay Dead. It’s an afternoon’s worth of light reading for the zombie aficionado and Melissa’s constant pop-horror references could provide the basis for an entertaining, if lonely, drinking game. If you pick up the book, though, be forewarned: the dead don’t stay dead for long, but just about everything else has one foot stuck in the grave.

Dead Stay Dead is available from