on 30th March 2012
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The melding of genres is a tricky business. Too much of one and the reader can often be left disappointed. Too little of either and it all seems a bit pointless. William Harms in his western-zombie mash tries his level best to find the right mix between two beloved genres, and the result is a partially successful mixture of classic western tropes and typical zombie mayhem.
Dead or Alive follows John and Paul, two brothers who are chalk and cheese but have no-one other than each other as they attempt to get a little back of what Paul believes life owes them. They unwittingly unleash a wave of zombies on an unsuspecting small town and before long are forced to band together with a number of the townsfolk in a desperate attempt to survive that which cannot be killed (except by a well placed gun shot to the head).
It’s a promising idea, but one that struggles to blend both genres. The first half is pure western and takes an awfully long time before a zombie rears its decaying head. Once they do, things hurtle toward a final last stand, but through this fast-paced action, it becomes apparent that Harms expects the reader to care about characters who have no-more than one or two pages dedicated to their development. In fact, aside from Paul and John, no other character comes across as even slightly well-rounded.
Worse is his baffling decision to have the zombies retain certain levels of cognitive-functioning – such as speech – when it suits the story for them to do so. One moment, a zombie is having a back and forth conversation with a living character, and the next, the remaining horde are acting like shambling monsters who act on instinct and could barely manage to croak a “Braaiins!” between them.
Still, Dead or Alive is silly fun that knows exactly what it is and isn’t trying to win any literary awards. It also has the courage to wrap things up with a certain degree of finality that is refreshing. Harms apparently writes for computer games, and this novel very much feels like it could be the basic storyline for a Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare type game.
In short, if you like Westerns, you could do far worse for a distracting read over a wet weekend.
2.5 Pesky Indian Curses for Dead or Alive.