Choosing zombies as the bad guys for your first novel is a brave but risky choice. Unlike vampires for example, zombies (at least the mindless, flesh-eating variety) have struggled to make an impact through the printed word, mainly because it’s difficult to invest them with any real sense of character. You’ve seen one zombie, you’ve seen them all and therefore the onus in most zombie tales is firmly on the human characters to grab the audience’s attention and sustain their interest, as well as provide three dimensional portraits in whom they can emotionally invest. This is done most successfully in films such as ‘Dawn of the Dead’ and the TV series ‘The Walking Dead’, stories that use zombies as a context for their narrative but never as the dramatic focus. Combine all of that with a plot that journeys in interesting and unexpected directions, possibly with a dose of dark humour here and there, and you’re probably onto a winner. With his debut novel, author Daniel Loubier doesn’t always succeed in terms of characterisation or plot but he does demonstrate a wicked sense of humour in an uneven novel that nevertheless has its moments.
‘Dead Summit’ tells the story of Charlie and Grace, a married couple who have decided to climb Mt. George, a mountain that had previously defeated them on a hiking trip five years before. However, strange rumours and even stranger dreams haunt them as they make their way up to a communal lodge on their way to the peak, with tales of people going mad on the mountain side resulting in sudden suicides and spousal murders. Grace feels particularly uneasy having had nightmares of lumbering, menacing figures stalking her on their journey and it isn’t long before it becomes apparent that there is something about this mountain that causes the dead to rise and seek sustenance from the living.
The story gets off to a relatively strong start, a vivid and gruesome prologue setting the scene nicely before we’re introduced to Charlie and Grace as they drive to their destination. Throughout the first part of the novel, Loubier's dialogue is easy and natural, with characters sounding plausible enough when they’re conversing in every day situations. Loubier’s style works best when he utilises short, snappy sentences where dialogue pings back and forth between several characters and Charlie and Grace’s relationship in particular is at it’s most convincing when depicted via their small talk. However, when characters are given lengthier dialogue designed to move the plot along he is less successful, the ghost story scene in a mountainside lodge being a notable example. What should have been a pivotal moment as the guests learn something of the legends that haunt the mountain where they are staying reads like a series of lengthy expositions, largely devoid of mood or tension and consequently, the horrified reactions from the guests to what they have heard don't really convince.
Still, where Loubier does succeed admirably is in demonstrating his capacity for black comedy and gross out slapstick. The scene where a recently bitten zombie victim implores Charlie to kill her before she can turn into one, soon escalates into a Monty Pythonesque gore fest as Charlie's initial reluctance to end her misery is overcome by her increasingly vitriolic taunts, goading him into smashing her brains in with a picture frame. The line that precipitates this, 'What the fuck is your problem?', delivered by Charlie to the victim as she lies there screaming with her intestines hanging out, is wonderfully inappropriate and offers a hilarious demonstration of how thoroughly overwhelmed by events Charlie is. If this was a movie then only Bruce Campbell could do justice to Charlie in these scenes. There is also a delightfully macabre moment where two characters are attempting to remove some bodies from a walk in freezer, and anybody who has had difficulty trying to prise loose a rogue sausage from the back of their own cold storage will appreciate the practical difficulties of attempting the same with a corpse. As arms snap off and stubborn pieces of carcass are hacked away, Loubier conjures up a grimly humorous scene that provokes as many winces as it does chuckles.
Unfortunately, because the story is a relatively straight forward one the novel contains few real surprises. First of all the survivors are chased to the top of the mountain and then they're chased back down again until they find themselves back in the lodge where they started as the situation becomes overwhelming. Throughout this journey they fight off wave after wave of zombie attacks and meet a couple of new characters along the way but it all feels a bit relentless and monotonous, like a novelised version of the old Sega video game classic, ‘House of the Dead’. It is during these parts of the novel that the lack of diverse and convincing characterisation is most apparent. One gets the sense that Loubier is more interested in his zombies than he is his survivors and his supporting characters feel so thinly sketched that it's difficult to feel anything when they are so easily met and then so readily disposed of within a dozen pages or so. As for Charlie and Grace, they are more convincing and Loubier clearly cares about them more than the zombie fodder he serves up elsewhere. To his credit his focus on Grace towards the novel’s conclusion results in some of his best writing.
However, perhaps the biggest problem I had with the novel was accepting the practical implications of hundreds (if not thousands) of zombies coming to life on a mountain side once every 50 years, devouring anybody who happens to get in their way and then no outside party being any the wiser as to what has happened until the next time it occurs. There is a plot development that explains why this might be the case and the novel’s final scene hints at how it may be achieved but I wasn’t convinced. Wouldn’t the families of the dead be kicking up a fuss of some sort, especially as everyone who went to the same venue appears to have gone missing on the same evening? It’s an aspect of the story that risks shattering the suspension of disbelief a reader must generate if they are to be convinced by any work of fiction and for me it was a stretch too far.
Overall this is a fast-paced read, perhaps too much so as Loubier seems to be in a rush to get from one scene of set-piece carnage to the next without investing in his characters and the plot to the degree he should. However, he does have a knack for conjuring up some vivid and gruesome imagery and the novel’s unique setting, along with the practical difficulties it poses for the characters, at least attempts something different within the zombie genre. Loubier also balances the horrendous with the hilarious and this, combined with a flair for effective moments of horror, makes him worth keeping an eye on.