A couple of years back I reviewed a book called Dead Heat by M.G. Mason.
I suggest you go and read that review as much of it pertains perfectly to this book too. It was a fine book, a zombie comedy based around a zombie fun run (for corporate team building) that went a little south. Two years have passed and M.G. Mason has released the mirror novel he promised back then. Not a sequel, or a prequel, but a second, darker take on the first tale, a dark “equel” of the original.
One of my few problems with the original book was that horror comedy is really tricky to get right. Comedy fiction is hard enough, but when you add in complications of trying to maintain tension to make horror work, it gets really complicated. M.G. had mostly managed this precarious juggling act, but I wanted to see what he’d do with the gloves off, so to speak.
Which is why I was really pleased when MG announced that Dead Lock was coming out in time for Halloween. M.G. Mason offered me an early release copy for review and I gladly accepted.
So I devoured the tale in two sittings, both after midnight (it only seemed right).
Dead Lock is set in a dark mirror universe, which I won’t spoiler, but this story is definitely not set in our timeline, this is a whole different (if recognizable) kettle of fish. The island location of the first book (Mortwich), remains, but in the dark verse it is an active prison, or I should say re-activated.
The Mortwich Horror
One of the threads running through the novella covers the original prison on the island, and how it came to be closed, and later reopened. These parts mirrored the eldritch horror sections of Dead Heat, and I enjoyed that thread a lot, but felt that it seemed a little incomplete, leaving the way open for a sequel or prequel novel (which could play out in either world – or both). Personally, I would have liked a few more answers to questions I had from the first book, but probably the scientist in me just wants answers, there’s nothing missing from story as such, just unanswered questions about the history and nature of the Mortwich “curse” (or is it an “evil” or a “horror”?) that leave me wanting more.
The story involves the same characters as the first book (or at least characters with the same names), but the dark verse version of them. Poltical prisoners, rebels, thieves, murderers, these are our heroes. It’s difficult to talk about the difference in the character’s without spoilering the story, but they are different.
Most notably, Tony who in the first book was the Zombie expert has very different expertise in Dead Lock that means we get a lot less zombie exposition.
Jim and Kate also have a very different relationship.
And Mike while his background has changed a lot, his character feels most like it survived the transition to the dark world with the least changes.
The No Fun Run Plot
Four times a year the prison offers a unique parole system. The Dead Lock run. Parolees are let out, via a lottery, to run the gauntlet, in this case a gloriously undead to the wrist gauntlet. This change to the story, while it makes sense in the dark universe is not explicitly explained, and we have to draw our own conclusions how it began. It also allows the novella to match it’s beats to Dead Heat perfectly.
It was interesting to see recognizable story beats from the first book repeated in this dark mirror. It felt like literary deja-vu, and that added to the creepy feelings the story evoked.
I really enjoyed the effect, and story, seeing these characters again through a distorted, black mirror lens was both nostalgic and creepy, perfectly suiting the genre. The humour (and there are still humourous moments and notes) when it occurs is also darker and felt funnier for being more of a relief of the tension.
The Inevitable Flaws
However, there are faults that I feel worthy of mention. The setting while dark and satirical is perhaps a little on the nose for current politics (which it certainly didn’t back in 2015 in the other story), and then there’s the zombies themselves…
Zombies are weird. I covered some of this in the Dead Heat review, but here I noticed some other issues.
They require a great deal of suspension of disbelief just to exist in a story. On the one hand they are undead, but they behave like “living” animate beings, they eat and can be “killed”. They were people, but they behave like instinctive animals, rarely if ever showing signs of their original nature.
Most of the time.
And that’s the problem. TV shows and movies can get away with zombies that look surprised, or pensive, once in a while. It adds mystery and depth, and doesn’t alter the pacing. In books, it can make things more confusing, and slow action down unnecessarily. If a zombie can be easily confused, or deceived, is it instinctive or rational? I don’t necessarily think this is just a problem in Dead Lock, but is a problem with literary zombies in general.
In Dead Heat the slightly goofy zombies that shuffled aimlessly, and could be defeated with a single head blow from a cricket bat made sense, in Dead Lock they feel less intimidating than they should. I feel that to match the darker tone of the world, the zombies should have been turned up to 11. Either by making them supernaturally tougher, stronger, or faster than their shambling, rotting, comedy versions, or by just upgrading the weapons in Dead Lock (which does happen somewhat, but maybe not enough, I’d want an automatic shotgun to feel safe enough to attack a horde, not a pistol or a cricket bat).
Anyone For Cricket?
Yeah, that cricket bat, while a smile-drawing nod back to Dead Heat, felt a little unreal, out of place, and as inexplicable as the zombies on the prison version of the island. I personally would have replaced it with a prison shank, a shovel, a (sledge)hammer or even half a brick in a sock… It would have required a little less suspension of disbelief. I can’t even believe there would be that many cricket bats in that particular version of Britain, let alone on an island Prison. I think it could have benefitted from a line of exposition and should have snapped after a few uses…
But really these are minor faults that I’m picking at, in what is a well written and satisfying evil twin of a good zomedy book. And the ending! It makes sense and is perfectly foreshadowed, but still caught me off guard. Just what I want from my horror, a final grinding of the heel.
You can get a copy of Dead Lock here: