Recently, I have decided that I am well and truly done with zombie stories. In fact, I am bored to tears with the whole zombie genre. Films, books, television shows, you name it – I am done with it. And then I read Etta, Etc.: The Fall and, well, J. M. McDole won me back. Truth be told, this is basically the zombie movie I’ve always wanted to see, but in book form.
The story is told from the point of view of Loretta Van Helter, the titular Etta, and begins as she is heading to the Silver Pond, Iowa farm of her Uncle Earl, following his death. There has been a Plague that has hit the United States, the result of which is that those stricken with it have become zombies. These zombies amble about attacking the living and transferring the Plague, much like you would expect to happen. The main difference here is that McDole’s zombies also speak, but not in a campy, Return of the Living Dead kind of way. Instead, these undead repeat a sentence or phrase over and over again, much like a stuck record. This adds a level of creepiness and an emotional gut punch or two as various points in the story and sets Etta apart from the usual zombie tales. Additionally, the Plague has also caused other mutations, called Banshees, which are horrific nightmares in human form. Reading the sections featuring the encounters with Banshess with the lights out at night is slightly unnerving, just to warn you.
The best part of this story is the wonderfully three-dimensional characters. Etta teams up with the elderly Madge Jennings early in the book. Mad Madge, as Etta and we, come to think of her, is anything but frail and infirmed. Although she is in her twilight years, Madge puts Sarah Connor to shame, both in terms of fighting prowess and tactical skills. Let me put it to you this way, you’ll be surprised at the outcome of Madge being the back of an armored car with a couple of rabid Banshees. Etta and Madge are the emotional and strategic center of a diverse band of survivors that grows throughout the story. And these are not your typical horror movie group of incompetent characters that defeat themselves with stupid decisions. This group is smart from the outset, acting with a mixture of compassion and ingenuity. Although the climax is brought about by a purely emotional reaction, it’s at least prepared for and executed with a modicum of rational thought.
The only negative aspect of Etta, Etc.: The Fall is that it is way too short and it leaves the reader wanting to know more, which is the hallmark of any great story. I definitely hope that McDole continues the story of Etta, Madge and their ragtag group and I also hope for a glimpse of the greater world outside of Silver Pond. Think of this as a “pilot” or a long epilogue to a much greater story, at least that is what I am fervently hoping for. At the very least, this being McDole’s first novel, I can’t wait to see what see what she comes up with next.