It’s hard for me to pinpoint the precise moment when Rich Hawkins’ work in The Last Plague won me over, but I know it came within the first fifty pages.
If you took Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and slammed it into 28 Days Later and then opened a trans-dimensional gateway for Cthulu to join the party, you might end up with something like The Last Plague. It begins like any other modern horror story in that we’re presented with a group of friends who go off for a weekend of fun. The difference here is they aren’t going off into the unknown where evil awaits. While they are gone, the world changes, and when they return to it, they find the aftermath of the initial wave of an infection.
That first fifty (or so) pages are important, though. It’s rare these days, especially in horror, that an author allows me time at the beginning of a story to get to know his or her characters. The modern convention is to jump into the action, and while The Last Plague hardly lets you go once it grabs you, I very much appreciated being eased into the story and its characters rather than being thrown into the initial onslaught of an infectious disease that turns people into monsters and being expected to care about characters I know nothing about. It’s refreshing to see a horror author who understands the horror is about the people, not the monsters, and it’s important to establish who the people are and why we should care before we are expected to fear for their lives.
I think the strongest part about Rich’s writing is his demonstrated ability to drop simple metaphors or descriptive lines that hit hard yet seem effortless and natural, as if Rich is taking us through his house and pointing out amazing artifacts that should be in a museum and then just shrugging it off because he sees them every day. The effortlessness of their delivery allows us to enjoy them for what they are without being told we need to look at something that’s placed on a pedestal. We can stop and gape at it if we like, or we can move on. Rich isn’t going to stand over our shoulder and make sure we appreciate it.
And in that sense, another strength of the novel is what Rich *doesn’t* do. That is, his ability to restrain himself from dwelling on things he doesn’t need to dwell on is exceptional.
The dialog in this novel is also very strong and natural. As an American, dialog and a writer’s voice is often a barrier for me when reading British work. However, Rich makes it work for me. I didn’t feel like he was making a conscious effort to shove Brit-centric vocabulary down my throat by having his characters exclaim “bollocks” every other line, and in that way, the language comes across as honest and natural.
The Last Plague demonstrates that Rich isn’t afraid to visit very dark places with his characters, but he does so with morbid infatuation of a mature author who knows exactly what he’s doing. Following him through the hard parts is a little like watching someone walk a tight rope. He skirts a line between being too conservative and going too far, but he does so with expert precision, making it across the expanse every time. And every time, you breathe a sigh of relief that not only was the story development satisfying, but if Rich hadn’t executed, it might have tainted what is otherwise an overall enthralling experience.
That isn’t to say The Last Plague is perfect. In fact, the biggest problem I had with the novel is I simply wanted more of it. There were times when I wish Rich had slowed down and given me more, and I instead sometimes felt hurried along. But it’s understandable for a debut novel. Nobody’s going to want to publish an 800-page tome without being able to put “Stephen King” on the cover, and the story here is so rich with potential that it very well could have rivaled a post-apocalyptic epic like King’s The Stand or Justin Cronin’s The Passage.
I should also add that I’ve seen The Last Plague billed as a zombie novel, and while it isn’t strictly zombie fiction, thematically I would argue it’s closely related. Rich allows his monster imagination to work its magic. I think anyone looking for a zombie/PA novel will find something unique here, and I think anyone tired of that kind of thing might also find The Last Plague a bit refreshing. It has carved out its own warm spot in the apocalyptic genre and, by extension, so has Rich Hawkins.