Figure 1 – Plague Victim–©2014 by Daniel Hollister

I’m back. Personal issues kept me away… and I’ll finish that Stephen King thing later—because there’s one more new King movie on the scene! But later.

I’m not sure, but I think there must be about a zillion “zombie apocalypse” books floating around. What used to be a narrow Caribbean definition (go ahead, look it up)—invented by Haitian slaves of the French colonials and taken up by the Voodoo religion—has, in its modern incarnation become more popular than even George Romero could have dreamed. George Romero? Sure—according to some articles on the internet, his original Night of the Living Dead creepies were intended to be ghouls.

By Dawn of the Dead, however, they were beginning to be called “zombies,” and shambling, biting, dead or undead creatures (thanks to the Walking Dead TV show—and to its graphic-novel creators Robert Kirkman [writer] and Tony Moore [artist]) will forever be called zombies, no matter how they’re created or what they do.

But let’s face it—most TV and movie zombies are impossible—nothing in this universe can continue moving without intake of energy. The Resident Evil zombies and mutated creatures can work at a high-energy level forever unless destroyed. That’s not gonna happen. The Walking Dead seem to be able to see and hear (and make a growly noise) just fine despite years of deterioration… eyes, ears and vocal chords remain intact. Unless they change the way physics works, and entropy, nuh-uh.

Figure 2 – Hell is Empty Cover (artist unknown)

That’s one thing that sets Mark Rounds’s first book, Hell is Empty and All the Devils Are Here (The Plague Years Book 1) (Figure 2) apart: the plague victims are only briefly referred to as zombies. The thing that makes people into infected, ravenous, nearly-mindless creatures is only referred to as a “zombie plague” by the people in the book for a short while, until it becomes clear that the infected are clearly alive, and almost always die as a result of the plague.

Full disclosure—I’m acquainted with Mark; he’s from the Spokane (WA) area and I’ve interacted with him a number of times; however, I bought both of his books from, so am not constrained in my review.*

The book is about Chad and Mary Strickland, as well as their neighbors, Dave Tippet and Heather Tunney, who live in Kennewick, Washington. Kennewick is one of the group of three towns collectively called the “Tri-Cities” (the others being Pasco and Richland) in the southeast of that state. Chad’s a specialist in epidemiology who originally moved there to study the effect of radioactive leakage from the Chernobyl spill, but his group is tasked with finding information on a new epidemic that is appearing. Dave’s a retired Marine whose hip was hurt in an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) attack.

One of the things that sets Mark’s book off—and above—other “plague” books is that he gives a reasonable explanation for at least part of the traditional “zombie” look—the sores and lesions that show on the infected people. They’re a result of the buildup in their bodies of “heme,” the iron-bearing part of hemoglobin; this results in a condition resembling cutaneous porphyria. The symptoms of porphyria include a sensitivity to light, skin lesions and tissue degeneration. Other plague symptoms include quick and progressive dementia, ravenous hunger (including cannibalism), and insensitivity to pain.

We are also introduced to Chris Vaughn and Amber Hoskins, LEOs (Law Enforcement Officers); who are involved as the number of infected grows. It becomes common knowledge that fluid exchange (bites, saliva, other body fluids) can spread the infection; Amber (a sheriff’s deputy) is bitten as she and Chris try to subdue some infected attackers.

Law and order break down as the number of infected grow; power and other municipal services go by the wayside, and neighbourhoods join together to fight roving bands of infected. It soon becomes clear that this plague is also spread through certain types of drug use; in fact, it’s a weaponized virus—someone is trying to destroy world governments to (dare I say it?) take over the world!

Chad’s neighbourhood becomes a target when Amber—who is in remission from the disease—and Chris join Chad’s group. They are hounded out of their homes and forced to go on the road to escape a gang of infected bikers led by ex-Special Agent Macklin, who is, in turn, part of the bigger plot to take control. The group of protagonists goes on the run.

This book has a pretty good slice of 4- and 5-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads; one common complaint is that it stops abruptly. Several things that are mentioned favourably are the storyline, the characters, and the military parts of the story. (For the most part, this book avoids the “gun porn” that pervades books and series like “The Executioner” and some writers like Clive Cussler. There is a fair amount, however, of unnecessary [IMO] description of weapon calibre and wounds suffered.)

One person of my acquaintance on Facebook said he hadn’t read any of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books because they were “gun porn” (proving his lack of knowledge). Gun porn goes into exquisite and excruciating detail about weapons—calibres, sights, accessories, slings,  ad nauseam; Child knows when such detail is germane and when to leave it out. This book hasn’t learned that part yet; rather, Mark hasn’t.

And now we come to a totally different question: what’s the difference between good storytelling and good writing? Is it okay to have a good story that’s badly written? I ask this question for one reason, and that’s the proliferation of badly-written sf/f from indie authors and publishers. I grew up reading well-written good stories: in my youth, there were both editors—to suggest better ways for authors to say things—and copy editors, to correct simple grammatical errors in copy. Seldom did sf/f get published without at least the copy editor having a go at it.

Nowadays, hundreds of books—and I’ve seen a fairly representative sample over the last few years—are published by people who want to be published writers and tell stories, but who do not have the tools to write well. It’s fairly obvious when no copy editor has touched a published work; most of those are rife with spelling errors, egregious punctuation, omitted words, subject/verb/object disagreement, and so on.

Sadly, Hell is Empty… falls directly into that category. I realize that I am pickier than most readers; so much so that reading a book that exclusively uses “alright” instead of “all right” becomes a chore, when you add in the wrong homonyms (“breaks” instead of “brakes”), the omitted words, the improper possessive apostrophes and plurals, the said-bookism, the “telling vs. showing” and the complete disregard of proper comma placement. (Plus, “sheriff” is a simple word, yet he misspells it throughout.)

(Plus, there are numerous ways of attributing speech. Mark almost exclusively uses “Blah blah,” said Dave. How about Dave said, instead, once in a while?) At what point do you stop reading because all it would take to clean this up is a few hours with a professional editor? If it were only on a few pages, that would be no big deal, but I have to say that this lack of copy editing is apparent on nearly every page. And it bothers me.

I gave this book three stars instead of two on Amazon because the story, setting (a familiar area for me, since I used to live nearby) and characters—added to the reasonable explanation for the plague victims’ appearance and habits—kept me more interested than frustrated.

So much so that I shall gird my loins and tackle the second book in the series—At This Hour, Lie at My Mercy All Mine Enemies (The Plague Years Book 2). Is Mark trying to compete in the “longest title” wars? Will Book 3 have a two-page title? (I’m kidding.) Both books are available on Amazon for a reasonable price. As before, I’m giving him 3 hoosits (¤¤¤) because of the aforementioned issues.

*I’m hoping Mark will take this critique in the spirit it’s offered.

Comments, brickbats, or bouquets? If you have anything to say about this column, you can comment here, or on my Facebook page, or in the several Facebook groups where I link to this column. Your comments are all welcome—I’m listening. Don’t feel you have to agree with me to post a comment, either. Also, my opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other columnists. See you next week!

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