Thomas Dunne Books
Hard Cover, 320 pages, $24.99
Review by Sheila M. Merritt
How to address a derivative storyline that is well executed: This is the dilemma regarding Vacation by Matthew Costello. The narrative does not go the patented, predictable route of employing zombies as the enemy. Cannibals, without a preference for brains, are the modified antagonists. Set in the near future, in which a drought has precipitated famine, food sources are depleted. The new world order deals with containing the so called Can Heads; consumers of human flesh who are somehow a result of the catastrophe. Reduction of resources can apparently lead to extreme aberrant behavior. The author plays with the well-worn conceit of a family seizing the opportunity to get away from the confines of their uneasy, danger infested environment. Like so many other families in horror yarns, fleeing the perils of urban/suburban life for a more remote and, seemingly idyllic, location proves to be a huge error in judgment. Optimistic expectations sour when what initially appears to be a haven proves to be hell. Costello is brilliant in keeping the story moving especially given, that from about page 120, an astute reader can see what’s ahead.
Jack Murphy, a physically and psychically injured NYPD cop, is told he needs a break. Taking the advice of a superior, Jack and wife and their two kids go to a camp that offers amenities no longer available to the general public: There are mountains, trees, a lake, and food that doesn’t taste artificially manufactured. Never leaving behind his skills as a policeman who has faced horrific encounters, Jack can’t fully relax and enjoy the accommodations. Plus, there’s an ultra hot employee on the premises who more than flirts with Murphy. Taut of body, and teeming with sexual tension, she makes the protagonist rigid with worry. Again, this is not an unexpected development.
As the tale progresses, there is fine amplification of Jack’s character and his familial relationships. A building of trepidation does ensue, courtesy of the writer’s gift for accentuating apprehension. The tricks of the tropes, however, are perhaps too well in place. And it is difficult not to trip on them. Falling back on a theme from a famous science fiction novel and altering the horror du jour beast from zombie to cannibal aren’t highly innovative concepts.
While refraining from spoilers that are obvious, but impossible not to hint at, composing a review of Vacation proves problematic. Although admirable for creating anxiety in a moth-eaten montage of bromides, Matthew Costello takes the easy way out in terms of plot. He gets lots of points for exciting prose, but the book is sorely lacking in originality.