At the recommendation of a friend, I recently read the novel Red Hill by Jamie McGuire. Set during an outbreak of a zombie virus, the novel follows three characters — Scarlet, Nathan, and Miranda — as this apocalyptic situation is thrust upon them and they must struggle to survive as society quickly falls apart. The novel begins with each of the three perspective characters in vastly different circumstances, following them and their respective groups as they make their way to the titular Red Hill Ranch, where there is hope for safety and isolation from the outbreak.
For me, what set this apart from other zombie fiction — of which there are numerous examples nowadays — was that the novel used the zombie apocalypse setting to tell a romance story, making it a blend of the horror and romance genres. This wasn’t entirely evident in the text at first, but with the back-cover tagline “When the world ends, can love survive?” it didn’t come as much of a shock either.
The horror elements of the novel are more strongly present during the beginning as the characters are all making their way to Red Hill. McGuire does a very good job of capturing a sense of panic among her protagonists as their lives are compromised, each of them starting out in difficult settings. Scarlet works at a hospital (easily one of the worst places to be during a zombie outbreak), Nathan is picking up his young daughter from school, and Miranda and three companions are stuck in traffic in a small car on the highway.
Considering our popular culture is heavily saturated with zombie fiction right now, the novel expectedly treads a lot of familiar ground. There’s a lovable redneck character (named Skeeter, no less) whose aptitude for guns and hunting makes him an asset, moments where loved ones are bitten/turn and have to be put out of their misery, and parents suffering the anxiety of their children having to grow up in a more dangerous, uncertain future. Tropes like these should all be familiar to people who have experienced zombie fiction lately, but McGuire executes them well enough that I had no real problems with their use.
My experience with the romance genre is limited, which made this reading endeavor particularly interesting to me. It did get a little sappy at times, and was fairly predictable, but the story was still fun to read. Two of the perspective characters were clearly written to be a match for each other, for example, and the novel followed through with that as expected. The third begins to fall in love with someone else, despite already being in a very committed relationship, which added a good amount of tension that built up as the novel progressed.
Here’s where one of my big problems with the story occurs, however: the novel spends far too much time telling me that these characters are falling in love, yet does very little to show it happening. The two significant pairings both seem to become close because of a lot of time spent alone together, talking and being emotionally supportive. While I can imagine this as an acceptable context for two people to fall in love with one another, it doesn’t work to show me two people forming a deep connection, which is what I’d expect to be very important in a romance story. With all that the novel ultimately gives us, it could just as easily be the explanation for how two people simply formed a strong friendship.
Another problem I had with the novel was Chapter 20. Within the brief span of the 15-20 pages that made up this chapter, two characters are introduced: Kevin and Elleny. Kevin is a rapist; Elleny is a minor (I believe around 14 years old) as well as his victim. In this very brief chapter they arrive at Red Hill Ranch — Kevin being described in a way that immediately made me suspect his true nature — a number of uncomfortable scenes take place that strengthen this suspicion, Scarlet somehow figures it out (not really sure how she did), catches him in the act, and shortly thereafter executes him. Elleny stays with the group and proceeds to have approximately two or three more lines of insignificant dialogue for the rest of the novel and has little to no influence on the plot or characters whatsoever.
The inclusion of this subplot is offensively bad writing, which I found particularly disconcerting because the rest of the novel was decent. All I could see it as was a cheap tactic to try to inspire sympathy, which was odd since McGuire had already done a good job of creating characters I cared about enough that the drama was interesting. I cannot think of a good reason for the inclusion of this into the story. One could argue it was to illustrate that the infected are not the only things dangerous out there, but McGuire had already established that in an effective scene where panicked soldiers opened fire upon civilians trying to enter a town. The whole affair felt entirely unnecessary, and could have been edited out without changing the story at all. This was a low point in the writing, which the book had to work very hard to get me past.
Unfortunately, the novel only marginally succeeded at doing this. I was able to get back into the story again and still cared about the characters, but everything ended up leading into a very big anti-climax. Conflicts between characters that I thought would eventually come to a head were pretty much swept under the carpet and unceremoniously resolved. It actually reached an awkward point where there were still about 30 pages left, yet the central conflict was finished, resulting in the insertion of a new conflict that lasts for the remainder of the book, which I feel ended anticlimactically as well.
I know I have probably sounded harsh toward the novel during the last few paragraphs, but I actually really enjoyed Red Hill and have no regrets about reading it. If you have an interest in zombies and/or romance I think it’s worth checking out. The strength of the story lies particularly in how McGuire writes the swift collapse of society. So many zombie stories drop the audience in after the outbreak has already been going strong, whereas Red Hill spends a good deal of time in that liminal stage where people are caught in the midst of their daily routines as panic and the outbreak spreads. While treading familiar ground it still brought something unique to the table, which it deserves some credit for. I only wish that the flaws in the story did not cast such a large shadow over the novel’s strengths in my experience reading it.