Starving Zoe: C. Derick Miller
Reviewed By Ben Walker
One thing I’ll say for Death’s Head Press’ splatter western series is that you never really know what you’re going to get. Sure, they all have splatter, and yes, they’re set in the Old West. And you already know what I think of the superb cover art. And while C Derick Miller’s Starving Zoe, the shortest entry in the series so far, combines all those key ingredients, it doesn’t manage to dethrone the stronger efforts that came before it.
The main issue I had was also down to length – I’ve got no issue with novellas, but most offer a bit more punch, a snappy intro to hook you in and then if there’s world-building needed, it happens later. Chapter one takes up 18 pages, devoted entirely to the grumpy musings of our protagonist, Robert Jack. He presents himself as both a racist and a crotchety old fart, discontent with pretty much everything except his darling wife Zoe. Without getting into the whole “can a protagonist be unsympathetic and interesting?” debate (short answer: yes, but not here), Jack’s long, rambling introduction trips and stumbles as much as the old git himself as he tries to get his point across. He reads like the kind of bore who sites next to you in a bar and chews your ear off about nothing, plus, as you’ll come to learn, he’s a terrible human being.
Unfortunately, the entire story is narrated by Jack, and there are slim pickings ahead in terms of interest as he’s dragged into a tale fuelled by paranormal revenge. It’s well-deserved revenge too, as Jack is guilty of many things, but chief amongst his crimes are murder and infanticide, and the latter gets a drawn-out description that makes for horribly uncomfortable reading. These actions firmly cement Jack as the villain of the piece, after which you’re strung along by the hope that he’ll get what’s coming to him as the revenge aspect takes hold.
Problem is, the person (or persons) out for vengeance are far more interesting than Jack, and as he gets brutalised in increasingly graphic ways, I found myself time and again wondering more about the background characters and what they were going through instead of feeling glad he was getting his just desserts. There are only so many times you can read Jack whining about his circumstances and injuries before it becomes tiresome, whereas another perspective would have opened up a lot more chances for interesting character work & development, scares, thrills…all the things the book lacks thanks to the eyes we see the story through.
Even the teasing promise that you’ll get to witness some final act of decisive justice gets the wind knocked out of it thanks to Jack’s obstinate, ignorant attitude. What’s worse is that he constantly tried to recast himself as the hero of the piece. By the time his fate was made clear, I’d more or less lost interest in what happened to him either way.
So while I can’t say that I’m hungry for seconds, at least Death’s Head Press has a lot of other decent options on the menu.
To most, 1865 was an eye-opening year. The American Civil War was officially over and the soldiers fortunate enough to survive the bloody conflict returned home to collect the pieces of their former lives. To young Arizonan, Robert Jack, the fateful desert homecoming marked the end to all he once knew.
Forgiveness is overrated. Death is final. Revenge, however, dances between the fine lines of mortality and eternity.
Love always finds a way.
Ben got a taste for terror after sneaking downstairs to watch The Thing from behind the sofa at age 9. He’s a big fan of extreme & bizarre horror and well as more psychological frights, and most things in between. When he’s not reading, he’s writing, and when he’s not writing he’s on twitter @BensNotWriting or reviewing books on his YouTube channel, BLURB.