The Harvest by Scott Nicholson
If there's one theme that has run through horror from its earliest days to the present, it's that locations have character. From Lovecraft's Rhode Island to King's Maine to Bentley Little's Arizona, the setting is often as important as the horrific events that occur there (and that's not even taking into account works like Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, which limit the scope to a mere house).
Scott Nicholson, with his second horror novel, The Harvest, establishes Appalachia as his area, a setting surprisingly underutilized by other authors, given the history of the region. His town of Windshake, NC, is one that could easily have become another stereotype-laden town of victims. But he gives the town, and its residents, more than enough polish to take a relatively straightforward plot and make it a blast to watch it play out.
Nicholson takes two classic B-movie concepts, the Creature From Outer Space of such films as The Blob and the Mindless Zombies (these resemble, if anything, the creatures from Cronenberg's Shivers, transmitting their "infection" by kissing their victims). Throw in a classic B-novel plotline (the character with mysterious psychic powers), and you've got what should be a throwaway piece of fluff. But Nicholson populates his town with the best ensemble group of characters seen in a long time, and that makes the novel work.
The plot: a strange meteor has crash-landed, and the alien creature on board, assuming that all Earth creatures aren't sentient, starts absorbing them. Each person who gets infected by the creature immediately becomes a zombie, and while the creature digests the people from the inside, they go around and find more victims. We have the various and sundry folks who get together to fight them, including a psychology professor with mild telepathic powers (who develops a rapport with the creature); a transplanted African-American who feels a continuing sense of racial paranoia in the small Southern town; an old dirt farmer and his Yankee neighbor; and a successful and pious local businessman.
These folks could have been classic sterotypes. Certainly, the horde of victims, from bootleggers to trailer trash hookers to corrupt politicians and ministers, seem like a group that should have been two-dimensional at best. But Nicholson doesn't let any character, even the most minor of them, get away without a certain level of depth. The bootlegger's love for his wife, the teenager's conflicted emotions about the older women he's sleeping with, the minister's love for his daughter, all make the populace of this town one that you have to care about. No one, no matter how simple they first appear, is a cookie-cutter character, and that makes this more than just a generic "watch the townies die" novel.
If there's a flaw with the level of characterization, it's that Nicholson seems to be too in love with the "good" characters. By my count, only three of the many folks fighting the zombies (as opposed to the folks clearly destined to be fodder) die, and only one actually gets killed by them directly. It's not that I wanted the characters that Nicholson had built sympathy for to pass away, but it undercuts the horror when almost everyone survives.
That said, The Harvest is a surprisingly fun read, and much better than most of the Leisure and Pinnacle books you'll find in stores nowadays. Nicholson's knack for character development, combined with his nice sense of timing, could take him far in the field.
The Harvest by Scott Nicholson