What would you do if you woke one day and discovered your whole town had been “Cujo-fied”? Would you join up with the military in exchange for shelter from your former neighbors, now zombielike bipeds that stalk the country feeding on live flesh? Or would you take advantage of the lawlessness and become one of the “non-Cujo cannibals” who prey on survivors? For Rhonda Driscoll, hunkered down at a military base run by a blustery colonel who happens to be her father, neither of these paths is an option.
As Rhonda and her team prepare for a mission to find survivors and supplies, Colonel Driscoll reminds them: “Dead Cujos are the only good Cujos.” Rhonda knows the drill and has proven that she can make her way through Cujo-infested areas with steady shots from her M4, but killing is the last thing on her mind. Not only did she lose her mother and sister in the outbreak, but she also lost her fiancé, Brad, of whom her father did not approve even before Brad went Cujo. That approval becomes even more elusive when Rhonda returns to base from the mission with an undead Brad in tow.
Rabid Heart, Jeremy Wagner’s latest horror thriller, is full of quotable phrases, and the action rarely stops. “I keep Elmore Leonard in my mind and I skip the boring parts,” Wagner says. When Rhonda flees the base with the putrid but not-so-rabid Brad in a stolen Humvee, she has no plan but to recapture some sense of what life was like before the outbreak. On the phone from the road, the colonel is incredulous: “You got a death wish?” Her reply: “No, I’ve got a love wish, Dad.” Unlike the other monsters, Brad attacks only Cujos and people who mean Rhonda harm, and he seems to recognize her (“Rrrrnnndaahh,” he moans occasionally).
Rhonda’s journey is nonstop fun no matter how gory it gets. Wagner is also the lyricist and rhythm guitarist for the death metal band Broken Hope, and he says his songs “are really micro-horror fiction stories, drawn from my imagination, horror movies, or real-life horrors.” The propulsion of loud rock is ever present in the book, blasting from the Humvee’s CD player as Rhonda mows down Cujos. The setting evokes a mix of Misfits lyrics and grainy VHS horror classics. “Everything felt Halloween-ish in October’s incandescent glow that covered the countryside,” Wagner writes. “It was a gorgeous rural scene. Nice and tranquil… before Cujos ruined it for her.”
Wagner says he will “jam music loud and constantly” while writing and editing his books, a cue he took from Stephen King, who is known to blast metal while working. He wears King’s influence on his sleeve in Rabid Heart, whose zombies are named after the titular rabid dog from King’s 1981 novel.
The atrocities that Rhonda encounters on the road could be described as unspeakable, but one of the marvels of great horror and monster stories is their ability to give a name and a face to the potential for evil lurking inside human beings. “I’m quite fascinated with the way history has shown how easily men become monsters when given power,” Wagner says.
Aside from the nonstop action, the book wins over the reader with the warmth and determination Rhonda embodies as she battles these evil forces on her own terms, especially after she rescues two children. At this point, the plot draws parallels to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, another influence Wagner cites for Rabid Heart, while offering a new, triumphant twist on the tale of postapocalyptic doom.