Introduction: There is a sort of story which pretends to be about one thing but is actually about something else entirely. This can be done well -- in which case it's a continuation of the intellectual conversation in the field, making a much-needed connection between subgenres in a genre or even between genres. An example of doing it well is H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos stories, which posit that ancient myths of gods and devils might actually derive from a poorly-understood history of contact with ultraterrestrial, extraterrestrial and interdimensional alien beings -- and this could be even more glorious and horrible than the way that pre-scientific humans perceived them.
An example of doing it poorly is -- well, this story.
Massive SPOILERS for Everything In the Story
Setting: An upper-middle class house in contemporary suburbia, where some teenagers are having a house party at the invitation of the daughter of the owners, and in the absence of those owners. As we learn, this takes place in which a world in which zombies aren't real.
"Soap", a seemingly-harmless art lover, drifter and petty criminal, probably in his twenties. He is obsessed with the threat of zombie attacks and the question of what to do in such situations.
Carla, a mostly-nice but overly-trusting beautiful girl in her late teens, the daughter of the owners.
Leo, a little kid. Carla's younger brother.
Style: Well-executed descriptive -- it rambles at places, but the digressions are interesting and hence more than forgivable. Enjoyable to read.
Plot: Soap crashes the house party and chats with various teenagers there. He hits it off with Carla, and they have an extended conversation, during which Soap discusses his zombie obsession, and tells her how he once accidentally participated in a museum robbery and spent six months in prison in consequence. They wind up in a bed together, under which Leo turns out to be sleeping. Though they flirt, they do not actually make love.
Carla falls asleep.
Soap steals a painting and a lot of money from the room, and tricks Leo into running away with him by claiming to be Wolverine and that he must save Leo from a zombie attack. Soap drives off with his hostage and his loot, his further intentions unknown.
Meanwhile, Carla has a pleasant dream, enjoying what may well be the last moment of true happy innocence she will ever know.
Theme: The true threat comes not from imaginary monsters such as zombies, but from the all-too-real monsters that are human sociopathic criminals, and their predation upon the naïve.
Comments: As a chilling exploration of the mind of a criminal sociopath and just how dangerous he can be to the overly-innocent, this is actually an effective story. From a psychological point of view, it's also an exploration of how criminal sociopaths seek the short-term while renouncing the long-term opportunities they encounter.
Soap's life is one long history of snatching the short-run gains, and it's why he wound up serving six months in prison, and why he now fails to grasp the possible long-term advantages of befriending a richer, higher-status young woman, which Carla offers him. Instead, he steals a painting and some cash, and kidnaps Leo.
Let me emphasize just how stupid it is for him to kidnap Leo. By doing this, he's converted what is at worst grand theft (and might just be petty larceny) into kidnapping a minor, which is a very serious felony. If he demands ransom, he will almost certainly be caught. If he otherwise harms Leo -- especially if he rapes or kills him -- he's looking at decades in prison, and in some states he's looking at Death Row.
The really scary and sad thing is that this aspect of the tale is quite realistic. The difference between a high-functioning and low-functioning sociopath is impulse control. High-functioning sociopaths can control their impulses to commit misdeeds well enough to construct a working moral code which keeps them out of trouble; low-functioning sociopaths tend to lash out at people or snatch up things, and in consequence can't maintain stable relationships and stay out of prison.
Thus, there really are people like Soap out there. And if one is too trusting -- if, for instance, one lets a stranger into one's party, gets drunk with him, goes to bed and falls to sleep with him, as Carla did -- one may discover that he was a low-functioning sociopath, and that even though it would be stupid for him to do this, he may stab one in the back.
Carla's extreme trust in Soap was also stupid. It just so happened that Soap's sexual desire for her, at that moment, was weaker than his desire for friendly conversation. If he'd strongly lusted for her, he would have tried to seduce her, and there's no guarantee that he would have stopped if she'd started to say "no." He might have raped, or even murdered her.
Instead he betrayed her trust an entirely different way, robbed her home and kidnapped her little brother. t
At the end of the story, it's left open exactly what Soap means to do with Leo. Soap doesn't seem to be a very evil sociopath, but he is a sociopath, and one with poor impulse control. He may havwill e kidnapped Leo just to have company on the road, and he may very well let him loose at a truck stop or town, where Leo can find help getting back home. Or, alternately, he may have kidnapped him for some darker purpose. Or may develop such a darker purpose on the spur of the moment.
We don't know, and that is terrifying.
Worse, Soap has in a very fundamental way robbed both Carla and Leo of their innocence, as surely as if he had raped them. Carla trusted Soap: she clearly thought that he was a cool older guy with the self-restraint to avoid groping her, despite the fact that she got into a very compromising position with him. Had he not betrayed her, it is quite possible that they might have become friends, and eventually even lovers (she may not be underaged, and even if she is, she won't be forever).
Now, she not only has not made a new friend, but must live with the knowledge that she was far too trusting, and that her naivete resulted in the kidnapping of her little brother. Even if Leo is returned unharmed, she knows that she has lost the trust of her parents, and even more seriou sly, she has lost her own trust in herself.
It was a lesson which she had to learn someday, but the lesson did not have to be administered quite so harshly. Carla will become sadder, but wiser, and this is sad for us to see as well, because she was a likable character.
Emotionally, this is effective psychological tragedy and horror.
So Why Didn't I Like the Story?
The problem is that this story is sold to its audience as a zombie story. And this isn't a zombie story at all. It's a story about a criminal sociopath who is obsessed with zombies, which is quite another matter.
Yes, I'm quite aware of the concept of metafiction, and I fully grasp that -- by selling this as a zombie story -- Kelly Link is in a milder sense betraying her readers the same way that Soap betrays Carla and Leo. And I'm aware that she probably knows this and is doing this quite intentionally.
The problem is that an author should not betray their audience. Doing so may be clever, but it if done wrong it comes across as a rather nasty cleverness. And in this case, Link is essentially mocking the poor fools who came here thinking they were going to read a story about actual zombies.
That is what "Some Zombie Contingency Plans" does. It sucks in an audience with the promise of zombies, but instead is a story about human sociopathy in a zombie-free world. And that is going too far. That is, morally speaking, auctorial fraud.
And that is why I rate this story as Very Bad. It betrays the reader.
Which is unforgivable.