Books of the week: In praise of zombie fiction, where the undead roam ravaged doomsday societies in search of redemption (and human flesh)

Zombie fiction! It’s everywhere, some of it’s really good, and all of it feels strangely, terribly relevant to the times we live in. Stacey Campbell walks with the undead.

I’ve been reading about zombies. It just kind of happened. As a genre it’s not exactly literary, and yes, The Luminaries is still sitting on my shelf, spine uncreased. It’s a rabbit-hole I fell down after a recommendation from a friend and an increasingly targeted list of suggestions from the Kindle Store.

Like any genre there are some gems and some real duds. The zombie is kind of a zeitgeisty monster-of-the-moment that pairs well with the general state of the world, and the chronic low-level anxiety that comes with thinking about it. Of course, zombie stories work best when they’re not just zombie stories. At the very least you need some kind of basic “the real monster was us all along” entry-level subtext. Luckily, plagues of the undead are ripe for metaphor: on the dehumanising effects of technology, the panic of refugee tides, the dangers of globalisation, and the classic Messiah narratives and hero’s journeys.

The trouble is, it can be really hard to tell from a plot summary if you’re onto a winner or just another rag tag team on the run from brain-starved shufflers story with no deeper meaning. To save you some time, here’s a round-up of some of my favourites (and a couple that were a bit dire).

THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS by MR Carey (2014)

I was lucky enough to go into this one knowing nothing about the story. It’s been around for a few years now (and there’s a movie adaptation out) so you may already know the premise. That won’t stop you from enjoying it.

The plot to this one is simple. Summarised, it sounds very much like one of the books I criticised earlier. A group of unlikely allies, on the run from the undead, confront literal and metaphorical demons in their quest for survival. But the story is told well, the characters are three-dimensional, and the attention to detail brings it to life.

There’s definitely a “humans are the real monsters here” vibe to this one, with undertones of children inheriting the world and reinventing it for themselves.

A still from The Girl With All the Gifts movie (IMDb)

One thing I’ve noticed in my sojourn with the undead is the genre doesn’t lend itself well to romance. Vampires, sparkly or not, have been the subject of steamy tales since Vlad’s very first impaling, but necrotised flesh and cannibalism don’t seem to feature in most writers’ romantic fantasies. I’m not so naïve to suggest zombie erotica doesn’t exist, but it hasn’t hit the mainstream, and that is absolutely fine with me.

What you get instead, perhaps more than some other genres, is an exploration of other kinds of relationships. It’s good. It makes for some more interesting plots than girl meets enigmatic boy with superpowers, boy is intrigued by girl for no reason, girl falls for boy despite the DANGER, etc etc etc.

In The Girl With All The Gifts, it’s the relationship between Melanie and Miss Justineau, the teacher she idolises. Melanie and her classmates are confined to a facility, where they attend school during the day and get locked in cells at night. Scientists are trying to work out why these children have kept most of their mental faculties (except that lust for human flesh) when the rest of the infected have lost their minds. Inevitably, things go wrong, and Melanie and her teacher are forced to flee into the apocalyptic waste with a small gang which includes the scientist who was on the verge of vivisecting Melanie.

For a middle-aged white guy, Carey does well capturing the hero-worship a little girl has towards her beloved teacher. I loved getting inside the mind of a 10-year-old zombie who’s also a massive book nerd. Carey’s also pretty good at avoiding character stereotypes. Sergeant Parks isn’t just another army meathead, and although Doctor Caldwell is wholly unlikeable, you can’t help but ask yourself if her experimental endeavours are indeed worth the price, if she really is on the brink of a cure.

RAISING STONY  MAYHALL by Daryl Gregory (2011)

This is such an unusual book. It’s remained stuck in my mind and I keep thinking about it many months after reading it.

A plague has broken out in 1960s America. The infected have been contained and, it’s believed, exterminated. But a woman in a small Ohio town, with children of her own, finds a tiny grey baby nestled next to its dead mother. She takes the baby boy in and raises him alongside her daughters, hiding him and keeping him safe from the world. It’s part coming-of-age story, part political drama, and part existential theory.

Gregory chose the late twentieth century setting for a reason, and Stony’s story gels with the real-world political and civil rights narratives we associate with those years. The undead, who have been driven underground, become a revolutionary alliance of sorts, with an annual conference, political infighting, and differing views on how the cause of undead civil rights is best fought – through peaceful means or no.

Stony is the only one of his kind and, after being raised among the living, he doesn’t truly feel at home anywhere. He becomes a legend and Messiah figure among the undead, but all he ever wanted was to find his place in the world.

Night of the Living Dead (IMDb)

The undead in Stony’s world go through a brief period of mindlessness after they’re infected, but then life (or rather, death) goes on. They are not impervious to injury: a bullet will leave a hole and a chainsaw will take off an arm as easily as it would off the living. The difference is Gregory’s undead can maintain bodily integrity, even with important pieces missing, through sheer willpower. For instance, they can replace lost limbs with prosthetics and use them like they would an actual arm or leg, as long as they extend their concept of self to cover the new installation.

There’s no zombie lovin’ in this one either. Gregory gets around the whole ‘zombies aren’t sexy’ problem by making it so the undead have no sex drive, despite their minds functioning otherwise normally. This felt slightly artificial, and despite my qualms I wondered if Gregory had sidestepped a potentially interesting aspect of Stony’s character with this decision.

ZONE ONE by Colson Whitehead (2011)

This one starts slow, flicking back and forth between the protagonist’s past and present. We never learn his real name, only his nickname, Mark Spitz. In this world, your life before the Last Night doesn’t matter – the only thing that matters is you’re alive. Survivors of all kinds are thrown together in the task of trying to reclaim the world outside their fortified camp, inch by infested inch.

I’m a big fan of near-future apocalyptic fiction. Maybe it’s because I like to plan for worst case scenarios, but I also like to see how characters respond to the breakdown of society and how people change (or don’t) after the world is turned upside down. Who survives in a zombie apocalypse? Why? How? Mark Spitz reckons he’s survived because of his sheer mediocrity, his extreme averageness, his ability to hit a solid B grade in everything he does, regardless of the effort expended.

Spitz is part of a military unit based at Fort Wonton in New York City, one of several bastions of humanity dotted across the ravaged US. Almost everyone there suffers some form of PASD (post-apocalyptic stress disorder), a new syndrome for a new kind of trauma.

Some things, like corporate sponsorship, have survived the apocalypse with cockroach-like tenacity. The teams tasked with clearing out Manhattan ahead of the planned repopulation of the island are not allowed to loot what they find, but they can take certain products made by companies who have chosen to sponsor the reclamation effort.

This story is a slow burner. You really feel the fatigue, the drudgery of living in a camp with other survivors and the slow, block by block, building by building, floor by floor, clearing the city of straggler zombies. Whitehead captures the uncertainty, the precariousness of survival, the effects of living in a state of perpetual fear and boredom.

Sometimes the writing is a little overcooked. Whitehead likes to show off his vocabulary, perhaps to remind us he’s a Serious Author even when he’s writing about zombies. Most of the time it’s great, but sometimes it crosses into clunky.

The undead in Zone One are like the weather, like a tide or a wind, unpredictable and unstoppable. There are only a few scenes of real action, but that isn’t a criticism. Violence works better when it’s used as punctuation than when a writer tries to keep a blistering pace throughout an entire novel, and Whitehead gets this. There were times in Zone One when I almost felt bored, like nothing at all was happening, but it brought home the notion that even mortal danger gets tiresome if it’s constant. And when the action did come, it was all the more powerful for being doled out sparingly.

STAGE THREE by Ken Stark (2016)

This is what I was talking about when I said you need to have something more happen than just fleeing from the zombie hordes. The premise sounded good – jaded, middle-aged guy teams up with a little blind girl as they navigate the teeming city in search of her aunt. But all the character development happens in about the first quarter of the story and from there it just feels strongly like it might be the author’s hero fantasy.

THE BECOMING (Book 1) by Jessica Meigs (2011)

You can avoid this one too. I picked it up because it sounded like it had a kick-ass woman in the lead, and ex-Israeli defence force fighter Cade Alton does have an element of awesome, but she and the rest of the cast need serious fleshing out. Apparently there are several book in this series. I get the feeling a stricter editor could probably chop this one down to a chapter or two.

What other tales of the undead have I missed? Please, add to my ever-expanding to-read list. Find me on Goodreads or on Twitter @staceyvivienne.

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