Last year, I read The Reapers are the Angels, and it made my list of top ten fiction books of the year. I was blown away by the way in which Alden Bell used zombies to tell a genre-spanning story that was firmly situated in the landscape of great American literature. Surely, this was the best zombie book ever written. It still may be, but Raising Stony Mayhall, by Daryl Gregory, offers some interesting competition.
The first zombie outbreak happens in 1968. It’s quick, though deadly, and the government manages to kill all the flesh-eating zombies within a couple of days. At least that’s what they tell everyone. But in Iowa, the Mayhall family finds a dead baby that unexpectedly opens its eyes and goes on living, despite his grey skin and lack of any internal organs. And then the dead baby grows into a young man–Stony Mayhall. Because the government kills all zombies on sight, the Mayhall family has to keep Stony hidden on their rural farm. But eventually Stony is discovered and taken into hiding by the Living Dead Army, an underground community of zombies who were not destroyed by the government in 1968.
In this particular zombie world, the living dead are only ravenous, crazed eaters of flesh for the first 24 to 48 hours of their infection. After that they’re just like you or me…except for the dead part. They continue to be dead, and sometimes they have imperfect memories of their lives before the disease. But otherwise, they go right on “living” despite the fact that they don’t breathe or have circulating blood or really even internal organs anymore. And no one knows why this happens.
Everything else in the fictional world of this novel is the same. The music, the television shows, and eventually, the terrorist attacks on 9/11. But beneath the surface of this normal world are the lives of the underground living dead, a community with organization and leaders who divide into camps based on how they understand what it means to be the living dead (or “living challenged” as they suggest they be called at their conference). The Perpetualists believe they should bite a few humans every now and then to replace the living dead who are lost to the government, which actively seeks to find and destroy the underground living dead. Another group believes that they’re all abominations against nature or God, and so should be completely exterminated. But the Big Biters believe that the living dead should rise up en masse and attack the human race, killing everyone or turning them into the living dead once and for all. At the middle of all of this is Stony Mayhall, the zombie who grew and who spent most of his life among the living, rather than in hiding like the rest of the living dead.
Good “speculative fiction” (isn’t all fiction speculative?) is firmly grounded in the familiar and the real. Here’s a world where zombies exist, but how would zombies behave if they became just like people who happen to be dead and therefore, in a strange twist, potentially immortal? Gregory’s answer to this question is so very believable and interesting. The story is by turns funny and sad and poignant. This is a novel that’s not afraid to poke a little fun at the whole zombie genre in general.
What I found especially fascinating about Stony Mayhall is the particular direction Gregory takes the zombie myth. I think it’s accurate to call zombies mythic at this point, in the sense that they have become a subject which our culture returns to again and again in order to tell important stories about the human experience. In this particular incarnation, zombies become a vehicle through which to contemplate the body and our relation to the physical world. Stony wants to know why the living dead continue to move. A mystic figure in the living dead world called the Lump says, “The stick moves in the wind and believes it is moving itself.” Stony’s question becomes, what exactly is “the wind” in this metaphor?
Over time, parts of the living dead wear out because, well, they’re dead and so there’s no cell regeneration going on. But some living dead discover that if you attach a prosthetic arm or leg in place of what you lost, over time, they can learn how to move that prosthetic. But it’s moving in the absence of any muscles or nerve fibers connecting it to their body. It appears to be an act of will that allows them to move these prosthetic devices. What’s important, Stony begins to discover, is what you believe to be part of your body.
Stony takes this in some fascinating directions by the end of the novel. I would recommend this book for the story alone. There’s real pathos in Stony’s life; you come to care for him as a character and there’s a beautifully sad arc to his life story. The questions the novel raises about the nature of our bodies is an added bonus. I’m sure these classes probably already exist, but if this keeps up, they’ll be Zombie Literature classes popping up all over, and they’ll really be able to call themselves “literature” classes.