Zombies are not particularly high on my list of preferred paranormal critters. I am more willing to heart werewolves or dig vampires (NOT sparkly ones though). Mostly it’s the disgust factor that gets me. Rotting flesh, broken body parts still somehow hanging together, the glazed stare, the groaning… Yech. I can get behind beautiful but deadly. Undead and falling apart and oozing and brainless…not so much. It’s all a bit gratuitous. Even so, there are a few zombie-related stories that I have enjoyed – I giggled my way through Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and the movie Zombieland was quite fun (I’ve been meaning to watch it again).
Out of the blue, I recently read two zombie books in quick succession. I was intrigued by the creativity of each of them – the way they pushed the boundaries of zombie mythology and the zombie lit genre.
The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan is a curious blend of dystopia, historical fiction, and zombie apocalypse. Mary has grown up in a village buried deep in a vast wood, utterly secluded from any other settlements – if other settlements even exist. The Sisterhood tells her that they are alone in the world and the Guardians keep it that way, mending and monitoring the great fence that surrounds the village. No one leaves. No one enters. And always, unrelentingly, from the other side the Unconsecrated watch, pace, tear at the wire and steel, and fling their battered bodies against the fence in unending desperation. In spite of the horror that lurks beyond the fence, Mary dreams of the ocean that her mother’s stories have led her to believe lies far away beyond the forest. When the fence is breached, she must choose between her village and the people she loves, and her dream of a better future somewhere beyond the forest where the cold salty waters of the sea still surge.
The culture that has developed post-apocalypse over the decades of seclusion in Mary’s village is one of the strengths of the story. It is detailed and curious, with the Sisterhood providing a strangely religious structure to it all. It is fascinating to think that after civilization-ending events, people would scatter and pocket so thoroughly that they would forget (after several generations) that other places/people existed. It’s a bleak setting, and throw something like the Unconsecrated into the mix and it moves quickly from bleak to horrible. The writing itself was rather good, although some of the characters weren’t gripping. Still, I read it in an awful rush (merely a few hours), caught in a torrent of words, unable to put it down and so emotionally involved in the story that I had trouble shaking it off for a day or so after finishing it.
Few questions are answered and few threads tied off by the end, but I felt all right about that. I actually have no interest in reading the sort-of-sequel to the book, content to let the Unconsecrated lie.
Although in a way, Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion felt like a companion piece to The Forest of Hands and Teeth. The latter questioned whether the Unconsecrated retained any of their personality, of their humanity, if the wife left living after her husband was infected could become infected herself and find him, join him, be recognized by him. An interesting question. In Warm Bodies, that question is addressed in a remarkable way. The main character is a zombie. Here again the world finds itself post-apocalypse, with the remnants of the civilized world holed away in sports stadiums, rigged out to be mini fortified cities. The undead stumble around an America devastated by wars and social collapse, trying (although they have half forgotten why) to rebuild some semblance of the lives they once knew. They have homes, schools, marriage, religion – or at least the forms of such things. R appears to be a young man (although he has no idea how old he was when he ‘died’), and has retained some of his good looks. He has grey skin and a shuffle, and he does feel an overwhelming urge to eat brains now and then, but he still has all of his body parts and most of them are unbroken. He collects records (loves Sinatra) and tries desperately to remember his name. He can barely hold three syllables together, but his inner life is vibrant.
You’re hoping the story is not going to go there – but where else could it go? Yes, R meets a human girl. The memories and experiences that he somehow consumes along with a particularly delicious brain cause R to begin seeing and feeling things differently. The split-second decision to save Julie instead of eating her forever changes R’s (non)life and the lives of every being (living or undead) in the world.
The writing is sweet, darkly funny, full of pop-culture references and with distinct undertones of Frankenstein and elements straight out of Beauty and the Beast. Unlike so much of the dystopian lit I have encountered recently (which has left me emotionally distraught) I closed Warm Bodies with a happy sigh. Maybe it’s a little silly, a little improbably (and the visual takes some getting used to…) – but what good is a myth if it can’t evolve? I am a HUGE fan of this version of the story and frankly, if I were to land in the midst of a zombie apocalypse I would much rather it was the world of Warm Bodies than The Forest of Hands and Teeth! Just saying.
I would recommend both books to the zombie-lover and to those who are unsure of the specific genre or the horror genre in general. They both have scary (or squee-worthy) elements, but this is balanced by good writing and interesting stories. Warm Bodies especially is just fun, plain and simple.
On a side note (with a few-spoilerish moments), while reading these books I kept thinking about Emily of Evening All Afternoon‘s Disgust Project, and specifically about some notes she made on disgust during her recent review of House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski.
“…films featuring monsters or zombies that drip pus, ooze, or other bodily substances while also threatening the protagonists manage to combine disgust and fear with very little problem. Maybe the difference is that, while the film’s audience can be startled and drawn into the suspense of the story, they still know that they are not in real danger and so have that part of their brains free for the disgust reaction. Whereas, even in a film, when a character is in a life-or-death situation he or she is probably going to prioritize the fear and adrenaline over the “eww” factor.”
When it comes to zombie stories, it is the combination of fear and gross-out factor that make the zombie characters, more or less. As Emily says, the audience is able to experience BOTH the scare and the “eww” because there is a disconnect between the events on the screen and your living room. What I found interesting about both books (Warm Bodies in particular) was the character’s ability to minimize their disgust toward the zombies once the threat and the fear was lessened. I suppose a great deal of the disgust reaction comes directly from fear – of the unknown, of what’s not understood, of what lies buried in that gross gunk that might be deadly to you…
In The Forest of Hands and Teeth there were moments when Mary felt a strange connection to one of the Unconsecrated and with her fear lessened a bit, she felt empathy toward the miserable being instead of disgust.
This concept is ampped up in Warm Bodies, where Julie and her friend Nora come to see R as so much more than just a bit of walking rotting flesh. Like I said, one of the hardest things about that book for me as a reader was the visual – getting squeed out by imagining what R really looked like. I had to move beyond that – far beyond. Awkwardly, the book is a comment on outward appearances vs the beauty within, and certainly R’s feeling of being trapped inside his own head, limited by his mono-syllabic communication skills, reminded me of someone suffering from a stroke or paralysis of some sort. The idea of zombie-ism being a disease or infection caused by a virus is not new, nor is a ‘cure’ for zombie-ism, but it is dealt with here in Warm Bodies in a new, probably unrealistic, but lovely way.
Anyway, these books were a bit more than just horror flicks for me. I found them genuinely interesting, as well as fun and spooky and sensational. If you’re in the mood for zombies, either of these would be just the ticket. Don’t believe me? Simon Pegg says so too!
(…just kidding!! It is way too dark and I am way too alone in the house tonight to do any such thing. Eeep!…)