One of my fellow librarians and I were talking a couple of days ago about the proliferation of vampire/werewolf novels, and why it’s that genre of horror creatures who are on the rise. Why not, say, novels about the Kraken, or a Frankenstein-esque monster, or giant mutant spiders? Or even zombies? We determined that vampires and werewolves can be sexy, whereas zombies? With the putrid flesh and molting body parts? Not even their hunger for human flesh (which is, really, fairly similar to the vampire’s thirst for blood) can overcome the non-sexy appeal of the zombie.
In general, I’m not a fan of zombie novels. (Or movies, for that matter.) It all seems so formulaic: the blood, guts, and terror of being pursued by an unthinking, unkillable, insatiable human. Plus, it’s spiritually repugnant, a bastardization of the belief in resurrection. So I’m not really sure why I decided to read Alden Bell’s The Reapers are the Angels. More than likely it’s because some critic or other compared it to McCarthy’s The Road. What I do know is this: I picked it up and it held me in its grasp, and even though I finished it (sitting in my car outside of my sister-in-law’s house) last week, it still hasn’t let me go.
Right now, let go of all the connotations you have in your head for “zombie novel.” Instead, trust me: if you love well-written books, the kind that pull you along with drama and ideas and plot and tension and language, you will love this novel. Even though it’s populated by the ugly horror of zombies—which Temple, the protagonist, calls “meatskins” and “slugs”—it will, surprisingly enough, move you with its beauty.
This isn’t the zombie apocalypse. It’s the post-apocalypse, twenty- five years after the dead started rising and overtaking the world with their hunger. This is the world 15-year-old Temple was born to, so she doesn’t live with a true longing for how things used to be. The meatskins, which move with a “writhing, rippling movement that goes through the muscles of the body, as of a broken toy twitching with mechanical repetition,” have been her life’s constant companion.
Since she is not looking backward at what the world used to be, she is able to look around her and see what the world is, in its beauties and miracles. The novel opens, in fact, with the Miracle of the Fish, which occurs when Temple is living on a tiny island with a defunct lighthouse, just a swim away from a Florida beach. On a moonlit night, she goes to the water, and a school of fish “came and danced around her ankles, and she could feel their little electric fish bodies, and it was like she was standing under the moon and in the moon at the same time.” That’s when (on the first page), she realizes that whatever corruption is on the earth, and whatever horrific experiences she’s had, they all conspired to bring her to the Miracle of the Fish. God, she tells us, “makes it so you don’t miss out on nothing you’re supposed to witness firsthand.”
Then she has to kill a zombie that’s washed up onto the shore of her island. This sets her in motion, off across the southern part of America. She’s strong, and, armed with her gurka knife that someone gave her, unafraid of the zombies. She finds little oases of humanity, girded up against the meatskins, trying to make their lives, but doesn’t feel comfortable there. Temple’s a wanderer; she wants to see things, partly because she is fleeing her memories and partly because when she sees, she sees wonder. “If I ain’t seen everything there is to see,” she notes, “it wasn’t for lack of lookin’.” Along the way, she picks up an enemy, Moses Todd, who also acts as a sort of guru, offering advice and wisdom while he’s also trying to kill her. A mute man, Maury, falls into her care, and trying to get him to a small Texas town becomes her temporary purpose.
But these are just the small things: the plot. What breathed the most is Temple’s vivid mind. Unfailingly she is able to find beauty. Take her experience in a tiny town prison where she might be the supplies portion of an odd zombie/human medical experiment. Caught in the dirty jail, quite possibly facing death, she thinks about the Miracle of the Fish. “A moment you were given a stomach for,” she thinks, “for it to feel that way, all tense with magic meaning.” Even in seemingly deadly circumstances, she can see. She’s able to contrast her life—the ugliness of the zombies and the irredeemable humanity of people—with the beauty of the world. “Ain’t no hell deep enough to keep heaven out.”
She doesn’t see herself as an innocent, though. Temple is complicated. Her history drags behind her. It is the thing that makes her question: what is good? what is right? She tries to puzzle it out, even though she knows that "beauty and evil are on the opposite sides of a wall like lovers who can never really touch.” She contrasts people—who hide in their enclaves—against the zombies, who while soulless and driven by their grotesque hunger, are at least driven. She nearly admires the zombies more.
In that sense, the novel isn’t really about zombies at all. It’s about not wandering through our lives, driven by hungers we don’t understand, bumping against wonders we have grown blind to. It’s about living, and how, in a ruined world, one might accomplish that. Moses describes the pre-apocalypse world (the one we live in right now) as “a different lifetime, when wonders were rare and announced—like amusement parks or school trips.” Of course, they really aren’t rare. We just need them announced to us before we can see them. But once the zombies come, if you are brave, wonders are “everywhere, for the delectation of those among the survivors who might be hunters of miracles.”
Temple is a hunter of miracles, and because she hunts, she finds them. This novel made me question: how am I a zombie in my own life? How do I fail to see and cherish wonder? What miracles can I hunt for and how do I start? No other zombie novel has done that to me. Not even many non-zombie novels have. So even if you hate zombies, you should read this book. It will break you and then reassemble what is left, and you’ll stride out, hunting, with clearer eyes because of it.