Chain Reaction: Three Zombie Novels That Stand Out from the Herd

We have a little less than one month until October 23 and the premiere of The Walking Dead’s seventh season! I enjoyed the Alexandria arc, but the last few episodes of the sixth season felt like Rick, Michonne and the rest of the gang were being moved around like chess pieces. I wasn’t fond of the horrible cliffhanger, either.  But overall The Walking Dead is one series I can’t quit.

A friend who has an aversion to zombie stories once asked me why I was so fascinated with The Walking Dead. Back then my reply was that a good zombie story is less about the zombies and more about the survivors. In the case of The Walking Dead, I’ve read about halfway through the comics, but the show’s actors do such a good job of (forgive me) fleshing out the characters that it’s easier to root for them. I pointed out that “the walking dead” doesn’t exactly refer to the zombies — it refers to the little band of human survivors, who, in the show’s mythos, are all infected with the virus. They will turn when they die, regardless of whether or not they are bitten by a zombie. So: who exactly are the dead in this story — or in any post-Romero zombie story?

Most zombie stories are told from the survivor’s point of view, and there are a lot of great examples out there (see our reread of Mira Grant’s Newsflesh series) and lots of different angles. In recent years, a few writers have begun to take this narrative and turn it around — telling the story from the zombie’s point of view. It’s a bold choice that allows for a little more complexity to the zombie phenomenon — and thus, perhaps sheds light on the human condition.  So I cobbled together a short list of three zombie stories that are sure to make you think — or at least entertain you! — without making you want to put a stake through your eye.

raisingstonymayhall_cover_largeFirst up: Raising Stony Mayhall, by Daryl Gregory (2011).  This brilliant novel is both an alternate history and a comment on the U.S.’s post-9/11 hypervigilance. The premise? The events in the 1968 George Romero classic Night of the Walking Dead really happened (the film is referred to as a “documentary”), but the zombies were… contained. A rural Iowa woman finds a baby born to a recently deceased zombie, and raises the baby out of sight of the U.S. military, which has been on high alert guarding against and quashing any zombie recurrences. Stony doesn’t eat. He doesn’t breathe. He doesn’t even have a heart, but he grows up just like other kids. He is forced to leave home and joins up with the Living Dead Resistance — a multifaceted movement that wants to claim civil rights for existing zombies. It sounds funny, and it is — imagine our history told from a zombie’s point of view — but overall Gregory’s novel is an exploration of what makes a zombie a zombie, and secondarily an examination of political movements, which often are not unified, but patchworks of groups with different beliefs and methods unifying for a common goal.

wb-cover-clearSecond up: Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion (2010). Both a book and a movie — usually classified as YA, but I’ve never let that stop me, and neither should you, because you’ll miss out on one of the most positive, humorous, and yes, heartwarming zombie stories of the decade (see what I did there?). Like Raising Stony Mayhall, Warm Bodies is written from the zombie’s point of view. R, an empathetic zombie who can’t remember his full name, has taken up residence with a community of other undead in an airport. Unlike his fellow residents, R doesn’t like eating flesh to maintain his lifeless existence, but ends up killing a guy named Perry during a hunting party, and then eating Perry’s brain. In doing so R absorbs and relives Perry’s memories, and starts to regain his own. When his party comes across a group of survivors, R recognizes one of them as Perry’s girlfriend, Julie, and spares her. He kidnaps Julie and takes her back to the airport, where he finds himself falling in love with her, but then has to come clean about his role in Perry’s death (by the way, he’s been hoarding bits of Perry’s brain to gain more memories of Julie and what it means to be human). Squeamish readers might want to skip the helpful drawings in the book. Watch the movie for some funny scenes, the chemistry between the actors in a decidedly weird concept story, and of course, the end.

the-girl-with-all-the-gifts-bookLast, but definitely not least: The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey (2014). Read it before it hits the silver screen; it’s about to be released in the UK with Glenn Close and Gemma Arterton in two of the starring roles. In this story set in Britain, the zombie apocalypse is fungus-based; it has turned humans into flesh-seeking zombies. But the main character, Melanie, isn’t aware of that. She knows only that she and her classmates are kept under lock and key in a military base, and that one by one, her classmates disappear and don’t come back. The only thing that sustains Melanie is her Matilda/Miss Honey love for her teacher, Miss Justineau, and Miss Justineau, for her part, senses Melanie is something special. When hungries attack the base, the truth is revealed — Melanie and her classmates are a new, naturally occurring special kind of zombie who retain their mental faculties and can constrain their hunger. Melanie is forced to flee the base with Miss Justineau, and a contingent of soldiers led by Colonel Caldwell, the lead researcher who thinks Melanie is the key to a cure. If the movie doesn’t get the end right, read the story for a total twist.

Honorable Mentions: Sometimes zombie POV stories are just plain old fun. Check out Diana Rowland’s White Trash Zombie series, starting with — what else? — My Life as a White Trash Zombie. Angel Crawford wakes up after overdosing on painkillers, then mysteriously lands a job transporting bodies to the county morgue–where she discovers her former addictions have been replaced by a horrible hankering for brains. And then people start dying in really weird ways and Angel realizes there is a serial killer on the loose.

That’s what I’ve got! Have you read any of these, or do you have others to add? Keep the chain going in the comments!

21 Comments

  • Shara White September 27, 2016 at 7:26 am

    Ooooh, self aware zombies? Let me throw out iZombie: the comic and television adaptation, though I will say the television adaptation original conceit pulls a little too close to My Life as a White Trash Zombie for my liking. I wrote about it here when the show originally premiered in 2015, and it remains one of my most-visited posts.

    There’s also The Loving Dead by Amelia Beamer. Unique little piece of work, but pretty darn interesting.

    Reply
    • Carey Ballard September 28, 2016 at 9:55 am

      Yes– almost added iZombie, then decided to stick to books. (Plus, I’ve only seen one episode of it…)

      I’ve heard of The Loving Dead, but haven’t read it yet.

      Reply
  • sharonpatry September 27, 2016 at 7:35 am

    Nice to see some poignant-not-comic Zombie POV stories, Carey!

    Reply
    • Carey Ballard September 28, 2016 at 9:56 am

      Thanks! They’re all really very good reads.

      Reply
  • Nancy O'Toole Meservier September 27, 2016 at 8:26 am

    I LOVE the White Trash Zombie series. Truly one of my favorite current urban fantasy series.

    Reply
    • Carey Ballard September 28, 2016 at 9:57 am

      I just finished the second one last month. What a scream! I rarely read urban fantasy, but this series is a lot of fun.

      Reply
      • Shara White September 28, 2016 at 7:57 pm

        You guys are making want to read the second book. Stop that! My TBR pile is big enough!

        Reply
        • nancyotoole September 28, 2016 at 9:53 pm

          And there are FIVE books in the series now, with a sixth coming out next year, if you want to make that TBR even larger 🙂

          Reply
  • ntaft01 September 27, 2016 at 8:22 pm

    YAAAAAASS WARM BODIES! YAAS! *so much love for that book*

    Actually, one of the things I really liked about this book is that Marion went back to the supernatural roots of zombies. No one knows what caused the zombie outbreak, and Julie mentions, “Virus? Something else? Who knows?” but there’s a decidedly non-scientific element to this book that makes me sublimely happy. I _still_ have the ARC that was sent to our store even though I always meant to buy it, but can’t bring myself to part with this one. I own the movie too, and though it’s not quite the same, I really did enjoy the direction they went with it.

    I’m also pleased to say that it’s shelved in the adult fiction section at B&N stores.

    Reply
    • Carey Ballard September 28, 2016 at 10:09 am

      Agreed! Thanks for bringing that up. I liked the “scientific nonfocus” but it was kind of difficult to talk about supernatural zombie lore. (Another post perhaps!) And good for B&N shelving it in the adult fiction section.

      I think we should do a roundtable sometime on the books we can’t bear to part with. 🙂

      Reply
      • ntaft01 September 29, 2016 at 6:39 pm

        Ooh, I like that idea.
        *stares at bookshelves*
        …….Oh God… @_@ TOO MANY…

        Reply
        • careymballard October 3, 2016 at 11:57 pm

          i know right? Maybe it should be “books you would take with you in case of emergency.” Like the list of emergency items they had kids write down in school. I used to keep my prize 5 books at the foot of my bed so I could grab them if I had to run out the door.

          Reply
  • Kelly McCarty September 27, 2016 at 11:36 pm

    I think I am one of the few people who doesn’t like The Walking Dead. I watched one episode and found it gruesome, depressing, and too scary for me. I loved World War Z by Max Brooks. I’m still haunted by some of the images and I read it several years ago. I never saw the movie but I heard it was nothing like the book and bad. I also enjoyed Warm Bodies and My Life as a White Trash Zombie, which is one of my all-time favorite book titles. I haven’t read Raising Stony Mayhall or The Girl With All The Gifts but they sound interesting.

    Reply
    • Shara White September 28, 2016 at 6:37 am

      I haven’t read Stony Mayhall either, but The Girl with All The Gifts is pretty damn awesome.

      Reply
    • Carey Ballard September 28, 2016 at 10:02 am

      World War Z is one of my favorites and again was almost included under Honorable Mentions, but I wanted to stick to the “zombie POV” theme. Max Brooks is a genius. The movie isn’t exactly bad, but there’s no way it can comprehensively cover all of the events in the book (even if they make a sequel [currently due out next June]).

      Out of the three listed here, Stony Mayhall is probably my favorite, and The Girl With All the Gifts is the most mind-blowing.

      Reply
    • ntaft01 September 29, 2016 at 6:42 pm

      I’ll admit I haven’t ever bothered with The Walking Dead, and it’s ironically because of the focus on the people why I never bothered. Not because that’s not interesting ( WWZ was amazing!), but because I knew there would be a laundry list of stupid things the characters would do. My sister confirmed those for me when she was watching the show, and once a character got pregnant she basically went, “Nope. That’s too stupid for me. Who is dumb enough to get pregnant during a zombie apocalypse?? I’m done.”

      I have, however, seen some people play the video game, and that has some pretty good stuff going on in it.

      Reply
      • careymballard October 4, 2016 at 12:02 am

        There’s a video game? Hmm. NO ONE TOLD ME THERE WAS A VIDEO GAME.

        Ahem. Back to the TV series: The characters are prone to stupid moments, but honestly, what series isn’t? Although arguably a lower percentage of “stupid moments” are important in a series about the zombie apocalypse, there are always stupid moments in zombie stories. I remember getting frustrated with a popular YA zombie trilogy because the main character put herself in danger for her (slightly whingy) on-again, off-again boyfriend. Ugh.

        I watch TWD because my friends are all watching it, and because I think a lot of the actors do a great job. The comic was too nihilistic and depressing for me, actually. Watching the TV series puts more emotion into it (even if the showrunners do pull stupid sh*t now and then).

        Reply
        • Shara White October 4, 2016 at 6:53 am

          There are a handful! I would highly recommend the games produced by Telltale: the story is good, and it’s “choose your own adventure” too. I’ve watched my husband play through for hours! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Walking_Dead_(video_game)

          Reply
          • Nancy O'Toole Meservier October 4, 2016 at 8:14 pm

            Telltale also did a game for the Fables comic series called “A Wolf Among Us” in the same format, and I really liked it. I’m not a huge gamer, and I found it to be very easy to pick up. My husband hasn’t even read the comics and he really liked it took. They just started doing a Batman telltale game, and I like what I’ve seen so far.

          • Shara October 4, 2016 at 8:37 pm

            Telltale did a Jurassic Park a while back, and I’d kill to get my hands on it. 🙂

  • careymballard October 4, 2016 at 12:05 am

    I’ll probably write up the Rick-Carl dad-joke memes as an entry for My Favorite Things, because they are hilarious. If you haven’t seen these, they’re an enjoyable way to kill some time: http://thechive.com/2015/02/15/rick-grimes-from-the-walking-dead-tells-the-best-dad-jokes-32-photos/

    Reply

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