It’s no secret that of all the fictional monsters out there, zombies have been employed to do the most allegorical heavy lifting. Director George A. Romero has made a cottage industry of this practice, using zombies to critique race relations (Night of the Living Dead), consumerism (Dawn of the Dead), the military-industrial complex (Day of the Dead), economic inequality (Land of the Dead), social media (Diary of the Dead) and – I think – survivalists (Survival of the Dead, which is easily his worst movie, so it’s hardly a surprise there’s no apparent theme). The reasons for this are well-documented; the most popular theory goes that because zombies are personality-free eating machines, directors can easily filter the conflict through whatever message they hope to impart. In all this time, though, there hasn’t really been a zombie movie – or book, since that’s what I’m writing about here – that deals with the inescapable humanity of zombies. In the pressure to survive, characters engage in very little hand-wringing over killing things that used to be people. Jonathan Maberry is the only other author I can think of who’s tackled this subject. In his Young Adult series Rot and Ruin, a character “releases” zombies with as much dignity as possible in an effort to respect the people they once were. But virtually every other depiction of zombies is mainly a vehicle for lots of stabbing and smashing and gooshing.* Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I love a good gorefest as much as the next horror movie nerd (which I absolutely am), but I also like movies that confound our expectations and tinker with the tropes we’ve come to expect.
Which brings me, if you couldn’t guess, to M.R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts, one of the best novels I’ll read all year, and one of the best horror novels of all time, full stop. Carey does something that’s almost unthinkable: he writes a novel that works simultaneously as a thrilling horror story, a thoughtful meditation on what it means to be human, and a critique of what comedian Patton Oswalt describes as, “Science: We’re all about coulda, not about shoulda!” And he does this the good, old-fashioned way by creating characters that we come to care deeply about and for whom we want the best to happen. Even the villain – and I use that term loosely, because this is a book that deals exclusively in shades of gray – is complex and sympathetic. Carey does so many things well that I almost don’t know where to start – and I’m very hesitant to say much at all at the risk of ruining things for everyone else.
Here’s what I will say: The book begins twenty years after the Breakdown, a biological catastrophe that turns most of the population into ravenous zombie-like creatures the survivors eventually call “hungries” (which I have to admit is probably my favorite nickname of all the ones given to zombies by movies and television and books). At a remote military base in the north of England, Helen Justineau teaches a class full of young hungries, small children that display all the zombie signifiers but which are also capable of speech and rational thought and, most importantly, learning. They behave like normal children except for the fact that they have to be strapped to chairs with arm and neck restraints, and Justineau and the other adults at the school have to slather themselves with a medicinal astringent that masks their scent. Justineau develops a particularly strong connection with Melanie, the smartest child in the class, and this causes her to butt heads with Dr. Caroline Caldwell, a military scientist in charge of studying this unique group of children in the hope of finding a cure. Also present is Sergeant Eddie Parks, the no-nonsense leader of the guard who essentially views the children as a threat to be carefully monitored.
For the first part of the book we watch these four characters in uneasy orbit around each other. Justineau becomes heavily invested in the well-being of her students, and especially Melanie. Melanie, even though she doesn’t fully understand what she is, loves Justineau for seeing her potential and giving her glimpses (especially through Greek mythology) of the wider world. Caldwell sees the children only as subjects, and has no compunction about, say, removing their brains so she can study them further. And Parks is all about by-the-book containment; he doesn’t hate the children, they’re just part of his job. As a result, Parks and Caldwell see Justineau as unnecessarily (and probably unforgivably) soft-hearted, failing to see the animalistic nature of the children. Justineau, in turn, sees Parks as a violent military puppet who just follows orders and Caldwell as a cruel sadist who delights in torturing (undead) children.
The beauty of all this is just how subtly Carey establishes these inherent conflicts. Even though we see them developing, nothing is telegraphed, nothing is obvious. It wasn’t until the second third of the book, as the characters (along with naive soldier Kieran Gallagher) have been cut off from the base and now face a long march south to the main military complex, that I realized just how clever Carey had been. He took his time to bake in the suspicion these characters have for each other and then put them in a situation – marching over hostile terrain, pursued by human enemies and encountering more hungries – where they have to depend on each other.
So that’s the horror/thriller part. But I also said at the top that it’s a thoughtful rumination of humanity, and it is. Melanie is kind of an ingenious creation: an engaging and preternaturally smart child who also happens to be a ruthless killing machine. She’s constantly at war with herself, fighting against her nature and refusing to harm the humans with whom she’s traveling. This is largely down to how they view her. Justineau, especially, takes her seriously, and even Parks comes to respect what she brings to the group. She has a role. She belongs, and Melanie doesn’t want to jeopardize that because of a little hunger. So she encourages them to keep her in restraints and muzzled, and makes sure they remember to coat their exposed skin in “e-blocker,” an ointment that renders them scentless. But during their journey she starts to learn more about herself, who she is, and what Caldwell ultimately wants to do to her. Justineau and Parks know this, too, and as the external threat increases the farther south they travel, so too does the internal one. This all comes to a head in London, when the characters learn the truth both about the Breakdown and what Melanie truly is.
It’s a fantastic book – an effortless thriller that, yeah, also made me a little weepy at the end. The movie adaptation comes out later this year, and I will fight everyone involved if they mess it up.
* Colson Whitehead’s Zone One also qualifies as a thoughtful take on the zombie genre, but I think I’d argue that the zombies are almost incidental to what he’s doing and therefore Zone One isn’t really a zombie novel. Nit-picking, probably.
Sonic Youth – Murray Street (2002)