I'm not sure why zombie novels are all the rage right now, or why I'm reading so many, but Raising Stony Mayhall
was unexpectedly good. From the description, I was expecting it to be kind of a one-note gimmick based on the thin premise of a "zombie baby," but some positive reviews convinced me to give it a try, and I'm glad I did.
This is a book written by someone who knows the zombie genre and treats it with appropriate respect, while adding something of his own to the zombie mythology. The background is that in 1968 (yes, that date should ring bells if you know your zombie movies), there was a brief zombie outbreak, which was quickly contained after a large number of deaths. Unbeknownst to the public, however, the zombies weren't
all destroyed, because it turns out that zombies are only mindless brain-eating monsters for a few hours after they "turn"; after that, the madness passes and they become their normal selves again... except, dead.
The government has been imprisoning or destroying every zombie they find and keeping their existence secret.
Stony Mayhall was a zombie baby found in the arms of the dead teenage girl who had recently given birth to him. The baby is found by a single mother and her daughters in 1968, just after the outbreak, and instead of turning it in, they keep it. Somehow, this "dead" baby grows up. Stony has to live his life in hiding with his adoptive family, though he does have one childhood friend who knows about him. Other than being undead, he matures mentally like a fairly normal kid, until one horrible night when he is a teenager, events force him to flee and go underground. He discovers that there is an entire secret society of living dead hiding from the authorities. They are divided into factions: some want peaceful coexistence with the living, others want to start a zombie apocalypse.
This book has many strengths. The writing is a cut above; Daryly Gregory does not write this like a pulp horror novel, but more like a literary bildungsroman
. Stony is a compelling, sympathetic character, as he's smart and introspective and while a good person, he's also capable of learning to become a hard-bitten, cunning one. The book raises many issues concerning the morality of the living dead and what defines a human being; to its credit, it never goes for camp and while there are some funny parts, it's not satirical. Gregory has thought out the rules for his zombies very carefully, and everything is internally consistent. He confronts certain physical impossibilities head-on, which become important in the final climax.
My only complaint is that it skips around in time a bit, spending the first half of the book with Stony's upbringing from 1968 into the 1980s, and then jumping around from the early 90s to the present day. So the overall chronology of the book isn't always clear.
Other than that, though, this was an excellent read. I've never read such human zombies, nor a zombie novel with so many touching moments. It's entirely self-contained and there's absolutely no need for a sequel, so I recommend it for anyone even mildly interested in the genre. It wasn't quite blow-my-mind awesome, so I'm giving it 4.5 stars.