Is zombie horror a dumb genre? I don't think so. Despite featuring its fair share of exploitative splatterfests and stupid satires, it also contains sophisticated speculative extrapolations and meditations on the beauty of a well-ordered society. Then there's Alden Bell's The Reapers Are the Angels, which reads like a collaboration between Justin Cronin, Cormac McCarthy, and Flannery O'Connor. It makes zombie horror about as highbrow as it can get.
Fifteen-year-old Temple has been living for months in an abandoned lighthouse on one of Florida's many barrier islands, whiling the days away as the living dead stalk the mainland. It's a good gig. She has food, water, shelter, and plenty of time to pursue the big questions of life. Then one day a dead meatskin (slang for zombie) washes ashore. The tide is receding, and Temple knows her island fortress will soon be overrun. So she starts wandering the wasted United States, discovering fragile beauty in its ruined cities and savvy survivors. But there are horrors, too, and not just from the shambling abominations. When a chance encounter goes bad, Temple finds herself pursued by a bear of a man named Moses Todd, a man with a pistol on his hip and vengeance on his mind.
Does The Reapers Are the Angels strike you as an oddly lyrical title? That might be because that's King James' English. It's an allusion to the Parable of the Tares, an interlude in the Gospel of Matthew wherein Jesus explains what will transpire during the apocalypse. That title proves prophetic: Bell has chocked his book full of startlingly good prose and striking meditations on the Almighty. Forget the standard God-is-dead perspective of most post-apocalyptic titles. Temple finds him very much alive in the silver flash of swimming fish, in lost human ingenuity that put machines of glass and steel in the sky, in light canting through a dungeon window. Sure, her insights don't exactly match up with Augustine, Aquinas, or Calvin, seeing as she doesn't leave a lot of room for things like propitiation or special revelation. But it's refreshing to find a genre novel that nods at Gerard Manley Hopkins' most famous lines of poetry. ("The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; / It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil / Crushed.")
However, don't think Reapers belongs in Sunday school: The book more than holds its own against the grittiest fiction. For the life of me, I can't understand how it ended up being marketed to young adults, and I'm not saying that because of the downbeat ending. It's the rest of the content that gives me pause. The action gets downright juicy as Bell turns his formidable pen to describing Temple splitting meatskins' skulls with a gurkha, blinding a monstrous combatant with her bare hands, and suffocating an assailant during an attempted rape. (An aside: The attempted rape is pretty painful to read and not ameliorated at all by the inclusion of the stoutest obscenity in the English language.) I'm not trying to be a prude. In some ways, the rough bits feel bracing after the pious stuff, and you should get the book if you have the least liking for genre fiction or great writing. I just wouldn't pass it on to anyone who's the same age as the protagonist.
(Picture: CC 2009 by Michael Lokner)