Don't Get Bitten

Zombie books with teeth

Hi! Sorry for the lack of email last week! As those of you adjacent to the book industry know, last week was Book Expo/BookCon week, when solidly half of publishing shows up to the H̶e̶l̶l̶m̶o̶u̶t̶h̶ Javits Center for… no apparent reason. (Sorry, but I’m not wrong.) And also my employer is moving offices this week, so everything is a lot all the time!

Anyway! Let’s talk about zombies.

I love zombies. They’re far and away my favorite out of the traditional stable of monsters. When I have stress dreams, they come in two forms: I either dream about ex-boyfriends, or I dream about zombies – or, on one memorable occasion, both. My subconscious really seems to seize on that encroaching dread of an inescapable, ever-advancing, mindless threat (but enough about my exes).

Thankfully we’re mostly out of the Mid-Aughts Zombie Discourse (everybody had that one friend who had big opinions on how best to survive a zombie apocalypse, right? Machete, bicycle, body armor, etc.), but since this is my newsletter, I’m gonna tell you my zombie opinions, and there’s nothing you can do about it:

  • On the question of fast versus slow zombies, I’m less of a partisan than some, though I lean towards slow because they uniquely embody that plodding, inevitable terror that you just don’t get with most other horror devices. Fast zombies are fine, but you could swap in a number of other creatures (werewolves, various cryptids, vampires, chainsaw cannibals, etc) and achieve the same effect. That said, the 28 Days Later franchise is far and away my favorite fast zombie iteration.

  • It’s definitely a personal preference thing, but I generally don’t love narratives told from the perspective of zombies, or, like, reformed zombie stories (aka “I was undead… but I got better!”), with the notable exception of The Girl With All the Gifts. They just miss the point of zombies for me (but YMMV, of course).

  • I unabashedly love the goofy in-world names people come up with for zombies (“walkers,” “beaters,” “shamblers,” “feeders” [that one’s… a different thing], “hungries,” etc) – the conceit, of course, being that nobody in a zombie story has ever heard of “zombies,” in name or concept. Except, of course, Adam Driver.

Now, a few of my favorite zombie books:

The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey | Nightmare Scale: 5/10

I know what I literally just said about reformed zombie stories, but this book is so near and dear to my heart. It presents us with an expansive Big Idea, beautifully drawn characters, and a nicely original plot mechanic (fungal zombies!). In a version of Britain overrun by the infected, small outposts of humanity still exist. On a military base, a group of scientists led by Dr. Caldwell are studying a small group of intelligent zombie children, the next step in the evolution of the fungal infection. One of these children, Melanie, has a genius-level IQ and a particularly close relationship with her teacher, the researcher Miss Justineau. When the base is overrun, a small group escapes, and must make for what they hope is a still-intact safe haven. Out in the wild, Melanie learns what she is, and what she can do, and Dr. Caldwell and Miss Justineau find themselves locked in a battle of wills over Melanie’s fate.

It’s much more character-driven than most zombie novels, or indeed many horror novels – I found myself genuinely caring and fearing for these characters as they learn and grow and fail and die. It’s hard to write a surprising ending in a zombie story – generally speaking, either everybody lives or everybody dies – but this book ends on an image that’s simultaneously beautiful, chilling, and iconic.

I also really liked the movie adaptation, which only got a limited US release, but is absolutely worth adding to your streaming queue.

World War Z by Max Brooks | Nightmare Scale: 8/10

I know, I know – but it really is amazing. The format is absolutely inspired for this type of story, and the clinical tone of the frame narration gives the reader so much more emotional space to experience despair, fear, and awe. Frankly, the sheer breadth and creativity of the book are an inspiration – Brooks clearly spent a great deal of time thinking through the political, social, economic, and environmental implications of the zombie plague.

The stories that have stuck with me, years later, are the Battle of Yonkers, where all the hubris and innovative weaponry of the US military come to naught, and US forces are routed by the undead masses on live TV, and the plot of the crew of an isolated nuclear submarine, which grimly and chillingly introduces the concept that the undead can walk across the sea floor. It’s innovative stuff, full of well-thought-out scares and haunting human stories on both the micro and macro level.

I’d like to take a second to plug the audiobook here, too – it’s performed by an all-star cast, including Alan Alda, Simon Pegg, Mark Hamill, Martin Scorsese, and Common, among many, many others.

The less said about the movie, the better.

Feed by Mira Grant | Nightmare Scale: 6/10

I recommended Into The Drowning Deep a few weeks ago, and here we are with another Mira Grant/Seanan McGuire title. Feed is a techno-dystopian zombie story about America after the zombie apocalypse (the “Rising”), where large swaths of the nation are unsecured and dangerous, and follows Georgia Mason, a digital journalist covering the upcoming presidential campaign. But when the campaign comes under attack several times in quick succession, Georgia starts to suspect that other forces might be at work, and uncovers a nation-wide conspiracy.

A few things set Feed apart from the pack for me: first, McGuire always does right by the science in her fiction. The virology behind the Kellis-Amberlee virus informs and elevates (but never overwhelms) the story. Second, the political intrigue plot layered over this undead landscape is such a good touch – Zack Handlen called it “The West Wing by way of George Romero” – and is just as engrossing as the more horror-heavy segments of the book. And if this all sounds appealing to you, good news - it’s the first book in the now-completed Newsflesh trilogy (though it works equally well as a standalone novel, in my opinion).

Further Reading:

A few more things you might like…

  • Zone One by Colson Whitehead: I recommended this one way back in my first newsletter, but I just wanted to reiterate here that it’s an excellent zombie read.

  • Dread Nation by Justina Ireland: An alt-historical novel set after the Civil War, where BIPOC children are shipped off to boarding schools (modeled on historical Indian residential schools) and trained to work as zombie killers, to be hired out to wealthy white families. [A note: some Native activists have raised concerns about indigenous erasure in this book – read Dr. Reese’s Twitter thread for more on this. I am extremely unqualified to comment, but wanted to give the full picture.]

  • The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan: I haven’t read this one, full disclosure, but I’ve heard only good things. It’s like The Village, but with zombies instead of porcupine… monsters? And without the stupid gimmicky ending.

  • The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell: And this recommendation comes from my friend Liberty, who reads EVERYTHING and is generally wonderful – she says it’s her favorite zombie novel, so of course I’ve got it downloaded and waiting for me on my iPad.

Final Girls:

  • The Good Omens Miniseries is a Love Story, and I Will Never Recover From It []: An essay from Emily Asher-Perrin on how the Good Omens adaptation telegraphs Crowley and Aziraphale’s relationship as a romantic one, which I LOVE, because a) David Tennant could have sexual chemistry with a telephone pole and b) both actors were so clearly playing this as a romance.

  • The Tragic, Forgotten History of Zombies [The Atlantic]: Take a moment or five to read about the sociocultural roots of zombie stories, which grew out of the despair of African slaves in Haiti.

  • I haven’t read Robert McCammon’s The Night Boat, which is about zombie (!) Nazis (!!) on a submarine (!!!), so I can’t really speak to its quality (it’s out of print in physical form but you can still get the ebook), but I DO want to highlight the covers from four of its editions, which are just exceptional: