Faren Miller reviews Daryl Gregory

Raising Stony Mayhall should add to Daryl Gregory’s reputation as a dazzling innovator, despite being set in an alternate history whose starting point comes from the realm of pulpish horror: the zombie invasion in Night of the Living Dead, taken as literal truth in an alternate history that begins in the ’60s. Announcing the book’s combination of tribute and response to the genre, a contemporary prologue invokes the spirit of action/horror movies:

It is traditional to end with the Last Girl, the sole survivor, a young woman in a blood-spattered tank top. She drops her chain saw, her sawed-off shotgun, her crowbar – these details differ – and stumbles out of the ramshackle house and into the light…. Dawn glows on the horizon, and the ghouls have been defeated (for now, for now – all happy endings being temporary). Perhaps she’s found by her fellow survivors and taken to an enclave….

Moving from tradition to specifics, this enclave is Easterly IA (‘‘about sixty miles northwest of the ruins of Des Moines’’), where Ruby has already been living for a year since a ‘‘second outbreak’’ of the zombie plague destroyed her old life on the Mayhall Farm. If not quite a weapon-toting ass-kicker, this 23-year-old ‘‘wears her dark hair short, which on these postapocalyptic mornings can be a real time-saver.’’

She and her aunt Alice (‘‘a middle-aged woman with steely hair pulled into a fierce ponytail’’) share a high-cheekboned beauty and an air of women with Things to Do, though at this point we don’t know what. Since the enclave has been set up to oppose both ‘‘the shambling hordes of last year’’ and a federal government it doesn’t trust in the least, this might give them an additional air of Tea Party femme fatales, but that isn’t really what the author has in mind. On this particular day, Ruby learns how close she has been to a turning point in family history: the place along a country road where her grandmother first encountered the boy named in the title.

Part One backtracks to that crucial moment in 1968, as Wanda Mayhall sees a dark lump in the snow on the roadside. Initially, she takes it for ‘‘a downed cow, or maybe a dog,’’ but it proves to be a cheesily dressed dead teenage girl cradling a tiny baby in a blanket. Despite a pinched gray face and blue lips, the infant isn’t dead – though Wanda doesn’t know it, the most accurate term for his condition would be ‘‘undead.’’ He certainly looks harmless enough, so Wanda decides to bypass bureaucracy and adopt him. The mother of daughters, her husband gone, she’d like to have a boy in the family. Since ‘‘Gray’’ strikes her as something you’d name a pet, she opts for ‘‘Stony.’’

In most households, Stony might not have lasted long, but his new mother is not simply a devout evangelical Midwesterner; she’s a nurse, who manages to figure out both how to feed him and how to keep him safe from outsiders (in a warren of tunnels beneath her house), after word of the zombie disaster on the East Coast leaks out in an issue of Time. What she won’t or can’t do is explain him to himself. As he tells unofficial stepsister Alice, ‘‘She’s just going to tell me the same things she always does – I’m very special and God loves me and please don’t go outside. I need someone to tell me the truth.’’

Zombies aren’t supposed to grow up, yet that’s just what he’s doing. It’s the book’s great innovation, making it a Coming-of-Age tale whose hero could never be mistaken for Holden Caufield. Since Stony never sleeps and has a high IQ, by the age of 10 in some ways he’s more like someone twice that age. Early chapters have him in hiding beneath the Mayhall home, while the rural Midwest goes through its muted version of the late ‘60s and ‘70s. When the second daughter starts to feel some of the era’s renegade spirit, the third gives this snide account: ‘‘She says she’s going with [her boyfriend] out west. She’s changing her name to Amethyst or something, and they’re going to follow the Grateful Dead around.’’ This takes place in 1978, but the Counterculture came late to Iowa.

As more decades pass, taking Stony to the end of the 20th century and beyond, he continues to explore his nature – using the tools of science since he refuses to believe in the supernatural, even when the Living Dead (familiarly dubbed LD) make a resurgence. That outlook is challenged when he leaves a refuge in Los Angeles and arrives at a congress of zombies ‘‘Somewhere in North America’’ in 1988, encountering new aspects of the phenomenon which defy the logic that would lie behind any genuine plague. The chapter begins with his confusion: ‘‘Can a man without a brain have his mind blown? His skull was nothing but a can of dead meat, yet he felt as if his head were about to burst: Commander Calhoun, LD bluegrass, Zombie Jesus … Too much, too much.’’

Part of what bothers him are the things that make LDs seem most human, from their range of political divisions (including Abstainers, Perpetualists, and Big Biters) to a culture which survives and finds ways to change in the safe houses and other havens of an America which is becoming more and more of a police state under siege. The evolving myth or religion of that ‘‘Zombie Jesus’’ could even lead him back to a new generation of the adopted human family where he had once been so dearly loved.

Late in the book, after Stony meets Ruby, he reflects on the ingredients of any standard tale of zombie horror. From the classic ambiance (‘‘Shadows’’, ‘‘Smoke’’), to the shambling figures darkness had hidden, recognition of what they truly are, reaction (‘‘Screaming’’, ‘‘Screaming while firing gun’’), and various escapes, setbacks, ‘‘Etc.’’, he and a changing roster of companions have experienced something like this – from the other side, as the supposed monsters.

It’s not all a case of undeserved prejudice, because some LDs really are monsters who follow their own ghastly agendas. But, in the terms of literary scholars, Daryl Gregory has ‘‘deconstructed’’ the familiar zombie story, providing a self-reflective ‘‘meta’’ take on it. Fortunately for the rest of us, Raising Stony Mayhall is also a fast-paced, exciting narrative laced with both humor and moments of pathos. Its closest approach to the supernatural may come in the coda, an unexpected séance which also manages to tug at the heartstrings with the force of genuine emotion. By now, we’ve earned the right to feel all that it has to offer.

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