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Book Review: RAISING STONY MAYHALL by Daryl Gregory

April 26 2012

2011
Published by Del Rey
Available in Paperback, Kindle and Audio editions.

In the Stacks: Back from the Dead

In Short: A zombie Messiah for the post-modern age.
Recommended: Hell, yes!

“The stick moves in the wind and believes it is moving itself.”
The Lump

What if zombies weren’t all gurning, ravening beasts in search of brains, and were instead victims of an unknown plague that robs them only temporarily of their humanity? What if, after a few days, the fever passes and they then revert to normal… only, mostly amnesiac and, obviously, dead? How would the government treat them? How would we, as living people, see them? What if they had a Messiah, a zombie baby who grew to adulthood in the arms of a loving family and became the standard bearer for Undead Rights – and what if he could never die for their sins? And what, exactly, is the nature of romantic love? Can you feel it, even if you don’t have a functioning nervous or reproductive system; if you produce no hormones and feel no passion? What about the quick release of death: can the undead, if they live not by physical science but by the psychological, ever truly find peace? Can the mind outwit, outplay and outlast the mere body? Daryl Gregory may not have all of the answers to these questions, but he certainly has some enchanting theories about these and many more, all of which make this book an absolute instant classic, and one I simply cannot recommend highly enough.

We begin in the future, post-Apocalyptic and worrisome, before flashing back to forty-three years earlier, when our tale really begins. We are on a lonely, snowy road in Iowa in 1968; it is not long after the “first outbreak”, in which tens of thousands of people suffered from a walking plague that caused them to try to eat their neighbors. So far, so horror story. But on this night, dead in the snow, a young girl is found, dead, clutching to her a newborn infant who is grey and cold as the grave – but with bright eyes looking out onto the world, alive with curiosity. Nurse and mother of three, Wanda Mayhall, finds the child, a boy, and knowing that he is marked for immediate death should she report his existence the authorities, she takes him home and names him John, since “a boy like that is going to need a normal name.” But before too long he becomes, simply, “Stony.”

Stony is raised alongside his “sisters”: quick-witted, determined Alice; flighty, needy Chelsea (later, Chrystal); and impulsive, earnest Junie. Initially stalled in both growth and development, a chance encounter with the family’s new Korean neighbors, who have a son named Kwang, seems to ignite something latent in this impossible boy’s makeup, and soon he begins to grow. Needing no food and no sleep, and feeling no pain, Stony lives out a happy, if sheltered existence, forbidden to leave the Mayhall farm to go anywhere except their to their neighbors’ house – neighbors who pretend, as do they all, that Stony isn’t a zombie, but instead just a boy with a very unusual skin hue.

All the usual youthful hijinks ensue, including a drunken teenage party that leads to disaster, followed by Stony’s discovery that while he is certainly unique, in that no other zombie (or “LD” = Living Dead) that has ever been heard of grew from infancy, there are still remnants of the outbreak remaining in the world, a scattered but organized confederation of hidden rebels, desperate to hang on to their unlives any way possible, while always eluding the terrifying arm of the law.

By turns domestic drama, political allegory, social commentary, metaphysical philosophy, Messianic manifesto and witty pastiche, Raising Stony Mayhall is a whole new take on zombie lit, as well as being a fascinating, if slightly disjointed, read. Both its story and the implications thereof are far ranging and often ill-assorted, but it is a novel that is quite simply unforgettable – as much, perhaps, for its frustrating bouts of injustice as for its uniqueness – and is written in a style that is at once conversational and incisive. And, moreover, it features a character that I have no hesitation in calling my very favorite zombie ever. Indeed, two and three on the list also hail from this book: the ass-kicking Delia and the suave, magical Mr. Blunt are brilliant creations. As is number four on the list, the limbless, largely voiceless font of wisdom known as The Lump. (Number five, by the way? Zombie Ed from Shaun of the Dead.)

Geek Speak’s Brad Crammond had the nerve – the nerve, I say! – to skim through this and call it “Jodi Picoult with zombies”, and while I take exception to his dismissive tone, I don’t entirely disagree. This novel does have some elements of the tear-jerking saga about it, and I won’t deny there were tears for me in here: many. But every single one of them was worth it, and the novel’s thought-provoking ending has stayed with me in all the months since first I read it, and often comes to me at quiet moments, when I am contemplating the vast complexities of life, the universe and everything. Indeed, if the job of speculative fiction is to make us think, then all I can say is this book is due for a stellar performance review and a hefty Christmas bonus, because think I did… and still am.

Rachel Hyland

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