Daryl Gregory’s Raising Stony Mayhall is an interesting twist on the zombie apocalypse in a number of ways. It’s a fresh story (though that might not be the right word considering that most of the cast is made up of animated corpses). In traditional zombie stories, the dead are mindless, hungry things. But in Raising Stony Mayhall, once the fever passes, the dead become aware again–bringing in all sorts of narrative potential and ethical complications.
The prologue to the book gives you a clear sign that something catastrophic has happened to the United States. But you don’t get enough information here to know exactly what happened. The prologue plants a seed of dread that grows as the story progresses. The first chapter then takes us back in time, to 1968, when a family of women find a dead girl on the side of the road, carrying what appears to be an equally dead baby. Except that the baby moves. He doesn’t breath or eat, but he moves. And through some miracle, he actually manages to grow.
The book really gets interesting once Stony gets into his teenage years. He’s known for some time that there was an outbreak in 1968, and that if he’s ever found, the authorities will shoot and burn him. But he chaffs at hiding. After a car accident, however, Stony has to leave the nest. He soon falls in with a group of other self-aware zombies. (They prefer LDs, or living dead.) The LDs live in secret, with human volunteers who hide and help them. But they are divided into factions. The Abstainers are strict in preventing any new outbreaks. The Perpetualists want to transform a few people to to keep their own race going. And the Biters, who want to get the humans before the humans get them.
I can’t say much more without getting deep into spoiler territory. As in Gregory’s previous book, The Devil’s Alphabet, this book is a fascinating mediation on what makes us human, especially when we don’t look human and the regular people are frightened of the differences. This book goes farther than The Devil’s Alphabet, because the LDs have the ability to transform any human into one of them and they have the awareness to decide whether or not to do so. Regular zombies are frightening enough. I thought I’d seen the pinnacle of scary zombies when they gave them the ability to run. But when you give them the ability to think, well that’s frankly terrifying, because it means not only will the usual precautions not work but also that killing them means that you’re killing a sentient being.
So, for a different and challenging spin on the zombie story, I highly recommend Daryl Gregory’s Raising Stony Mayhall. Fans of regular zombie stories may be disappointed in the lack of blood and gore, but this book is a rewarding read for all that.