BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Stony Mayhall, a zombie, grows up.
PROS: Stony Mayhall is a fascinating character, and the way the plot, characters, and themes all mesh is rare and impressive.
CONS: Stony’s lack of agency may be frustrating to some readers.
BOTTOM LINE: An anti-horror monster novel that turns many genre tropes on their head in a most entertaining way.
Daryl Gregory, even on this very site, describes his third novel as ‘anti-horror.’ In doing so he makes a whole bunch of points that I wanted to make in this review, and that I would’ve seemed very clever making if I’d gotten my act together and written the review before he got his post up. Curse you, Gregory! What’s up with this whole “being better attuned to the publicity cycle of your own novel than I am” thing? Do you know how much harder that makes my job?
So where to begin? Well, let’s start with Stony, the best zombie character ever. In Raising Stony Mayhall we get to follow Stony throughout his interesting and eventful life. Initially he is found in the arms of his dead mother in the middle of a snow storm in Iowa, right after the initial zombie uprising has been put down (as chronicled in the pseudo-documentary film Night of the Living Dead). He is raised by a family in a very rural part of Iowa where Stony is hidden away fairly easily. Although he doesn’t eat or breathe, and doesn’t even appear to have a heart to not be beating, he grows up–gets bigger, and matches the developmental milestones of his best friend. The first act of the story is all about Stony’s childhood, learning and hiding, becoming inquisitive about his own nature, getting into boyish troubles. As he and his adoptive sisters grow older, the trouble they get into also expands, until Stony finds himself in a situation where he must flee from his rural home. He gets picked up by the Living Dead underground movement, and joins up.
In the next movements of the book, we follow Stony through different aspects of the undead community in America. We learn about the factions that divide the remaining zombies: those who never want to turn another human, those who want to turn enough humans to prop up their dwindling numbers (many zombies die by violence or simply allow themselves to fade away and die), and those who want to start another full-scale uprising–the ‘Big Bite.’ We see the inside of a government prison/research facility, and also attempts by the most ambitious Living Dead to direct their own fate.
Throughout it all, scientific inquiry into his own nature is entirely central to Stony’s personality and his existence. This really validates Gregory’s claim of ‘anti-horror.’ Most zombies don’t have either the ability or the screen time to test hypotheses about their existence. And in your typical zombie horror story, the living characters are too busy trying to survive to be able to ask such questions. To have a ‘monstrous’ character this thoughtful and reflective about his fate and circumstance feels very subversive (or perhaps very Old School–remember that in the original book Frankenstein’s monster was quite eloquent about his own story). But another important part of this novel is that Stony is rarely the driver of his own story–he is almost always co-opted into the agendas of others. As such, although I found him an immensely sympathetic character, he is a bit of an anti-hero for this anti-horror novel. It is thematically interesting because a central theme of the story is the power of Will–exactly the element that the traditional zombie is thought to lack, which analysis totally turns the traditional zombie trope on its head–but Stony lacks the power to exercise much effective Will (i.e. to exercise agency) on his own behalf. It’s a fascinating tension. Finally, the end of the novel undermines so many tropes of the horror novel, and even of the action-hero story–I wish I could talk about it in more detail, but shall forebear for fear of spoilers.
Throughout my pretentious posturing, I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that Raising Stony Mayhall is also a lot of fun. Gregory never loses touch with an air of fundamental silliness that permeates all the premises of sf/fantasy/horror. He’s playing with the forms, asking questions that only parodists or satirists usually ask. What would adolescence mean for a zombie? How do normal Joes turned into zombies spend their time? (Mostly smoking and watching TV, it turns out). The story covers 1968 to the present day, so we get the zombie perspective on the 70s, 80s, 90’s and today–a broad and often tongue-in-cheek look at recent history. Plus, Stony is such a great character, surrounded by other interesting characters, that it’s always easy to keep reading and turning the pages. Gregory shares a facility with Joss Whedon for creating characters who, while having larger-than-life lives, feel fundamentally normal–normal except for the bit where they’re all wittier and more entertaining than actually normal people.
Someday I hope to be able to write in more depth and detail about all of Gregory’s novels–all of them do incredibly interesting things with their characters and themes in their final pages, which makes it tricky for the reviewer to say more than: “Go read it! I swear the payoff is totally worth it!” I suspect (and hope) that with the upcoming publication of Gregory’s first collection of short stories (Unpossible and Other Stories, Fall 2011), more thorough critical attention will be heading his way. More than many novelists, Gregory’s work not only withstands but grows richer with re-readings and sustained attention.