I HATE zombies. And body horror creeps me out. And child-in-danger stories are usually annoying and manipulative. So I can’t believe I am actually recommending a child-in-danger zombie novel that is chock-full of disturbing body horror… but this one is really good.

It opens with a heartbreakingly charming narration by Melanie, a bright little girl who adores her teacher, who secretly slips her a book of Greek myths. Melanie loves the story of Pandora, the girl with all the gifts. But she doesn’t understand why her beloved teacher often seems so sad, or why she and the other kids have to be tied to chairs to attend school. Why is almost immediately clear to readers – it’s after the zombie apocalypse, and she’s the rare intelligent zombie that scientists are experimenting on in the hope of finding a vaccine or cure – but there are many other mysteries that are less obvious.

The first section and denouement of the novel are the best parts; the first because of Melanie’s narration, the last because it’s an absolutely perfect climax, satisfying on the all levels. In between is a more standard but well-done zombie novel. In particular, the mechanism of the zombie apocalypse is pleasingly clever and well-worked out. But the beginning and the end really make the book.

Right from the start, Melanie is explicitly compared to Pandora, so it's clear that in some way, she will unleash horrors upon humanity, but also hope. And all through the book, she does, in ways that change as she changes, learning more about the world and herself. It's beautifully done.

I don’t often like horror. When I do enjoy something marketed as horror, it’s often despite rather than because of the genre. For instance, I love the author’s voice (Stephen King) or prose style (Tanith Lee) or psychological insight (Melanie Tem) enough to get me past that horror is a genre of emotional atmosphere, and the specific emotions of horror – fear, dread, horror, disgust – aren’t ones I usually enjoy.

But there’s another emotional state that horror can evoke, which is something akin to Aristotle’s idea of catharsis. It’s horror as transcendence, where terror and horror are also beautiful and awe-inspiring. It’s probably not coincidental that the authors I mentioned above hit that mark for me – not always, and not in everything they write, but sometimes. C. L. Moore’s stories “Black God’s Kiss” and “Shambleau” are like that, too: creepy and disturbing, but also seductive and full of sense of wonder.

The Girl With All the Gifts hits that mark, off and on, until coming to a conclusion that’s viscerally horrifying but also beautiful and transcendent. The characters other than Melanie are sketched in, plausible types rather than three-dimensional characters, and a late reveal about the teacher’s past is reductionist rather than revelatory. But the beginning is brilliant, the middle is solid, and the ending is haunting in the very best way.

The Girl With All the Gifts
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