I’m always trying to keep up with content here at Grab the Lapels. A review per week is my goal, and when the mid-semester grading load gets heavy, I usually switch over to graphic novels by folks who identify as women. I love them; I love graphic novels. Yet, for Halloween I wanted to deliver on a scary tale for you. I watched Night of the Living Dead (1968) and thought about how scared Barbara was, and how grossed out viewers must have been watching those zombies eat what are obviously turkey legs and deli sausage. But zombie stories aren’t about the dead; they’re about human nature and how the living continue their days. Directors and writers like to have rules for zombies, though. George A. Romero once said that zombies cannot run because they are decaying flesh. No one is speedy when they’re rotting! Then again, those zombies in Night of the Living Dead use tools. It’s going to be inconsistent when you’re making it all up.
Leah Rhyne’s novel Zombie Days, Campfire Nights (MuseItUp Publishing, 2012) is the first in the Undead America trilogy. In the first novel, three story lines are followed, though the biggest focus is on Jenna Price. She’s a teenager who believes losing her virginity is what caused the zombie apocalypse (I know—teenagers, right? So dramatic!). There are familiar tropes in this novel: family members trying to reach each other, power-hungry bad guys, sad deaths, and cannibalism. There is a city set up in New Orleans, and all roads lead there, whether the characters want them to or not. The guys inside, including front man Chase Franklin, control the fuel, electricity, and have a zombie vaccine. If you’ve seen or read The Walking Dead, things are, of course, not as peaceful as they seem.
There will be comparisons to The Walking Dead—young lovers separated from each other, parents separated from children. Chase Franklin is like the governor. And the “all roads point to ____” reminded me of Terminus. When Sam, from another story line, is forced to work with a group organized like the military despite his reservations, I was reminded of 28 Days Later. There is always a man with a gun who controls others for their own good (he thinks). Honestly, I expected all these things. Zombies have been done so much that you can’t get around comparisons, and naturally readers are going to make them. If you like zombies, just enjoy the story and look for the differences.
Jenna’s a bit different. She’s in high school, so her thinking and strategies often go to high school lessons, like comparing zombies to TB patients described in AP English class, trying de-stressing techniques learned in health class, and her friend Michael knowing what baseball bat to use because Michael worked in a sporting goods store after school. Jenna’s descriptions are appropriately juvenile, too: “He groaned. He lurched. He zombied.”
When Jenna and Michael see the announcement on TV that Chase Franklin is offering salvation, they respond appropriately for their age:
Michael looked back at me, his eyes wide. “What the fuck…”
“That?” I’d started to giggle. “That was Chase Franklin, of course. Didn’t you hear him?”
We both burst out laughing and Michael threw a pillow at my head. Still laughing, Michael said, “But seriously, what the hell is a Chase Franklin?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “A guy with too much makeup on? An Oompa Loompa [referring to Chase’s orange skin tone due to makeup] who wants to take over the world? If you ask me, he can have it.”
Another difference with Leah Rhyne’s novel is how much emphasis she places on smell. Living people without running water stink. They never advertise that fact in The Walking Dead show. Isn’t Maggie just the sexiest? Zombies smell, too. Sure, zombies ooze black goo, which gets repetitive and is too common a description, but the smells that choke the characters are a reminder that everyone who isn’t alive is, uh, dead. And decaying skin smells. BAD.
One thing that confused me was the way the story seemed to be told from the future. For instance, in the third story line, told by Lola, she is dragged from her apartment to safety by her domineering (and violent) brother. As they leave, she thinks, “It turned out to be the last time I’d ever see [my apartment].” Now, how does she know that unless the story is told from a future perspective? And why include this moment of reflection when it happens so rarely elsewhere in the novel? I wondered if this was a slip in the perspective, and if it wasn’t, there needed to be more reflection. Here’s a a strange comparison: in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm often points out how he worshipped his religious leader, but would one day (see, Malcolm’s in the future looking back) be let down by him, causing a spiritual crisis. He describes his hustler days in past tense, then adds that the only reason he didn’t die a Hustler in Harlem is because Allah was looking out for him (present-day Malcolm is religious; hustler Malcolm was not). Such reflections are sprinkled throughout the autobiography, not just 2-3 times in the whole book.
All in all, I enjoyed Zombie Days, Campfire Nights. It doesn’t bring anything new to the zombie genre, but it is a fun romp through the land of the undead that is sure to satisfy any fan of horror.