This blog post was initially posted at Becky Spratford's Blog RA For All: Horror. Becky Spratford is the author of the upcoming Readers' Advisory Guide to Horror (2nd Edition).
Recently I finished the post-apocalyptic zombie novel, Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion. Wait right there. I know what you are thinking, "another post-apocalyptic zombie novel." But this one is different.
Warm Bodies is Marion's first novel, and it is remarkable for what it is not. It is not a story of how people are surviving after zombies rise up and destroy life as we know it. Rather it is the story of a zombie, R, who cannot remember his life before he was a zombie, but with the help of Julie, his human friend, he is beginning to heal.
That's right, I said heal. The zombie virus appears to be mutating. And R and Julie, and their human-zombie friendship is leading toward a new future for life on earth by book's end.
I don't want to give much more away about the plot, rather, I want to talk about the appeal-- the "why" you would want to read this novel.
The main appeal to this story are the two main characters and their evolving relationship: R (the zombie) and Julie (the young adult human). The entire book is from R's point of view. He is an evolving zombie. He is healing from the virus that made him a man-eating monster. Through his relationship with Julie, he is learning to become human again. As the two grow closer, Jule shares her personal thoughts about how humanity is choosing to live now. I was enthralled by R, how he evolves, and how together with Julie they tried to "change the world."
Since this novel is character centered over action centered, the pace is not super fast, but it is also not slow either. It would call it "steadily building." The pace is appropriate to the thought-provoking nature of the story. As readers, we need a breather from the tense scenes so that we can sit back and process what just happened. This is a novel of ideas, big ideas, about human civilization and life. We experience it all through R and Julie, but we readers need time to think about things for ourselves too.
This novel is also appealing because it is so unexpected. Yes, there have been zombie novels from the zombie's perspective before, but never have I read one that looks at the possibility of the zombies healing and rejoining the world, albeit a totally new world from the one we actually live in. It is not just the overall theme and plot that are unexpected though. R and Julie are interesting and original characters. For someone who reads a lot of zombie books, it was nice to read one that surprised me.
I also want to comment on the setting, which I found extraordinary. Interestingly, in Marion's imagination of a post-apocalyptic world, humans have turned their huge sports stadiums into new cities. The scenes when R goes into the human settlement and describes what he sees were riveting. It was a completely original way to look at how we would organize our lives after everything has collapsed. Despite the overwhelming mass of fiction which has looked at this issue in the past, Marion managed to add something new to the pile. I would suggest this book to readers just for these few chapters alone.
So it must now be asked, is Warm Bodies horror? In the new book, I define horror as, "a story in which the author manipulates the readers' emotions by introducing situations in which unexplainable phenomena and unearthly creatures threaten the protagonists and provoke terror in the reader."
I think the answer to this question may depend on the reader. The main goal of this novel is to explore the zombie apocalypse and posit a solution, a chance for the virus to be cured, and for civilization to go on again. However, the unease is huge here. Since we are in the head of a zombie (who does eat people during the book), we, the readers, are never fully at ease. Even as our sympathy for R grows, we never fully trust him. The book does not work if Marion does not play with our emotions and keep us unsteady, engrossed, and ultimately scared of what is coming next.
I would say that Warm Bodies is part of the "new" type of horror as begun by Joe Hill in Horns. Click here to see where I discuss this issue in detail. So be prepared to be frightened, but in an unexpected way.
Three Words That Describe This Book: thought-provoking, character-centered, unexpected
Where This Book Took Me (summer reading feature): post-apocalyptic America; into the brain of a zombie.
Readalikes: The new book has a great chapter on zombie books. If you haven't been able to tell by now, zombie books are my personal favorite horror stories. So I have a ton of suggestions for sure bet zombie reads listed in there. But specifically here, readers who liked the more thought-provoking style with a character centered (not action oriented) focus should try the following books featuring zombies:
- Dust by Joan Frances Turner
- The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell
- Handling the Undead by John Ajvide Lindqvist
- Pariah by Bob Fingerman
The annotations for these suggestions will all appear in Chapter 7-- Zombies: Following the Walking Dead of the new book.
Of course there is also an entire cottage industry in nonfiction zombie survival guides. It all started with The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead by Max Brooks.
And don't forget the book you should suggest to R to read for himself (now that he is beginning to regain that skill): So Now You're a Zombie: A Handbook for the Newly Undead.