Post-apocalyptica has been growing steadily in popularity since the late 1950s (though of course its history is much older), though no previous decade has seen as many apocalyptic books as ours. Alden Bell’s 2010 The Reapers Are the Angels came right in the middle of the current boom, in a year when 11 other apocalypses (by my current count, which is likely low) were published. The Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins had been selling steadily since book one came out in 1995, with several titles reaching number one on the New York Times Bestseller List, and a new book (or two) coming out almost every year. In 2004 S.M. Stirling published Dies the Fire, the first book in the Emberverse series that has similarly swelled post-apocalyptic reading lists and continues to march on with two books coming out this year and no end in sight.
With such obvious interest in the subject, publishers jumped onto the apocalypse bandwagon one after another, bringing more and more end times scenarios onto the market. It has been both a boon and a curse for genre lovers: there is a hell of a lot of chaff hiding the sweet, sweet wheat. At this point in my apocalyptic reading project, I approach each new title with trepidation. Will it be another carbon copy of the last 200 years of end times storytelling? Exactly how painful are the next four hours of my life going to be? Dare I hope that this will be one of the unique snowflakes?
Admittedly, The Reapers‘ theatrical cover tagline “Dying is easy—It’s living that’s hard,” didn’t do it any favors. Neither did the zombies, whose presence in the book would have kept me away if 1. They had been more prominently mentioned on the back cover or 2. It had not be on sale at the local used bookstore for EUR2,50. Generally, I prefer my zombies on-screen. But for 2,50, I was willing to try.
Temple is a 15-year-old girl who has survived the zombie apocalypse. We join her story on an island, where she is living in a lighthouse and thinking about God and the way that the world is full of miraculous beauty and wonder even as it is filled with the most unspeakable horror. It is a theme the novel examines thoroughly and that Bell manages to mirror in beautiful prose, stunning even as it describes scenes of gore and horror.
Pre-quote note: in The Reapers‘ world, zombies are called meatskins or slugs. Fun fact: meat skin is some seriously old-school slang for hymen, something I know because of the song Sal Had a Meat Skin (about losing your virginity), and something that I would bet large sums of money Alden Bell did not know when he chose it for his zombie nickname. Still, meatskin and slug are my two favorite zombie terms yet. I now return you to the quote with which I hope to convince you of how well Bell can do horror in beautiful prose:
“And, too, a carnival of death, a grassy park near the city centre, a merry-go-round that turns unceasing hour by hour, its old-time calliope breathing out dented and rusty notes while the slugs pull their own arms out of the sockets trying to climb aboard the moving platform, some disembodied limbs dragging in the dirt around and around, the hand still gripping the metal pole—and the ones who succeed and climb aboard, mounting to the top of the wooden horses, joining with the endless motion of the machine, dazed to imbecility by gut memories of speed and human ingenuity.” (83)
Though the zombies provide a sprinkling of the novel’s horror, they are portrayed as innocent animals, following their instinctual drives, doing what their bodies tell them. It is the people who are the real monsters, and Temple battles with her fear that she is a bad person because in order to survive a zombie apocalypse, you have to do some bad things. Temple’s voice throughout the novel is distinctive, yet realistic, simple though often beautiful and wise. I loved her voice.
Take this passage from a memory Temple has about showing her little brother a large statue in a ruined city post-zombie plague (or whatever-the-fuck caused them, Bell never bothers to explain). He has just asked her who built the incredible, enormous metal statue:
“I don’t know, she said. It makes people feel good to build something big. Makes people feel like they’re making progress, I reckon.
Progress towards what?
It don’t matter. Up higher or down further. As long as you’re moving, it don’t matter much where you’re goin or what’s chasin you. That’s why they call it progress. It keeps goin of its own accord.”
By the end of The Reapers I was deeply attached to this complicated, intelligent, road-savy woman, to the way she spoke, and to the style Alden Bell had attached to her story. It so easily could have been Just Another Road Trip at the Zombie Apocalypse. But it turned out to be so much more. A philosophical discussion of progress, of adaptation and context, about living your life now with no excuses, and about trying to distinguish right from wrong. The Reapers Are the Angels turned out to be a deeply moving story and as both the prose and the main narrative drives came to a climax on the final pages, I found myself with goosebumps on my arms.
I don’t think a book has ever done that to me before.
The Reapers includes a number of women (I didn’t count, though I think there were slightly more men), it passes the Bechdel, and it is positive about a female teen’s sexual desire. Temple likes sex, and when she wants it she seeks it out with partners she finds attractive. When men try to rape her or cajole her into sex, she clearly says no, though sometimes she has to say it with a fist or the large knife she carries around to kill zombies and assholes. We can assume that there is rape happening in this world by the frequency at which men attempt to rape Temple, but it isn’t a world filled only with rapists, and we have the satisfaction of seeing a woman kick ass instead of being forced into sexual acts, unlike some other fictional worlds getting a lot of media attention right now.
Still, The Reapers wasn’t without its problems. The only black character in the book is a butler who appears briefly to let Temple into an estate, and I was troubled by the portrayal of Maury, a large, silent, mentally handicapped man who travels with Temple as she tries to find his relatives. Through most of the book she only refers to him as “dummy,” which, affectionate though it eventually becomes, grated on my sense of right and wrong, as well as on my sense of what this character would call right and wrong. Calling an innocent and kind man with a handicap dummy for 200 pages? Not right. Not in my world and doubtfully, in hers. The sweet, innocent, silent, mentally handicapped man is a pretty reductive trope. As Maury does not speak, he remains two dimensional, an object in need of care that is passed from caretaker to caretaker without sign of trauma or distress. His size and description were strongly reminiscent of Lennie in Of Mice and Men, a comparison which fits well with the themes of Temple’s story arc, but adds nothing to Maury’s character.
Bell’s apocalyptic world-building was also weak. Though The Reapers takes place 25 years post-zombie outbreak, though most cities are ruins and there are far fewer healthy people, electricity and water still run without a hitch everywhere Temple shows up. Ummm, what? Not a chance in hell that that scale of collapse would leave the majority with running water and electricity in any old building.
Then there is the gasoline she tanks for her cross country road trip with Maury. Pull into the abandoned gas station, fill up, pull out. Ummm… Gasoline eventually goes stale, and as there does not appear to be an oil industry or any fucking industy at all, I’d generously guess that Reapers‘ gas stations haven’t gotten new stock for between 10 and 20 years. The American Petroleum Institute recommends tossing the stuff after just two years of storage, though even that can be a stretch. So there is no way in hell that anybody has access to fresh gas at this point.
Wherein Alden Bell Is Revealed to Be Joshua Gaylord.
Here’s something I don’t understand. I was under the impression pseudonyms were good for privacy. But if you immediately tell everyone, oh, well, my real name isn’t Alden Bell, my name is Joshua Gaylord, as Bell does on his website, then what is the point of publishing under a pseudonym in the first place? Is it just a marketing ploy, a way to keep the work you do in separate genres apart?
Wherein I get to the Point
There are very few novels that are perfect, and most of my reading involves some “suspension of the problematic” (a phrase coined, I believe, by Anne Theriault) In this case, however, the gorgeous writing has won my affection even in the face of such poor world building. Looking past its problems, I see a deeply moving book with beautiful prose and much wisdom. Seven out of nine packs of peanut butter crackers.
Where I got it: Oxfam used book store
Where you can get it: Amazon UK, Amazon US, Book Depository