Book Review: Raising Stony Mayhall

PrintE-mail Written by Niall Alexander

99.4% of all zombie stories cast the undead as nothing more thoughtful or interesting or involving than cannon fodder.

That's cold, hard science there, and you can't argue with science -- unless, I guess, you've got God in your corner.

As to how the good lord would feel about Stony Mayhall, well... you'd have to ask Him yourself. But science - and this much I can assert with some certainty - would hate him, because just as nature abhors a vacuum, science abhors the inexplicable, and Stony Mayhall is a walking, talking impossibility: a contradiction in terms from the moment Wanda Mayhall and her three daughters find him.

"The infant was wrapped in what looked like bath towels. Only its tiny gray face was visible, its eyes closed, its lips blue. Wanda made a low, sad sound. She worked her hands beneath the child, her hand cradling its neck, and brought it to her chest. It was cold, cold as its mother." (p.5)

In the immediate aftermath of the great outbreak of '68, you'd think most folks would look the other way when presented with the likes of the grim tableau which greets Wanda and the mini-Mayhalls on the drive home one evening: a concrete-coloured babe cradled in the arms of an eviscerated dead (or undead) woman. But the Mayhalls, as we will see, are not most folks. Instead, in full knowledge of his nature - Stony is a zombie baby, and as such a grave enemy of the state - Wanda adopts Stony, and raises him in secret on a decrepit farm in Iowa, because "she couldn't imagine abandoning an infant, even a dead one." (ibid)

Stony doesn't bite in any event. In direct contrast with those hungry hungry zombies Wanda and her lot have seen on the news, Stony seems as harmless as the babe in arms he began as. He is, however, unlike any other infant Wanda has raised: he doesn't eat, or sleep, or ever even cry out.

Nor does Stony stay a baby for very long at all. Within weeks, he appears years old, and after a couple of years, Stony has become a typical adolescent: curious, confused and adventurous. Early on the neighbours across the road took a friendly interest in his well-being, and Stony seems to have aged in direct correlation to the Cho's only child Kwang. But by necessity, other than Kwang and his own adopted family, Stony has no-one; he thinks himself the last zombie alive, and it is a lonely living death he has.

Then... well, that'd be telling. Read Raising Stony Mayhall yourself and see. And really, you must. In 2010, you will I hope recall how Alden Bell set a new bar for all things undead with The Reapers Are The Angels. This year, Daryl Gregory has raised it again.

That being said, beyond the fact that they're both resoundingly original stories set against a scenario long-since exhausted in the form it takes 99.4% of the time - that is to say the same old zombie apocalypse - Raising Stony Mayhall and The Reapers Are The Angels are not particularly comparable narratives. One is spare and elegiac, a haunting thing about the discovery of beauty in an ugly world, whereas the other is a sparkling little charmer which touches on family, religion, rebellion, politics, love, friendship, adolescence, loneliness... and so many other subjects I won't bore you with the rest of the list!

Truly, Daryl Gregory's third novel after Pandemonium and The Devil's Alphabet ranges far and wide. To get a sense of its scope, understand that the plot details I've revealed in this review will take you all of two chapters to catch up on. There are twenty, and two bookends besides. Raising Stony Mayhall begins in the wake of free love and the first outbreak and ends in the current day, taking in the life and death of the last boy zombie. In fact, Gregory establishes as much in all of five pages.

From there, Raising Stony Mayhall grows like graveweed. It wouldn't do to ruin for you just how, because a large part of the pleasure I took from this rollicking, writhing zom-com come heartfelt horror novel was in seeing just how Stony's strange (to say the least) life changes from day to day, and from year to year, but know that his journey - and ours - resembles in its broad strokes that of a certain other... shall we say literary figure? We shall have to, I think, or the game will be up in short order.

In its pace, in any case, Raising Stony Mayhall is more fast zombie than the shambling, single-minded slowpokes George A. Romero birthed unto us, a world ago in time. It whips along not in incremental nips and nibbles but great meaty mouthfuls, skipping decades rather than precious seconds, pausing only to recount those encounters that are fundamental to Stony's character, or pivotal in terms of the larger narrative. It's safe to say Raising Stony Mayhall will not bore you for a single, solitary moment.

On the other hand, perhaps it is the case, what with its pace, that Raising Stony Mayhall gives short shrift to some of its themes. For instance, where Mira Grant would have written a whole trilogy about the particular political philosophies and ideologies Stony encounters in the late 80s, Gregory's novel gives them a couple of chapters then gets back to what matters: character. Saying that, the Big Bite and the diggers do come into play again, later in the day...

If I were to level against this brilliant book a single complaint, it would be that it feels so complete in itself. If only it went on longer, or left the door open for a few more stories about this boy zombie! Alas, its many and various threads are comprehensively gathered together in the last act, and those few elements which remain open-ended point towards a continuation much changed. That is if ever there were to be such a thing -- a highly unlikely notion, no doubt.

But damn it all, I want more!

Raising Stony Mayhall is a magnificent genre novel - among the most memorable of the year, as The Reapers Are The Angels was before it  - which roundly demonstrates that whatever people may say, there's plenty life left in the undead yet. A few readers may find themselves frustrated by an abundance of fits and starts, though I would argue this is in accordance with the memoir-ish mode of Daryl Gregory's third novel. A few more may take exception to what can seem a whistle-stop tour of certain other renowned speculative narratives - among them Stand By Me, Lost Souls, World War Z and The Shawshank Redemption - but because of the unique character at its still-beating heart, Raising Stony Mayhall is in the end, as in the beginning, all its own thing...

...and what a thing it is.

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