WRANGLESTONE / AUTHOR: DARREN CHARLTON / PUBLISHER: STRIPES PUBLISHING (LITTLE TIGER) / RELEASE DATE: 6TH FEBRUARY
It can sometimes seem that the already huge corpus of zombie literature will continue to bloat indefinitely. The shelves already groan with the dead-weight of ever more stories of animated cadavers munching their way through a fast depleting stock of plucky human survivors. It’s become increasingly difficult for any author to find an original take on the idea of a conflict between the living and the undead unfolding in the wake of a global apocalypse.
Darren Charlton’s sublime and affecting YA debut Wranglestone manages to achieve just that: this is a story of the aftermath of a zombie armageddon shaped by a highly unusual premise and explored from a distinctive perspective. The publisher’s catchline for Wranglestone describes it as “Brokeback Mountain meets The Walking Dead.” That’s not entirely inaccurate, but it’s the kind of characterisation that risks obscuring what’s so clever, nuanced and emotionally intelligent about the way Charlton brings his story alive on the page.
The community of Wranglestone is a clutch of wooden shacks strung across a series of islands in the middle of a lake in the shadow of the Shark Tooth Mountains. Created as a sanctuary by the authorities, life for the residents of Wranglestone is rough-hewn, simple and rustic. From Spring through to Autumn, the settlers cull the clutches of zombies marauding through the surrounding woodlands, and thrive as canoe-borne fisherfolk, hunters and traders. In Winter, the settlement hunkers down, keeping a watchful eye for zombie hordes now able to shuffle across the frozen lake.
Thoughtful and reserved teenager Peter stands out amongst his peers. He seems to lack the killer instinct and ruthless streak that his kinfolk think all true survivors need. Yet Peter’s gentleness is one of the things that his rugged neighbour Cooper finds so attractive; a goodness and decency in his nature now absent from the world around them. Neither young man can quite believe that the other is genuinely interested in them, and their formative romance has to find purchase in a place where existence has become unforgiving and devoid of mercy.
Charlton’s prose is economic and direct, but hugely evocative nonetheless. He’s able to paint an immersive sense of a place that’s both a rural idyll and an inescapable prison. Like all the best zombie fiction, the focus here is on the human protagonists, with Charlton providing just enough description of the relentless decomposing undead to make the threat that they pose feel real.
His characterisation of this assemblage of frontier men and women provides real substance and texture. It’s impossible not to empathise with the stark choices that confront them. Survival for any of them is, of course, anything but guaranteed, and many of the losses inflicted on the group come with an emotional impact that feels palpable.
Both the love affair and the settlers’ dilemma unfold in ways that are far from predictable. Revelations come crashing in in waves, and consequences sweep through the community overwhelming long-held certainties in their wake. It’s all exciting stuff, that moves the story towards a fraught and gripping conclusion. But it’s the sense of identification that Charlton builds so skilfully with his leading men that ultimately makes this such a standout work.
Only the most stone-hearted of readers will fail to be moved by the fate of these young lovers, or be able to resist being caught up in the story of Peter’s cathartic transformation in what is the most harrowing of situations.