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Book Review: Raising Stony Mayhall, by Daryl Gregory

A touching zombie coming-of-age story.


Raising Stony Mayhall

Del Rey, 2011, 448 pages



In 1968, after the first zombie outbreak, Wanda Mayhall and her three young daughters discover the body of a teenage mother during a snowstorm. Wrapped in the woman's arms is a baby - stone-cold, not breathing, and without a pulse. But then his eyes open and look up at Wanda, and he begins to move.The family hides the child - whom they name Stony - rather than turn him over to authorities who would destroy him.

Against all scientific reason, the undead boy begins to grow. For years, his adoptive mother and sisters manage to keep his existence a secret - until one terrifying night when Stony is forced to run, and he learns that he is not the only living dead boy left in the world.




The only thing I didn't like about this book is the title. Raising Stony Mayhall is a bit of a misnomer. Only the first half of the book is about raising Stony Mayhall, and that's preceded by a prologue that frames it in the past, so we already know as we read about Stony's childhood that the zombie apocalypse is coming.

The title seems to be intended to evoke a more literary, coming-of-age story, which honest to gosh, it really is, but it's a bit of sleight of hand to lure readers who might not otherwise be tempted by a zombie story (especially given how many zombie stories are being published nowadays). Me, I think they should have gone ahead and targeted the zombie fans... who might have felt bait-and-switched when they found they're actually reading a coming-of-age story about family and sacrifice and what it means to be human and the power of love, except they won't because there is still a zombie apocalypse to entertain them.

Raising Stony Mayhall is an alternate history novel. The first point of deviation is in 1968, when it turns out that George Romero's Night of the Living Dead was actually a documentary. The living dead really did rise from their graves and go on a rampage, eating and/or infecting any living humans they encountered. This near-apocalypse was put down by the police and military, with many casualties, but since then, no zombies have been seen.

Lies, all lies.

It turns out that zombies are only mindless rage-beasts with a craving for human flesh in the first few hours after they're infected. If they survive that, then the fever passes and their minds return to normal. They become fully functional human beingszombies. Some of them lose their pre-zombie memories, but most don't, and they no longer have to eat anything. They still have a hankering to bite people, but it's an easily controlled impulse.

The government has been ruthlessly hunting down all surviving zombies and imprisoning them in secret detention facilities, to be studied and destroyed. Any "breathers" who help the living dead (or LDs as they are called - they hate the term "zombie") likewise disappear into secret detention facilities.

None of this is known to Stony Mayhall when the book begins, though. He was found as a baby in 1968 - a zombie baby, in the arms of his dead mother. Taken in by Wanda Mayhall, he grew up with three sisters, their secret brother, whom they protected fiercely even while experiencing normal sibling squabbles.

(How does a zombie baby "grow up"? This is a mystery to Stony as well as his family, who are aware that it should be impossible. It's a question that is answered, kind of, in the last part of the book.)

Stony does have a friend in the Chos, the only people outside his family who know about him. The Chos are the Mayhalls' neighbors, and Kwang Cho is Stony's best friend growing up.

The entire first half of the book, despite having very little zombie action, is just amazingly well done. Stony is living dead, with all the advantages and disadvantages that implies. He doesn't eat, sleep, or breath. He also doesn't have any sexual feelings, which he slowly realizes as part of the gulf growing between him and Kwang. Kwang is a normal kid, and while as children they thought it was utterly cool when Kwang accidentally shot Stony in the heart with an arrow and he didn't die (his sister was pissed at having to repair another hole in his body), Kwang is gradually drawn to the life Stony can never experience: school, friends, girls.

Stony does have feelings, though. He loves his family. He gets immature and jealous and resentful. He mimics his sisters (sometimes deliberately) in trying to rebel against his mother's protective hiding of him. The entire time, as we see the world from Stony's POV, we are aware that he is a human being, and yet he is missing a lot of essential human qualities, and he knows he's missing them, and so he tries to imitate them.

He also learns that he might not be alone when he discovers a series of pulp fiction novels about a zombie detective: "Jack Gore: a hard-bitten cop bitten hard!"

He eats these books up (figuratively) and dreams of meeting others of his kind. The metaphors available here are pretty obvious: you can substitute one of your choosing. The point is, Gregory doesn't hit you over the head, but Stony's poignant, mostly happy but isolated childhood tells the story of many kids in comparable circumstances, and the way he is raised, by a loving family that has to keep this big secret, is the foundation of his character, which carries him through the rest of the book.

The story of Stony's childhood ends with an eventful night in which Kwang proves that he really is still Stony's friend, Stony proves that he really is his adoptive sisters' brother, and nothing is ever the same for any of them.

Small tangential rant



(Side note: Okay, there was one other thing I didn't like about this book. Stony refers to Hangul "pictograms," specifically one that means "friend." No. First of all, the author is thinking of Chinese, and Chinese characters are not pictograms. Second, Korean writing does use some Chinese characters (somewhat like kanji in Japanese, but less frequent), but Hangul is an alphabet (technically, a syllabary); Hangul characters represent sounds, not words or ideas. Also, "Kwang" is really only half of a Korean given name, though Kwang could have used a shortened version of his name as many Korean-Americans do. Still, those tiny details made me think Daryl Gregory spent a lot more time working out his zombie biology than he did Googling basic facts about Korean. And yes, I'm a linguistics and etymology nerd so I notice things like this.)

/rant



The second half of the book is an entirely different story. Stony is either on the run, a fugitive from the "Diggers," government agents dedicated to capturing or destroying all zombies, or in prison. There is a very long span of years in which he is imprisoned in a secret government facility. Even this part is both horrifying and touching, a sort of zombie Shawshank Redemption.

There are many LDs still on the loose, and they have formed factions. There are the Abstainers, who refuse to bite humans and create more LDs. There are the Perpetualists, who want to create just a few more LDs, now and then, to keep their kind from going extinct. And there are the Big Biters, who want to stage the "Big Bite" in which LDs around the world will go on a biting rampage, creating more LDs who will then go on a biting rampage, thus spreading the infection and triggering an unstoppable zombie apocalypse.

The fact that this is a very real possibility - that while the government's actions are brutal and inhumane from one perspective, from another they are trying to contain a very real threat - is one of the things that makes this a pretty intelligent novel. A single LD biting a single person really is capable of causing a rapid zombie pandemic, which makes every single free LD a walking weapon of mass destruction.

So Stony has to wrestle with many matters of conscience, allegiance, and the various plans that other LDs have for coexisting. Along the way, he also acquires a deep understanding of his undead nature, allowing him to do things that make him a legend among LDs. But in the end, it's family that matters.



Verdict: Even if you are tired of zombies, give this book a chance. It's well written, it's poignant, it's the most unexpectedly touching book you will ever read that ends with a zombie apocalypse. (That's not a spoiler since it's mentioned in the prologue.) Stony Mayhall is a surprisingly effective living dead protagonist. While it's not quite perfect, Raising Stony Mayhall has got a lot more brains than your average zombie novel.




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Tags: books, daryl gregory, reviews, science fiction
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