If you want to tune out the latest Israeli siege on Gaza, yet you can’t quite justify totally ignoring the emotional pain. If you kind of want to get emo, but don’t want to change your fashion, read “The Reapers are the Angels” by Alden Bell. Bell’s novel is set in an alternate America, one in which Zombies have taken over and there is a smattering of humans living as traveling vagabonds or hunkered down in buildings that are fortified against the ubiquitous zombie presence.
In a country where the dead outnumber the living, a teenager named Temple travels alone. She enjoys the sublime beauty of a sunset yet in the next paragraph she picks up a rock and bashes in the skull of a zombie. She has a steady gaze and a steady hand. She has morals, and a code that she lives by, even if the heart of her code is survival, she also knows how to love. Temple knows when to lie about her name and when to be charitable. She is the classic “Gambler” Kenny Rogers style: this woman knows ‘when to hold em’ and certainly knows ‘when to fold em, when to walk away, and when to run.’
The novel is a refreshingly thoughtful and sensitive one, that happens to be set in the zombie genre. I treasure George A. Romero’s seminal zombie film trilogy, with their timely social critiques aimed at racism, consumerism, and the military — the zombie genre, if it is going to survive off of anything other than fresh living brains, needs to be reconfigured.
Temple, the novel’s protagonist, is on a quest of sorts, but the main problem that plagues her is one of meaning and direction. Survival is okay, but why, how, and with what kind of ethics? Temple and the man who is hunting her both wonder what she will do after one of them kills the other. Where to go? How to determine your direction when there is no possibility of working for a living in the conventional sense. Family is gone. All of the world is overrun by the dead, who are lethal, yet quite predictable and almost banal for Temple who was born and raised after their ascendance. Unfortunately, the living are more terrible and just as dangerous as the dead. Although aimless, she connects to beauty when she sees it. On the first page of the novel it is noted:
“They came and danced around her ankles, and she could feel their little electric fish bodies, and it was like she was standing under the moon and in the moon at the same time. And that was something she hadn’t seen before. A decade and a half, thereabouts, roaming the planet earth, and she’s never seen that before.”
Her enjoyment of beauty, of God, of quiet, of the sun and moon, of long long roads, of Niagara falls which she has never seen, beckons readers to see the world with new eyes. With awe and yearning, Alden’s novel sweeps you into a world where you can’t google electric fish or Niagara falls, but have to wait and hope that you might see something that will take your breath away.