Raising Stony Mayhall
Like my imaginary friend Jenny, who I met on our trip to Louisiana, I don’t usually read zombie books. I used to never read any book (or watch any movie or TV show) that I thought might be scary, but then I started a blog with the word “necromancy” in the title and got slightly obsessed with the TV show Supernatural. So I’ve sampled a bit at the edges of the horror genre in the last eight years, and found I like a few zombie books like World War Z and Generation Dead. Then Jenny introduced me to Daryl Gregory’s Raising Stony Mayhall, which I read straight through in a couple of hours one summer afternoon because the focus of the story keeps changing unexpectedly–I found the switching-it-up compelling.
The book has four parts. First, there’s the story of how Stony is discovered, just a few hours old, and grows up with a family in Iowa. Second, we see him on the run from the “breathers,” as live people are called by the “LD” community. They make jokes about what “LD” stands for, but the most inclusive version is “living dead.” In the third section, the shortest one, Stony has been captured and taken to a secret prison, where he is experimented on and abused. The fourth section shows what happens after Stony escapes from prison and tries to direct and protect his LD followers and his living family members.
It’s not until the fourth part of the book that we get a quick version of the zombie apocalypse story: “You could tell this story yourself. You know the ingredients” and then 16 tropes for a story about zombies are listed.
One of the interesting things about the story is the history of how Stony and those who love him try to discover the secret of his “life.” At first it seems to be some sort of empathy—as a newborn, he begins growing when he meets a young boy named Kwang: “with each visit, Stony grew. Within a few days he was walking. The next week he was talking. By the end of the summer the two boys were exactly the same height and weight, and they were hardly ever out of each other’s sight.”
While his sisters are convinced he’s human, Stony himself wonders if he has a soul. Readers are rooting for Stony, though, because why would we blame a person for being born the way he is? When Stony has run from people who would kill him just for the way he looks, he finds a deer dying at the side of a highway and he sits with it until it dies and wonders if he really is evil: “Maybe somewhere inside him there was a monstrous beast waiting to devour living flesh, but if it was there, it wasn’t coming out tonight. As a creature of evil, he was a washout. As a human being he wasn’t so hot, either. He should at least try to strangle the animal to put it out of its misery—that was the humane thing to do—but he didn’t think he could follow through on that, either.”
When he is finally forced to run, Stony meets different factions among the LDs, including the most passive, the “graveborn,” who came back to life after a 2-day fever following a 1968 outbreak and have been hiding ever since. Most of the others he classifies according to how they feel about the bite that spreads the fever: Abstainers, who think it’s a sin, Perpetualists, who believe some biting is necessary to maintain the LD population, and Big Biters, who want an orchestrated attack. There are also many Lumpists, who have a sort of fatalistic approach to non-living, and a group called the Ontological Studies Working Group. Eventually Stony meets a rich LD who owns a tropical island and talks about building rockets to send LDs out to colonize alien worlds.
There’s lots of dark humor in this section, because the LDs are being hunted and it’s hard for them to find a way to continue to exist without becoming the monsters that living humans imagine them to be. Stony sees a “green Sinclair brontosaurus” at one point, and thinks that he “liked the corporate mascot because it was one of the few that unashamedly reminded you of exactly what had died to make your life easier. Like the El Pollo Loco chicken crazy with desire to become your lunch, or Charlie the Tuna desperate to be canned, the dinosaur was a corpse with a job. One of the undead of the ad world.”
The leader of the “Big Biters” says war is the answer because “we’ve been fighting a war of attrition, getting picked off one by one” and because “those breathers want it as bad as us. They’re yearning for the end of the world. Why do you think they make so many movies about us? It’s their fucking fantasy. Every one of them wants civilization to burn, for all the rules to go up in smoke. They want the monsters to attack. You know why? Because then they’ll have the excuse to do what they’ve always wanted to do—shoot people in the head. No laws, no morality. They’ll have to do it. It’ll be fucking noble. Every one of them is picturing themselves as the last man standing, a bloodstained samurai with an AK-47.”
After a heroic escape from prison, Stony has what one of his friends calls “a mid-death crisis,” but he eventually manages to become the leader (even savior) that the many people who love him and believe in him have been hoping for. Don’t think that I’m promising a happy ending, though. This is a book that will keep surprising you.