BOOK: The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell (2010)


Recently, I read an article somewhere about someone involved in zombie stuff (an author? a scriptwriter? an actor?  God, I’m old and my brain sucks. . .) who said this was, hands-down, his favorite zombie novel of all time.  I Googled it, having never heard of either the title or author, and found numerous other reviews, all raving about the writing, the language, the characters, the atmosphere, the creativity of this book.  So, naturally, I immediately put it on hold at the library, tearing into it (pun intended) the second it arrived.

While I can say I definitely found this novel highly entertaining, and I devoured it (pun intended) in about 24 hours, I’m a little concerned those reviewers were all missing part of their braaaaaaaaains (pun intended).  Not only is the story about as derivative as they come (yawn), but the writing style and the language were kind of clunky, and I had some problems with the main character and elements of story as well.

That main character is Temple, a 15 year-old girl born into the world post-zombie-apocalypse (WWZ, so to speak, happened 10 years before her birth, so we’re 25 years into it by the time the book opens).  What makes that interesting is that it means she has no nostalgia for the way the world once was, giving her a perspective we don’t often see in these kinds of stories.  She had a little brother — at least, she thinks he was her brother — but he’s long gone and she’s been alone for years, drifting from place to place, exploring with no plan or agenda, and dodging and killing “meatskins” as she goes.

Early on in the novel, Temple encounters a small community of survivors and decides to join them, at least for a little while. A little respite from the road.  She gets a nice dinner, some fresh clothes, a bed to sleep in, and she makes a friend right away in an older woman who immediately takes a liking to her.  But that first night, one of the men in the community breaks into her room and tries to assault her.  Temple ends up killing him while fighting him off, and when she tells the woman what happened, the woman packs her up into a car and sends her screeching off into the night, no time to lose.  Because the man had a brother, you see — Moses Todd — and, as Temple herself points out, Southern men mostly “just sit around waiting for somebody to kill their brother so they can get started on some vengeance.”

And thus begins the central story line — Temple on the run from Moses, a man with an obvious conscience who, in fact, takes a strong liking to Temple and even tells her his brother was a worthless human being — yet irrationally seems compelled to kill her anyway (despite saving her life first a number of times). This plot point was one of my biggest problems with the novel, frankly.  It didn’t feel legitimate and it ended up being all too convenient more than once.  Attempts to explain Moses’s behavior are unsatisfying, and more often than not, the conflict felt like a lazy way to keep everybody on the move more than an exploration of whatever emotional or situational complexity might drive a man to kill a girl he didn’t really want to kill, simply because she stabbed his awful brother he didn’t even like in an attempt to protect herself.

As the chase continues on, Temple encounters a few other pockets of survivors, including a family holed up in a mansion and subsisting largely on booze and denial, a mentally challenged man named Maury she kind of adopts, and a group of mutants who have discovered they can shoot themselves up with zombie spinal fluid and . . .  turn themselves into really disgusting subhuman beings (??).  That was another little plot twist I had some issues with — interesting concept, I suppose, but why?  The mutants don’t seem to be benefiting from this behavior in any obvious way — the injections are excruciatingly painful, and then their skin starts to rot and fall off and they’re ugly and smell bad.  Attempts to explain this again fall flat — something to do with religion?  Or family unity?  What?  And just how did they discover this technique in the first place?  Someone had a few too many beers and thought to themselves, “Hey, let’s try shooting ourselves in the back of the skull with zombie spinal fluid!”  Mrrrrrah?

Even more problematic for me, though, were the little things.  Like the fact we’re 25 years out of civilization, yet everybody still has indoor plumbing (complete with running water), electricity, and working gas pumps.  That would be infinitely doable if you were in a small community of survivors and one of you used to be an engineer — but Temple has hot baths and turns on lights everywhere she goes, pretty much.  And she can discard a car and simply pick up another one, finding it still operational even though it may have been sitting around idle for a decade or more.  Just how does that work?

Now add in the fact Temple is uneducated and illiterate, yet talks like a scholar (with a thick and contrived Southern accent, mind you).   “Patina”?  “Convivial”?  What gives?  Again, there’s no attempt to provide an explanation for this — yet there was the perfect opportunity.  There’s a scene in which she thinks back about the man who cared for her as a child, and if the author had had him rattle off a few 25 cent words, I would’ve been satisfied she’d learned them all from him.  But if you’re a loner in the world and you can’t read, you aren’t learning the word “convivial,” I’m sorry.  Not to mention the description a school of fish in a pond as “disco-lit.”  Oh really?  What is this thing you call a “disco”?

Temple’s journey is a journey of redemption, especially after she picks up Maury and flashbacks about her little maybe-brother begin to flit in and out — in that way, it does have some real meat on it (pun intended).  But while I liked the spare writing style generally (authentic grittiness in places, especially since it doesn’t use punctuation), it was definitely clunky and overdone more often than not, and the story is about as been-there-done-that as they come, right down to the mutant family from Wrong Turn showing up there at the end.

It’s a noble attempt to do something different, and again, the main character’s distance from life as the reader knows it was an inspired way to go, but there are just way too many problems with this novel for it to be one I can recommend as the “best zombie novel” ever written.  If that’s really true, then the genre is in desperate need of some new flesh (pun intended).


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2 Responses to “BOOK: The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell (2010)”

  1. RogerBW Says:

    Someone involved in zombie stuff… a necromancer? 🙂

    I confess I’m more interested in the transformational moments of world-shaking changes than in the relatively static aftermath: the points where it’s being decided whether civilisation will survive, more than the new civilisation that’s built later.

    • megwood Says:

      I’m the opposite — wishing there were more aftermath stories about the attempts to rebuild civilization out of nothing. But 25 years after the zombies in this novel, very few people seem to have gotten started on that, which also struck me as weird. There was only one little mini-community (aside from the mutants), even though there were plenty of other people around. People hadn’t come back together — they were still mostly individuals or small family-sized groups. That struck me as odd too, because I don’t think that’s human nature.

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