How M. R. Carey reinvented the zombie

With zombie action movies, video games, and books in their hundreds available to readers and consumers today, there is a preconceived understanding of what a zombie story means thanks to popular culture. To subvert that understanding and reinvent “the zombie” is therefore a rare feat. With The Girl With All The Gifts, M. R. Carey did just that.

We follow a group of survivors in a mysterious military base. There are soldiers, scientists and, curiously, teachers. One inhabitant of the base is Melanie, a young girl with genius-level intellect. The zombie apocalypse backdrop to this novel is quietly peripheral to the main story in a sharply compelling way. The blockbuster part of this story has happened; it isn’t relevant. Carey instead allows readers to imagine the collapse of society, dubbed “The Breakdown,” themselves, which sharpens the reader’s experience of this world. Instead, we focus on stage two of this apocalypse and enter this zombie story in a way that immediately sets our expectations on their head.

Children sat in a class. Repeating phrases and sums to their teacher, Ms. Justineau. It seems normal. We all know what a school looks like. But the kids are shackled to their desks, and some of them have clamps over their faces. We soon learn that the girl, along with all the other children, is a “hungry” (this world’s Z word). Despite her intelligence and human appearance, though, at the scent of human flesh she is driven into a monstrous hunger frenzy.

Carey explores these second-generation zombies with a joyful curiosity. We usually see zombies as (un)dead, rotting, unintelligent, flesh-eating killers. What if, Carey asks, they could become something more? And how?

The contagion is a mutation of the real-life fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis – otherwise known as the zombie ant fungus, so the origins of this zombie virus are enjoyably plausible. Once featured in a David Attenborough series, alluded to in the book, the fungus kills ants and hijacks their bodies to move around at its command. In the novel, this virus has mutated to target humans. Constantly evolving and trying to reproduce, the virus creates a second generation of zombies. This entire idea makes the very idea of survival itself terrifying. Without giving any more away, this novel is a must read for zombie lovers.

By Rory McNeill.