The Reapers Are the Angels: A Novel is a new book on the zombie apocalypse horizon. Like Carrie Ryan’s series, it’s based some years after the undead have eaten most of the rest of humanity. In The Reapers, it’s twenty-years after. There are survivors. One of them is a young woman who calls herself Temple who has never known a world without “meatskins”. She’s a killer and she’s good at it-so good she can take on several grown men at once (kind of like Buffy on steriods) and is a survivor of the first order. She also lives by a code. You know, like the Code of the West, or a Code Among Thieves (which doesn’t exist in the real world, far as I know).
I read this book about two weeks ago, and I’ve had to mull over it in order to understand why I’ve grown to dislike it so much. It’s well-written. Some of the descriptions in it are wonderful, and Joshua Gaylord, writing as Alden Bell, does have style. But does this postapocalypse adventure tale of redemption hit the targets it shoots for? It’s Southern Gothic. Completely. If he was aiming at writing the first Southern Gothic postapocalyptic tale, he sure did that, and nailed the florid style of decomposed gentility and civilization. It’s actually a pretty good idea. Because everything decomposes (get it? zombies? dead people? decomposing along with civilization and manners and all that? okay, anvil time over).
Temple is fifteen or sixteen. She’s not exactly sure. She was rescued when she was an infant and put into an orphanage with other children who survived their parents being wiped out. She doesn’t know her real name, but has one the nuns gave her when she arrived. When she was seven or so, the orphanage was destroyed, and she and a little boy she thought of as her brother escaped, and survived. Eventually they were taken in by an old man who taught her all sorts of survival skills, like driving a car (! I’ll get to that later), using a gun, how to find food, all that sort of good knowledge. He dies, she and her little adopted brother continue on. When we meet Temple she’s alone on an isthmus in Florida, living in a light house (similiar to Ryan’s second book). Her little brother is not around. But a huge load of guilt weighs her down. A “meatskin” washes up on the shore, and Temple takes that as the signal to go touring the country.
The story is episodic. Temple rescues up a mentally challenged man, calls him dummy until she learns his real name (she can’t read the note he has, and he’s mute and way less cognizant than Lenny in Of Mice & Men) and the address in Texas that he came from. Maury is continually described as having expressionless ceramic plate eyes. It sounds arty, but it’s annoying. He rarely is described any other way, and has no agency of his own whatsoever. Somehow his now-dead grandmother helped him survive. How, I don’t know, if he was that insensate and lifeless to begin with. He has no charm or verve. He does what he’s told and nothing more. He’s not permitted to have a personality in the narrative. He’s a lump. And I disliked that more than I can say.
As the story continues, Temple falls in with a conclave of people who have survived and have a village in the remains of a mall. She’s warned not to visit the single men’s dorm, but, she grows bored since all the women folk want to do is dress her up in female girly clothing. She plays some poker. A creepy man who eyed her when they found her tries raping her in her assigned room. That doesn’t go well. He ends up dead, even though he appears to have the advantage. The one woman we meet in this enclave helps her escape, but there’s a big problem; the man she murdered for trying to rape her has a brother, and he’s gunning for her even though he knew his brother was a no-good-for-nuthin’ creep.
What threw me was, after killing her attempted rapist, Temple ends up that night with a group of male hunters who have alcohol, assure her that if she drinks they won’t do nothing to her, and she trusts them. What?
I don’t think Joshua Gaylord understand much about rape, or women. The next time Temple runs into a woman she is once again dressed up in finery and treated as a girl-not the killing machine wanderer she sees herself as. That’s all the other women in this disintegrated, meatskinned filled South do-try to girlify Temple.
Or, as in the case of a family of outrageous hillbillies – yes, hillbillies – try kill her when she mouths off to the Big Mama of the tribe. It’s not enough that the mentally challenged are perceived as barely alive meatskins themselves here, we end up walking through a situation that’s an awful lot like “The Hills Have Eyes” – you know, with crazy-ass hill people fulfilling their stereotypical role as nutbags. Additionally, when Mama hillbilly meets Maury, she says of him, “There’s somethin special about this one. He’s a bright light in the firmament. Blank as any child of God lookin for a home. You look you can see that pureness in his eyes, sure as anything.” Too bad Mama’s a stereotypical psycho.
I could go on about Temple and her quest, but there’s also another secondary/main character-Moses Todd, the man who’s hunting Temple down for protecting herself against his nasty brother. He’s old enough to have lived through the initial apocalypse and can remember it. And he’s obsessed with killing Temple. He ends up becoming a bizarre type of father-figure to her at different points in the story. He’s civil to her. But he’s going to kill her to pay her back. And, she accepts that through that strange code of honor that survivors of a certain type seem to know instinctively. It’s a creepy and reminscent of an abusive relationship. It doesn’t matter that she’s only fifteen and a young girl. Damn it, she’s going to be punished. The penultimate meeting between them doesn’t end up the way you’d think.
It’s a case of who’s left standing, and it’s not who you think or how. It’s a good thing I was lying down when I read the ending because otherwise I might have fallen to the floor in a paroxysm of I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS JUST HAPPENED and not in a good way. SPOILERS coming-because I know you’re going to ask, why was I so ticked off about the ending?
The ending comes with a big one-on-one physical fight between Temple and Moses. She runs out of the house they’re in, and she’s shot by a hillbilly girl Moses took with him earlier in the story during an escape. He kills the hillbilly girl, and here’s where it gets weird for me. All through the book, we’ve been seeing the world through Temple’s eyes, with her viewpoint. But now, the voice shifts to Moses’ point of view, and focuses on HIS anguish that this girl, like his daughter, is now dead! What? He buries Temple, describes her as being so small-I thought he was describing a five year old in a grave, and not the fifteen year old I’d been following for the past 200 + pages. It becomes all about him. His feelings. His sorrow. His utterly bizarre feelings about this girl who he was going to murder anyway! There’s a final monologue with Moses telling Maury (who can’t understand) that about fifteen years ago he lost his wife and baby girl. He was going to meet them, but their wagon train never arrived. And gee, if his baby had lived, she’d be around Temple’s age! Of course, it’s inferred that Temple actually is his daughter. And he’d tried killing her. Oh, if only he knew.
Coming at The Reapers Are The Angels another way–couldn’t Gaylord have done some basic research? There’s Life After People (History Channel), the Aftermath: Population Zero series–lots of pretty firm stuff out there about how the built up world of humans disintegrates without upkeep. Power is one of the first things to go. Gasoline doesn’t last past 6 months. Cars and their tires don’t work after 25 years of sitting on roads. Electric shavers aren’t going to work. Roads are going to be cracked and filled with plantlife. There is so much that falls apart. Gaylord has entire towns seem to live as powered up ghosts. No explanation for why they haven’t fallen to the ravages of time-they just are.
Guess I’ll have to keep on looking for more horror stories that feature well-written women. The pickin’s are still scarce.