by Isaac Marion
256 pages, Vintage Originals
Review by Paul Fenton
When did vampires merge into the mainstream? When did they become cool – even aspirational – characters, heroes instead of villains? Perhaps it was around the time of Interview with the Vampire. If you look closely, you’ll notice a tight correlation between the growth of vampire cool and the progressively sympathetic portrayal of bloodsuckers between Buffy seasons one and seven.
The above detailed and thoughtful analysis of the vampire popularity phenomenon is clear proof that art has the power to transform evil into good. And vampires haven’t been the only beneficiaries of this benign policy: werewolves (Teen Wolf, and of course Twilight, which downed the twin supernatural birds of vampire and werewolf with one dull grey cinderblock), mummies (Anne Rice tackled this one), witches (Witches of Eastwick, and Anne Rice was here too) … The list goes on. I know what you’re thinking, it’s the same question which has been niggling at my brainstem for years: Won’t someone think of the zombies?
Well, someone finally has! And thank god it wasn’t Anne Rice.
Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion, is a zombie novel told from the zombie’s point-of-view. Before you give an I’ve-had-enough-already-of-this damn-zombie-fad snort, let me jump in now and say: it’s good. Really good. Good enough to make you want to add brains to your diet? Maybe. I was hesitant at first, but decided to give it a go after skim-reading the first page. It seemed to be well-written. Now having read it I can confidently say: it is well-written, extremely so. This is one of those rare books where I’ve come away thinking, damn, I really wish I’d thought of that.
The protagonist in Warm Bodies is the zombie R. R can no longer remember his full name, or even his first name; only that single initial remains. His diction, like that of most zombies, has suffered under his affliction. He can squeeze out a few pairs of monosyllabic words, but most of his vocalising is limited to the trademark moaning of the zombie horde as he shuffles around his home hive in an abandoned airport terminal. This is one of the aspects I loved about the book, Marion’s preservation of the accepted zombie stereotypes. They shuffle, they moan, they travel in packs and attack the living to feast on their brains. They’re not driven by some random delirious destructive impulse though, but by hunger, by desire. The life force in the warm bodies of the living is the only form of sustenance which seems to give them any satisfaction; and the ultimate cut, the zombie gourmet extreme, is the brain. Consuming the brain, R explains, is better than any drug. When the Dead consume the brains of the living, they absorb that person’s mental energy, their memories and their emotions. It’s the nearest thing they can experience to life.
After one daring raid on a group of Living, R eats the wrong brain – or perhaps the right brain. It is the brain of Perry; and Perry’s beau, Julie, is part of the besieged group. Against all his zombie instincts, R saves Julie from death or zombification, covers her in zombie blood and leads her back to the airport hive, onto the jet which he has made his home, forming vague notions of protecting her as he goes.
What makes R such a compelling character is that although his diction is limited, although blood no longer runs through his veins, his thoughts are articulate and complex. He is different from the other zombies, he senses this, and he is not happy with what he has become. The shapes of his ideas, like his powers of movement and communication, are slow to resolve, yet he puts his faith in those half-formed notions and allows himself to be guided by them, however vaguely, regardless of the consequences. He wants to do something different. He wants the world to be different.
I wouldn’t have thought it possible to find a zombie sympathetic, but here we are. If I could be a zombie, I’d like to be R. Warm Bodies has taken on a concept which could have resulted in low comedy if mishandled, but has come out as borderline epic. It’s a fantastic combination of ideas, humour, horror and tension. Warm bodies is, as cheesy as it might sound, a zombie novel with brains, and heart.
Mmm, brains …