Zombie romance, y’all: it’s totally a thing. I know, this latest paranormal sub-genre trend can be hard to stomach. At least vampires have that pale, aloof sexiness, and werewolves have the whole alpha-male appeal. But zombies? Casting rotting corpses as romantic leads starts to get uncomfortably close to necrophilia.
The latest attempt to rehabilitate zombies comes from Auckland-based first-time novelist Brandy Wehinger: Blue, a rather sweet and gentle story for tween-age zombie beginners. The cover is absolutely cracking and very pick-up-able, featuring an eye-catching image from artist Misery that sets the horror-lite tone perfectly.
Wehinger aims to side-step the necro-horror and keep her book kiddie-friendly by creating an intermediate species between humans and zombies: blues. Sort of undead but sort of still human, blues retain the consciousness and self-control of humans, while also acquiring the stamina and unstoppableness of zombies. Wehinger encourages us to think closely about how this might work by devoting several chapters to a medical analysis of how the zombie condition is physiologically expressed.
It’s an intriguing concept worth a closer look. If your body is transformed into something entirely other, yet you still retain the memories and thought patterns of your human self, are you still you? What is it that makes us human? Our physiology? The synapse configuration in our brains? Can we be physically something else but mentally still human? Are we our pulses or our memories?
Frustratingly, having posed these arresting questions, Wehinger comes nowhere close to answering them. Her novel, aimed at 10-14-year-olds, is ultimately in service of plot rather than ideas (a striking contrast to Carl Nixon’s The Virgin and the Whale, which I reviewed recently). There is a large cast of characters (alive, dead and in between) and the point of view skips between them, which has the potential to be interesting but ends up being disjunctive and making it hard to form an engaging emotional bond with the protagonists.
The central romance, between the eponymous blue, Katie, and a human, Elliot, is superficial and, again, presents intriguing questions that are never answered: if Katie is sort of undead, are they still the same species? If not, how can they form a committed, loving relationship? Can they reproduce? Are their now-different physiologies sexually compatible? Perhaps if the bond between Katie and Elliot had been more passionate, if I had felt that their love transcended all boundaries, I wouldn’t have minded the author sweeping these thorny questions under the carpet; but, as it was, the romance was so hastily sketched that all I could see were the difficulties.
Wehinger’s prose, as one would expect for a genre novel aimed at the pre-YA market, is simple and easy to digest. The plot ticks along gently and only really gets going in the last few chapters, with an ending that is – inevitably – wide open for a sequel. The world-building is well done, with post-apocalyptic human society fragmented into agrarian tree-dwellers, gunslinging frontiersmen and Salem-esque, morally hysterical villages. Where I thought her writing fell down was in her characterisation, which is too heavy on the telling and too light on the showing.
Overall, although this is a reasonably entertaining (if ultimately unsatisfying) read, New Zealand can produce much better speculative fiction (i.e. fantasy, sci-fi and horror) – there’s some great stuff coming out of Steam Press – and much better children’s fiction (thank you, Gecko Press). So the challenge to Kiwi authors is still out there: make living corpses sexy. Any takers?
by Brandy Wehinger
Published by Random House NZ