The Girl With All The Gifts: A modern zombie classic

Gautham Shenoy January 13, 2017 10 min

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“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” If the line sounds familiar, it is because it is from the classic Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith. The timeless opening line of this classic regency romance, now with ultraviolent zombie mayhem, just plays up to our modern conception of zombies as un-dead ‘people’ (creatures?) lusting after brains (and living human flesh). Blood reserved for vampires.

But perhaps the biggest influence on modern zombies comes from Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend, which portrays the life of a lone survivor in the wake of a pandemic.

But it wasn’t always so, and in fiction, the idea is as old as the oldest novel that’s widely considered to be the earliest of science fiction novels: Mary Shelley’s 1818 book Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Fast forward to 1921-22, when the past master of horror fiction – the man who’s influenced everyone from Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, John Carpenter to Guillermo del Toro – HP Lovecraft serialises Herbert West–Reanimator, bringing to fiction its first portrayal of zombies as reanimated corpses. But perhaps the biggest influence on modern zombies comes from Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend, which portrays the life of a lone survivor in the wake of a pandemic. While the novel itself concerns itself with ‘vampires’– for Matheson called the infected people so – it is credited with popularizing the ‘zombie apocalypse’ scenario and giving the infection – if one may call it so – a scientific origin.

I am Legend’s greatest influence comes to us via George A. Romero, who, inspired by the novel and its cinematic representation made the low-budget, cult favourite Night of the Living Dead, which brought to life zombies (pun intended) the way we know them today, or rather as we are familiar with them on screen.

I am Legend’s greatest influence comes to us via George A. Romero, who, inspired by the novel and its cinematic representation made the low-budget, cult favourite Night of the Living Dead, which brought to life zombies (pun intended) the way we know them today

The interesting thing to note is that in none of the works mentioned above was the word zombie ever used, they were ‘vampires’ in I Am Legend, and ‘ghouls’ in Dawn of the Dead, the latter of which introduced the concept of zombies as reanimated and flesh-eating cannibals. The ‘godfather of the dead’ Romero went on to make five more movies in what is known as the Dead series. While Romero’s zombies will eat any part of a human, the credit for making zombies fixated on brains goes to Dan O’Bannon, who directed the 1985 zombie classic The Return of the Living Dead, which went to have four more sequels in the Living Dead series. From there on – including Michael Jackson’s Thriller – it has been a steady stream of zombie movies, books on zombies, zombie movies based on books and of course video games. All with more or less using the same combination of a viral/bacterial pandemic or a mysterious plague that infects humanity that turns people into zombies that the non-infected survivors must heroically resist till a satisfactory conclusion is reached.

There are of course notable stand-out zombie movies/books that have at various points brought a new spin to a familiar trope, most notably 28 Days Later, Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead, The Walking Dead and in books World War Z, the aforementioned mash-up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the Newsflesh series by Mira Grant, as well as the brilliant and universally acclaimed video game Last of Us.

Just when you think there can be nothing totally new that can be brought to the genre, you stumble upon a book recommendation by a man whose words are taken quite seriously in the scifi/geek community, Joss Whedon, who says go read The Girl With All The Gifts because it’s surprising, warm, chilling, fresh and terrifying. This from a guy who created Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. In his words, reading the book is “like I’d been simultaneously offered flowers and beaten at chess.”

I echo his sentiments.

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The author MR Carey (the pseudonym of Mike Carey, writer of comics such as Sandman’s Lucifer, X-Men and lots more) upends the genre from page one by making the primary protagonist not the humans, but a little girl Melanie, a 10-year old child who acts, speaks, jokes like any other normal child except for the fact that she – like her classmates – is a ‘Hungry’. Infected not by a bacteria, or a convenient virus that has brought her back from the dead, but a fungal infection. This is perhaps the biggest spin on an all-too-familiar trope that Carey brings to the book, which is a set in a post-apocalyptic England, many years after fungal infection overran humanity.

The author MR Carey upends the genre from page one by making the primary protagonist not the humans, but a little girl Melanie, a 10-year old child who acts, speaks, jokes like any other normal child except for the fact that she – like her classmates – is a ‘Hungry’

A fungus you say? Sounds preposterous at first, but the fungus in question – that infected people, wiped off their free will, turning them into ‘hungrys’ (called so for obvious reasons) – is a Cordyceps fungus, variant of Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. And it is a real thing! First discovered by the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace in 1859, this fungus – known as the Zombie Fungus – infects ants in tropical forest ecosystems turning them into mindless hosts, making them do things they wouldn’t otherwise. Like leaving everything and clambering up to the tallest point available where the ‘zombie’ host ant uses its mandibles to affix itself to a leaf before dying. Once the ant is dead, the fungus sprouts stalks from inside the ant which then drop fungal spores (hence the highest point; for greater spread of the spores). It’s the same fungus as in Last of Us.

So the hungries aren’t dead, just living hosts to a parasite, and when they attack people to grab a bite, it’s not them, it’s the parasite looking for more mindless hosts to act as cannibalistic shells. But Melanie is anything but mindless. She’s clever, has a high IQ, cracks jokes, likes Greek myths, especially the one about Pandora, the girl with all the gifts, but most of all loves her teacher Helen Justineau almost like a mother. Miss Justineau in her turn likes Melanie the best amongst all her students. Students who are there not to be taught but to be observed as test subjects, because waiting to cut them open down the middle and also peer into their brain is Dr. Caroline Caldwell, the scientist who wants to find out what makes Melanie tick while the rest of the hungrys are mindless ‘zombies’, and wants to use this knowledge to create a cure or at the very least a vaccine so humanity can survive. Rounding of the list of our chief protagonists is Private Gallagher, a young army man and his senior, Sergeant Parks, a stern pragmatic military man who heads the base that they are all in, amongst the last bastions of humanity, the primary one being The Beacon. Carey uses these five people to tell us a ‘zombie’ story like no other. Outside of the military bases, the only human survivors are packs of scavengers or ‘junkers’.

So the hungries aren’t dead, just living hosts to a parasite, and when they attack people to grab a bite, it’s not them, it’s the parasite looking for more mindless hosts to act as cannibalistic shells.

Melanie wishes she was treated better, treated like how humans would treat each other but she’s not and she’s not bitter. She perhaps understands why humans keep their distance, because a whiff of their smell sends her into a feeding frenzy, she is a Hungry after all. But it’s her bond with Miss Justineau that keeps her going, and it is Miss Justineau who comes to her rescue as she’s about to be dissected by Dr. Caldwell. Not that Dr. Caldwell enjoys it but as a scientist feels it is something that must be done. A telling scene occurs when Dr. Caldwell admonishes a fellow doctor who is not convinced about carving up children, even if they are hungries, “Please remember, that the subject presents as a child but is actually a fungal colony animating a child’s body. There’s no place for sentiment here.” There may be no room left for sentiment in Dr. Caldwell’s world, but there is a lot of it within the pages of the book that abounds with all-too-human emotions, yes even from Melanie – especially from Melanie.

When the military base they are all in gets overrun by hungries, these four set out on a long journey to The Beacon, getting to know each other, continuing their clashes and agreements, finding out more about the hungries, about themselves and the endgame that the fungus is really playing at. Let’s just say infecting people is just a means not an end. The disagreements and clashes between Miss Justineau and Dr. Caldwell on ethics and compassion are tempered by the tender relationship between Justineau and Melanie, with the stern Sergeant Parks – who’d always point a gun at Melanie – himself learning a thing or two along the way and coming to respect Melanie for what she is, and for what she is not. Yes, there is action and thrills, with Melanie stepping up to help the humans survive in a world full of hungries amidst the crumbling ruins of civilization that is heralding the end of humanity. Yes, there is blood, but it takes a backseat to questions about science, about ethics in the times of crisis, about individualism and free will, about finding the balance between love, compassion and practical realities. And the next step for the human race.

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The Girl With All The Gifts is a novel that forces to you take sides, Team Justineau or Team Caldwell? And think hard about choices, Melanie? Or the Cure? And them makes you switch between those choices. The ending is unexpected. Zombies are supposed to be only after your brains, but this ‘zombie’ book is after your heart. Ok, so it nibbles more than a wee bit on your brains too.

Unlike with other movie adaptations, where the script/screenplay is written much after a book is either critically acclaimed and/or commercially successful, in the case of The Girl With All The Gifts both were written simultaneously, with MR Carey also writing the screenplay. Released in 2016, directed by Colm McCarthy and starring Gemma Arterton as Helen Justineau, Paddy Considine as Sgt. Parks, the Glenn Close as Dr. Caldwell and a stunning debutant Sennia Nanua as Melanie, the movie diverges from the book in many fundamental ways – with lesser protagonists, and no junkers for instance – but without losing too much of its essence. As always, I’d recommend reading the book first.

So go on, add this one to your list and gift yourself The Girl With All The Gifts. It’s only about 400 pages long. If your to-list read list is long or if you are suffering from a bad case of tsundoku, I wouldn’t blame you for giving in to the temptation of going straight for the movie, but be warned, there is a lot you will miss that are in the book only.

So, happy reading! And on that note I sign off for this week. Do let us have your comments, criticisms and suggestions about New Worlds Weekly by leaving a comment below or tweet to us with the hashtag #NWWonFD. Until next Friday then. Live Long and Prosper, dear reader!


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