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The Reapers Are the Angels - Alden Bell
She turns her back on the lost and the dead and the trampled down, she leaves them to their airy graves, and she and the big man next to her look upward at heaven and find there not just gates and angels but other wonders too, like airplanes that go faster than sound and statues taller than any man and waterfalls taller than any statue and buildings taller than any waterfall and stories taller still that reach up and hook you by the britches on the cusp of the moon, where you can look and see the earth whole, and you can see how silly and precious a little marble it really is after all.

(I just happened to reread that passage and had to add it because I love it so much.)

Wow. Has the telling of the zombie apocalypse evolved from comic book to literature, because this reads like literature, like Southern lit, like if Kaye Gibbons or Daniel Woodrell did horror, and maybe that's what we have here, a Kaye Gibbons or Daniel Woodrell of horror named Alden Bell.

It's 25 years into the change, and zombies have become a kind of slug in the global ecology. That's what they're called, slugs, but with deadly appetites. Because slugs are slow and weak the survivors have gotten pretty good at maneuvering around them, but there's a startling encounter with a sentient and strapping variety -- monsters being crafted from obscure medical experiments involving isolated and inbred rednecks. Sounds outrageous and is, but it is literary even so, and among other things that means well written.

I loved the story, ate it up, pardon the pun, my sole complaint being that the protagonist should have been a reader. The omniscient narrator mostly takes her perspective, and the voice of this 15-year-old illiterate orphan called Temple and raised almost entirely by her own wits is one irresistible turn of phrase after another in a dialect that is hers alone, but how she manages such complex and creative ruminations and expressions is a mystery. She's damn clever and has an exceptional memory and is perhaps drawing on all the words and ideas she's heard, some of which she gets wrong, like "aerodynastics," but she's a loner whose revealed encounters are rarely intellectually or emotionally edifying. I enjoyed the read so much that this feels like quibbling and is not costing any stars, but I think the story would be even better if Temple's time in the orphanage had provided some semblance of an education, at least enough to make her a reader.

Otherwise it's seamless, and nothing about the literary slights the horror, which is graphic without being sensationalized, which makes it feel more real and intense. I always read before falling asleep, and this gave me nightmares. With the exception of Lovecraft's, no other stories have done that.

Here's a taste:

She is as close to a monster as God allows, Temple reckons. The woman is massive, even larger than the others, maybe ten feet if taken at her full height instead of stretched out on a mountain of pillows in the middle of the room. She is naked, but her nakedness doesn't count for anything because of the bony plates that cover almost her entire body, as though her skeleton had melted away and been reformed on the outside of her. Her voice is low, almost a man's voice, those oversized vocal cords delivering nothing but bass notes from her gullet, and her rasping breath turns her attempts at sweetness grotesque. They call her Mama, and Temple wonders how many of them she is actual mother to -- and it wouldn't surprise her if it was all of them, because Temple can see she's a world Mama, like the earth itself . . . 'You got a mama, honey?' she says, turning her attention to Temple. 'Do you miss your mama, honey ... Do you like our family?'

'Sure,' Temple says. 'In particular I like the way you keep people locked in basements.'

The woman's face contorts into an angry frown, but just for a moment before she closes her eyes and collects herself and begins to explain something . . . By the end of her speech the woman is worked up, and she has snailed across the floor until she is right close to Temple's face, her breath coming hot and powerful on her cheeks. Then she leans back, pulling herself together once more. She sips lemonade, her bones clacking. 'See,' she goes on, 'this plague is sent to cleanse the earth. It sweeps with prejudice, honey, and it favors those strong enough to keep together. What is does, it sweeps away the mess of commonness and what it leaves behind are those Americans who keep America stored up in their blood lineage. We got us the blood of the nation, you'd better believe it.'

Highly recommended, but not before sleeping unless you're up for being trapped by the likes of that matriarch in the worst of bad dreams.