review; Raising Stony Mayhall

Title: Raising Stony Mayhall
Author: Daryl Gregory
Publisher/Pub. Date: Del Ray/June, 2011
Genre: Horror
Summary: In 1968, after the first zombie outbreak, Wanda Mayhall and her three young daughters discover the body of a teenage mother during a snowstorm. Wrapped in the woman’s arms is a baby, stone-cold, not breathing, and without a pulse. But then his eyes open and look up at Wanda—and he begins to move.
The family hides the child—whom they name Stony—rather than turn him over to authorities that would destroy him. Against all scientific reason, the undead boy begins to grow. For years his adoptive mother and sisters manage to keep his existence a secret—until one terrifying night when Stony is forced to run and he learns that he is not the only living dead boy left in the world.

Rating:

I could simply say drop whatever you’re doing and read this book. Now. That wouldn’t do it justice, though. This is the kind of story that needs to be discussed, demands to be gushed over, and ultimately stays with you long after you’ve finished those last words.

It is traditional to end with the Last Girl, the sole survivor, a young woman in a blood-spattered tank top. She drops her chain saw, her sawed-off shotgun, her crowbar – these details differ – and stumbles out of the ramshackle house and into the light. Perhaps the house is burning. Dawn glows on the horizon, and the ghouls have been defeated (for now, for now – all happy endings being temporary). Perhaps she’s found by her fellow survivors and taken to an enclave, a fortress teeming with heavily armed government troops, or at the very least gun-toting civilians, who will provide shelter until the sequel. Perhaps this enclave is located in Easterly, Iowa, about sixty miles northwest of the ruins of Des Moines. Perhaps the girl’s name is Ruby.

So begins our story. To say this is a zombie story would feel like a lie. Yes, the main character is a zombie and, yes, there was a zombie outbreak. However, Raising Stony Mayhall is so much more than a horror novel. There is an unassuming elegance in Mr. Gregory’s writing and it’s clear he carefully deliberated over each word. There were countless passages where I lost myself in the imagery and forgot I was reading what was being put forth as a run-of-the-mill zombie tale.

There are few gorey scenes. There really is nothing in-your-face about Raising Stony Mayhall. It’s so much more than yet another book cashing in on a popular trend: it’s a story about family and to what lengths we go to protect those we cherish. Don’t expect a Lifetime movie though. Thankfully, it’s not quite that sappy.

Are you sleeping,
Are you sleeping,
Brother John?

The story opens in Easterly, Iowa in the winter of 1968. (The prologue was set in the present day, 2011.) On both coasts there has been a zombie outbreak and what’s left of civilization is trying to pick up the pieces and attempt to return to some sense of normalcy.

Wanda Mayhall is a widowed mother of three girls: Alice, Chelsea, and Junie. One night while heading back to their farm, they come across the body of a young woman barely out of her teens. There’s no hope of saving the woman, but Wanda is unable to leave behind of body of the newborn discovered in the woman’s arms.

“We should call him Gray,” Chelsea said.
“He’s not a cat,” Alice said. “We shouldn’t name him anything.”
“We’ll call him John,” Wanda said, surprising herself again.
“That’s it?” Alice said. “John?”
“Brother John,” Chelsea said.
The boy looked up at them. Then he blinked. He hadn’t blinked before.
“A boy like this,” Wanda said, “is going to need a normal name.”

Despite all evidence that the boy is dead – no pulse, he’s not breathing, his skin is grey & cold – he soon begins to move. At first it’s just a twitch of an arm. Then his eyes open. His chest heaves.

They just rescued an undead. An undead baby, at that.

The Mayhalls live on a fairly secluded piece of land with only one other house in viewing range. The Chos are a Korean family who had moved out west with dreams of farming, only to fall back on a mechanic business. The Chos have a 5-year old son, Kwang, and shortly after meeting John, the two become inseparable. Stony – the name given to him by Kwang – grows as Kwang grows. He ages he Kwang ages.

Despite being taken into a loving family, a series of extremely strict rules have been set in place for Stony. He’s never allowed outside, he is never to walk past the windows, any friends (and as they grow, boyfriends) of his sisters are never allowed over, and school is completely out of the question. Instead, Mrs. Cho homeschools Stony and later he educates himself with the aid of his sisters’ textbooks.

For the first time in his life, Stony felt it. It ran like a hot wire, up from his spine, to the base of his skull. His mouth opened on its own.
He wanted to bite. He wanted to bite hard.

With each page, I grew to care more and more for Stony. He’s not the quintessential zombie that everyone immediately thinks of: moaning, shambling along oh-so-slowly, viciously attacking any living being. However, in a sense, he is: super-human strength, no pain whatsoever, he requires no sleep or food, physical exercise doesn’t tire him. He is virtually indestructible.

Seeing things through Stony’s eyes, knowing his thoughts and feelings, it’s easy to forget that, technically, he is a monster. Mr. Gregory is wonderful at allowing the reader to settle into a period of comfort, only to bring to light the horror of the situation. And what a quiet horror it is. It silently sneaks up on you, greeting you around the corner. The climax was so eloquently written I felt as though I was in the middle of a zombie outbreak. I panicked when the zombies were in the stairwell. A flash of terror ripped through me with the lone zombie calmly ambling down the road while the policemen stood waiting.

Stony looked up. Calhoun was staring at him, hollow-eyed. His skin was glossy, his teeth perfectly white, but his eyes were ancient and terrified. Calhoun was more afraid of death than anyone he’d ever met. While so many LDs were becoming sleepers, throwing themselves into the abyss, Calhoun was doing everything in his power to pave over it, seal it up. He was going to the stars, damn it. He was going to be immortal.

I loved how the book progressed through the decades. The novel occurs between 1968 and 2011. When Stony is a teenager, something happens that changes his life forever. He lives the majority of his adult life on the run (what part isn’t spent in hiding).

It was this part of the book that didn’t grip me as the beginning did. There are new characters involved (one still rubs me the wrong way) along with some sub-plots that weren’t entirely clear. I longed for Stony to return to being a 5-year old on the farm.

The mailman reached the fence, planted two hands, and vaulted over without breaking stride. The move looked so practiced that Stony wondered if he’d learned it in postal school. Advanced Canine Escape Techniques.

Mr. Gregory has a deliciously wicked sense of humor. I’d never hail Raising Stony Mayhall as a comedy or as a wacky, zany story because it certainly isn’t. That said, there are plenty of great one-liners and witty quips that brought a smile to my face and made me giggle.

Thanks to Romero’s endlessly replayed documentary of the outbreak, everyone thought the living dead shuffled around like geriatric patients. But those were the fevered dead, brain-damaged and confused, at the mercy of recalcitrant limbs jerking to their own rhythm. After the fever passed, a sane LD only had to tell the muscles to move, and they moved. Jump, and they jumped. Free will, or its compelling illusion, was restored.

No zombie tale is complete without a shout-out to Night of the Living Dead. I wonder if Raising Stony Mayhall wasn’t supposed to be a sequel or a spin-off of some sort. NofLD premiered October 1, 1968…which was when the original outbreak occurred in Raising Stony Mayhall. Also, NotLD takes place in Pennsylvania (in the area where I live, which is pretty awesome), and Stony discovers his birth mother was from Evans City, PA.

The more I think about this, the more I wonder if this wasn’t the case. And if so, this book just became all the more incredible.

All LDs were going to hell in an inescapable handbasket. The graveborn said they understood more because they’d gotten closer to the other side than anyone – they had a better idea of what was spiritually at stake. The bitten LDs argued that they’d all died, and the graveborn were putting on airs.

I could ramble on and on about how much I loved this book. June seemed like an odd time for release, but I suppose since Raising Stony Mayhall isn’t your typical zombie novel, it wouldn’t receive an expected Halloween publication date.

Prior to writing this review I had a massive list of quotes and lines and entire paragraphs I loved enough to write down. Mr. Gregory’s style is so effortless and beautiful. I will definitely be hunting down his other works.

I highly, highly recommend Raising Stony Mayhall, even for those of you who aren’t normally into zombie books (I know I’m not). You won’t be disappointed!

The fevered dead didn’t attack animals, or invade butcher shops. They craved human meat, human and nothing but, as if taking revenge for being kicked out of their former species. The Payback Diet.

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