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Without doing too much of an autopsy on the book, I would say you could divide up the influence into thirds. The first third is George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. I suspect this is where all zombie stories begin. Romero mastered not only the zombie threat, but also the threat of life becoming mundane in a post-apocalyptic world. The best parts of that movie are those that have nothing to do with zombies–but rather with the recreating of daily life on a miniature scale in a shopping mall. The second third of the influence on the book comes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Temple is, admittedly, a kind of Buffy character. She’s tough as hell and will kick your ass, but there’s also something dark about her. That’s one of the things I always admired about Joss Whedon’s vision for that show–the willingness to explore his main character’s internal darkness, the willingness to, at times, turn her into an anti-hero. The third third (as it were) of the influence is William Faulkner in specific and Southern Gothic literature in general. The book is loaded with cutesy references to Faulkner and Mark Twain and Zora Neale Hurston and more contemporary Southern Gothic writers like Daniel Woodrell and William Gay and Tom Franklin and Cormac McCarthy. I love that stuff–all its kudzu-choked grandeur, its lost aristocracy, its epic perversion.

    -INTERVIEW: Author Alden Bell- Author of ‘The Reapers are the Angels (Zombie Info)
One can hardly count the number of games, movies, books, comic books, even tv shows, where very nearly the sole entertainment for several hours consists of killing zombies by the bushel. Alden Bell's The Reapers are the Angels asks us to consider what the moral implications of such wanton killing would be upon a young teenage girl. The fifteen year-old heroine, Temple (Sarah Mary Williams), has known no other life but one spent dodging and killing zombies, because the apocalypse that brought them about occurred ten years before her birth. As we would expect of a survivor in such a world, one who's very much on her own, Temple is no slouch at slaughtering the "meatskins," as she calls them. [N.B.--The pseudonymous Mr. Bell borrowed both Temple's real name and her term for zombies from great American literature, as he reveals in this essay, along with a discussion of his many other influences.] But the "warrior princess of the wastes," as another character refers to her, is troubled by the blood lust that comes upon her when she's fighting and is haunted by a mistake she made some time before the events of the novel:
Stayin alive ain't the hard part. The problem is stayin right.

What do you mean by that?

What I mean is I done some things I don't care to talk about.

Little sister, anyone alive's got a collection of those things.

Maybe so, but it's one thing to feel like there's a few rotten things knocking around inside you like some beans in a can. But it's another thing to feel like those things are what your heart and stomach and brain are built out of.
While we gain enough perspective on her character and her actions that we can forgive Temple those "things," she is never able to forgive herself. As one result, she refuses to take the life of a man who stalks her across the ruined America to exact revenge for her killing of his brother, who'd tried to rape her.

This inability to forgive herself nor accept God's forgiveness, is her tragedy:
She tells of moments when she would forget, when her own simmering evil would seem to dissipate and let through the clear spectacle of life. One had to be careful of those moments, because they were fleeting and intended not for her but instead for the delectation of other children of God.
And it leads to the novel's inevitable but satisfying conclusion. It's a book you'll read in one sitting, even though you'll slow periodically to savor the richness of the ideas and the beauty of the prose. Likewise, you're not unlikely to start playing a game with yourself where you seek to identify all the other great books that Mr. Bell's plot, themes and style summon forth. The one echo that came across most strongly for me, though the author does not mention it specifically in citing his literary debts, is Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb. Though, in fairness, there it is the adult, Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish in the film), who eventually takes responsibility for doing what needs to be done in the face of evil. Robert Mitchum's Preacher though does have some compelling similarities to the villain here.

Finally, though oddly the following comes from the beginning of the book, one of Mr. Bell's themes is that even in such a desolate world there are still miracles to be found:
God is a slick god. Temple knows. She knows because of all the crackerjack miracles still to be seen on this ruined globe.

Like those fish all disco-lit in the shallows. That was something, a marvel with no compare that she's been witness to. It was deep night when she saw it, but the moon was so bright it cast hard shadows everywhere on the island. So bright it was almost brighter than daytime because she could see things clearer, as if the sun were criminal to the truth, as if her eyes were eyes of night. She left the lighthouse and went down to the beach to look at the moon pure and straight, and she stood in the shallows and let her feet sink into the sand as the patter- waves tickled her ankles. And that's when she saw it, a school of tiny fish, all darting around like marbles in a chalk circle, and they were lit up electric, mostly silver but some gold and pink too. They came and danced around her ankles, and she could feel their little electric fish bodies, and it was like she was standing under the moon and in the moon at the same time. And that was something she hadn't seen before. A decade and a half, thereabouts, roaming the planet earth, and she's never seen that before.

And you could say the world has gone to black damnation, and you could say the children of Cain are holding sway over the good and the righteous—but here's what Temple knows: She knows that whatever hell the world went to, and whatever evil she's perpetrated her own self, and whatever series of cursed misfortunes brought her down here to this island to be harbored away from the order of mankind, well, all those things are what put her there that night to stand amid the Daylight Moon and the Miracle of the Fish—which she wouldn't of got to see otherwise.

See, God is a slick god. He makes it so you don't miss out on nothing you're supposed to witness firsthand.
And there we catch a really strong whiff of Cormac McCarthy's The Road--even down to the reference therein to the boy as a tabernacle--which some of his fans resented for being too redemptive. For all the violence and sadness in The Reapers, it is ultimately uplifting as well.


Grade: (A)


Alden Bell Links:

    -BOOK SITE: The Reapers are the Angels (MacMillan)
    -GOOGLE BOOK: the Reapers are the Angels
    -GOOGLE BOOK: Hummingbirds by Joshua Gaylord
    -BOOK SITE: Hummingbirds by Joshua Gaylord
    -ESSAY: The Books Behind The Reapers Are The Angels (Alden Bell)
    -INTERVIEW: Author Alden Bell- Author of ‘The Reapers are the Angels (Zombie Info)
    -PODCAST: Good Story 001: The Reapers Are The Angels (A Good Story is Hard to Find)
    -INTERVIEW: Interview w/ Alden Bell (The Skiffy and Fanty Show #27)
    -INTERVIEW: Interview: Alden Bell (Macabre Republic, August 3, 2010)
    -INTERVIEW: with Alden Bell (Fantasy Book Review, August 2010)
    -REVIEW: of The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell (Carol Memmott, USA TODAY)
    -REVIEW: of The Reapers are the Angels (Christian Williams, AV Club)
    -REVIEW: of Reapers are the Angels (Fantasy Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Reapers are the Angels (Dark Wolf Fantasy Reviews)
    -REVIEW: of Reapers are the Angels (Julie D., SFF Audio)
    -REVIEW: of Reapers are the Angels (Fantasy & SciFi Lovin' News & Reviews)
    -REVIEW: of Reapers are the Angels (Richard Larson, Strange Horizons)
    -REVIEW: of reapers are Angels (Peter Coates, Second Pass)

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