Zombies and Humans: An Examination of Two Recent Novels, part one
I don’t know why I didn’t expect zombies to make it into literature. I kind of figured they would stay in movies, you know? Literature (using the term loosely) is so introspective and in people’s heads that I would never have expected the brainless, emotionless beings to end up in novels.
(The rest of this post contains spoilers regarding one recent and one upcoming novel. It’s pretty transparent throughout the course of each of the stories what is going on, but if you’re very anti-spoiler and like zombies, you’ll want to skip this post.)
Recently, I read Parasite by Mira Grant, the first of what promises to be a series. The main story line is that in the future, people have tapeworms implanted in their large intestines that help boost immune systems, protect from illness, and secrete designer drugs. Some are skeptical of this development, but most people have them — including a young woman named Sal, who woke up from a vegetative state just as her family was about to pull the plug, a recovery credited to her implant.
The Sal that wakes up, though, is very different from the Sally who went into the coma. She uses a different name, and she’s nicer, for one thing. She’s also forgotten all of her memories, all social norms, everything that essentially makes her human. She also has a weird affinity for a certain type of ultrasound that is conducted by submerging the subject entirely in gel.
Turns out, Sal’s recovery is the result of a migrating tapeworm that moved from her colon and through her broken body to her brain, where it latched on to the existing infrastructure (which was “empty” — Sally was brain-dead) and gained control of her body. In essence, she is this parasite — even though she doesn’t know it until three-quarters of the way through the book (everyone else, though, including the reader, has already guessed).
If that’s not creepy enough, she’s not the only one. Through the course of the novel, she meets several others, and discovers that the worms actually have human DNA in them, which allows them to take over “uninhabited” brains.
However, there are other parasites out there that are not the tapeworm type that are taking over people and turning them into traditional-type zombies. They grunt, they groan, they have super-human strength, and they are not as sentient or advanced as the tapeworms — and they take over humans very suddenly and inexplicably, rather than limiting themselves to brain-dead people. They also appear to have taken Sal as a role model, judging by the way they grunt and moan her name. As this is the first in a series, I expect this to develop in the next few books.
The other work I read is the extended free preview of The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey. Here, the reader is introduced to a girl named Melanie who is somewhat inexplicably kept strapped to a chair, left alone in a prison cell when not strapped in her wheelchair, and who is somehow “special.” Right, good, fine, typical tropes. I don’t want to say it’s standard, but the idea of a protagonist feeling “trapped” and “special” before “something happens” to change the situation and
But the reader comes to find out that, actually, Melanie is not completely special — she’s kept with about two dozen others who are bound by the same restrictions she is in a maximum-security military base in England, after something that is vaguely described as a “Hungries invasion” but which is clearly a zombie apocalypse.
It becomes suddenly clear that, actually, Melanie and her classmates (they all go to school each day for cognitive and psychological evaluation) are “hungries,” or zombies. The “hungries” are apparently created by a fungal infection that slowly takes over the brain and bodies of its hosts. There is an absolutely chilling and graphic scene where a doctor slowly dismembers one of the children, who is unsedated, and removes its brain. The child, awake and alive because of its decentralized nervous system, actually watches her do this.
But Melanie seems to be different from the rest. She has empathy, the ability to feel emotions, the ability to feel love — she even has a crush on her teacher, the way little girls develop intense obsessions with role models (see any girls’ school novel for evidence of this). And, when her “hungry” nature is triggered and she feels herself viscerally reacting and needing to feed on her teacher’s flesh, she loves that woman enough to push her away, to hold herself back, and to fight.
The interesting bit is that while these two stories are totally different, they are the same in that they deal with parasites taking over the infrastructure of the human brain. This begs the question — what does it mean to be human?