Readers have clearly been waiting for a more intelligent, more scientifically based zombie post-apocalypse, and M. R. Carey (aka Mike Carey, critically acclaimed comic book writer, author of the mini-series My Faith in Frankie and contributor to many popular series including Hellblazer and X-Men) provides it with his near-future novel The Girl With All the Gifts.
“I always wanted to do a zombie story,” Carey says. The zombie “reminds us of our origin and our destination—the skull beneath the skin.” In his novel, a species of Ophiocordyceps (a type of fungus) has infected most of humanity, grabbing control of our nervous systems and turning us into mindless, rotting cannibals that survivors call “hungries.” Carey explains that in reality, Ophiocordyceps infest insects in a similar way. “There are whole families of these organisms that do this kind of neural hijacking—it’s quite a common thing in nature.” When they “take over an ant or…a beetle, they do kind of take over them like flesh-and-blood robots.”
The novel began as a short story, “Iphigenia in Aulis,” in which a virus, not a fungus, caused the infection. But as Carey developed the idea into a full-length book, he was also conceiving it as a film. “I was talking to the producers about the screenplay; we were talking about visuals, and I flashed on a scene from a David Attenborough documentary,” which showed the fungi “bursting out of ants.” Carey found that “more unsettling” than any fictional horror image.
The book’s title is an English translation of the Greek name Pandora. It refers both to the mythical character as well as the novel’s unusual heroine (or perhaps anti-heroine, depending on your perspective), Melanie. Melanie is a brilliant, charming little girl. She’s also a hungry; for a reason that readers only learn later, Melanie is one of a small group of infected children that don’t seem to have lost any of their cognitive faculties, despite their gnawing desire for human flesh. “Melanie is like the original Pandora: She’s curious, endlessly interested in everything around her, consciously putting things together,” Carey says. The book is essentially Melanie’s quest to understand herself and discover whether it’s possible for the two apparently conflicting aspects of her nature to be reconciled. What she learns proves to have global implications.
Melanie’s protector throughout her journey is Miss Justineau, a psychologist posing as a teacher to investigate how Melanie and her contemporaries manage to think, searching for insights that might lead to a cure for the infestation. Melanie’s nemesis is Dr. Caldwell, who also believes these children’s brains are the key to the cure…once they’re thinly sliced and placed on slides, that is. “Even though Caldwell is obviously a villain, there’s a level to what she’s doing that is necessary and worthwhile,” says Carey, although her actions make Caldwell seem “less human than Melanie.” Ironically, as Caldwell gets closer to finding the truth about the hungry plague, “the only person who can understand her is Melanie.” Carey explains that Caldwell simply “wants to be vindicated, she wants to be remembered. [That’s] fairly realistic for scientists and writers.”
As I like to do with authors who write post-apocalyptic novels (there seem to be so many of them recently), I asked Carey why he wrote one and why he thinks they’re so popular again. “I wonder if one of the reasons is just because we seem to be facing real apocalyptic times. The serene future we used to think we had isn’t there,” he says. “The world is heading for some kind of traumatic change; we’re interrogating the future.” Or maybe the answer is a little easier. “So many of these apocalyptic stories can be exciting and exhilarating to read: All the day-to-day concerns that trouble you disappear—no mortgage, no holding down a job,” he explains. “Apocalyptic narratives have a carnival atmosphere underneath the horrible atmosphere. An apocalypse is an interesting place to visit, but not to live.”
But all is not entirely dark in Carey’s zombie post-apocalypse. The novel is “meant to be analogous to the Pandora story; there’s hope at the bottom….It’s the end of the world, but something else is going to come, something else is going to replace it. Maybe the something else has a chance of being better.“Amy Goldschlager is an editor, proofreader and book/audiobook reviewer who lives in New York City. She has worked for several major publishers, and has also contributed to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Locus, ComicMix and AudioFile magazine.