The Reapers Are the Angels ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Holt Paperbacks, 2010
Alden Bell proves that the literary zombie novel is not an oxymoron.
About zombies, you can say I’m … earnest. I love how they can be so many different things at once – pathetic, savage, terrifying, unrelenting. Zombies are shambling and starving, haunted and lost. They ramble and feed, yet there is a hint, always just a hint, of some long lost memory of who they used to be. Nothing captures that better than the scene from Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead when the zombies come in waves to the mall:
“Why do they come here?”
“Some kind of instinct. Memory, of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”
More than anything else, I love what zombies can teach us about ourselves because surviving a zombie apocalypse is going to cost you: your soul, your sanity, your faith, your humanity. Like any zombie story worth its salt, The Reapers are the Angels is not about the zombies. It’s about the survivors — the ones left hanging on by their fingertips to the jagged edges of a dying world that just won’t die and stay dead. A world that shifts and groans under the weight of biting, grasping corpses.
Temple knows this world. She’s been hanging on by her fingertips to the jagged edges for ten years, since her orphanage was overrun when she was just five years old. Now she is fifteen, fierce and feral. She might long for human connections and to find her place in the world, but the basics of human interaction and social etiquettes have passed her by. What she knows is survival at any cost, and it has cost her plenty. She can’t help but think: “I got a devil in me.”But Temple’s not a monster. Even as he hunts her across the country, Moses Todd explains: “I’ve seen evil, girl, and you ain’t it”. This is a redemption story, because really, that is what Temple seeks even though she cannot articulate that basic human need in herself, for forgiveness, for someone to lay their hands on her and tell her she’s just a girl after all, and not an abomination.
I love the title of this book – there is something so poetic, so portent, so Old Testament medieval about it. The Reapers are the Angels … yes, I want to read that book. I want to know what that means. Alden Bell delivers prose to match that is so achingly beautiful in its stream-of-consciousness style. I love the heavy Southern dialect that’s been bastardized by time and trauma.
You give me a compass that tells good from bad, and boy I’ll be a soldier of the righteous truth. But them two things are a slippery business, and tellin them apart might as well be a blind man’s guess.
This is a short novel that manages to be epic in its themes and scope, all at once horrific, heartbreaking and rife with tragedy. The violence is explicit but even as the blood and stinking offal pour across the page the book’s magnitude and terrible beauty is never in dispute. Alden Bell is writing Southern Gothic set in a landscape where things are not “gross” but rather “grotesque”.
What more can I say? Read this book.