By Joan Frances Turner
(Warning: Nerdiness ahead...)
The modern-day zombie mythology has evolved from George Romero's 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. Since then, countless writers, directors and producers have expanded on Romero's original idea, exploding the mythology in all sorts of direction from the purely canonical work of Max Brooks (World War Z), Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead) and Romero himself to the deconstructionist, first... um... zombie accounts by Marc Price (Colin) and Andrew Parkman (I, Zombie) to the non-traditional accounts that break significantly from Romero's original mythos that include the work of Francis Laurence (I Am Legend) and David Moody (Hater). For a genre that has often been derided for its limitations, creators and proponents of the zombie-verse have reinvented themselves in all sorts of new and interesting ways.
Then along comes Joan Frances Turner, a graduate of Harvard Law School and obviously a zombie aficionado. In her first novel, Dust, Turner has taken a large bite out of the zombie genre, chewed it up and spit it out. Dust is a highly disturbing and powerful novel set in the heartland of the zombie-verse (the American Midwest) and follows the wanderings of Jessie, a former 14 year-old vegetarian who, upon perishing in a family car accident, has dug herself up from the grave and roams the Indiana countryside with her gang of the walking undead.
Dust is not for the faint of heart. At once compassionate and brutally honest, it is also gory beyond compare. Turner pulls no punches in her description of the brutal, painful life (unlife?) of a zombie. The undead deal with memories of their past life, wrestle with the all-consuming hunger that dogs them incessantly all while trying to survive in a world where continued existence is at once never-ending and seemingly without purpose.
She supposes the existence of an entire zombie culture complete with a method of telepathic communication, social hierarchies and various groups of competing zombies including those who consume human flesh and those that don't. Although even George Romero has hinted at a more profound version of the zombie in Day of the Dead, it is Turner that has added a complexity to the otherwise one-dimensional shuffling ghouls we have come to expect since the days of Johnny and Barbara (and Turner does a wonderful job of sneaking cheeky references to zombie films into the narrative. Don't think I didn't enjoy that!).
If that was Turner's only aim in writing Dust, it would have been more than enough to have added significant meat to the genre's aching bones. But Turner takes things a whole lot further. What starts out as a from-the-zombie's-perspective style deconstruction of the personal and social wonderfully devolves into uncharted waters as a third player is introduced. No longer is the world divided among the living and the dead. In a terrifying twist, the genre is split wide open. Here's why...
While most of those responsible for creating and perpetuating the zombie genre have concentrated on the early days of the apocalypse (Dawn of the Dead) or perhaps take up the story in the midst of the hordes (The Walking Dead, Diary of the Dead) very few, if any, writers tackle the endgame... the end of the zombies. Perhaps it is because zombies themselves have always signified an end of sorts or perhaps it is because humans would most likely not be around to witness the end of zombies. Either way, the end of the zombie invasion has never truly been discussed before Turner. By creating a third mutation, Turner has opened up the concept of total consumption and Dust becomes not only a superior novel but also a philosophical tract on the topics of death, starvation and annihilation. A veritable necrological compendium of misery.
I have been waiting a long time for someone to treat the zombie genre with the literary care that Turner exhibits here. While I take nothing away from the work of Max Brooks and David Moody, both of whom I enjoy, it is Joan Frances Turner that has raised the bar on why a zombie book can be and elevated the genre from mere sideshow anomaly to a seriousness it has always deserved.