Imagine a zombie. An image springs instantly to mind. A rotting corpse, shuffling along, arms held out clumsily, grunting and groaning as it makes its way inexorably forward. Now imagine you, yourself, your ego, inside that zombie. You are that zombie, your consciousness trapped inside a brain that no longer has control over your body, your life, your insatiable hunger. You watch yourself feast on the flesh of those who are no longer survivors of the plague that has infested New York City, revolted by the feel and taste of human waste in your mouth as you gorge yourself on intestines and flesh. You pray for release from this un-life, but you are trapped, a passenger along for the ride on a body you no longer control.
In I, Zombie, Hugh Howey has created a top-notch horror novel and a metaphorically resonant examination of the human condition. I don’t normally read horror novels because I have an overactive imagination and tend to have nightmares from simple ghost stories told around a campfire. But I trusted in the skilled hands of Howey to make this zombie story more than a simple horror tale and I was not disappointed. I devoured I, Zombie in a single day, staying up late to finish the last chapters. As I laid in bed, trying to fall asleep (with the lights left on so the zombies wouldn’t get me) my mind turned from the horror of zombies mindlessly seeking the living to satiate uncontrollable desires to the people trapped in those flesh coffins.
Howey aptly titled the book I, Zombie, because this vividly told tale will force the reader to see the zombie in themselves. Told as a series of first person narratives, the people confined in the shambling hulks examine how they have lived as zombies in their own lives. Addiction, coercion, fear, mindless routines, failing to make a choice as an illusion of choosing, hunger for someone else to fill them with meaning, the slow decay of relationships as distance — emotional and physical — separates the human from the animal.
There is a lot of symbolism in I, Zombie, but it is easily done, placed into a background that informs and illustrates without being heavy-handed. Some books are easily spotted as being “serious fiction” but this book is a quality piece of storytelling that just so happens to be capable of being read at multiple levels. I can easily see this being assigned in classrooms at the college level (or older high school students because of the gross factor) as a study of what it means to be human and alive, rather than just another animal that is living.
There were a few hitches for me. There are some grammatical errors that should have been caught in editing (I read the Kindle edition.) And while Howey is writing over a dozen first person narratives, and manages to give each person their own distinctive voice, some of the vocabulary and idioms used for each character repeated enough that I wasn’t sure if it was intentional, a linguistic circling that illustrates the confines of each person’s lexicon and therefore experience and understanding of the world, or just careless writing that should have been refined in the revision process.
I, Zombie is revolting. And yet, I highly recommend it. I know there’s a joke waiting to be made about this being the thinking woman’s zombie story and BRAAAAIIIINNNNSSSS!!! but I can’t quite figure out how to make it work. There were times reading I, Zombie that I had an actual physical reaction, typically a dry heave, to what was going on in the book. And yet, even in a series of disconnected narratives, the plot advances so deftly that I was never bored (and was frequently holding my breath wondering how it was going to play out), and while the grossness factor remains in the background, the confrontation between the physical and the mental, the soul and the flesh, the instinct and the will, is what remains at the forefront after finishing the story.
And I dreamed about zombies all night.