The Raising of Stony Mayhall
by Daryl Gregory
I sat on this review for weeks, mostly because it isn’t easy for me to form, let alone articulate, a coherent opinion about Stony Mayhall, and it’s all the more difficult to do so without spoilers. So here’s my best shot, before the book becomes a dim memory.
The story starts with a portrait of “The Last Girl, the sole survivor, a young woman in a blood-spattered tank top.” The girl, whose name is Ruby, has made it through the zombie attack, to the temporary peace of the small town of Easterly, Iowa. And she’s searching for something. But then the story skips forty years backwards, to a time right after the first zombie attack. Wanda Mayhall is driving through the snowy countryside of Easthall when she stumbles upon a frozen body of a young woman clutching a baby. But despite the biting cold, despite the grey skin, despite the lack of heartbeat, the baby seems alive. Well, perhaps not alive. But not fully dead, either. And so John “Stony” Mayhall is brought into a family who must hide him from the rest of the world.
Daryl Gregory is a fantastic writer, and I’ll read anything he writes. I love his wry sense of humour and the way he injects it into the most serious of situations. Some of my favourites:
"As you might imagine, conspiracy theorists had a field day with this. And as usual, what began as a terrifying secret on the fringes of culture eventually found its way into the plot of a TV movie."
"Give a man a stick and he will beat you for a day. But give him a uniform, and he will beat you every day, then complain about how tough it is on his rotator cuff."
I also loved the detective series that Stony becomes addicted to--Jack Gore, ”A hard-bitten cop bitten hard.” I desperately want to read those books.
I think Stony Mayhall is easily Gregory’s most serious book, and his most direct exploration of social issues. It’s also the only book I’ve read that features a protagonist who suffers not from a psychiatric disorder but a physical one. In Stony’s world, an attack by the living dead has happened, but an apocalypse hasn’t. The threat has been successfully combatted, and the government relentlessly pursues any living dead that might have escaped their nets. But this doesn’t leave much room for someone like Stony. And so it’s a story about being ostracised for innate differences, being seen as subhuman, searching for a leader, a savior, an emblem of a cause, being dependent upon and resentful of the few sympathetic members of the oppressing group. It is about people who believe that separatism is the only way to bring peace, people who become so disillusioned by the world they live in that they seek to remake it, to reverse the inequality that stifles them. Comparisons to the history of racism and oppression in the US were unavoidable. The directness of the allusion simultaneously gave the book tremendous power, yet also seemed to detract from it as a novel. I know, weird. And I’m not sure I can explain. I think it’s because the book is so weighed down by the history it invokes that it can’t be experienced in isolation. The real history is so complicated, so emotional, so vivid, that the simplified version in the zombie world just feels lacking. Gregory isn’t very sympathetic to the ideas of separatism and supremacy, yet if we really look back at our own history, it becomes far easier to understand why these ideas gained traction. Gregory is thoughtful and careful, but the issue is so raw right now, so explosive, that it was difficult to read about in this simplified portrait.
I think my other major issue was my sense of distance from the story. Part of this was due to the structure. From the prologue, we know the world is going to fall apart; after that, I was holding my breath, waiting with a cold sense of inevitability for the first fracture in the facade of order. It was too easy to guess what would happen and where, and it was too hard to become attached to anyone when I knew the world was going to fall apart. And for me, Stony wasn’t easy to love in the first place. He is humble, forgiving, patient, cautious, careful, close-mouthed. And his emotions are so carefully held in check that I had difficulty empathising with him. Part of this was due to the ever-changing cast of characters. The book spans over forty years, and characters drift in and out, and their exits are often violent. The way they are forgotten soon after their loss contributed to my sense of distance from Stony. If I was still mourning a character, how could he have forgotten them?
But despite all this, I loved the complexity of the themes of the story. It’s also about family, about faith, about leadership, about choice. What does it mean to make an informed choice if the full knowledge of the choice requires a change in self? When I was originally asked what I thought about Stony Mayhall, I couldn’t answer. I have so many conflicting emotions about the book that I can’t really simplify them into “it was good” or “I liked it.” And maybe, above all, that’s the reason why you should read it yourself.