First off, reading challenge assessment time. Grade received: Total crap! Because I’ve read just 10 books out of a possible 24. And I can only lay so much blame at the feet of Stephen King, whose gigantic tomes I’ve already read in service of two of the challenge themes. Reading for pleasure (instead of panic, ie. whatever horrifying news is coming out of American politics this hour) is just not an activity I gravitate towards any more. I wish I knew why that need to read has departed – I was a voracious reader when I was a kid – but hopefully it will return.
Until then, there are infinitely worse ways to pass the hours than in the broken but healing, dying but not yet dead world of Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies. And so for the ninth challenge prompt – a story that takes you to another place and time, real or imagined – I chose The New Hunger, a prequel novella from Marion set in the Warm Bodies universe.
If you’ve only seen the 2013 Warm Bodies movie, you can be forgiven for assuming that The New Hunger is a trifle of a book. I liked the film – correction: I like Nicholas Hoult, will watch him in virtually anything, although I recommend the sexy-as-hell Equals – but there really wasn’t very much there. It was an enjoyable watch, but a tepid shadow of 2010’s fiery novel (which I see that Wikipedia has sorted into both the post-apocalyptic and gothic fiction tags, neat.) But the movie – quite apart from some major changes to the story – failed to capture the beleaguered optimism of the novel, distilling R and Julie’s passionate, revolutionary call-to-arms down to a simple Romeo and Juliet story, with zombies. I adored the book; it’s one of the best things I’ve read in decades, but the film adaptation did it, and the deeply layered Warm Bodies universe, no terrific favours. Isaac Marion is a fantastic writer – his prose is tidy and to-the-point, peppered with heartbreakingly poignant observations about war, politics, geo-political turmoil, man’s inhumanity to man, life, death and all those other terrifically lightweight subjects. Warm Bodies, the novel, deserved more.
So a trifle it is not, and neither is The New Hunger, a 2013 prequel novella set in the four or five years before R, Julie, Nora and M make their last stand in Stadium City. I actually read this book when it was first released via e-reader in 2013. Scared the crap out of me; the last 10 or so pages left me breathless, wide-eyed, shocked. As always, I can’t say more than that without spoiling this excellent, taut little examination of the downfall (and subsequent resurrection) of man, but the book links our four main characters years before they ever meet face to face – R, newly awoken as a reluctant zombie desperately clinging to the last vestiges of rational thought; Julie, 12-years-old, living out of her parents’ armored truck and dreaming of the kind of stable childhood she was never allowed to enjoy; M dying alone in the bathroom of the Space Needle; and finally Nora, 16-years-old, on a trek across the flooded port of Seattle in search of food, shelter and safety.
The bulk of The New Hunger concerns itself with Nora’s story, which ends in a place no less bleak than its beginning. After years of global crises, nuclear war, destructive political posturing and rising sea levels (sound frighteningly familiar?) humanity has reached its breaking point. Then, as the final flaming cherry on the end-of-times sundae, the dead rise up to drag the few remaining down. In the midst of all this – abandoned cities, deserted safe zones, looters and cultists and much, much worse – Nora and her little brother, Addison, have been dumped in a Seattle suburb by their junkie parents. Nora wakes one morning to find that they’ve simply left, taking all the food and weapons with them. Nora tries to tell herself that they probably committed that final atrocious act out of some concern that two kids left alone with a gun are bound to hurt or kill themselves with that gun, but she knows better – her parents didn’t give a shit, cared more about their final score than they ever did about their own children. It’s heartbreaking.
And real. Maybe a bit too real given some of the realities of today. I said before that this book genuinely scared the crap out of me. It did back in 2013, and it continues to frighten me today, albeit for different reasons beyond “ooh, zombies, scary.” It’s all hitting just a little bit too close to home. Truly, absent the living dead, Marion’s template of the downfall of humanity seems to be one we’re following note for note these days. Takes a bit of joy out of post-apocalyptic literature, that.
But you get your kicks where you can, and for me, that always means accompanying nail art, here my approximation of the flooded, fog-shrouded Seattle skyline Nora and Addison cross on their path to what just has to be something better. Something I think we could all work towards – something better.