***Spoiler Alert: mild spoilers for The Girl With All the Gifts***
Stagnation is one of the unfortunate things avid horror fans deal with. For such a rich, dynamic, and prolific genre, horror often trades in the same old stories. Sometimes I feel like I’m experiencing the same serial killer thriller, haunted house short story, or post-apocalyptic zombie movie again and again. I’ve noticed a cycle to subgenres’ popularity, where one well-made novel or movie captures hearts, minds, and nerves only to inspire a lot of not-as-good imitations. Knock-offs are churned out in record time, and in the rush to get the product out, creators sacrifice quality and imagination.
This isn’t always a “bad” choice, since there is a lot of money in producing cheap and gory horror movies. It happened with zombies, possessions, and found-footage horror movies. It happens with vampire novels. These works have entertainment value, but they aren’t groundbreaking and become uninteresting.
As a fan, this vicious cycle frustrates and bores me. Horror is such a flexible genre, with great potential for constant reinvention. I always enjoy horror that offers something different.
Thus, whenever a movie or novel comes along that breathes new life into a worn-out subgenre, I can’t help but take notice.
Enter The Girl With All the Gifts, M.R. Carey’s innovative 2014 zombie novel. In a subgenre rife with the same old survivor story, Carey wrote a compelling zombie narrative reexamining many of the assumptions of the genre. The result is a novel that offers a fresh perspective on many of the tried-and-true themes of the zombie genre, including survival at all costs, us vs. them mentalities, and what it would take to rebuild a shattered world.
The Girl With All the Gifts follows a group of survivors twenty years after a world-wide cataclysmic event known as “The Breakdown.” The global society collapsed due to a nightmarish contagion infecting most of the population. The contagion in question? A mutant variety of real-life fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, a.k.a. the zombie ant fungus. After infection, those infected, known as “hungries”, lose all higher mental function and feed on other human beings. Naturally, the infection spread quickly and wiped out most of the population, though small pockets of people survive in the aftermath. One such community is an isolated military base, where Dr. Caldwell oversees the military operation to defend the base and desperately searches for a cure.
One of the inhabitants of the base is Melanie, a young girl with a genius-level intellect. The base is all she’s ever known, and while life at the base isn’t too bad, it’s also not good. Every day, Sergeant Parks and Private Gallagher come to her cell, secure her to a wheelchair, fix her head in place with straps, and wheel her into a classroom with other children. There, the children learn about the world before The Breakdown. Melanie loves her classes, especially when her favorite teacher, Ms. Justineau teaches the class. Melanie could do without the soldiers, though she knows they’re only there to keep everyone safe from hungries. But she is very afraid of Dr. Caldwell, especially when the doctor starts experimenting on Melanie’s classmates.
It’s not long before Melanie learns that she is a hungry herself, though she and the other children are not normal hungries. No one knows why these children retain higher brain function and only go into feeding frenzies when they smell human flesh. Before Melanie can learn the truth, the base is attacked by hungries. Melanie escapes with Ms. Justineau, Dr. Caldwell, Sergeant Parks, and Private Gallagher. Together, they must cross infected territory to safety.
It sounds like standard zombie fare and, to a degree, it is. Carey was smart to ground his story in a familiar setting and plot. But you can tell he paid a lot of attention to details and put a lot of work into creating an authentic and realistic portrayal. In my opinion, it’s his commitment to details that gives The Girl With All the Gifts a creative edge.
It’s obvious that Carey did a ton of research before writing The Girl With All the Gifts. For one, he studied the behavior of real life contagion Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, drawing on real life horror to create a truly original and terrifying zombie plague. I’ll save most of the disgusting details for the book, but know that this zombie virus is weird and gross and disturbing. I really cannot stress enough how unsettling I found the novel’s virus.
Let’s just say that Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is not messing around, even in real life. In real life, this fungus infects ants, who loses brain function because the fungus “pickle[s] its brain” and then sprout stalks and blooming spores to infect other ants.
Check out these photos:
Carey also did a lot of work to make sure the military procedure and survival techniques felt authentic. The Girl With All the Gifts renders the facts of its world in plain and hard terms, driving home how gritty and dangerous things are, just how dire the situation is. I am no survivalist, but I think about these things frequently. Still, the novel forced me to think of survival horror in a whole new way. It’s not just about having enough bullets or being able to find food; survival horror is also about knowing the enemy better than they know themselves.
Most importantly, Carey’s creative edge is exemplified by the novel’s strong characters. All five main characters are very well-developed. Personally, I think good characters are more important than plot—if I can’t relate to a single character, an awe-inspiring premise is worthless. Similarly, a defined character can add nuance to an otherwise overworked premise.
So, in The Girl With All the Gifts, the reader experiences a post-apocalyptic world through the eyes of an intelligent and sweet zombie, a doctor who will stop at nothing to find a cure, a teacher who will stop at nothing to protect the zombie, a reluctant and damaged soldier, and a senior commander who knows firsthand what the dangers outside the base. With these nuanced characters, Carey gave himself a useful tool to drive the plot without contrived development. The characters do much of the work to ratchet up tension and threaten horrific plot turns, and it never feels inorganic.
While the novel is obviously rooting for Melanie, I appreciated how the narrative includes point-of-view chapters for all five characters. Some characters remember life before The Breakdown, others have known nothing else. Some characters are more sympathetic than others, but everyone is compelling in their own right. All the characters have understandable motivations putting them in direct conflict with the understandable motivations of other characters.
And speaking of point of view, I appreciated that Carey didn’t spend a lot of time on the initial outbreak or the Breakdown itself. He wisely portrayed a point in the zombie narrative that isn’t as popular in movies and books, and I think this choice allowed him to cover some unique thematic ground.
To elaborate, a lot of zombie stories focus on the spread of a contagion and how that turns the entire world inside out (REC, World War Z, Night of the Living Dead). Others examine the immediate aftermath of a zombie apocalypse and the ways people have learned to survive and cope (28 Days Later, The Walking Dead, Day of the Dead). That’s fine. These are all classics of the genre, and frequently imitated for good reason. But, again, it gets boring after a while.
By setting his story far past the initial outbreak and resulting chaos, when humanity has had time to stabilize the situation, Carey can introduce other conflicts. The characters face familiar obstacles, like finding food and fending off hungries, but they also face a near-impossible task of finding a cure, if there is one.
I don’t want to spoil anything big, so I won’t get too far into the central conflict of The Girl With All the Gifts, but I liked how there was conflict at all levels—hungries vs. the surviving humans, Melanie vs. the rest of the group, roving bands of uninfected but violent humans vs. the group, the group vs. itself. The small group of survivors are nearly torn apart by their competing goals and motivations. Even the contagion itself seems to be at war with itself, as Dr. Caldwell observes how often it inhibits its own progress.
All of these conflicts pale in comparison by a single scary question—what if there is no way to reverse The Breakdown? What will humanity look like in the future, if it survives at all?
For the most part, the novel engaged me throughout with these core conflicts. There were parts where the action lagged and the novel’s pace became sluggish. Most of the novel is tense, and the action scenes are solid, but I could sense parts where the novel struggled to maintain its baseline of tension and suspense. It never got so slow as to lose me, but certain parts tempted me to skip a few pages and get back to something interesting. Should you read The Girl With All the Gifts in the future, remember to push through the slow bits, because the novel is good at recovering from sluggish filler. Like a movie, there were moments where the novel plodded along before things went to shit in a matter of seconds.
Unfortunately, that also proved to be a fault of The Girl With All the Gifts. The ending was very rushed. I got used to his attentive descriptions and his careful character reactions, which he carried throughout the entire novel until the last few pages. After I finished it, I wondered if Carey had literally run out of paper to finish. Forgive me for going full English Major Nerd here, but there are only 7-8 pages of falling action after the dramatic climax. The novel took forever to get to the climax, and when it finally did, the abrupt ending felt empty. How is the reader supposed to digest what happened? How is the reader supposed to form an opinion when the characters are barely given time to react? And how can the reader get any closure when the reactions depicted seem very under-developed? I was left wanting more, but not in a good way.
Flaws aside, I recommend The Girl With All the Gifts to horror fans and non-horror fans alike, giving it a sold B+ rating for its imaginative and skilled portrayal of its post-zombie-apocalypse world and the characters in it. It’s too early to say if The Girl With All the Gifts will become a classic modern horror novel, but it seems to be on track. Carey has talent, and I for one am excited to see what he does next (rumor has it that he’s writing a prequel to this novel called The Boy On the Bridge). If his next book brings the same level of detail and attention of The Girl With All the Gifts, it will be a good novel.
Nothing against Stephen King, Dean Koontz, or Anne Rice, because I love them all, but it’s refreshing to experience new insights and fresh storytellers. In a genre that is often derided for being cliché or poorly written, it’s important that we horror fans support the up-and-coming writers. The Girl With All the Gifts should be on your reading list.
Have you read The Girl With All the Gifts? What did you think of it? Leave your comments below!