Title: The Girl With All The Gifts
Author: M.R. Carey
Year originally published: 2014
Melanie is a very smart little girl. She loves classical mythology and her teacher, Miss Justineau. She’s a normal child. Except that the guards muzzle and shackle her to her desk when they drop her off in the classroom. They make her take stinging chemical showers once a week. They serve her bowls of wriggling grubs for her weekly meal. Oh – and Melanie completely loses her cool when she smells human flesh.
The Girl With All The Gifts is based around a fantastic concept. These are zombies, but not as we know them. Some rules apply – hapless humans are still zombie-fied by fatal bites from so-called ‘hungries’. But this time, not all the zombies are mindless. Neither are they infected via traditional means, that is by a bacterial strain or a virus, but – and this is brilliant – by a variant of the Cordyceps fungus. I first learned about Cordyceps on David Attenborough’s BBC series Planet Earth (which is, by the way, really worth a watch). As you’ll see in this short clip, the fungus invades and takes over the body of the insect to propagate itself further. It’s ingenious. Carey utilises the same chilling idea in his novel to rationalise the zombie epidemic, and the result is fascinating. The idea of human-controlling fungus is one I’ve seen before with the sentient morel in Brian Aldiss’ Hothouse, but Carey develops this and, dare I say, betters it. I actually spent the novel hoping for more malevolent fungus developments, and was extremely pleased with the conclusion of the novel.
It is not only the rationale behind the formation and drive of the zombies that feels well designed. The structure of the novel is beautifully planned out so that the exposition is revealed to us little by little, making for some wonderfully ominous twists; Carey does this by writing the first half from Melanie’s limited perspective, allowing us to gradually learn about the frightening situation that mankind has found itself in. As well as experimenting with established tropes of zombie horror, Carey also plays with well-known literary relationships; for instance, the rapport between Miss Justineau and Melanie bears resemblance to that between Miss Honey and Matilda – a pair transplanted into the most horrific of circumstances.
This is a brilliantly creepy, well-thought-out take on the classic zombie horror. The Girl With All The Gifts is a truly compelling read. Eerie and heartbreaking, it’s up there with The Secret History as one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year, and has already taken its place among my favourite horror novels.