At the moment, the zombie horror trope is extremely popular and lucrative, as exemplified by the box office successes World War Z, the modern cult classic 28 Days Later, and the massively popular AMC show The Walking Dead. What is the appeal of zombie media? Perhaps it is the idea that these legions of the undead are the ultimate threat – former humans who can only be killed in a very specific way and are seemingly innumerable. Or, perhaps it is the fact that zombies represent the reality and innate horror of death in their inescapability and mindlessness.
M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts is not your typical action-driven zombie story. The plot is not completely centered on the mindless, fumbling former humans whose existence is defined by a steady mantra of eat, eat, eat. Though the novel does, of course, feature mindless zombies (though they are rather more terrifying than your typical undead), it is ultimately a character driven story that; rather than concentrating on the blood and gore inherent to zombie media, focuses on the actual science of the infection and the struggles of maintaining one’s humanity in situations that attempt to destroy it.
The opening of Pandora’s box and the release of all the horrors of the world is the main theme of the novel, and is explored most explicitly through the character of Melanie, an incredibly intelligent young girl whose point of view opens the novel. Through Melanie’s perspective, we are introduced to the military compound where she lives, and what she deems to be a ‘school’. However, it is obvious to the reader that Melanie’s school is only a school in the most basic sense. She and her fellow ‘students’ are kept in windowless cells with only a small framed illustration as decoration. At the beginning of each day, they are ordered into wheelchairs where two officers, one of whom is pointing a gun at the child’s head, fasten them to the chair by their chests, feet, hands, and heads, and wheel them out to the classroom.
Though Melanie jokingly tells the officers that she will not bite, it is clear that she does not question what she is experiencing. This is merely life for her. Her days consist of her cell, her school, and Miss Justineau, the teacher on whom she has an extreme fixation on, hero worship in its finest.
Melanie’s life as she knows it changes when she is pulled out of her cell by the head scientist of the base, Caroline Caldwell, and is taken to a lab. Just as Caldwell begins to dissect Melanie, the base is attacked by the ‘hungries’, provoked by humans who live outside the confines of what is now known as civilization, and Melanie, along with Caldwell, Ms. Justineau, Sergeant Parks, and Private Gallagher are forced to escape the now destroyed base and fend for themselves in post-apocalyptic Britain.
The rest of the novel follows this unlikely and dysfunctional group as they attempt to make their way to Beacon, the center of human civilization in southern England. Along the way, they encounter the horrors that transformed what was once a thriving civilization into a wasteland of gutted out cars and collapsing houses in less than twenty years. Despite the plot’s trajectory towards the oasis that is Beacon, M.R. Carey is more preoccupied with showcasing what it takes to survive and how that affects people mentally and interpersonally. This is masterfully shown through point of view shifts, the clashing personalities of the characters and their conflicting goals, especially in the case of Caldwell and Melanie.
The Girl With All the Gifts is both hopeful and absolutely hopeless in its resolution as the reader comes to discover that the real threat to this precarious world is not the ‘hungries’ themselves, but evolution. Nature turns against humanity in a shocking way as the characters come to the realization that the humanity that they have tried so hard and for so long to maintain may need to be forfeited for the greater good. The inevitability of death and destruction is present in its most stunning and horridly hopeful appearance in M.R. Carey’s novel, creating for itself a lasting place within the zombie media opus.