Vampires, sexiest in the pantheon of monsters, have been ubiquitous in youth fiction over the past decade. But “The Undertakers: Rise of the Corpses,” the newest novel from Ty Drago, editor and publisher of the e-zine Allegory, may signal an invasion from the vampires’ hipper undead cousins: zombies.
Well, sort of.
Though the Corpses in Mr. Drago’s first outing into middle grade fiction (a poor choice of publishing jargon that means roughly the same thing as “tween”) do look–at least to some–like the decaying scourge of a George Romero movie, they should never, NEVER be mistaken for zombies. As the hero Will Ritter is told and often reminded, zombies are slow and dumb, but these Corpses (capital “C” to distinguish from the usual kind) are fast and, most importantly, cunning. Furthermore, they do not possess the souls of the humans who once inhabited their bodies but are using the bodies as merely a mode of transportation while a mysterious telepathic camouflage keeps them looking like normal people to the rest of the world. Only a few unfortunate teenagers have what they call the Sight, an unexplained ability to see the Corpses for what they really are. Confused yet?
Unlike vampire books, which have been around for centuries and hit the pop-cultural jugular in 1897 with Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” zombie literature has only existed as its own genre for roughly twenty years, beginning with the “Book of the Dead” anthology. And while vampires spent the first decade of the 21st Century conquering teen fiction with the “Twilight,” “Vampire Huntress” and “Black Dagger Brotherhood” series, to name just a few, the zombie has thus far only been associated with far more gruesome, adult-oriented fare, such as Max Brooks’s “World War: Z” and Brian Keene’s “The Rising.” Despite its unique mythos, “The Undertakers” is clearly meant to usher the zombie story into the realm of youth fiction and capitalize on the current zombie vogue. Its cover emblazoned with an image of the young, carrot-topped hero standing his ground against a horde of walking Corpses, one could easily think this a zombie saga and be three or four chapters in before realizing the mistake. And although the journey that Will takes from average Philadelphia white boy to lean, mean, corpse-fighting machine is more or less satisfying, it is difficult to shake the feeling that the publisher has pulled a fast one.
Will lives in the gentrified Philadelphia neighborhood of Manayunk. His father is dead, he tells the reader, and apart from this and noticing that his next-door neighbor is a reanimated Corpse, he is normal to the point of being insipid. “I’m twelve years old and just about as ‘middle of the road’ as you can get. I’m not skinny or fat, not really tall or short, not butt-ugly or particularly good looking.” If that weren’t enough, almost all of the other human characters introduced in the early chapters–loving mother, bratty kid sister, best friend who didn’t study for the math test, pretty new girl Will cannot work up the courage to talk to–threaten the story with death from Cloverfield syndrome: they are so annoying that you wish the monsters would hurry up and kill them already.
Thankfully, once the plot gets moving, the characters’ general lack of dimension only serves to help the brisk zero-to-hero tale along. Helene, the pretty girl Will was too nervous to chat up, happens to be a member of the Undertakers, an underground resistance group and safe haven for teens with the Sight. In a new twist on the classic “come with me if you want to live” sequence (heavily reminiscent of the pilot episode of Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles), Helene rescues Will from certain death at the hands of their corpse teachers before taking him to the Undertakers’ secret lair. There he meets Tom Jefferson and his sister Sharyn (can you tell from the names that they’re black?), the twin leaders of the Undertakers. From them he learns some unsettling truths about his late father: he was the only adult ever to have the Sight and helped found the Undertakers before being murdered by the Corpses.
Anyone who’s ever seen a Keanu Reeves movie can probably guess what happens next. Will begins his training, wrestles with the burden of being the chosen one who can lead the Undertakers to victory, and acquires the usual cadre of sidekicks (the geeky tech wiz who rigs up gadgets, the loyal brute with a heart of gold) and villains, including a big boss baddie whose dialogue seems to have been written with Hugo Weaving already in mind. Ultimately, it is Mr. Drago’s rendering of all things gross and violent that truly shines. A kid between the ages of ten and fourteen will find no shortage of ass kicking or garbage-pail gross outs, and the final chapters perfectly set the stage for a sequel or two.
So if a young person in your life has just begun to show an interest in adventure and the macabre, you could do worse than to introduce them to Will Ritter and his merry band of zombie… er, Corpse fighters. But if they’ve already graduated to anything R-rated or emotionally complex, beware: this is strictly kids’ stuff.
Good for: Middle school kids who like Keanu Reeves and usually hate reading.
Bad for: Anyone who’s looking for a zombie story, adult content or depth.
The Undertakers: Rise of the Corpses
by Ty Drago
465 pages. Sourcebooks Jabberwocky.