With so much parody and comedy associated with zombies these days, it’s easy to forget they can still provide effective horror fodder.
Having said that, Carrie Ryan’s 2009 novel (with one of the coolest book titles of recent years) is less a classic horror story and more a bleak, brooding tale of survival and perseverance in the face of relentless death.
The Forest of Hands and Teeth is set in an isolated village, surrounded by a forest filled with zombies – infected humans known as the Unconsecrated, who moan and push at the protective fences day and night.
The village is ruled over by the Sisterhood, an order of nun-like authoritarians who dictate a lifestyle and customs akin to Puritan times. (For the first 50 or so pages, I kept picturing the M Night Shyamalan film The Village, but Ryan’s story soon establishes itself as something far more menacing.)
Teenage villager Mary wonders what might be beyond the Forest of Hands and Teeth, but doesn’t begin to obsess over it until her Mother – who has always told her stories about the ocean – becomes infected and Mary is forced to join the Sisterhood.
She discovers the Sisters have kept secrets from the village and starts to turn herself inside out wondering what really exists beyond the Forest of Hands and Teeth.
When the village fence is breached and the unspeakable happens, Mary is forced to choose between continuing the life the Sisters have set in place, or risking her life – and the lives of those she loves – to find the truth.
Ryan’s world building is excellent, as is the slow revelation the Sisters may not been entirely wrong in their intentions to create a new way of life in the aftermath of what is known as The Return.
Ironically, the hunger Mary has to know the truth and find the ocean is not all that different from the driving hunger of the Unconsecrated, to the point it taints everything in her life – including the two brothers who compete for her affection.
Not all questions are answered in this first novel, and given the sequel, The Dead-tossed Waves (now out), is set quite a few years after this one, they may never be.
By the end of this dark and often tragic opening story, the main question left hanging is: is it better to live a life of restriction, ignorance and peace, or one of freedom, truth and suffering?