Some of the best zombie stories aren’t particularly interested in zombies. Instead, the walking undead are simply a convenient method for returning the world to its pre-Information Age proportions, re-establishing a frontier, and pointing a spotlight on human morality under extreme duress. Joshua Gaylord (here, slumming under the pen name Alden Bell) provides The Reapers Are The Angels with the perfect heroine for just such an excursion: Temple, a precocious, pugnacious illiterate who’d be bored with the undead “meatskins” who dog her every step, if they weren’t providing fuel for her colorful, Southern-fried philosophical musings on God, human nature, and beauty in a blighted world.
An act of brutal self-preservation forces Temple out of civilization (such as it is) and into the gunsight of Moses Todd, a hulking cross between Anton Chigurh and the Misfit from Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” Temple notes that Southern boys “just sit around waiting for somebody to kill their brother so they can get started on some vengeance,” but Todd’s steadfast faith in a world built on rational (though ultra-violent) rules undercuts his more bloodthirsty impulses, and the relationship between the two deepens into a twisted father-daughter bond that provides some of the novel’s most disturbing, engrossing scenes.
After going on the lam and taking a mute man-child under her wing, Temple strikes out for the West Coast, and Angels takes on the rhythms of a road novel, interspersing long stretches of tarmac with episodic trips off the main highway to visit a genteel family frozen in time, or a group of hillbilly isolationists with bodies that reflect their twisted worldviews. These encounters provide Temple with plenty of opportunities to charm readers, whether she’s handily cleaving brains with a gurkha knife, cracking jokes in full-on adorable-ragamuffin mode, or brooding over the loss of her brother Malcolm. But her worldly wordiness can border on the cutesy, and Bell’s handle on loping Southern speech patterns is occasionally less than sure—especially when contrasted with the dialogue in his debut novel, Hummingbirds, which never failed to convince in its depiction of elite prep-schoolers.
Still, for every clunker, Bell outfits his heroine with 10 punchy observations on the desiccated America she was born into and can’t wait to sightsee. At just over 200 pages, Angels doesn’t give her time to wear out her welcome, and whenever the introspection gets too heavy, there’s always another round of satisfying carnage to lure readers down the next dusty road.