Joan Frances Turner’s Dust starts off with a bang. It’s a zombie’s perspective of what it’s like to be undead, and the story gets gross quickly. This was the first passage that let me know I was in for something completely different: “Mags giggled from deep in what was left of her throat and Joe threw an arm around me, sprays of maggots shooting from the rips in his leather jacket like little grub-worm confetti.” There are lots of body effluences and problems that occur as a zombie tries to keep its corpse up, such as coffin liquor, the terrible itching as bugs devour one’s remains, and bones and flesh that don’t heal after being rough and boisterous with your fellow zombies.
And then Turner brings in some zombie world building, where the creatures’ moans and grunts are explained as a form of communication. They are sentient beings despite their appearance in horror movies and have their own terminology of hoo for “human” and ’maldie for zombies who don’t start rotting right away because their bodies were treated with formaldehyde. There are also many loving descriptions of what a zombie likes to eat.
Dust is told from the viewpoint of Jessie, who was fifteen years old when she died in a car accident. She’s been undead for about a decade and is part of the zombie gang called the Fly-By-Nights. She has a fellow zombie, Joe, that she loves and is content to roam about the countryside eating rabbits and opossums. Jessie is one of the zombies with ethics, and there are quite a few. She was a vegetarian before she died, and though she now eats flesh as a zombie, she refuses to hunt humans, finding that too cannibalistic. She does like a good fight since the change and is one of the tougher zombies in her gang, which threatens Teresa, the leader of the Fly-By-Nights.
Then Jessie starts to notice that their gang leader is not quite right. Teresa no longer smells undead, and her flesh is mysteriously filling in instead of necrotizing, the zombie norm; she will only eat meat several hours after a kill, which is unheard of in the zombie world; and she can suddenly move very fast, not in the usual zombie shuffle. This is the part of the book that I loved most—at last, a smashup of slow-moving zombies versus fast-moving zombies. I’d like to see what a screenwriter could do with this premise of the book. I foresee a most excellent zombie film, with fantabulous showdowns between slow- and fast-moving zombies.
Eventually, Jessie, the slow-moving zombie, meets up with her sister and brother, who have turned into fast-moving zombies, sort of. Jessie gets a little emotional reuniting with her family this way, but then finds out about the troubles that come along with being fast moving. These fast-moving zombies have been infected with something that makes them insatiable, and the world is quickly being devoured by them. When the fast-moving zombies run out of living targets, they tear down buildings to get at food, they strip the leaves off of trees, and they will even eat grass to fill themselves up. The rule seems to be that every half hour they require something to eat, preferably something large and cooked.
If Dust could only have stuck with this; instead, the ending falls flat. The evolution of the fast-moving zombie is explained somewhat, and then somewhere at around page 300, the story peters out. I had been involved reading a gritty story from a zombie’s perspective about the apocalypse that she was now facing. Then all of a sudden, I was stuck reading turgid dream sequences as the author appeared to build some sort of zombie mythos that never quite worked for me.
I’m really hoping the second part of this zombie trilogy plays out better.