I don’t do too well with entertainment designed to thrill through fear — I’m one of those annoying friends who vetoes movie night unless I get a guarantee that horror movies won’t be on the menu, I won’t go on the biggest and most brain-scrambling roller coasters at Six Flags, and I couldn’t even finish The Road because it was creeping me out too much.
You can probably guess what’s coming next. I — the girl who used to hide under my covers on a regular basis at the age of 15 and conjugate Latin verbs in my head in order to stave off the nagging feeling that there was a vampire waiting just beyond the door frame — found myself shocked when, reading a comic book about a zombie-filled post-apocalyptic society, I couldn’t put it down.
“Fear the Hunters,” the 11th volume in Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn’s series “The Walking Dead,” contains pretty much everything that leads people to not watch scary movies. Along with the aforementioned zombies, there’s the perpetually cold and hopeless landscape, increasingly desperate and terrifying crimes committed by the desperate protagonists, sociopathic child murderers, and a growing sense that there’s no way this is going to have a happy ending.
And yet, upon finishing “Fear the Hunters,” I found myself with the profound desire to head to the nearest comic book store (or rather, the textbook account on Amazon fueled by my parents’ credit card) and buy up the first 10 volumes in the series. So, what inspired this late-in-life horror-story conversion?
The answer is deceptively simple: this is a damn good story. The characters — our protagonists are a motley crew of surviving humans, young and old, traveling together in an old truck and armed to the teeth with military-grade weaponry that they must have acquired in an earlier issue — are well developed. Even coming to the story 10 installments in, each protagonist’s personality is rich enough that I was able to easily distinguish them: Abraham, the tough guy who offers the least pleasant but often most effective answers to the various questions that crop up as the group travels; Andrea, young and pretty, who falls in love despite herself and suffers because of it.
The character at the center of the story is Rick, the de-facto leader of the group: he’s smart, ruthless and protective, but it’s soon clear that, as with any parent, his son is his blind spot. Kirkman, Adlard and Rathburn don’t shy away from immersing children in this bleak and horrific world. In fact, children are at the core of each of the book’s most devastating emotional upheavals. That may be a sleazy tactic, but it’s also an effective one. This is a story that hits hard and deals with serious ethical issues — euthanasia, sociopathy, mass murder. The good guys fight to hold on to their humanity, and, as the book’s last scene makes achingly clear, they don’t always succeed.
For a series called “The Walking Dead,” zombies are a surprising non-issue, in fact. There’s never any doubt that humans are the real threat here, particularly when the travelers have a run-in with a group of cult-like cannibals towards the back end of the story. The zombies, instead, are the catalyst for human insanity, a danger represented by the danger of infection, and subsequent zombification, should one get its teeth on you.
Turning into a zombie is just another way of dying, the book implies. It’s turning into a person who can no longer tell right from wrong that’s the serious threat in a world devoid of all structure and society.
Which is not a new theme for post-apocalyptic stories — in fact, it’s probably the most basic theme of any and all of them — but this book does it well. I couldn’t put it down not because the startling black-and-white images of gore and destruction thrilled me, but because I felt like I was attending the most awesome ethics lecture of all time.
I didn’t have nightmares about zombies after finishing “Fear the Hunters,” because in the end this isn’t a comic book about zombies. It’s a comic book about the constant struggle between humanity and inhumanity, and, at the risk of looking way too deeply at a comic book, that’s not just a horror-story problem, it’s a real one.
My enjoyment of this book doesn’t mean you can make me watch “Night of the Living Dead” with you next time we have a sleepover, though, okay? Not unless you can convince me that, like “Fear the Hunters,” it’s an intelligent, ethically crucial parable that just happens to contain a lot of walking, infectious dead bodies. You can buy me volume 12 when it comes out, though — I really need to know what happens next.