Wickedly funny. It’s really the only way to describe Harrison Geillor’s The Zombies of Lake Woebegotten.
The premise is simple: a meteor explodes in the night and things start rising from the dead. It begins with a fish. Gunther Montcrief opens his fishing cooler to find “the four good-sized walleyes he caught, but hadn’t yet cleaned, jumping and flapping and jerking around”. Gunther “had never known fish to come back to life several hours after death… but then he wasn’t some kind of expert”, and he concludes it “probably had to do with pollution”.
What caused the zombie apocalypse is never made completely clear, but then the cause isn’t really the issue—the issue is how this “small town, filled with ordinary (yet above average people), leading ordinary lives” responds.
They respond in a humorous and, at times, surprisingly realistic fashion. They create an Interfaith Anti-Zombie Task Force and hold a town meeting complete with muffins, brownies, and lemon bars, although it is noted that after killing a zombie no one really has the appetite for a lemon bar. They arm themselves with “shotguns, assault rifles, sniper rifles, and bristling black, oily-looking weapons that looked as if they belonged in a science fiction move about space marines”. They ask people “Are you a zombie?” before shooting.
Of course, in all the zombie craziness and chaos, a few interesting secrets about Lake Woebegotten residents do come to light. Needless to say, selecting the day a zombie uprising begins to murder your spouse may not be the best idea. Having the dead rise from their graves also makes it impossible for the town’s serial killer to keep his obsession with murder a secret.
Despite the realization that a serial killer is living in their midst and zombie people, bears, fish, and dogs are running loose, the citizens of Lake Woebegotten try to keep life as normal as possible, including the annual Christmas pageant complete with the manger scene. However, when someone replaces the Baby Jesus doll with a zombie: “then a general exodus began from the stage—Exodus not usually being a component of a Catholic Christmas pageant, or really Christmas stories in general, but the ad-lib seemed justified by the circumstances…”
Sure the plot may seem a little crazy—zombies take over the entire planet, murderers become some of the town’s most powerful citizens, and the town has a mayor who doesn’t “like situations that [can’t] be favorably affected by the judicious application of chloroform or shotgun shells”. At its heart, though, the book tells a simple survival story that just happens to be wickedly funny and has some interesting snippets of wisdom thrown in. One of the best lines: when the mayor realizes “She’d wanted power, and instead, she’d somehow ended up with responsibility.”
Sci-fi/fantasy humor can be a little difficult to carry off well for an entire novel (see Jennifer Government for example), but The Zombies of Lake Woebegotten entertains without becoming stale for three reasons. First, all the characters and little plot twists keep the book engaging and audiences chuckling. For example, Julie, who runs the town’s café, but also sidelines as a dominatrix, captures a zombie and keeps it in her basement, making one of her clients wonder, “He and Julie had been down here in this basement doing …all sorts of things…and all the time there’d been a zombie in the corner? He shuddered.”
Second, while the larger plot is a little crazy and perhaps slightly unrealistic, the smaller elements of human life Geillor portrays seem very familiar: “Stevie Ray pushed the bowl of mixed nuts—all the cashews had been picked out already, of course, that was always the way, it was pretty much nothing but peanuts and miscellaneous nut-dust now.” Even the premise that this town could survive the zombie apocalypse sounds somewhat reasonable when one of the town’s policemen explains, “Now maybe in the cities there’s hospitals and morgues full of dead folks and people getting shot for their tennis shoes by gangbangers and people overdosing on marijuana and guys jumping off roofs because they can’t stand the pressure of their CEO jobs anymore, but around here things are different. Most winters we only lose a handful of folks, and one of those is usually an unmarried agrarian Norwegian who puts a gun in his mouth, and not to be insensitive, but somebody who blows his brains out is solving any future personal zombie problem right then and there. I’d say it’s definitively a manageable situation here.”
Third, the book is well written and interestingly organized. The second section of the book opens “Twenty-Some-Odd scenes from the winter, in no particular order, certainly not chronological.” The opening sentence of the first chapter is over 100 words long but still makes perfect sense and reads beautifully.
The book’s readability makes it easy to rush through the 300-page story and consume it in a matter of hours. Resist this urge. It’s all the fine details and subtle humor that make the book—things easily overlooked when racing through a story. Instead hunker down and savor; good, humorous horror doesn’t crawl up from under ground, that often.