Supernatural shenanigans and high school-aged characters go together like Joss Whedon and comic book franchises. Taking teenage angst and adding a dose of magic or sci-fi is a recipe for success, with countless noteworthy examples. It’s easy to see why. Horror tropes provide the perfect metaphors for many issues that teenagers face – things like addiction, emerging minority and sexual identity, slipping away from childhood, the fear of conformity, and the struggle to fit in – can easily receive fun metaphorical representation with vampires, werewolves, or witches. Araminta Star Matthews’ and Stan Swanson’s Return of the Loving Dead follows this proud tradition, mixing humor, horror, and teenage quirks into a fast-paced and highly entertaining supernatural tale. Lots of those metaphors pop up in Matthews’ and Swanson’s novel, but the one that seems the most relevant, to me at least (and I don’t know if this is the author’s intent), is the challenges of living with a loved one who has special needs.
The story is an interesting look at a post-zombie world. The zombie outbreak has already happened, and been neatly contained – though many people were killed or turned into zombies. The government has stepped in, zombies are kept in internment camps, and everything’s back to normal. Or so it seems. The main character is high school senior Amber Vanderkamp. She’s got a best friend, a quirky goth/punk/wiccan Lesbian named Jasmine, and a sweet, nerdy boyfriend named Zach. But then Zach is bit by a rogue zombie, dies, and comes back as the alliteratively appropriate Zombie Zach. Amber wants to care for her boyfriend and signs a release saying that she has custody over him. Zach’s parents figure that he’s dead for good and allow this to happen, and now Amber has Zach under her care.
The bulk of Return of the Loving Dead is about Amber and Jasmine trying to take care of Zach, and this is where the book mostly resembled the real life struggles of those trying to care for a relative with special needs relative with special needs. Zach had poor motor skills, limited intelligence, and he needs to be fed and cleaned. He also has to be constantly given medication or he’ll revert to feral zombie instincts and start trying to snack on people. Amber and Jasmine try numerous times to ‘cure’ Zach of his zombie existence, with New Age techniques from some of Jasmine’s friends at a local magic supply store, as well as using scientific techniques like hooking him up to a car battery. These attempted cures don’t work too well, and Zach is stuck as a zombie. Additionally, when Amber and Jasmine take Zach out in public, he gets countless odd stares and unwanted attention. Zach gets a lot of hate too, a natural result of people assuming that zombies are still dangerous, and there are attempts on his life from a mysterious would-be zombie killer that adds to the drama.
Obviously, people with special needs are not mindless zombies. The metaphor doesn’t extend particularly far, but it’s nice to have it in the story. Amber and Zach clearly do love each other – even if Zach has trouble expressing that love, and their struggle is strangely heartwarming. Amber and Jasmine’s constant teenage back-and-forth isn’t quite on the level of Joss Whedon, but it’s funny and entertaining nonetheless. Return of the Loving Dead is a little meandering, and I hope the sequel is more tightly plotted, but it does lead to an exciting climax with Amber participating in a fateful performance of Romeo and Juliet at her high school’s theatre.
Return of the Loving Dead is the first book in the Horror High School series, and it ends with a good hook for the next book – the Big Fang Theory, which will probably bring in vampires. At least, I hope it’s vampires, and not copious amounts of canned laughter. But the book concludes with an interesting core cast of characters and promises of more zombie adventure, so I’ll be sure to check that out. I do hope you pick up Return of the Loving Dead, for excellent undead antics.