It’s tough to write a zombie story these days. I mean, it must be, right? Or at least it’s difficult to write a zombie story that stands out from the shuffling horde. Zombies have become such a hot commodity that nearly everyone wants to a) write a zombie book, b) sell a zombie book, c) buy a zombie book, or maybe even c) write, sell, and then buy a zombie book. Who knows?
The good news is there will always be writers who attack any well-worn premise from a refreshing direction. Recently, there have been some excellent zombie novels hitting the shelves: Max Brooks’ World War Z, Howard O’Dentz’s Dead (A Lot), Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies, and many others. For the record, I’m happy to add Peter Giglio’s Lesser Creatures to that list. Giglio gives us a world with zombies, yes, but they’re more than just ambulatory corpses. Much more.
Lesser Creatures begins with a brief scene between two teenagers: Steve is a geek who happens to be in teenaged love with Glory, the most beautiful girl he’s ever known. Quickly, we learn there may be something special about Steve. According to an essay he wrote for English class, some years before, he was able to create a cat from his dying sister’s dreams, giving her comfort in the days before her death. Glory not only knows about the story of Steve’s purported ability, but she believes it, and, as we soon discover, intends to exploit him for her own purposes. The teenagers kiss, Glory declares her love for Steve, and something strange and unexpected happens. (No, it’s definitely not what you’re thinking.)
The story leaps forward fifteen years, to a world featuring formerly-dead people called second-lifers. This isn’t your standard overrun-by-undead-people world, though. The second-lifers shamble and don’t have much direction, but they aren’t violent, malicious, or brain-hungry. They lead dreary lives, working in various menial jobs and subsisting on burgers, fries, and whiskey.
Not only are the second-lifers accepted in society—sometimes grudgingly so—they’re protected, which is the really interesting part. Any living human who kills a second-lifer falls victim to a kind of curse—a phenomenon called, wait for it, The Curse—which, in turn, kills that person, dispatching them into a death by excruciating and nasty disintegration. This curse, by the way, will eventually become relevant in another interesting way.
As the story gets rolling, we’re introduced to three main characters. The first is Pastor Steven Lingk—the love struck teen Steve from the first scene—who is now the thirty-year-old leader of Glory’s Children Church, a religious organization that advocates for the second-lifers. This church is no fringe cult, however. It’s become enormously successful, and Lingk is an incredibly wealthy man.
It is at this point that we may also begin to realize the significance of the church’s name: Glory’s Children Church. The encounter between Steve and Glory, the one from the beginning scene, is what spawned the second-lifers, and the curse protecting the second-lifers from harm appears to be a result of whatever it was that allowed the younger Steve to create them in the first place.
Despite his church’s success, Pastor Lingk is currently experiencing a crisis. He’s officially gone on record telling the world he was responsible for creating the second-lifers in the first place, a revelation that’s being met with a good deal of skepticism, not the reaction he was expecting. Lingk is becoming desperate to turn his situation around.
Meanwhile, the story also follows Eric Cooper, an advertising man who feels his best years are behind him. In the book’s dedication, Giglio mentions his admiration for Philip K. Dick, and Eric Cooper is a protagonist Dick would have liked. He drinks too much, has a thing for younger women, and can’t maintain any level of consistent normalcy. His life is, essentially, a mess. Eric also happens to work for an advertising company whose largest account is the Glory’s Children Church. He’s ready to quit his job, but his boss won’t let him, primarily because Pastor Lingk insists that Cooper work his account.
The third main character in the story is Monika Janus, a second-lifer with a little something extra. For one thing, we’re privy to Monika’s thoughts, so we know she has murky memories of her previous life, which is something we’re pretty sure second-lifers aren’t supposed to have. For another—and this is the good part—there’s a connection between Monika and Eric. I won’t ruin that for you, but trust me, it’s important. There also seems to be a tie between Monika and Glory, the girl from Steven Lingk’s past. Also important.
Another similarity between Lesser Creatures and the universes of Philip K. Dick is the amount of seemingly throwaway details Giglio throws at us, any one of which could probably make a compelling story. Dick was good at using these kinds of elements to imbue his stories with authenticity, suggesting that his created worlds were as real as any the reader might have experienced.
For instance, in Lesser Creatures, one of the advertising companies’ most crucial target audiences is the second-lifer population. Why? We’re not really given a clear answer, but it somehow works. Why do they love burgers, fries, and whiskey? Again, we’re not certain, but we don’t need to be. We’re also briefly told about the early days of the second-lifers and the discovery of the curse. Giglio gives us enough information to provide a sense of context but not enough to derail the main story.
Speaking of story, it’s difficult to talk about many of the essential elements of this novel without engaging in some significant spoiling, and I’m not going down that road. Just know that there’s a whole lot happening in Lesser Creatures, but Peter Giglio cleverly manages to keep it fairly simple. The meat of the tale comes from the connection between Pastor Lingk, Eric Cooper, and Monika Janus, and while we may not precisely understand the nature of that connection—Giglio also does nice work paying out this information at a steady pace—we’re always aware of its presence and the fact that it’s driving these characters to some extreme but plausible lengths to get what they want.
Ultimately, Lesser Creatures is a bizarre and occasionally darkly funny look at a world not too different from our own. And let’s face it, those are sometimes the best genre stories, aren’t they? You know, the ones set the day after tomorrow? Sure, we love to read about far-flung futures and incredible scientific advances, but reading a story like this, one set in a slightly skewed world like ours, can be both entertaining and unsettling.
This one’s a keeper.