Rot and Ruin, Dust and Decay, and Flesh and Bone, by Jonathan Maberry, are volumes one through three of a series about (sigh!) zombies. Having avoided most of the vampire books and some of the angel books, this is my first foray into teen zombie literature, but I’m happy to report that these reanimated corpses are treated with, yes, respect. Not all characters in the books respect the dead, though; the worst people form rough gangs and set up pits where unfortunate humans, even children, are thrown in to fight zombies, while onlookers bet on the outcomes. The main character, Benny, lives with his older brother, Tommy, in a world where small collections of humans barricade themselves in fenced off towns and try to forget “the Ruin” outside the fence, where zombies outnumber humans and civilization has come to a rusting, weed-infested halt. Even inside the town, when anyone dies, chances are very high that they will soon come back to a mindless “life” and moan, and try to bite anyone who gets too close--once bitten, the zombie virus infects your body and you become one of them. Zombies are usually slow, but are difficult to kill, unless the brain or spinal cord is badly damaged. Tommy has trained himself in martial arts and other survival skills and regularly goes out into the Ruin to give closure to grieving families. They hire him to quiet (a euphemism for killing) their loved ones, who have been abandoned in their zombie state with any surviving members fleeing their homes. Zombies usually stay close to where they used to live, and Tommy is given directions and portraits of the family members, and sometimes final words or letters to be read to the relative before quieting is done. “Don’t forget, Zombies used to be people," Tommy always says. At first, Benny hates his brother, mistaking a childhood memory of Tommy running away from his mom and zombie dad, with Benny in his arms, as cowardice. Eventually Benny comes to understand and respect what Tommy does. When they both become disgusted by the townspeople’s inability to improve their situation or reclaim useful sections of the Ruin, Benny receives some training from his brother in preparation to leave the town and go into the Ruin together with a small group of friends, in order to find out if anything is left of civilization.
In Maberry’s zombie series, the world is in a bad way, and no one is doing anything to fix it. The people in the towns are afraid and deny the reality beyond the fences, living life as if the Ruin didn’t even exist. The town’s leaders refuse Tommy’s repeated attempts to organize them to improve their defenses and reclaim some of the fertile fields which lie just outside the fenced borders. Evil bullies rule by force, and no one does anything about them either, allowing them to kidnap children to fight in the zombie pits. No one studies the zombie virus and tries to figure out how to combat it, or track whether or not it is mutating into different forms, or whether certain humans might be immune to it (or maybe there is a place out there where people are doing just that, if you read the later volumes). With all the mayhem and horror of the situation, everyone having seen their own beloved family members die and rise up as monsters, it is all the more precious that Tommy and Benny and a handful of others want to preserve life, and try to live with dignity and compassion for their fellow man. I’m sure you’ll be rooting for them to succeed, as I did.