Two years ago, The Reapers Are the Angels took the horror novel by storm. A literary rendition of the traditional zombie apocalypse more interested in exploring questions of innocence and obligation than, say, the pursuit of brains, it announced the arrival of an awesomely promising author, whose haunting voice I could not wait to encounter again, and gave the genre its most memorable character in recent memory.
The good news is, Alden Bell’s back, and his painstaking prose is as evocative as ever it was. Add to that the following fact: herein he returns to the wonderfully wasted world of his Philip K. Dick and Shirley Jackson Award-nominated 2010 novel.
But Exit Kingdom is a prequel rather than the expected sequel, taking place over a period of weeks some years before the heart-rending events of The Reapers Are the Angels, and its sole perspective is similarly surprising: after all, Moses Todd seemed a merciless monster in Bell’s remarkable last. Complete with the motive and the means, he spent the larger part of it anticipating the opportunity to murder our enterprising young heroine, whose absence in Exit Kingdom feels like a hole in the heart.
Bell does attempt to replace Temple—if not the character then her role in the whole—and whilst he meets with some success in this sense,it’s far harder to invest in the Vestal. Amata is “a madwoman gone tricksy in the manners of the earth, the gorgeous get of a blighted world, so perfect in her lying everything,” thus the reader never knows where to stand as regards her. Of course, Temple was tricksy too, yet the Vestal’s deviance is still less direct. We all know the story of the boy who cried wolf; here, it appears, we have the wolf who cried woman.
Moses—a killer with a code—intuits as much the very moment he meets her. After a close encounter with a madman’s pet terrors at a derelict airport, he and his brutish brother Abraham—also returning from the pages of The Reapers Are the Angels—stop off at a Mission, and the author has already established our man as after exactly that: some reason to keep on keeping on. To wit, in this “architecture of order,” he finds his heart’s desire via Amata, whose blood tells a strange tale. The dead simply aren’t interested in her, for the selfsame reason everyone else is, so when a monk asks Moses to shepherd the Vestal to a promised land of sorts—a citadel in Colorado which still stands strong against the undead menace—he accepts the quest without question.
He’s wary of her from the first, however, and Amata’s various escape attempts do nothing to dissuade this distrust. Nevertheless, she and Moses do become close over the course of their pseudo-religious pilgrimage. They share certain experiences on the road to potential redemption, not least Exit Kingdom’s stark centrepiece. Crossing a frozen-over lake in the far north, they catch sight of something beneath their feet:
The ice is clear, and caught under it, like some kind of horrible fish in an aquarium, is the face of a dead man gazing up at them. His body has gone soft and bloated from being underwater for so long, his eyes milky, his flesh gone pale, nibbled at by fishes, his skin peeled off and floating around him like a nest of seaweed. They could have thought him just straight dead if it weren’t for the fact that his eyes are blinking up at them sluggishly. As they watch, the dead man raises a hand to them, his movements slow, made almost ghostly by the freezing water in which he is entombed. He places his palm against the undersurface of the ice.
Moses knows it to be a grasp of hunger, but because the dead man doesn’t seem to be able to bend his stiffened fingers,the outspread palm looks like a gesture of greeting or welcome. The eyes continue to blink, slowly.
It is pathetic and awful, the slug trapped underwater and undrownable — like a man staring up at them from the very mouth of the void, waving his goodbye as he descends, floating down peaceful into the great black.
As well as bringing Moses and Amata together for a time, this striking sequence also serves to illustrate Bell’s atmospheric intent. Patiently paced and moody in its every movement, Exit Kingdom is a sombre, soul-searching story. There’s sporadic action, I grant you—gathered around the outset and the denouement, or rather the novel’s rise and fall—and it’s remarkably well executed, at that.
But mostly, Exit Kingdom is about stillness... and silence.“Now the world has slowed down, there is no hurry. You watch the snowflakes fall lazily on the their way, and you are reminded of your own floating, your own speedless descent through life.” And so the undead are essentially unthreatening. The world may have gone to hell in a hurry, but now—decades on from whatever caused the zombies—now it turns in its own time. Even the explosive set-pieces are more measured than such scenes tend to be.
These occasional outbursts are engaging enough, but Exit Kingdom is unquestionably at its most affecting “in the noiseless interstices between action,” as Bell himself suggests in the interview appending this brief prequel. Moses, meanwhile, is a powerful presence—truly a narrative force of nature. And though the Vestal Amata is certainly no Temple—and though that lack leaves us, alas, with a less meaningful text than its elegant predecessor—she has her own unique appeal.
As has Exit Kingdom.