This week’s piece of weird fiction we’re discussing over at LibraryThing.
Review: “The Dead Kid”, Darrell Schweitzer, 2002.
This is an unusual zombie story.
It starts by talking about Luke Bradley, a crazy, thuggish classmate of the narrator. He suspects Luke isn’t twelve like him. Luke seems too big to be the same age.
Luke doesn’t recognize rules – either others’ or his own. Even self-preservation isn’t a consideration. He’ll grab hornet’s nests and threaten to eat dog manure. And, if anybody around questions his stories about stealing cars or hopping a freight train, he’ll beat them up. The same holds true if his orders are questioned.
When David, our narrator, is told by Luke that he has a dead kid, he, David’s younger brother Albert, and the rest of the gang, go to see it. In a concealed hill fort, built who knows how long ago by other boys, is a pit with a cardboard box in the ground. Luke found it and took it back to the fort with the dead kid inside.
The word zombie is even used by Luke. The dead kid can barely move. Luke pokes him with a stick and knocks him down. The zombie merely bleats. Albert, ten, is horrified and can’t stop talking about it all afternoon with his brother. Of course, Luke has threatened to beat the brothers up if they tell about the dead kid.
That summer, Albert has bad dreams, even wets his bed. His seemingly well-to-do parents send him to therapy where he may have told the story thinks David. But, if he did, no one believed him since Luke and his gang aren’t arrested.
David decides, if he’s going “to survive in this rough, tough, evil world, I was going to have to become tough myself, bad, and very likely evil.”
He decides Luke has the answers and decides to join his gang.
With the gang, David visits the dead kid again. We see Luke torture the zombie further by poking a finger through his skin and making him dance. The zombie groans and whimpers.
This scares David, but he explains:
I still wanted to measure up to Luke Bradley, for all I was more afraid of him than I had ever been. I figured you had to be afraid of what you did and who you hung out with if you were going to be really bad. You did what Luke did. That was what transgression was all about.
David’s act of transgression is spontaneously urinating on the zombie. This gets Luke’s approval. He thinks David has what it takes to join his gang.
He has a surprise. Inside the fort, is a stash of crumpled up porn, and the rest of the gang, except David, engage in a circle jerk, ejaculating on the dead kid.
Luke says that if David wants to join his gang, he has to meet certain standards. He cuts David’s hand and lets the zombie lick the blood. “He needs a little blood now and then to keep him healthy”, says Luke.
Then David’s told that his initiation is to stay the night alone in the fort with the dead kid. He has a weird dream that night in which he seems to merge with Luke, where he does the things Luke has done — or claimed to do.
However, he is sure one thing wasn’t a dream: the zombie cutting his check with a fingernail and drinking “blood and tears”.
It is then that the narrator starts identifying with the zombie: “It came to me, then, that we too had more in common than not. We were both afraid and in pain and lost in the dark.”
The next morning Luke and his gang show up. David is congratulated on passing his test, but one more thing remains. They pour gasoline on the zombie, and David lights him up.
The bleating, moaning zombie makes David throw up.
Since he’s been gone all night, there’s a big furor when David returns home. His parents wonder if he’s been doing drugs. (David did, reluctantly, smoke a cigarette with the gang.) Stepdad Steve even slaps him around. His mother worries that she’ll have to hire a therapist again and not be able to afford a mink coat.
David is banished to his room. Albert knows, without being told, this all has to do with the dead kid. Albert hears the dead kid in his dreams.
That’s when we get the slight origin story of the zombie. His father was a magician who fought a war with other magicians, and his son was “lost”.
Albert tells David they have to save the dead kid, and Albert knows how.
They sneak out that night and go to the fort. Albert scratches some “secret signs” in the dirt along the way. Albert tells the dead kid they want to show him some stuff, and they carry the boxed zombie into town in the night, do some window shopping, and go to a playground.
Albert and the dead kid hold hands. No one says anything.
Finally, the zombie gets out of the box, seemingly stronger now.
They go to the nearby trashed out Grant estate, a large house with a bad reputation in the neighborhood because, supposedly tramps kill kids there or you can fall through floors.
But when the boys get their, the Grant house is no longer a Victorian ruin. Now it seems restored. A light is on in a tower. A man in black looks out its window.
The dead kid sees the man and run towards the house.
David grabs the zombie. He feels possessive of him – just like Luke did. “Hey, dead kid . . . Where are you going?”
The zombie now seems to have a face and announces, “My name is Jonathan.” Before he enters the house, he turns back and looks at the brothers. He no longer seems a figure made of sticks. The lights go out in the house, and it becomes a ruin again.
At the end of the story, we learn that, after avoiding hime for a while that fall, David gets severely beaten by Luke for stealing the dead kid. He locks David in a locker overnight. In that locker, David makes sounds like the zombie did and wishes the dead kid would save him as he saved the dead kid.
David’s parents move out of state, and the brothers are put in a prep school. Luke is expelled from school. Years later, David learns that David and three of his gang committed several robberies and all died in a shootout with police.
The final line of the story again emphasizes redemption:
What Luke Bradley showed me was that I could have been with them, if Albert and the dead kid, whose name was Jonathan, hadn’t saved me.
It’s a memorable story, a skilled example of using the fantastic as both a plot element and source of real horror and as a metaphor.
Not only is the zombie a very sympathetic character who, while consuming blood, never threatens anyone, but he is a clear parallel to the plight of narrator David, a young boy who hates school and his stepdad Steve yet is trapped in his relationship to the thuggish, crazy bully Luke Bradley. Schweitzer doesn’t distract us from this parallel with much of an explanation of how the zombie came to be. Finally, I’ll add that younger brothers are not usually the source of moral redemption in these stories, another nice touch.