Non-binary (transsexual is the term utilized in the book due to being set in the 1990s) zombies, lesbian witches, lesbian Turkish-American witches and a Jewish African-American teacher make Out of Salem, the debut novel by Non-binary author Hal Schrieve, is not only intersectional in its representation but completely unique in the genre he chose to deliver it.
Thank you Edelweiss and Seven Stories Press for an ARC in exchange for a fair review
The world Schrieve has built is not an apocalyptic zombie world. People and “monsters” have come to live together, so to speak. They walk and live among “people.” Circa the late 1990s, there is a nationwide database and registration system in which these “monsters” are to comply, so they are kept under control. They are never truly free and are always fodder for persecution.
This is masterfully utilized throughout the book to represent the deplorable condemnation of current day hate such as racism, homelessness, classism homophobia, police brutality, hate mongering and bullying. An entire arm of the United States government exists merely to track the registration of these “monsters” and insure that they are not a menace or danger to society. They have full right to capture and contain them by whatever means necessary should they pose any dangers, without rights to lawyer, trial that citizens expect.
After a horrific car accident that kills her the rest of her family, Susan/Z (their preferred name), becomes undead. This is to say they are not yet a zombie but not alive, either. To further complicate the situation custodial rights have fallen to their uncle who has dedicated his life hunting down and prosecuting dangerous “monsters” across the country and is just waiting for Z to turning into a zombie.
Z dodges one bullet when they are taken in by Mrs. Dunnigan, a lesbian witch before their uncle can drag them back to New York and an unknown but certainly unpleasant faith. It is quickly shown how “monsters” are seen and treated when the uncle tries to reclaim custody by bringing the cops to Mrs. Dunnigan’s doorstep and prove that Z is a zombie. When the cops decide that Z is lucid and Ms. Dunnigan is willing and able to care for them, the cops simply state that under Oregon law, like any dog they get to choose where they stay. However, Mrs. Dunnigan must bring them in for check-ups every six months to insure they are still lucid.
Z is then enrolled in high school where they meet Aysel. Aysel is an unregistered, lesbian, Turkish-American, overweight werewolf. Werewolves are considered the most powerful of the “monsters.” Should she be found out, the consequences would be life-threatening. Despite these dangers, Schrieve doesn’t fall into any fat-shaming/body image tropes. Aysel is not ashamed of her size, in fact it is a source of power.
They bond immediately and become the best of friends. One of the most powerful and beautiful parts of Out of Salem is the friendship that grows throughout the book between Z and Aysel. As Z continues to try and keep themselves from becoming a full-fleged zombie utilizing the long illegal practice of nemocracy and Aysel is about to face a much larger issue they have each other’s back, staying side-by-side no matter what.
About that much larger issue; when a psychiatrist turns up dead and it is determined that a werewolf posing an imminent threat to the nation is responsible, a manhunt ensues (starting to sound eerily familiar to the world we live in today?). Aysel’s life has now become more complicated and terrifyingly more dangerous as race protests and police brutality escalate.
The climax of the story is suspenseful, which leaves the actual ending with a bit of a letdown. However the cliffhanger leads me to believe there is a second book coming. Considering the ground broken by Out of Salem, I can’t wait to see what Schrieve does next.
This novel may come out flying under the radar but I hope that many authors, publishing houses and readers take note and it sets off a wave of what can be a unique way to tell many different stories that represent a plethora of voices.