In fiction, the apocalypse is typically a local affair, the global impact notwithstanding. In the early days, survivors might catch panicked broadcasts from places farther than a day’s walk, but once the lights go out, the world shrinks not only to matters of survival, but to a few square miles. It makes sense, then, that almost all the comics and novels in The Walking Dead universe have taken place in in a tight geography in and around the states of Virginia and Georgia. (The only exception, until now, was an obscure digital one-shot by Saga‘s Brian K. Vaughan set in Barcelona, though it does relate back to people we know in the comics.)
This also helps explain why the mere premise of The Walking Dead: Typhoon is so captivating: it’s a narrative of the zombie apocalypse set on the other side of the world, far removed from the locations and people we’ve become familiar with; author Wesley Chu (The Lives of Tao, The Red Scrolls of Magic) tells both the tight, personal stories of three closely connected characters, and the larger story of the Hunan province of China in the first year of the rise of the dead.
The recently ended comics run of The Walking Dead follows a single protagonist, Rick Grimes, in his life after the dead rose. As a small-town sheriff in the South, he embodies certain American values. His successes and failures often tie back to his expectations of those around him, and they of him; the personal is cultural. Very few of Rick’s strategies are going to translate to the Hunan province: though the basic mechanics of the undead remain the same, everything from the physical landscape to the larger governmental response is profoundly different.
Chu’s take on the franchise primarily follows three people: Elena, an American who was teaching English in China before the zombie plague broke out; her boyfriend Zhu, a young man who left his sleepy rural town for the lure of better wages in China’s factory boomtowns; and Hengyen, a grizzled military man with an unshakable faith in his people’s ability to persevere. Elena, Zhu, and gentle giant of a man called Bo make up a “windrunner” team: one of many small groups scavenging for supplies in a larger and larger radius around Beacon. Hengyen is the leader of the wind teams, working under the direction of Secretary Guo, the acting provincial governor.
Along with several thousand others, this trio lives within a walled haven from the dead called Beacon of Light. Though the rhetoric has reverted to more Revolution era terminology—they are now fighting the “Living Revolution” against the dead—Beacon is run by the vestiges of China’s great bureaucracy. Unlike the world Rick inhabits, where it seems as though government and military systems collapsed early on, there’s a certain continuity of government in the Hunan province six months after the dead rose. There are other people scratching out a living outside of Beacon—people referred to as “vultures” for failing to contribute to the Living Revolution: several sects of the Heaven Monks, who cleanse the dead with fire, some farming families; and the usual rumors of cannibals and bandits.
Another group we learn of is made up of the remnants of Zhu’s hometown, located several days’ walk from Beacon. Early in the novel, Zhu leads a scavenging team there and, after getting separated from Elena and Bo, discovers it’s home to a community of villagers protected from the dead by the natural geography of a mountain gorge. This presents him with a dilemma: to inform the government of Beacon of the existence of people and supplies that Beacon so desperately needs, or to help the villagers escape to the national park of the Precipitous Pillars once the rainy season begins and their sanctuary is deluged. Zhu keeps his discovery a secret from his best friend and girlfriend, an omission that comes to bite him later, almost literally.
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The differences in terminology between this novel and the American-set main series make for an interesting examination of the cultural differences. Notably, the characters of the TV series and comics never use the word zombie; though Rick refers to them primarily as walkers, other groups prefer different names. The people of Beacon refer to them as jiangshi, a character from folklore who preys upon chi, or a person’s life energy. Rick’s people refer to large groups as herds; the people of Beacon think of them as storms. Indeed, the typhoon of the title refers to a group of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of zombies pouring out of the city of Changde—roughly twice the size of the Atlanta metro—on a collision course with Beacon. As the world’s most populous country, China would naturally be the most populated with the walking dead, its megacities emptying out into the countryside in a morbid reversal of the current migration from rural economy to factory cities.
The coming storm throws the city of Beacon, and therefore our characters, into crisis. Once they learn of the threat of the typhoon, military leader Hengyen and civilian authority Guo come into conflict about whether to retreat or hold the line. Zhu must decide where his loyalties lie: with love or with country, home or hometown. Elena must decide how far she’s willing to go for the slimmest chance of returning to Texas. The motivations and connections of dozens of other people intersect, intrude, and otherwise influence our principles; this is a complicated, living community. Survival is every bit as messy as dying at the teeth and nails of the jiangshi.
Though primarily known for his science fiction, Chu pivots to horror seemingly effortlessly. Like comedy, horror is largely about timing, and Chu’s fast-paced set pieces hit beat after beat of escalating terror. The Walking Dead: Typhoon captures a vivid sense of place, both culturally and physically. It tells the story of a province—of a country—while never losing sight of the people who anchor the narrative.
I hope there will be other forays into the larger world of The Walking Dead, and I hope they are all this well considered.