An eight-year-old girl’s determination not to let a little sickness prevent her from enjoying herself at a famous Florida amusement park sparks off the destruction of the world in Mira Grant’s apocalyptic thriller, the short novel length work KINGDOM OF BONE AND NEEDLE. Some people would call it a novella, and perhaps that’s ostensibly true, however, there is sure a lot going on in this short work. First off, the world catches an enhanced case of the measles, which becomes known as Morris’s Disease for the first victims.
Had she been older than eight, she might have understood that the kind of unwell she was feeling wasn’t normal, wasn’t sunstroke, wasn’t something she should hide. Had she been younger than eight, she might have gone whining to her mother before she realized that she ran the risk of cancelling the day’s adventure. Had she been any other age, she would still have died, but she might not have taken quite so many people with her. (11)
Such a hope strikes me as facetious on the part of the unidentified narrator. This was the last day of a multiple day vacation to Orlando, and though she was feeling the symptoms in all likelihood she hit her infectious stage a little earlier. Long enough to spread this particular germ to any number of other families. In the Morris’s case, both the daughter and her father show signs of the malady and eventually die, in fact. The mother is forced to endure the greatest curse any parent could dream of: immune to the disease itself, she outlives both her spouse and her only child.
The Morris family has been touched by a power greater than themselves, and scraping together a life in the aftermath proves difficult at best. Although the opening sequences focus on Patient Zero and her family, the book soon enough spirals out to show how one disease leads to a resurgence in others. Virulent cases of measles, mumps, and more await the suddenly weakened world as a side effect of Morris’s disease is a sort of immune system amnesia. Soon enough, however, the book zeroes in on its protagonist, a pediatrician and vaccination champion named Isabelle Gauley, penitent aunt to the patient zero.
For all the build up, and the many questions the narrative asks about the nature of this spontaneous outbreak—no one knows who started it, though speculations run rampant placing it all over a spectrum of culpability with Natural Mutation on one end and Some Kind of Manmade Superbug on the other.
There was no evidence that Morris’s disease was an act of bioterrorism. No group stepped forward to claim it, an absence which inflamed the conspiracy theorists even further. After all, the first reported cases had been in Orlando, Florida—most notably Lisa Morris, age eight, whose death had earned her the position of “index case”—but they had been followed by infections all over the world. Any terrorist group foolish enough to work with one of the most infectious diseases known to man would quickly have learned the error of their ways as their own children and elders began to sicken and die. Someone claiming responsibility for the outbreak would almost have proven it wasn’t an act of bioterrorism.
It didn’t really matter whether Morris’s disease was manmade or not. It was a killer either way. (12)
Of course, though the narrative says it doesn’t matter, the question continues to come up. By page 20, the tune has changed a bit:
Still, no one claimed responsibility. Still, no one stood up and said, “this was me, this was my work, this was my doing; this is what I wanted.” Everyone agreed that Morris’s disease was the work of a human hand: it had to be. It did its job too quickly and too well, and without a hint of hesitation. A virus, after all, has no morality, no capacity for sorrow.
The mystery of the origin ultimately lead to questions of accountability, and though those questions subside relatively soon into the work, they haunt the piece through to the end where a few answers do materialize.
The narrative’s focus expands and contracts like the lifecycle of a living thing, starting small, swelling like a tick tapped into an arterial line into something globally pervasive, and then scaling back down to a single character study before swelling again to give us a taste of a world on several precipices of collapse. In that way, it feels quite like the living things it deals with. It’s a neat trick, this swinging pendulum sense of scope, which Grant (aka Seanan McGuire’s horror fiction psuedonym) handles with quite a bit of skill.
Regular readers of horror fiction will probably liken the work to one of its closer fictional counterparts, Stephen King’s THE STAND. As in that book, a chance break of a highly infectious vector escapes into the populace thanks to an understandably human reason—in King’s work, a security guard wanted to get his family out of harm’s way and failed to do so, which Grant features a little girl who wants her one more shot at roller coasters and theme park goodness—and this release leads to cataclysmic events, widespread sickness and deaths, and then focuses in on a small band of survivors trying to stave off human ugliness in a less than perfect commune of sorts. The beats might be similar, but the music itself is wildly different, thanks to Grant’s ease with handling some heavy scientific terminology (as medical physicist, I found myself charmed by her jargon as well as the superbug’s primary attack and secondary effects, while my wife the biochemist tells me the whole setup is not terribly far-fetched, which only serves as more nightmare bait) as well as some satiric jabs at the anti-vaccination movement. These are elements lacking from King’s earlier work, as he was more concerned with clearing the field and setting up a stand between good and evil for his surviving characters. King has always written from the gut and the heart, and readers love his characters for those two elements. No such stand might exist here—though there is conflict between the tenuously safe and the desperate ill—Grant is no stranger to situations of the heart. Children’s well-being is one of the foci for this book, and Grant makes some compelling arguments for vaccinating the kiddos not being a matter of a personal choice as for the good of the community we are all a part of. As well, there is a look at the rivalries and relationships between siblings since a trio of sisters is at the heart of this book, particualrly Isabelle, Brooke (adoptive mother to Lisa Morris, aka Patient Zero), and Angela (biological mother to patient zero and defacto leader of a zealous protest group). The Gauley sisters highs and lows are alternately heartwarming and heartbreaking.
KINGDOM OF NEEDLE AND BONE is overflowing with some swell ideas, some chilling scenarios, and some intriguing characters. It’s a Michael Crichton facts-with-fiction thriller merged with a cautionary horror story, and in these elements Grant excels as she has in previous works we have reviewed here on the site (check out our reviews for FINAL GIRLS and ROLLING IN THE DEEP).
Personal aside: I once had the pleasure of hanging out with Seanan McGuire at the Columbus Zoo some years back when the both of us were attending the CONTEXT convention (her Mira Grant persona was the horror guest of honor). We bonded over the fact that we alone in the group had read and enjoyed Robert Devereaux’s perverse and delightful SANTA STEPS OUT. During the trip, she chatted about getting some in depth reading into books like THE HOT ZONE and similar works about contagions and outbreaks. I mentioned that was the one horror fiction topic that terrified me more than any other. Demons and monsters? Bring them on! Ghosts? I’m fine! Flu epidemics? The only thing that comes close to terrifying me as much as the idea of the widespread death and destruction that these things can and do cause is flying insects with stingers (very little turns my blood cold like hornets, yellowjackets, wasps, and those creepy damned Texas versions that are red as arterial blood and as long as my little finger). She then gleefully regaled me with some of her findings, freaking me out in good fun. I have great affection for that time, and I expect this was one of the works she was boning up on contagions for, though come to think of it many of her Mira Grant works deal with the topic.
On that front it’s a canny, smart book with something to say and some scares to deliver. However, it is not a perfect work, alas.
I wish I could say the writing carried me along, but alas it did not. KINGDOM OF NEEDLE AND BONE is loaded with some unnecessary repetition (I think the word children appears about three times per page once the narrative gets going, and the phrases “herd immunity” and “bodily autonomy” could form the basis of a drinking game tailor made for folks looking to develop a near fatal case of alcohol poisoning).
The ideas and many of the characters compelled me into finishing the book. The opening section is pretty chilling, the rest of the book aims more to grip the reader and not necessarily to continue terrifying them (which is something of a relief). In some ways, I would like to see the world revisited in a lengthier work, but at the same time I don’t know that I would want to stay in such a sick and sad place for a novel length read. Perhaps KINGDOM OF NEEDLE AND BONE’s current length is the best fit, a fair read which packs some solid ideas into its short length.
KINGDOM OF NEEDLE AND BONE is available in an eBook edition from Subterranean Press. They also released a limited edition hardcover, but fans like me bought up all the copies. One or two might be found on the secondary/collector’s markets, however. It never hurts to look. Also, your local library might have a copy available for reading. Sub Press books have a great presence in our library system anyway—libraries are one of the best things about Texas, actually. Certainly better than those creepy, red, flying bugs with stingers. Go figure. Maybe your library has similar access.
For those like me with a love for Mira Grant’s compact works, she has a new short novel/novella in the works from Subterranean Press called IN THE SHADOW OF SPINDRIFT HOUSE, which appears to weave together teen detectives, a haunted house, and notions of non-linearity. As someone who enjoys the ideas Grant packs into her shorter works, I look forward to checking it out. Advance warning: Hardcover copies will likely sell out quick.
Next week, we should be checking back in with our Considering Westlake reading series with his anything-but-short novel, KAHAWA (which, of course, is Swahili for “coffee”). That particular work is available as an eBook, these days and that’s about it.
Grant, Mira. KINGDOM OF NEEDLE AND BONE. Subterranean Press: 2018.
“I’m So Sick: Mira Grant’s Kingdom of Needle and Bone” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Excerpts and cover image all come from the Subterranean Press hardcover release.