Back in 2010, I came across an unassuming trade paperback at my local Barnes & Noble, and this interesting find would ultimately become one of my absolute favorite books of the past decade. That book was The Reapers Are the Angels, by Alden Bell (the pseudonym of Joshua Gaylord, author of the highly regarded Hummingbirds).
The book attained some success here in the United States, especially critically. The book garnered a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly:
“Born into a crumbling society plagued by zombies, all 15-year-old Temple knows is to kill or be killed. When she is assaulted at a safe house, she murders her human attacker, Abraham Todd, and runs from his vengeful brother, Moses. Temple soon acquires a traveling partner, a slow mute by the name of Maury, and begrudgingly takes responsibility for his care, remembering a young boy she swore to protect but couldn’t save. Fleeing Moses, the “meatskins,” and her own battered conscience, Temple still finds moments of simple joy in the brutal world. Bell (a pseudonym for Joshua Gaylord, author of Hummingbirds) has created an exquisitely bleak tale and an unforgettable heroine whose eye for beauty and aching need for redemption somehow bring wonder into a world full of violence and decay.”
I remember savoring this elegant post-apocalyptic horror novel and particularly admiring Temple’s voice. One review at Amazon calls Reapers a cross between True Grit and Night of the Living Dead, and I have to think Bell was indeed inspired by Charles Portis’s Mattie Ross. Bell has infused Temple with a straightforward, world-weary, southern gothic poetry and grace in the face of an impossible future. She’s a gritty survivor, she’s rough-edged and needfully violent, but she glows right off the page with her humanity. She truly is an unforgettable heroine, and when I finished her tale, I knew I’d look forward with great interest to more fiction from Alden Bell. I even scoured eBay and got my hands on a nice UK first-edition hardcover of the book to add to my library.
Truth be told, Temple stuck with me so powerfully that she partially inspired my own use of a teen female protagonist in my post-apocalyptic novel, Blood Red (formerly Under the Skin).
Anyway, flash forward three years.
I recently discovered that Bell released a new book in the Reapers saga, back in October 2012! It was titled Exit Kingdom, and it was a prequel to The Reapers Are the Angels, focusing on another memorable character from that book, Moses Todd. Here’s the synopsis:
“In a world where the undead outnumber the living, Moses Todd roams the post-apocalyptic plains of America. His reprobate brother, Abraham—his only companion—has known little else. Together, they journey because they have to; because they have nowhere to go, and no one to answer to other than themselves. Traveling the bloody wastelands of this ruined world, Moses is looking for a kernel of truth, and a reason to keep going. And a chance encounter presents him with the Vestal Amata, a beguiling and mysterious woman who may hold the key to salvation. But he is not the only one seeking the Vestal. For the Vestal has a gift: a gift that might help save what is left of humanity. And it may take everything he has to free her from the clutches of those who most desire her.”
I was astonished that I’d missed its publication. Some brief web searching revealed that the book had yet to receive a US release, and—like the first book—debuted in the UK as a hardcover. In general, the overseas releases of Bell’s books had (at least from my perspective) received more fitting and even loving publications and presentations.
Questions began to irk me. Why was such a striking, resonant novel as Reapers published with seemingly more pomp and circumstance in the UK and relegated to barely marketed trade paperback in the author’s home country? Why was its prequel given equally fine hardcover treatment in the UK and left forgotten here in the states? And why is a third Alden Bell book, Somewhere I Have Never Traveled (uncovered by some deeper web searching)—about ghosts in New York City—caught in publishing limbo? In short, what on Earth is holding back the publication of further books by the author of such a supremely regarded novel, and what the hell is wrong with American publishing?
(As I searched the web for information about Joshua and his post-apocalyptic alter ego, I discovered that Joshua grew up very close to where I did, in Orange County, California, during the same era. He was in Anaheim, and I was in Santa Ana and Irvine, and I’m sure he recalls the nightly blasts over southern California at around 9pm—the Disneyland fireworks over the Matterhorn. He probably also remembers orange groves as far as the eye could see. And In-N-Out Burger, of course, back before it was uber-cool. I began to feel yet another sort of kinship with this writer!)
Spurred by this sense of kinship, I decided to just check with the author. Social media such as Facebook—and just a general sense of the importance of community—has made authors much more accessible to their fans than in the past. Joshua responded quickly.
Turns out, the publisher of his first novel, Hummingbirds, wasn’t interested in publishing Reapers because it was an entirely different genre. He was forced to move elsewhere, and that’s how he ended up at Holt, which published the trade paperback of The Reapers Are the Angels.
“While I really enjoyed working with my editor at Holt,” Joshua says, “she left Holt after Reapers was published. Part of the continual stress of publishing is knowing that at any moment all those people who are fighting on your behalf might suddenly be gone! So I was adopted by a new editor at Holt, and he couldn’t get behind the sequel to Reapers.”
Why not? Joshua wondered. After all, sales for Reapers weren’t bad. Critical reception, as I mentioned, was sky-high. People loved the book. It was award-winning, and that production company that optioned the book for the movies was pretty big-league.
According to Joshua, Holt’s concept of Reapers was that its success happened as a result of its ability to be marketed as a young-adult (YA) crossover title. After all, Temple is a teenager, and she’s a surprisingly effective role model for the teen crowd, despite the book’s gruesome subject matter.
“Exit Kingdom doesn’t have any teenage characters,” Joshua says, “so Holt saw this as a sure miss.”
He didn’t necessarily agree with Holt, but there are other publishers out there, right? So Joshua’s agent sent Exit Kingdom out to other American publishers—but they weren’t interested because, as he laments, “who would want the second and third books in a series when they don’t own the rights to the first one?”
In the meantime, Tor UK, which had published Reapers in England, was happy to publish the sequel, so everything went forward as expected over there. “I don’t think they’re as hung up about the YA/adult distinction,” Joshua says.
As for Somewhere I Have Never Traveled, Joshua had hopes that it would become the next Tor UK book, but author and publisher experienced creative differences about the book’s direction, and so a deal never happened. As a result, that manuscript seems destined to be “drawered” for the time being.
“The lesson,” he says, “is that if you’re going to be a writer, you have to be okay with writing things that maybe only you will ever read.”
Reading these words, I’m flabbergasted. I now have answers straight from the author, yes, but I’m even more deeply troubled by the situation. The Reapers Are the Angels, I have no doubt, will stand the test of time. It is a novel of beauty and grace. Yes, it’s a zombie novel, but it breaks beyond that genre label and becomes something transcendent, even moving.
If a writer can’t catapult to bigger and better deals after a “debut” like that, there’s something broken somewhere. Because Reapers should have been a breakout work for a unique talent. The arrival of Exit Kingdom should have been celebrated across the land. As in, the land where the author lives.
Alden Bell deserves better.
But I’ll leave you with Joshua’s final words on the subject.
“I believe the best kind of author is really writing for an audience of one: him or herself. It’s nice if other people are interested in reading what you wrote, but that’s just the cherry on top of the cake. It’s a nice cherry, don’t get me wrong—but even if nobody else ever reads what you wrote, you still WROTE SOMETHING. That’s a whole damn cake right there.”
Words that resonate.
But come on. Who’s with me?
Get this man a friggin’ publisher!