The Zombies of Lake Woebegotten
by Harrison Geillor
Reviewed by Christopher DeFilippis
So here you are, a longtime fan of Garrison Keillor’s folksy yarns chronicling the ordinary goings-on in his fictional hometown of Lake Woebegone, Minnesota—as featured weekly on his radio show A Prairie Home Companion and in many books and short stories—and you’re wondering, should I even bother with The Zombies of Lake Woebegotten by the pseudonymous Harrison Geillor?
Well, let me make it easy for you: The Zombies of Lake Woebegotten is about ten times better than it has any right to be and you’ll probably enjoy the heck out of it—provided you go in for the whole brain-eating zombie comedy thing.
I address fellow Keillor fans directly because who else but we (at least initially) will be reading this book? We’re the built-in audience Night Shade Books was banking on to snap the title up, but it’s an iffy proposition because once the whimsical premise wears off, the publisher is treading on delicate ground.
The inherent danger in any parody—book or otherwise—is that the jokes will ring on the same note over and over. Doubly tricky is sending up a humorist who’s already adept at making people laugh. And when that humorist is someone like Garrison Keillor, whose fans are legion, you’re almost certainly doomed to failure. Making fun of Keillor’s homespun style isn’t enough—you have to do it in a way that his fans will enjoy.
“Harrison Geillor” was apparently cognizant of these potential pitfalls when writing The Zombies of Lake Woebegotten, because the book reads, for the most part, like one Garrison Keillor might have written upon deciding to have the flesh-eating undead overrun Lake Woebegone.
The story begins (aptly enough) in the deep dark of winter, on the middle of frozen Lake Woebegotten, with Gunther Montcrief passing the night in his old ice-fishing shack, where he witnesses a comet blaze across the sky. Keillor’s universe collides with George A. Romero’s, and thus is pastiche born. Upon returning to his shack, Gunther is greeted by a reanimated walleye whose mouth keeps snapping at him even after its head has been chopped off.
Morning finds the denizens of Lake Woebegotten largely ignorant of the mayhem unfolding around the globe. But as the zombie apocalypse reaches their isolated little corner of the world, a story unfolds that weaves around a number of central protagonists:
Pastor Daniel Inkfist, who is reluctantly helping to keep order in Lake Woebegotten, pressured by his more militant spiritual counterpart Father Edsel to organize the town folk to combat the zombie threat; Eileen Munson, wife of lately zombified town mayor Brent Munson, who sees the zombie outbreak as an opportunity to become the most powerful person in town; native daughter Julie Olafson, recently returned to Lake Woebegotten after a mysterious and prolonged absence; and old man Levitt, keeper of Woebegotten’s darkest secret, who is intent on spreading mayhem.
Surrounding them is a cast of well drawn supporting characters, evocative of Keillor’s stalwart, stoic breed of Minnesotan, who see the zombie invasion as just one more of life’s little hardships, to be borne without making too much fuss. And in one of his better comedic flourishes, Geillor introduces us to a Woebegotten resident simply known as The Narrator, “…with his red bowtie and suspenders and darting eyes, muttering to himself in his continuous narration.”
This goodhearted dig at Keillor is more a nod of respect than an insult; an invite to join the party. Which is apropos, since Zombies is written in the tone of Keillor’s later spate of Lake Woebegone novels, as exemplified in the wonderful Lake Woebegone Summer 1956, and which has continued to his more recent offerings like Pontoon and Liberty. Zombies of Lake Woebegotten can easily stand alongside the better books in the batch. It’s not as good as Liberty, but it beats Woebegone Boy by a mile (as well as Love Me, which, though not a Woebegone book, is a pretty big stinker).
And though Zombies strays into a bit more overtly adult subject matter (sex/gore) than Keillor’s radio fans might expect, it doesn’t go too far beyond the pale for his book fans, who already know that Keillor is no prude.
Even if you’re unfamiliar with Keillor’s work, anyone with a sense of humor should still find a lot to like in Harrison Geillor’s macabre homage. Think along the lines of Zombieland and Shawn of the Dead. To put in terms that Keillor himself might, The Zombies of Lake Woebegotten is definitely above average.