The Forest of Hands and Teeth
is a 2009 post-apocalyptic horror novel for young adults by American author Carrie Ryan. The first in a trilogy, it is followed by The Dead-Tossed Waves
and The Dark and Hollow Places
. The story takes place in the aftermath of a mysterious global disaster that has transformed most of the human race into flesh-eating zombies. The zombies have infested the titular Forest of Hands and Teeth, where they encroach upon a small group of surviving humans who have constructed a fortified village. The villagers’ fear, along with their isolation, has put in place the conditions for a repressive authoritarian society in which spying and intimidation are the norms. The novel uses the ongoing threat of zombies as a device for exploring how human relationships deteriorate when people live in a climate of fear and mistrust.
The novel begins in the forest village, where a young woman named Mary is washing her clothes in a stream that passes outside the encampment’s walls. One of her friends from childhood, Harry, appears unexpectedly. He asks if she will marry him, which takes her completely by surprise. Before she composes her thoughts, the sirens at the village outposts begin to sound. Mary deduces correctly that her mentally ill mother, having been left unsupervised, has triggered the alarms while searching for her husband, who is already a zombie. Mary’s mother was attacked near the fence and is now infected.
After losing their mother, Mary’s brother, Jed, forces Mary out of their home. She resorts to enrolling in the Sisterhood, a fanatical group of nuns led by the domineering Sister Tabitha. Sister Tabitha, quickly realizing that Mary is resistant to indoctrination, threatens to throw her into the forest if she expresses dissatisfaction or dissent. While living at the village’s Cathedral with the other nuns, Mary learns that another friend from childhood, Travis, has been badly wounded in the leg. While the Sisters tend to him, Mary visits him frequently, under the guise of “praying.” Instead, she tells him stories about the ocean, something many of the villagers have never seen. Mary and Travis soon realize they have fallen in love. However, Travis is Harry’s brother and is already engaged to Mary’s best friend, Cass.
Harry proposes to Mary a second time. This time, she accepts, seeing it mainly as a means of escape from the Sisterhood. She looks forward to leaving the tyranny of Sister Tabitha but dreads having to marry the brother of her true love. Soon after, a girl named Gabrielle enters the village and is imprisoned in the Cathedral. Mary and Travis continue expressing their love in secret. The second time Mary sees Gabrielle, she has already transformed into a zombie. On the morning of Mary and Harry’s wedding, the sirens sound. The zombies, led by Gabrielle, are besieging the village. Before the village falls, Mary and Harry escape along with Cass, Travis, Jed, Beth, and a little boy named Jacob. They reach another village, where Mary and Travis are separated from the rest of the group. They are waylaid by zombies but fend them off with the help of their dog, Argos.
The group decides to make its way towards the ocean as soon as the weather cools. However, they are forced to leave prematurely when Jacob starts a fire that destroys the village. Travis helps the group escape, but is bitten; before Mary kills him, he tells her that he was bitten earlier, and has already accepted death. The group enters the forest again, in low spirits and with little sense of direction. When their food and water rations dwindle, Beth begins to lose her mind. Mary leaves alone to find the ocean. A horde of zombies surrounds her; just as she loses hope, Jed appears, having left the group to help her find the ocean. He saves her from the zombies, but then falls off a cliff to his death.
Mary searches for Jed’s body in the river below the cliff. She slips and falls, and is carried away in the current. She eventually reaches a beach and pulls herself ashore, gasping for air. She realizes she has found the ocean. A man appears and nearly decapitates her, but she demonstrates that she is not a zombie either. He tells her that he has built a refuge in a nearby lighthouse. As the story ends, they walk to the lighthouse hand-in-hand. The Forest of Hands and Teeth
ends on an optimistic moment, suggesting that survival is possible in the harshest, most isolating conditions.