The State of Zombie Literature: An Autopsy
Illustration by Jesse Lenz
By TERRENCE RAFFERTY
Published: August 5, 2011
Zombies, traditionally, do not move with great speed or agility. As the sheriff in George A. Romero's classic 1968 movie, "Night of the Living Dead," astutely observes, “They’re dead, they’re all messed up.” But they’re also mighty persistent, and, apparently through sheer doggedness, the reanimated deceased have managed to occupy increasingly large areas of the popular imagination in the past few years. They don’t, of course, reproduce in the usual way. The Romero-type zombie, very much the dominant form these days, multiplies by contagion, like a virus: it feeds on flesh, and its bite is lethal, so even those semi-fortunate humans who aren’t wholly devoured, but merely gnawed upon, die and come back as shuffling, hollow-eyed flesh-eaters themselves.
It was not always thus. Time was, the mere idea that a corpse could come back to life and walk the earth (however slowly) seemed sufficiently creepy. The monster in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” did have some anger-management issues, but until “Night of the Living Dead” most resurrected cadavers had been pretty placid. The title creature ofJacques Tourneur's weirdly lyrical 1943 movie, “I Walked With a Zombie,” doesn’t eat flesh and is entirely unthreatening to the living beings around her; all that’s horrifying is the unnatural, unassimilable fact of her existence. That’s not enough anymore: nature isn’t what it used to be, after all. And to be repelled by a woman just because she has returned from the dead could be considered a tad judgmental.
The thing about these newly empowered 21st-century zombies is that they keep coming at you, relentlessly, wave upon wave of necrotic, mindlessly voracious semi-beings. According to the current convention, the individual reanimatee can be dispatched by shooting or stabbing it in the brain, but the strength of this inexorably advancing zombie population is in its numbers: the ambulatory dead are, you might say, a fast-growing demographic. This sort of creature is an extremely convenient monster for low-budget filmmakers like Romero, who had the wit to realize that with zombies he wouldn’t have to break the bank on highly skilled professional actors. Anybody can shamble along looking vacant.
In fiction, however, these alarming entities have fewer obvious attractions because, unlike vampires, werewolves, demons, witches, goblins and shape-shifters, zombies can’t plausibly be endowed with rich, complex inner lives. They don’t even have personalities. Christopher Golden, in the preface to his anthology of zombie stories, The New Dead (St. Martin’s Griffin, paper, $14.99), owns up to a degree of puzzlement about the current popularity of these creatures. “I have never had any trouble understanding the fascination with vampires,” he writes. “But zombies? Not so much.” Undeterred, Golden has put together a hefty collection of zombiana to take its place on the sagging shelf next to John Joseph Adams’s anthologies The Living Dead and The Living Dead 2 (Night Shade, paper, $15.95 and $15.99); Max Brooks’s World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (Three Rivers, paper, $14.95); the freak best seller Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, “by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith” (Quirk, paper, $12.95); and The Walking Dead: Compendium One (Image Comics, paper, $59.99), which compiles the first 48 issues of the comic, written by Robert Kirkman, that was turned into a popular cable series last fall.
All these literary products are, in varying degrees, worth reading, or at least dipping into on one of those days when you’re not feeling unambiguously alive yourself. But taken as a whole the recent onslaught of zombie fiction is wearying. There’s a certain monotony built into the genre: in too many of these tales, the flesh-chompers advance, are repelled, advance again and are repelled again, more or less ad infinitum.
Modern-day zombie stories often read like plague narratives, in which a panicky populace struggles to deal with a threat that’s overwhelming, unceasing and apparently uncontrollable. (This spring the Centers for Disease Control, in a playful attempt to stimulate interest in the dull subject of emergency preparedness, issued an online “Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide.” It got so many hits, the Web site crashed.) And because the ravening dead are, by definition, not interesting and are way too numerous ever to be defeated — at least in plague chronicles there’s hope for a cure — even the more inventive zombie stories tend to be static: grim annals of hard-won, provisional survival.
But that may be the secret of their popularity. With every fashion in horror, it’s worth asking, Why do we choose to fear this, and why now? The answers can be more unsettling than the stories themselves. In the case of zombie fiction, you have to wonder whether our 21st-century fascination with these hungry hordes has something to do with a general anxiety, particularly in the West, about the planet’s dwindling resources: a sense that there are too many people out there, with too many urgent needs, and that eventually these encroaching masses, dimly understood but somehow ominous in their collective appetites, will simply consume us. At this awful, pinched moment of history we look into the future and see a tsunami of want bearing down on us, darkening the sky. The zombie is clearly the right monster for this glum mood, but it’s a little disturbing to think that these nonhuman creatures, with their slack, gaping maws, might be serving as metaphors for actual people — undocumented immigrants, say, or the entire populations of developing nations — whose only offense, in most cases, is that their mouths and bellies demand to be filled.
Fear is a primitive impulse, brainless as hunger, and because the aim of horror fiction is the production of the deepest kinds of fears, the genre tends to reinforce some remarkably uncivilized ideas about self-protection. In the current crop of zombie stories, the prevailing value for the beleaguered survivors is a sort of siege mentality, a vigilance so constant and unremitting that it’s indistinguishable from the purest paranoia. This is not a state of mind to bring out the best in our old, tired human nature. It’s astonishing, then, to come across a zombie tale like Alden Bell’s novel The Reapers Are the Angels (Holt, paper, $15),in which a world that “has gone to black damnation” becomes, somehow, the occasion of a young woman’s spiritual redemption.
The heroine, 15-year-old Temple, moves easily and violently through a Deep South landscape infested with the menacing dead, living by her wits — which are formidable — and retaining, heroically, a sense of wonder at God’s creation, “all that beauty in the suffered world.” The zombies are plenty scary (she calls them “meatskins” or “slugs”), and some of the hard-nosed human survivors are barely less threatening. But Temple is blessed with an unearthly composure, in part because she’s a post-apocalypse child: this is the only world she’s ever known. And, she says, “you gotta look at the world that is and try not to get bogged down by what it ain’t.”
Bell (the pseudonym of a New York writer named Joshua Gaylord) isn’t much interested in shocking his readers with visions of zombie inundation, in stoking their primordial fears of the unknown or in spinning lurid fantasies of brute survival. Like his tough heroine, he’s too busy looking at the world that is, the one he’s imagined into existence. His sentences roll and dawdle, as if moving to the rhythm of the stilled, eerie environment. “The Reapers Are the Angels” isn’t in any sense a didactic novel, but there’s a lesson in its leisurely manner: if you take the time to see and feel and think, the world, dire as it is, can lose some of its terrors.
A version of this review appeared in print on