A Brief and Incomplete History of Zombie Literature
All we want to do is eat your brains
We’re not unreasonable; I mean, no one’s gonna eat your eyes
All we want to do is eat your brains
—Jonathan Coulton, Re: Your Brains
Zombies: Shambling, brain-eating, scary with a twist of the absurd. There is usually little to like or love about the undead, yet in recent years zombies have grown from an unknown and little-used monster (save in Night of the Living Dead knockoffs) to a key element of major bestsellers. What is it that makes zombies so appealing, and why have they begun to permeate speculative and mainstream fiction?
The concept of the zombies originally comes from the West Indian/Caribbean religious tradition known as voodoo. According to its tenets, a dead person can be revived by a bokor, or sorcerer. Controlled by the sorcerer, the zombie has no will of its own, and is forced to do the sorcerer’s bidding. Zora Neale Hurston, the American folklorist and novelist, is usually attributed with the earliest exploration of the belief in zombies when on a trip to Haiti, but she was unable to learn much from her studies, which were published in 1938 as Tell My Horse. Subsequently, several scientists have explored the science of zombieism, postulating various theories from drugs to undiagnosed schizophrenia as causes. But no matter the origin or cause, zombies of the voodoo tradition portray few of the characteristics that popular literature now attributes to them —such as the shambling gait, rotting flesh, and the ability to pass their condition on to others. What popular fiction has borrowed from voodoo lore is mostly the idea of a mindless being, sometimes created through a scientific process.
EARLY ZOMBIES IN LITERATURE
Most modern zombies are inspired by the work of George Romero, a screenwriter and director whose 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead popularized the concept of a group of undead bent on wreaking havoc on the living. But even his work had its precursors, some of whom even pre-date Hurston. In the 1920s and 30s, H.P. Lovecraft (who has seen a renaissance in recent years) wrote several short stories featuring zombies or zombie-like characters. Lovecraft’s primary work in this vein being “Herbert West—Reanimator” in which the titular character uses scientific means to revive human corpses.
Weird Tales had picked up on the concept as well, publishing a work by Henry S. Whitehead called “Jumbee” in 1926 (zombie is sometimes thought to be an mispronunciation of the Haitian word jumbee). Tales by Seabury Quinn, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard would subsequently follow. Other more short-lived pulps also picked up on the trend, but zombies were rarely the subject of stories in the 1930s and 40s. Another author, William Seabrook, first wrote about zombies in his pseudo-travelogue on Haiti, The Magic Island, in 1929. But Seabrook’s zombie was nothing to fear; it was depicted as cheap labor for the local plantation owner to use in harvesting his cane fields.
In 1954, Richard Matheson reinvented the zombie with the publication of I Am Legend, which posits a world sent into apocalypse by bloodsucking beings. Though Matheson did not set out to write a zombie novel (his intent was to explore vampirism) , many of Matheson’s concepts are now staples of the zombie mythos. Most notably, the idea of a worldwide apocalypse caused by such beings, the transmission of zombieism as a disease, and the mindless lust for blood (or flesh) are key elements of most zombie stories which first made their appearance here.
Yet none of these stories really fits the modern conception of the zombie. Each had their elements, but it was not until Romero’s film that zombies as a group of shambling, previously dead, infectious, and very angry beings entered the modern psyche.
MODERN ZOMBIE FICTION
Though zombies have been around for some time as a subgenre of horror fiction, the undead have existed mostly in the realm of film, with only a few books – primarily anthologies —revisiting the zombie archetype. After Matheson’s contribution, little zombie fiction of note was published until the cult classic The Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis appeared in 1985. It took five more years before another significant work of zombie fiction was published. The Book of the Dead arrived in late 1989, followed by the 1992 publication of Still Dead: Book of the Dead 2, both edited by John Skipp and Craig Spector. The not much heralded novel Wet Work, published in 1993 by Philip Nutman, used the idea of the intelligent zombie to satirize the Bush administration. The Ultimate Zombie anthology, edited by John Gregory Betancourt and Byron Preiss, arrived that same year and included such writing luminaries as Anne Rice, Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, and Gene Wolfe. But even these volumes were just blips on the radar screen of the horror genre as a whole. Not until 2003 would the undead find their greatest proponent/opponent in Max Brooks.
A writer for “Saturday Night Live” and the son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, Max Brooks published The Zombie Survival Guide in 2003 —and what was a small, insignificant, and rarely used trope soon birthed its very own subgenre. This zombie themed parody of the popular Worst Case Scenario brand of books attempted to prepare the reader for either an individual zombie attack or a worldwide zombie apocalypse. The book was a smash hit, spawning several copycats and inspiring other writers to rethink the zombie archetype.
What followed was not an avalanche of new fiction, but a slow trickle that grew into a river in the six years following Brooks’ first publication. In 2004, David Wellington published Monster Island, a sometimes vilified work in which a band of Somali survivors of a zombie apocalypse take a ship to an abandoned New York City in search of AIDS drugs. Wellington avoided explaining the origin of the zombie outbreak (something later explained in the prequel 2005 Monster Nation, published as an online serial novel, then printed in 2006), and the book was primarily an adventure novel with simplistic characterization.
In 2003, Brian Keene published The Rising, a Bram Stoker Award-winning tale of intelligent zombies. Unlike many other zombie tales, Keene mixed science and spirituality to find the source for the unsettling of the dead; demons possess the dead and use them for nefarious ends. Keene’s zombies are not like most others, in that they are intelligent and seem human.
But the “mainstream” stamp of approval of zombie fiction as literature arrived when acclaimed horror author Stephen King wrote his own contribution to zombie fiction with Cell. A number one bestseller upon its release, Cell brought zombie fiction into the homes and minds of millions of readers. In King’s story, an electromagnetic pulse turns cell-phone users into bloodthirsty maniacs. There is some contention over whether King’s zombies really fit the mold of Romero’s undead, but a dedication of the book to Romero and Richard Matheson highlights King’s indebtedness to the early pioneers of zombie tales and his appreciation of the archetype, even as he twisted it to make it wholly his own. King’s greatest contribution to zombie fiction was bringing it into the mainstream and marrying it steadfastly to the idea of an apocalypse.
The same year as Cell was published, Max Brooks returned to zombies with his publication of World War Z, a fictional collection of survivor stories of the zombie apocalypse. Compiled as interviews of survivors by the fictional author, World War Z changed zombie fiction from simple scare tactic into complex social commentary. Criticizing government ineptitude, corporate corruption, and human shortsightedness in various ways throughout the book, Brooks also believes that zombie fiction allows readers to think about their own anxiety about the end of the world. In a October 2006 interview with Publishers Weekly Brooks said, “They scare me more than any other fictional creature out there because they break all the rules. Werewolves and vampires and giant sharks, you have to go look for them. My attitude is if you go looking for them, no sympathy. But zombies come to you. Zombies don’t act like a predator; they act like a virus, and that is the core of my terror.”
In an online reader-generated interview with the Washington Post in October of 2006, Brooks expanded his remarks and tied them into the current cultural climate. “The lack of rational thought has always scared me when it came to zombies, the idea that there is no middle ground, no room for negotiation. That has always terrified me. Of course that applies to terrorists, but it can also apply to a hurricane, or flu pandemic, or the potential earthquake that I grew up with living in L.A. Any kind of mindless extremism scares me, and we’re living in some pretty extreme times.”
To Brooks, zombies are more than merely a scary monster. They have much to say about who we are as a species and our fears and hopes about the end of the world. Brooks took zombie fiction and made it zombie literature, using a simple creature to dive deep into both societal and individual fears.
Zombie fiction continued to gain traction in 2008 and 2009. Jonathan Maberry, a Bram Stoker Award winner, built on the groundwork laid by The Zombie Survival Guide to write Zombie CSU, a hefty tome of nonfiction that interviewed over two hundred and fifty experts in various disciplines to discuss how the real world would react to zombies. Says Maberry, “The scientists I interviewed didn’t seem to think that zombies were all that far out of the bounds of possibility. In their view, zombies were probably ‘nearly’ dead but not entirely dead, and they went on to explain each of the various qualities of a zombie (the lack of awareness, resistance to injury, etc.) from a sound medical perspective. It was quite chilling, and it’s what gave me the idea for Patient Zero.” That novel was published in March 2009, and the book and its sequels were recently optioned for TV by Sony Pictures. Though more techno-thriller than zombie novel, Patient Zero still terrifies as it explores a very real twenty-first century threat.
Also in 2008, John Joseph Adams, a noted anthologist, and at the time the assistant editor at the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, compiled The Living Dead, an anthology of zombie fiction by some of the best names in speculative fiction and horror, which became a 2009 World Fantasy Award finalist. Adams has also planned a sequel anthology, The Living Dead 2, in stores now, which features many of the stories that could not be included in the first anthology.
In April 2009 humorist Seth Grahame-Smith took zombies and mixed them into Jane Austen’s classic Regency novel Pride and Prejudice. The result, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, became an instant bestseller. Readers and critics enjoyed the way the zany and snarky humor of Grahame-Smith mixed with the manners and wit of Austen. With this novel, writing about the undead became a way to explore humor and human social interaction. Though zombie fiction had already been doing this to a small extent, it began to be acknowledged by a wider audience that zombies were not limited in their ability to explore nuanced themes, even as they provided mayhem and carnage.
Zombies even entered the world of young adult fiction in 2009. David Lubar wrote books in the Nathan Abercrombie series (My Rotten Life, Dead Guy Spy), about a young boy who becomes an accidental zombie. Carrie Ryan, in her debut novel The Forest of Hands and Teeth, uses zombies as a metaphor for the feelings of entrapment that many teenagers feel. Ryan explains, “Mary’s struggle is to figure out who she is, whether she can trust her dreams and what she’s willing to do and sacrifice for those dreams—how far she’s willing to go . . . I think this is something we can all relate to—how we define our lives beyond mere existence and what we’re willing to fight for.”
Stories of the undead are not simply limited to narratives which contain zombies as we have come to understand them. Zombies have also found their way into epic fantasy, space opera, and humor.
ZOMBIES AND FANTASY
Zombies, as they exist in fantasy fiction, are often depicted as sword fodder. Unliving in dank, dark dungeons, zombies are used by authors as a way to give their adventurers and heroes something to fight against that takes little to no effort, but provides a bit of action between dialogues or exposition. These zombies usually take the standard form first depicted by Romero. They do, however, hearken back to the original folklore that believed zombies were controlled by a master rather than being a mindless horde. The undead are often used in sweeping epic fantasies where the hero or group of heroes is fighting a necromancer or other sorcerer with some power over the dead. Since many villains in fantasy usually have some power over the undead, the zombie has already reached trope status, as ubiquitous as an orc or an elf.
Gary Gygax greatly promoted the zombie concept in fantasy when he used it in the Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game in 1974. Gygax cited Gardner Fox’s story “The Sword and the Sorcerer” as his source material. Gygax’s zombies are more closely tied to the voodoo origin of the archetype and are usually considered to be enslaved to a necromancer. Subsequent editions of Dungeons and Dragons have created myriad kinds of zombies, but all follow the same formula as the original game.
There is one subgenre within fantasy that does more than just provide zombie sword fodder: paranormal fantasy is most often set in current times, more often than not in a major urban center like New York or London. The alternate world of these tales is populated by vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and other paranormal phenomena. Zombies are included in this mix. Though they often follow the standard prescription of an undead creature with little motivation besides the desire to eat brains, some authors have used them to great effect in both dramatic and comedic ways.
For instance, in Martin H. Greenberg and Daniel M. Hoyt’s anthology Better Off Undead, two of its contributors use zombies to probe human nature. The protagonist in Jay Lake’s “In Two All Beef Patties” begins to think that perhaps being dead isn’t such a bad thing. But even undeath isn’t perfect, and the young narrator soon learns that even the undead have cravings . Lake uses the zombie archetype to explore human needs and desires and how even a significant change in lifestyle does not always satisfy perceived wants. In the same anthology, “My Tears Have Been My Meat,” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, brings to life a truly frightening tale of spousal abuse and the fears of those trapped in such horrible situations. The protagonist’s husband is diabolically evil, and at his death, he returns in zombie form. This zombie, like Lake’s, is not the unthinking, ravening creature more common to the archetype, but something even more frightening in its unstoppable evil.
The phenomenon of using the zombie archetype is not limited to just short stories, or even books that would qualify as zombie fiction. Both Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind have used the concept of people turned mindless and/or controlled by magic. Jordan’s version appears early in the Wheel of Time series when Rand al’Thor attempts to raise the dead to full life but instead creates what is essentially a zombie. A more modern version of zombies appears in a key chapter involving Matrim Cauthon in Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson’s The Gathering Storm. Goodkind uses the archetype profusely in the form of his Confessors, who magically force men to do their bidding. In neither case are the “zombies” the shambling, corpse-like beings most commonly depicted, but the core essence of a mindless drone controlled by a sorcerer is there.
Even within fantasy there are occasions where zombies appear or are used in such a way that it is not wholly obvious that they have any influence at all.
ZOMBIES AND SCIENCE FICTION
Zombies are very closely tied to the subgenre of science fiction known as apocalyptic fiction. World War Z, I Am Legend, Cell, and Patient Zero are all based on the idea that zombies will or are becoming ubiquitous, to the point of nearly wiping out humanity. A significant number of zombie stories are married to the concept of a doomsday scenario.
In such cases, the existence of zombies is a new event, something never seen before by humanity and something that the population is completely unprepared for. This leads to vast slaughter and a great deal of terror. “These monsters embody our fear of death and perhaps our dwindling sense of humanity,” says San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Christopher T. Fong. And so these monsters have come to be closely aligned with an apocalyptic scenario. “Other monsters may threaten individual humans, but the living dead threaten the entire human race,” says Max Brooks. “Zombies are slate wipers.” And no aspect of science fiction so cleanly wipes the slate as an apocalypse for which humanity has no solution.
Zombies in science fiction exist in other forms as well. Caribbean-born author Tobias Buckell uses zombie-like characters in his third novel, Sly Mongoose. In this case, the zombies are created by a virus that turns people into mindless drones that are part of a collective intelligence known as the Swarm. However, the larger story is a space opera, full of strong heroes fighting bad guys in a city in the clouds with laser weapons and machinery. “I thought it would be very easy to misinterpret a radical techno-democracy as a form of zombie-ism from the outside,” says Buckell when asked why he included zombies in his science fiction. “Outside the borders of the West, there is this impression that the society marches in lockstep socially and culturally, and even here people write articles about the McDonaldization of the world. And yet, living inside of the West, I have a degree of personal freedom and choice others don’t share. That difference in perception was interesting to me. I thought it would be fun to amp it way up and create an organism that looked completely zombie-ish (the Aeolian League) and then take it even further by introducing a sort of consciousness plague that’s the logical end game of it.”
Bestselling author George R. R. Martin (best known more for his epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire) mixes zombies and science fiction in “Meathouse Man” where the reanimated dead are used to mine the planet and serve as sex slaves. In this story Martin uses zombies to explore issues of intimacy and the power of desire. And a major character, known as Hoodoo Mama, appears in the Wild Cards shared universe, edited by Martin. The zombie concept has permeated our thinking so much that the reader readily accepts such a superhero as par for the course.
Even the genre of steampunk is adding some new fiction to the zombie trend. Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker is a novel set in an alternate 1880, where the Civil War has been dragging on for decades. Sixteen years earlier Seattle was devastated by Dr. Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine, when a test run of the machine went horrendously awry, hitting a natural gas line that turned people into the living dead. Like Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth or Matheson’s I am Legend, the focus of the plot is not on the zombies. The zombies are a means to an end, a way of creating danger and suspense in a very character-focused story. But neither are the zombies unessential; they are a key element of the story and provide needed context for the themes and meta-narrative.
The notoriously content-cautious Star Wars franchise has included the zombie concept in its universe with the release of Joe Schreiber’s Death Troopers in October 2009. In this story, we get a standard semi-apocalyptic scenario set in the universe created by George Lucas. Schreiber used his horror chops to create a story that both thrills and terrifies.
ZOMBIES AND HUMOR
Just as zombies have been used to scare, they have also been used as vehicles for humor, such as in 2002’s Dating Secrets of the Dead by David Prill or 2009’s Zombie Queen of Newbury High by Amanda Ashby. David P. Murphy, author of Zombies for Zombies: Advice and Etiquette for the Living Dead, published in 2009, finds that “there is some special synergy between humor and horror. In the case of zombies, I think it’s especially true because it involves death and the dead and there is something naturally wrong and wacky about dead folks strolling the back roads looking for a hand-out or just a hand.” Jonathan Maberry explains, “We generally laugh when we’re nervous, so the more tension you can bring into a situation the greater the potential for comedy . . . . In entertainment terms, zombies are . . . mindless and devoid of personality. They are a constant threat. So, just as you could set a comedy in the midst of a dreadful war (M*A*S*H), during the destruction of the earth (Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy), or during an attack by a serial killer (Scream), you can find the funny in a zombie attack.”
David Lubar uses zombies to explore the morass of social and emotional zaniness that is a student’s life in My Rotten Life. “Humor and horror are just two aspects of the same reactions. We often laugh and scream at similar stimuli. The common threads found in things that are funny or horrifying are the unexpected, and relief in seeing someone else get the pie (or the spiked baseball bat) in the face.”
Even the now well-known Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is first a comedy of manners and then a zombie novel. Noting that “characters in Jane Austen’s original books are rather like zombies because they live in this bubble of immense wealth and privilege and no matter what’s going on around them they have a singular purpose to maintain their rank and to impress others,” author Seth Grahame-Smith is “struck by what a sharp wit she [Austen] had and how vicious she could be in taking apart the conventions of the society in which she lived.”
The horror and humor that zombies evoke are flip sides of a coin. The archetype is used often in myriad ways—“as a mirror held up to what people are tussling with in regards to the outer world as a whole,” says Buckell. Just as people enjoy a scary reminder, so too do they need to laugh at their troubles.
Though 2009 saw a glut of new publications containing zombies—in one form or another—it is unlikely that the zombie archetype has seen its apex. “Zombies are a very elastic storytelling trope . . . . What they represent in zombie fiction is a constant and universal threat that is implacable and unbearable. That kind of threat puts all of the characters under pressure, and from a storytelling point of view, characters under pressure are the only interesting ones to write about,” says Maberry. Buckell agrees. “It often provides . . . a chance to decouple some of the baggage of issues through a plot metaphor so that the writer can explore a series of issues within a fictional context.”
Expect to see these and other authors continuing to expand the potential of the zombie archetype in 2010. Early announcements of forthcoming works show the number of novels and short stories of zombie literature in 2010 will likely surpass those published in 2009. Zombies are a part of mainstream culture now, appearing in diverse places and often being used as a metaphor for some of the larger issues plaguing our world today. Zombie fiction has grown from a little known piece of folklore into a much-used aspect of popular culture in the last century, and it is unlikely the trend will stop anytime soon.