A Monstrous Month: Week Three

Week three of our Monstrous Month is a very exciting one. I’ve been waiting to bust out the big guns; this week deals exclusively in my literary forte. My very favorite genre. My hardly-guilty-at-all pleasure.

That’s right: in honor of Colson Whitehead’s new novel, Zone One, we’re going to talk about Zombie Lit.

First, I think we need to establish what I believe to be the fundamental difference between the largest paranormal trend of the day—Vampires—and the superior brand of ghoul, the Zombie. Principally, it comes down to a matter of simple prettiness. Vampires are too glamorous and sexualized to be really interesting on a scary level. Their close association with romance lit in recent years has nearly taken them out of the horror realm altogether. Additionally, the Vampire is generally described as a “supernatural creature” who can “convert” others, as it were, to their own state by a bite to the neck. Zombies, meanwhile, are the victims of a disease that ceaselessly ravages populations without an infrastructure to combat them. The zombification of any society is not premeditated, nor is it ever a fate chosen by its victims. Simply put, zombies are purely us, and it’s an Us in the state that scares us most: chaos, crisis, mayhem.

This is precisely why I’ve always found so many books on the topic so genuinely gripping. Since nothing in a zombie story is fantasy except the zombies themselves–and even THEY walk a very fine line with a plausible reality–zombie lit is essentially providing sociological studies in a vacuum, assessing how we ourselves would react in the post-apocalypse. With that in mind, here’s a list of which books in the genre I feel walk that line of believability best:

The New Dead: A Zombie Anthology. This short story collection from several contributors (including David Liss, Mike Carey, and Jonathan Maberry) covers richly variant ground from one story to the next, but all maintain an equal plausibility. Liss’s “What Maisie Knew” views the zombie pandemic with a lens of sexual commerce, while “Second Wind” comments on our indestructible lust for personal gain, even in spite of crisis. The sad fact of it is, I could be led to believe that zombies would be fetishized or that death itself would be viewed by some as an edge in the stock market. Again, zombies are us, for better or for worse, and both of those extremes are demonstrated in THE NEW DEAD by imaginative writers and, ultimately, some good solid prose.

Brains: A Zombie Memoir, by Robin Becker. Perhaps this selection will betray bias on the part of your DBC|Reads contributors, who all went to a small Midwestern liberal arts college and majored in the humanities, but it is undeniable that Becker excels in conveying the story of a….zombie humanities professor at a small Midwestern liberal arts college. What’s scary here, at first, is how this book seemed to be written only for me. I was, of course, on board with this ESP-level of happenstance, and was drawn right into a narrative that stays fast-paced from start to finish. As an English major, it’s clear that Becker was catering to my tastes and nudging me gently in my literary ribs, because throughout the book, every other sentence (and that is not at all an exaggeration) is a slyly embedded reference to famous works of literature. This is the meat of the book, for it’s quite a slim volume (less than 200 pages), and as a reader I can appreciate that for Becker, the devil is in the details.

{ANYTHING BY MAX BROOKS}. This is about as obvious a scary-book suggestion as Stephen King or R.L. Stine, but his body of work, particularly the Zombie Survival Guide, is such an founder, mass-marketer, and shatterer of the zombie lit genre, he’s too important to pass up. What was scary about the SURVIVAL GUIDE was its pragmatic format, which seemed to presuppose the legitimacy of our imminent enemy where other zombie books had to first build a case for it. In conjunction with that legitimacy, both the GUIDE and his subsequent World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War  expounded upon the reality of this post-apocalypse by presenting all temporal aspects of a worldwide ghoul attack: the start, the spread, the societal backlash, the combat, the culmination, the aftermath, and the reconstruction. These are all sociological components of wars we’ve actually experienced, so seeing them placed seamlessly into the context of the undead is enough to chill us to our bones. Apparently, though, that’s a sensation we enjoy, because Brooks is a bestselling author and soon-to-be filmmaker.

There are others that I frankly find less engaging (Shakespeare Undead, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, etc.), as there must of course be weaklings in every genre. I nevertheless still read through them to get that cheap thrill, however formulaic they might be. Because here’s the thing with zombie horror: it’s never really a thrill that comes cheaply at all. I always walk away feeling like I learned something. Is that an odd thing to say? I finish these books with the idea that I’ve conducted some minute investigation of human behavior set against the stresses of their society. It seems inevitable that we’d try to put ourselves in their place. Would I act the same way in the face of a rotting horde? Would I have enough wits to make it out only slightly scathed? Or would I fulfill an equally necessary role in the land of few survivors–that is, being among the first to perish?

Is it unreasonable to suspect that these questions are the scariest of all? And, scarier still–that we may have to apply the answers to these questions someday soon?

Go forth, dear readers, and keep yourselves up at night.

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8 thoughts on “A Monstrous Month: Week Three

  1. Can I suggest The Walking Dead? It may not be the classic definition of literature (Scott McCloud would argue that it’s not) but I think it is the best format for a zombie world: a serial. The art is sparse and creepy, the main cast of characters is 2 (arguably 1) and the extra characters are easy to attach yourself to and die even easier. Also, the covers are pretty great.

    As for the show, it’s fun to watch but it’s missed a lot of great opportunities to stray from comic while maintaining the same feel. Anywho, enjoy.

  2. dbcreads says:

    Yes! Good call on that one. I haven’t read more than a few but they’ve all been great. The serial format is better than any book could be at covering that temporal spread. Brooks conveys that spread better than anyone else within a limited page count, but The Walking Dead is an UNlimited landscape in which to build a better, more believable apocalypse.

  3. Krista says:

    DID YOU KNOW that some FP classes are reading World War Z this year? Ugh and ugh and why are we not freshmen right now, etc.

  4. dbcreads says:

    No way!!
    …Then again, it’s a perfect assignment, given what I believe to be true about their sociological connotations…

  5. Is it strange that I’ve read all of those before? I’m a total zombie junkie. Seriously, I have a problem.

  6. As I believe I have made clear, I think that both zombie and vampire stories are dumb, dumb dumb.

    But I sort of get the impression that your beef with vamps is that their victims are complicit in their own downfalls, which may well negate whatever horror is to be found in their tales. I’ve never really considered it, but the popularity of vampire romances might lie in the fact that vampire love is a logical (albeit farcical) endpoint of the cliche rationales offered by girls who fall in love with emotionally unavailable douchebags. So many women enmesh themselves in an endless rhetorical cycle of, “woe! I loooove him! I know he’s bad for me, but looove! LOVE! I can’t help it! I try to stop BUT I CAN’T!!!” etc. The threat of turning into a vampire just sort of raises the stakes a bit.

    Come to think of it, that behavior is more than a bit zombie-esque, not to mention frightening.

  7. […] what we’re seeing is draining, is real, and is us, in a way that any Max Brooks book (much as I love them) never really could […]

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