Why write a blog post about zombies? Particularly my inaugural post? Especially considering that I don’t generally write about zombies? (I’m pretending there are legions of fans out there in the blogosphere, asking these very questions.) As an indie author I’ve become interested in the zombie craze—although I don’t want to slavishly imitate the market, out of curiosity I do look at what’s selling, and the lists of indie fantasy and sci-fi bestsellers always include long post-apocalyptic zombie series (“post-apocalyptic” is, of course, an oxymoron, but a blog post about zombies is no place to get anal about linguistic usage). There are so many of them that I’ve sometimes heard the Prince of Lies whispering in my ear that, if I just came up with a zombie scenario with a minor twist, I could probably pump out a series with 50,000 words per book that would bring in enough income for me not to have to feel guilty about eating in restaurants anymore.
Since I don’t actually read zombie fiction it might not be a good idea for me to start a series (though I do have a standalone zombies-vs.-cavemen novel coming soon—The Unkillables), but I still find the genre interesting. Not so much from a business point of view—I have no idea why so many indie authors as opposed to traditionally-published ones find a comfortable room in the Zombie Mansion. More from a cultural viewpoint. I’m sure I’m not the first to ask, but what is it about zombies that is interesting? It’s a boring monster. You can’t have a zombie “character,” unless you bring in an ironic twist, because the standard pop-culture zombie is mindless. That’s why the standard zombie paradigm, from Night of the Living Dead to The Walking Dead, has been to tell a story about the ordinary humans dealing with the zombie crisis, as opposed to the monsters themselves. You can tell a story from Dracula’s vantage, but telling a story about a particular zombie character is ridiculous (again, unless your zombie has some twist).
I believe pop culture has things to tell us about our own dreams and anxieties—watching people respond to “escapist” entertainment is a way to see what they think about when they don’t believe they’re thinking at all. It’s a way to see what they’re thinking when they don’t think anyone’s watching them think, including themselves. When people pick high-brow fare, they do so consciously. (“This film is a drama about the Holocaust. I know that the Holocaust is important and that I should know more about it; therefore I will watch this film.” You don’t learn anything new about the person from this reaction because of course people think they should know more about the Holocaust, that’s a rationally predictable subject for an intelligent modern person to be interested in.) When people pick low-brow fare it’s because they feel a compulsion to see it, and they don’t bother trying to analyze the urge because they don’t think it matters. (“This movie is about zombies. I’ll go see it because zombies scare me, though I don’t know why and it’s never even occurred to me to ask.” The interest in zombies is not a rational one that the person has decided she or he should have. It springs unbidden from the subconscious mind. The reasons why someone should be interested in zombies are not obvious at all, therefore examining that interest could be a chance to learn something new about the person.)
A couple weeks ago I was talking with my friend Jon Rachmani about vampires, and about tracing vampire representations through the nineteenth and twentieth century. Let’s compare vampires and zombies. One of the key characteristics of Bram Stoker’s vampire, and probably of vampires before him, is its foreignness, from the Anglo-Saxon and American points of view. The vampire is an invader from Eastern Europe, a mysterious place, tinged with the exotic religions of Eastern Orthodoxy and Islam, far different from the comfortable Anglo-Saxon brands of Protestantism.
The vampire is a foreigner; and what are the characteristics of this foreigner? He’s more exotic than we are. He’s more refined. The vampire is always depicted with a sexuality that attracts and intimidates the vanilla people he hunts among. The vampire has a longer history than we do, especially once the story migrates from England over to America.
Naturally, there’s the flip side. The vampire may be more refined, but it’s a cruel refinement, and he uses it to deceive us honest folk. The vampire’s sexuality is a temptation, but if we give in to it we risk eternal damnation and slavery.
I feel pretty comfortable seeing this as a reflection of the anxiety the English and then the Americans felt about Eastern Europeans and foreigners in general, at the end of the nineteenth century and through the twentieth. I know that lots of changes have been rung on vampire lore in the decades since, but I still think those associations cling to it—after all, consider the modern vampires of Anne Rice. Even though some of them originate in America, the series is based around New Orleans, which ain’t exactly Indianapolis. New Orleans is, at least in the American imagination, a sort of bastion of Europe.
Even if you think I’m talking out my ass regarding the specifically Eastern European angle, I don’t think anyone will deny that exoticism has usually been one of the aspects of the vampire. So it seems to make sense that the vampire speaks to our culture’s simultaneous, conflicting feelings of superiority and inferiority to that which is exotic, and foreign. The French writer J. M. G. Le Clézio said in an interview once that fear is a product of repulsion and attraction, acting simultaneously. Vampires, with their love bites and black leather, are one of the best-ever pop cultural supports for that thesis.
Now let’s compare vampires to zombies. There is nothing exotic about a zombie—the whole point of them is that they are another version of ourselves, shuffling along in rotted ties and rotted faces. A zombie is a human being that has survived its own death—a human being that has passed out of the realms of life. It’s a human being with no interiority, a human being whose only soul is a Duracell battery that keeps it crawling and eating whatever comes into its path, without empathy or recognition of any kinship. A human reduced to a sub-machine state, because at least a machine is a tool designed for some purpose; a human reduced to nothing but an insectoid hunger and compulsion.
I think that the reason zombies are so popular right now is because, when we look at them, we see ourselves as we fear we really are. As a community, we don’t believe in a divine, transcendent plan for the universe; we watch our species mindlessly destroying its environment, lemming-like, poisoning our unborn children’s habitat with no more compulsion than a zombie feels about eating a baby. Anyone who’s ridden the Manhattan subway at rush hour after having watched an episode of The Walking Dead the night before must have made the connection between the show and this quotidian reality. I suspect that the current zombie-fiction craze is a vastly healthier response to the same nihilistic cultural despair that breeds that other craze, the unmotivated school shooting. If the universe serves no purpose and wasn’t built by anyone, why not burn it down? If that human being has no true interior soul and is just jabbering along according to some program running on its DNA hardware, isn’t it kind of too monstrous to live?
That by itself wouldn’t necessarily explain zombie popularity. If Le Clézio is correct that fear is born of repulsion met with desire, then the fact that zombies scare us must mean that we are not merely repulsed by this vision of an empty, expendable humanity, forever tormented by need yet paradoxically incapable of true suffering. We must think that there is something restful, perhaps even liberating, in the vision….
Okay, well that’s it for the inaugural post of this blog intended to drive traffic to my books! I mean, do I have a keen marketing sense, or what?