Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Summer reading, parte the firste: Chronicling the zombocalypse

I have something of an odd fascination for the zombie sub-genre: odd, because I find the whole thing fascinating, but of all horror genres it is the one that is the most deeply disturbing. As I’ve confessed on this blog before, I’m a wimp where scary movies are concerned, but most of them only affect me for the time it takes to watch them. Zombie films however fill me with a lingering dread that makes me lose sleep for days after. Even a comedy like Shaun of the Dead had me awake—not fearing the oddly-situated shadows in the corner, but spinning out in my head the post-apocalyptic narrative that is the basis of most zombie films. Where would I go? What would I do? Who would be left? What do I have in the house that I could use as a weapon?

Perhaps that is the true horror of it. Most apocalyptic films are essentially about purging, and ultimately about hope—the survivors find themselves in a suddenly depopulated world that they may then rebuild. The disaster or plague of the zombie genre however dictates that the “purged” population doesn’t go away. The dead remain, and want to turn you into one of them.

I recently did a guest lecture for MUN’s interdisciplinary humanities Master’s program, in a class about the grotesque. I settled on the theme of excess as my focus, and assigned readings by Georges Bataille and Julia Kristeva, as well as the prologue to Don DeLillo’s magnificent novel Underworld, which has a lovely sequence involving Pieter Breughel’s painting “The Triumph of Death.” As I started writing the lecture, I found myself using the Breughel painting—which features the dead returning to torment the living—as a springboard into a lengthy riff about zombie films. After about an hour of feverishly working through my thoughts, I reread what I had and fired off an email to the professor running the class asking if she could, in addition to the readings I’d assigned, ask the class to watch a zombie film. Any film would do.

This was back in May. I was in London, ON at the time, returning to St. John’s in June. And having incorporated zombies into my guest lecture, I felt now justified—for research purposes, of course—in buying several books I’d noticed. One was a collection of short fiction titled The Living Dead that included a whole bunch of fantasy/horror luminaries (Neil Gaiman, George R. R. Martin, Clive Barker, Stephen King); the second was The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks, which I’d heard good things about; and the last was World War Z, also by Max Brooks, which is a novel about the “zombie war” as chronicled in a series of “interviews” with survivors ten years after the fact.

The Living Dead was an interesting collection, uneven as these anthologies tend to be but including some entertaining and even innovative takes on the genre. The Zombie Survival Guide can be found in most bookstores’ humour section, but there is very little that is tongue-in-cheek about it: it addresses its subject very seriously, and in the process becomes a novel by other means—predicated on the assumption of the existence of a zombie virus (called “solanum”), it details both the steps to take to defend oneself, and provides a series of narratives chronicling historical outbreaks.

But it is the third book, World War Z, that took me by surprise. Brooks is very obviously someone who has spent a lot of time working through this particular thought experiment, and where he applies it to practical issues of survival in the Guide, he asks in World War Z what a genuine zombie pandemic would look like, how people and nations would respond, and how they might ultimately fight back.

All of this might sound (to non-enthusiasts) rather juvenile or frivolous, but Brooks accomplishes something remarkable in this novel. It is surprisingly thoughtful, rigorously imagined (and obviously extremely well researched), and like all great dystopian fiction, provides a substantive critique of the present. The novel is structured around a series of “interviews” with people around the world (its subtitle is “An Oral History of the Zombie War”), and moves from the initial outbreak to the ensuing “Great Panic,” to nations’ and people’s belated recognition of the threat and the subsequent steps taken, to the war fought against the undead, and the aftermath.

One of the things I loved about this novel is that it filled in a lot of the holes usually left by zombie films, such as the medical details of the virus and its effect; the lifespan of zombies (this one always bothers me, because if the whole thing is infection rather than sorcery, how long can a reanimated corpse “survive” before it literally rots away to nothing? According the Z, three to four years—shorter if it is in a damp climate, longer if in a hot and dry one); the effect of cold (below zero, they freeze solid in Brooks’ imagining, leading to one harrowing account where people flee to northern Canada, only to suffer the privation of the Canadian winter); and finally—and this is the novel’s greatest strength—how do people on a large scale deal? Most zombie narratives involve small, besieged groups of people. Here we go global, and Brooks’ “interviews” tell us the stories, among others, of a Chinese doctor who first encounters the infection; an Israeli intelligence officer who first recognizes the threat; an astronaut stranded on the International Space Station and who witnesses the events of the zombie war from space; an American pilot downed in the midst of infected territory; a soldier in the vanguard of the force that fights back. And that’s just a sample.

The novel is wide-ranging in its accounts, as the list I just offers indicates, and provides some intresting curiosities, like the use of medieval castles in Europe as refuges, or the (really rather horrifying) tale of fighting the undead in the Paris catacombs. There’s the story of the “K-9” corps, and the use of trained dogs as scouts and lures. There is also the story of a Chinese nuclear submarine, which offers a glimpse as well of the attempts by thousands of people to escape to the sea, with varying success.

Overall? Great summer reading. I recommend it even to non-enthusiasts. Also, as a side note: Max Brooks is the son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft. Interesting.

***Postscript: As you can see, I link to a second blog on which, two years ago, I started writing, for fun, a zombie screenplay set in St. John's and on MUN campus. To date it has exactly one instalment, the prologue, posted. I haven't abandoned it, but I am reluctant to add more posts until I can reliably post regularly. To that end, I haven't stopped writing it (well, I did for a while, but have returned to it), I'm just not going to post anything new until I've got a substantial number of pages in the can. So stay tuned.


Matt said...

I, ah, devoured World War Z as well. Not surprisingly, there's a movie in the works...

Nikki Stafford said...

Awesome post. You forgot the best zombie novel to come out of Canada: Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess. It's insane (people turn into zombies by becoming infected by language) and might appeal more to semiotics majors, but it's a trip nonetheless. Check out the movie by Bruce McDonald -- Pontypool -- which took the novel's basic premise and turned it into something even more suspenseful and horrific (and look for two cameos by the author, Tony). The movie just came out on DVD.

And yes, I'm tooting its horn because I've worked closely with Tony before, and I love his writing. :)

Lucinda said...

I read probably half of The Zombie Survival Guide, but then I started jumping at sudden noises and having nightmares...on a related note, my zombie-apocalypse survival plan is quite elaborate

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