Horror is a genre devoted to analyzing our relationship with the past—unresolved fears, feelings of guilt for past wrongdoings, regrets about roads not taken—and the burgeoning zombie subgenre, initially popularized by the films of George Romero but now extending to almost all areas of popular culture (the literary mashup Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which has spawned a new subgenre of imitators matching the classics with various types of monsters; the new AMC television series The Walking Dead, based on the popular graphic novels by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard; Max Brooks’s faux-journalistic document of the zombie apocalypse, World War Z; and many more examples) is no exception. The idea of the dead returning to life and wreaking havoc on the living is full of implications about guilt and reckoning: What do we make of our history? What went wrong, and how do we make it better?
Alden Bell’s zombie novel The Reapers Are The Angels wears this thematic heart on its sleeve. Temple, a fifteen-year-old girl who doesn’t remember anything from before the zombie apocalypse, wanders around the world trying to see its mostly wasted sights while also trying to stay out of trouble. Of course, she doesn’t really succeed at either endeavor, because zombies are everywhere and running from zombies is clearly a full time job. She picks up new companions and loses others; she encounters strange new communities and then, following her nomadic nature, inevitably moves on; she dreams, oddly enough, of seeing Niagara Falls. Her adventure is a hopeless one—and also one not necessarily all that different from the one being shared by the people she meets along the way—but this doesn't make it any less riveting, and the layers of this novel are many and deep.
Perhaps the most apt description of the zombie genre and its grounding in a conversation about our relationship to the past is a line from near the end of The Reapers Are The Angels: “The abundance of gone things, it’ll bury you” (p. 300). Zombies are literally those gone things returned to plague us. The line refers to one character’s loss of his wife and child, but there are many kinds of gone things, and the literary zombie is an attempt to aggregate them into one melancholy but dangerous monster—a gone thing which has come back to take us away with it. Temple lives in a world where the past is something that she never saw, and yet still it haunts her—chases her. Bell writes about the zombies of his novel that “their gestures are meaningless, but they hearken back with primitive instinct to life before” (p. 83), showing us the zombie as a canvas not necessarily blank, but purged. The past has been erased, at least in all practical terms, and we’re left with brain-seeking monsters running around aimlessly, following instincts that they don’t understand—“the horde … everywhere descending and roiling against each other like … beasts of our lost pasts, spilling out of whatever hell we have made for them” (p. 85).
Temple’s journey is reminiscent of those experienced by characters in other recent novels such as Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road and Justin Cronin’s vampire novel The Passage. Civilization has broken down and now all we can do is wander the wasteland, trying to make something from the ruins. All of this speaks to a revisionist relationship with the past—an attempt to erase mistakes and start over again. Temple is fond of “thinking about the nature of all things, about how dead things have trouble staying dead, and forgotten things have trouble staying forgotten, and about how history isn’t something from an encyclopedia—it’s everywhere you look” (p. 282). The past, for Temple, is like a scar from a wound that she doesn’t remember suffering, and the past is something she has to reckon with because “there’s more past than present in the world today” (p. 283), regardless of how little she knows about it. Much like the teenagers on Elm Street who have to suffer at the hands of Freddy Krueger for the mistakes of their parents before they can move on into adulthood, the mysteries of the past are lurching at Temple in the form of a zombie apocalypse, and she has to deal with them before she’ll have a chance for a future of her own.
The characters in Amelia Beamer’s The Loving Dead, another recent zombie novel, are constantly examining the past in the form of popular culture, using the lessons learned from movies and books as guideposts as they gather the tools to survive their own zombie apocalypse. One of the most annoying things about some zombie narratives is the characters’ complete lack of recognition when someone in their world comes back from the dead and starts craving brains. Haven’t they seen Night of the Living Dead? Don’t they realize that it’s time to run? The Loving Dead refreshingly allows its characters to use their knowledge of zombie movies as a weapon in their quest to figure out what exactly is happening to them, the references showing us how we compulsively position ourselves in relation to what has come before—the interesting part being, in this case, the fact that the zombie apocalypse has never actually happened, even though fictional zombie narratives are treated as actual recorded history. “If there was anything she’d learned from zombie movies, it was that everyone was on their own. The cavalry wasn’t coming, or if it did they would kill you first and ask questions later” (p. 87)—and thus we can clearly see that Kate, one of the main characters in The Loving Dead, has seen a Romero film or two. Similarly to the way we learn history so as to not reproduce the mistakes of our forebears, these Trader Joe’s employees substitute fact for fiction, treating pop culture with the same gravity that we treat actual recorded history, and thus gleaning from it the same lessons.
The characters in Beamer's novel work together, live together, party together, and often sleep together, but grounding the narrative is a burgeoning love story between aloof Kate and earnest Michael, roommates who are separated at the beginning of the novel and whose reunion we await throughout—and which comes, ultimately, with a price. The typical zombie movie clichés are referenced here, and then subsequently updated: “Why did houses in zombie movies always have lots of plywood lying around? Maybe it was because the zombies always hit in the country; people actually built things in the country, since IKEA was too far” (p. 67). Kate and her co-workers at Trader Joe’s—mostly twentysomethings still trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives—pool their knowledge and try to keep ahead of the zombie apocalypse, even as it begins to claim them one by one.
Beamer updates the standard zombie narrative with insights as to how zombieism would fit into today’s media-saturated cultural landscape: “This is the apocalypse that will only be covered by gonzo journalism. Forget the reporters in rain gear during Katrina, or Tom Brokaw embedded in Iraq—this’ll be about blogs and Twitter” (p. 136), Kate notes knowingly, wondering why mainstream media is keeping quiet about the very clear and real danger of the zombie outbreak. Beamer explores the notion of public history and the reclamation of master narratives by showing the characters learning about what’s happening to them via word-of-mouth hints and tips, confused blog posts at BoingBoing, and other similarly from-the-trenches sharing of information, showing us the flaws inherent in a system of media control in which blindly trusting allegedly “official” news coverage—of events to which we can often bear actual witness if we merely walk over to the window—means being more susceptible to being eaten by zombies.
The spread of information in our wireless world is instantaneous, and this serves to simultaneously mimic and counteract the similarly rapid spread of the zombie “virus.” The idea of zombieism as a sexually transmitted disease is Beamer’s unique contribution to a genre which is so rarely sexy. People about to become zombies in The Loving Dead first find themselves inexplicably horny, and the zombies stare at their potential victims with “unpronounceable hunger. Actually it was a lot like the faces you see in porn, but with less certainty of their course of action. It was as if they couldn’t decide whether to fuck him first, and then eat him, or the other way around” (p. 80). But Beamer becomes perhaps too mired in the genre’s vast amount of source material. Her characters spend too much time talking about the zombie apocalypse, and how this particular one differs from others—“What would Romero do?” (p. 80)—rather than actually doing something about it. The past, here, is paralyzing. How are we supposed to do something original when this has happened so many times before?
All too often the answer, simply, is that we don’t—we binge on bullshit and then we regurgitate the same stuff right back onto the plate. And perhaps the recent rash of zombie novels will all eventually fade into each other and then fade, collectively, into the past, as the products of booming trends inevitably do. But in the present, readers are clearly as starved for zombies as zombies are starved for brains. Luckily for us, The Reapers Are The Angels and The Loving Dead are worthwhile contributions to the subgenre. Everything we contribute to the culture is, as Temple notes when she stumbles upon beautiful artwork in an abandoned museum, “like a message from another civilization. That’s how it works, you see? That’s how people talk to each other across time” (p. 158). Horror fiction has been an oft-used platform for these conversations across time, imbuing the present with very clear resonances from the past and what scares us about it, and both of these books successfully show us something about the present by showing us something about our relationship with the past. The more clearly we can represent ourselves in art, the more clearly we’ll be understood later on by those who find what we’ve left behind—even if, by then, we’re all zombies. Or we're all still working at Trader Joe's when we're in our forties. Or—well, you get the picture.
Richard Larson is a graduate student at New York University. His short stories have appeared (or are forthcoming) in ChiZine, Pindeldyboz, Electric Velocipede, Strange Horizons, and others. He blogs at rlarson.typepad.com.