What Is Modern Zombie Fiction? (And Who Cares?)

(I do.)

Zombie literature has always been a fascination for me. Why? Because the idea of a “zombie” should be really, really lame. I mean, some dead thing moaning, lumbering around, existing only to kill you and make you one of them. And most (recent) zombie literature is pretty lame, too. What’s the big deal?

From someone who has spent a long time reading/studying/writing gothic, the macabre, and horror, I find the idea of the zombie fascinating for a number of reasons–and not just the gothic, macabre, horrific reasons. While it seems a simple idea, a simple form of writing, it can actually be much more complex than most would realize. Let me elaborate.

Safety coffin, for if the dead isn't really dead, he/she can ring the little bell for tea.

Safety coffin, for if the dead isn’t really dead, he/she can ring the little bell for tea.

A quick recap of where the legend comes from might be a great way to start. Stemming from superstitious lore that poured from the same cup of Vampires and Werewolves (in Western culture, at least), zombies are a symbol of the unknown, of poorly-executed religious rite, and bad luck. They are supernatural in origin, and in design, in the real world.

Mary Shelley began the literature aspect of the zombie with her Frankenstein’s Monster, a creature pieced together from dead organs and parts, brought back to life through mad science, and unleashed on the world as a form of human nature vs nurture. I also believe the resurgence of zombie literature came about due to the Nazi action of World War II, and the Holocaust as a whole. The idea that a person can be so ruthless, so devoid of human nature is terrifying. The idea that a group of people can be so unyielding in their focus for power and extermination is, again, horrifying. I see so many similarities in both image and execution of Nazi Germany and zombie literature, I can’t help but lump the two together.

While the supernatural aspect of zombie fiction is entertaining and personally interesting, in this article I focus on the Max Brooks-type, science-based zombie fiction that’s grown a bit more popular of late (if anyone doesn’t know who Max Brooks is, check out World War Z).

What is Zombie fiction to me? (LIST TIME!)

  1. Survivalism at its most distilled
  2. War-time perspective
  3. Apocalyptic
  4. Socio-political
  5. Philosophical (This one is SO ignored in most zombie writing)
  6. Human Interest
  7. The Fear of fear, the Fear of Humanity
  8. Psychological
  9. Scientific

Let’s start with 1. While most literature dealing with zombies pre 1900’s deals with it more as a reflection of the human condition, recent literature (and movies) use zombies as the unknown opposing force for the downfall of society. It seems so rudimentary, it’s literally the focus for doomsday preppers everywhere. Why? Because most social upheaval that could happen would fall under the guidelines of prepping for zombie apocalypse. A Great Depression? Yep. EMP destroying the entire electrical infrastructure? Yep. A-Bomb droppage (or as they say in the show Doomsday Preppers, Trading Nuclear Ordinance)? Yep.

So while the idea of a “zombie” apocalypse is theoretically nearly impossible, the idea that one should prepare for the unknown is quite applicable. What better unknown than to prepare for than the one that allows for the most flexibility? I also think this is one of the few “unbelievable” elements of fantasy/science fiction that those of the Republican slant would enjoy reading. It is gritty, realistic, and connective.

2.  Society dies. Boom. Military survives because of wartime training, baser needs come out of the woodwork, Lord of the Flies macroeconomics bloom, and poor Piggy gets the sharp end of the stick. One of the sharp ends. The other one’s for the ground to, you know. Yeah. Anyway. You can’t trust anyone you trusted before the outbreak (because they might be infected), you can’t trust anyone you hadn’t trusted before because, well, you don’t know them and they had to have survived somehow, and the whole world turns into a war zone. Any good zombie book MUST have aspects of this. Why? Because it’s badass, for one. It’s needed, for two. What’s great about zombie literature is it creates a unifying force against humanity, but humanity rarely unites against it. Why? Because it’s borne of humanity, and not a foreign entity like aliens or a tsunami. Plus it is permeated throughout. There is no “Us vs Them” ideal, which essentially creates a melting pot of violence and desperate society.

3. Usually Zombie literature creates an end-of-the-world scenario. If the outbreak were cordoned off to just, say, Las Angeles, it wouldn’t be nearly so terrifying. Just find a way to get over the wall and you’re good. (I know 28 Days Later incorporated that idea, but given the fact Britain is on one giant island, the fear was equally real because there was no wall to jump to safety) I love the destruction of society novels. They have a great way of showing the mirror on us, our baser selves, and showing how unlike the civilized people we really are–and, on the opposite side, how humane we are as well. The survival of near-total destruction and the rebuild is always a fascinating idea for me.

4. How Does This Happen? The implications are mind-blowing. The possibilities to show power vacuum and ignorance and the self-righteous falling to failure is nearly infinite. Politicians can get their comeuppins! The Evil will finally see its ilk! And the aftermath? Who is in charge of whom? Who rises up? Again, in the post apocalyptic, the strong survive, and that usually means the most cutthroat, humanity-free people get the top seat. Not always. If you write it, you can have Mary Poppins run the compound. How could that happen? How does she keep peace?

This is a great place for satire, for sarcasm, and for throwing ideas against the sticky wall of politics. It’s a sticky wall! Everything sticks!

5. One of my favorites. I recently re-read a shelved zombie project where one of the characters saw a zombie as Schroedinger’s cat, observed. Boom. This genre is a playground for philosophical ideas because why? The idea of a zombie horde is an absolute, regardless of how fast or how angry or how intelligent you make them. It is an enemy that will never surrender. What Makes Humanity, in a person? Here is a place where you can answer it. What makes a Monster? The force of the undead or the people who try to capitalize off it? What makes a person a person? I see some loving Nietzsche, Hobbes, Kant rants going through my head right now. The Overman. What is perfection? We literally create our world from the inside out. The philosophical possibilities are endless.

I want, so bad, to see more philosophical slant in these books. World War Z, the movie (which is absolutely nothing like the creative, brilliant book) tries to posit philosophical ideas (and fails miserably): “Well. Ten nations heard rumblings of zombie outbreak, and nine weren’t listening. It was my responsibility to be the outlier. And look. We survive because of it.”

6. The best way to see white is on a backdrop of black (okay it sounds good, but it doesn’t exactly explain it. Bear with me). Maybe I should have taken the “It’s always darkest right before dawn” approach. No. Whatever. A zombie outbreak, and the idea of zombies-as-tour-de-force, allows a writer to create an epic love story, a powerful journey, a cauterizing, unexpected hero. It creates a horrible, caustic environment, where luck as much as ability influences the outcome. It creates something truly epic–in the strongest definition of the word–and involves the average reader, as well. Anyone can survive zombie apocalypse. Anyone can get a second chance to survive in this place. It’s alluring to anyone with a pulse. What would YOU do in a zombie apocalypse? Write and find out!

7. I’ve touched on this one already, but I’ll try and drive it home. Zombie literature is quite literally about one thing: Fear in the absence of Hope. It is the tangible nature of fear itself, externalized and knocking on your door. It is a place where you can focus all your fear, the fear of the unknown, the fear of being inadequate, and could allow a reader to find peace through staring at the great abyss that is Fear Actualized. It is therapeutic if done right, escapism, and destructive if done wrong (or more right? depending on your stance on Fear). It is the extreme opposite of Love. And that can be terrifying. And it should.

8. Stemming from “fear” is the psychological implications of the darker side of human nature. Most horror focuses on the ability to withstand terror, torture, violence and depravation. The depravity of zombie literature (can) give the writer a canvas to create psychological commentary, highlight the cauterizing nature of such a faceless foe (and, in some places, a foe with the face of someone you love) on humanity, the human condition, and survivability. These are the things of legend. These are the things of total warfare, and in some places the germination of highly corrupt people.

9. Science has a place in this form of literature–in fact, it should be the creative juices where the Big Bang of zombie death originated. It can be some wild mutation run amok–it doesn’t have to be born in a lab–but I feel science should play a part if not in the creation, but in the pursuit of a cure. This perspective allows zombie literature yet another facet: the High Science Fiction realm. Doom video games aside, zombieism as a force would wreck havoc on the environment, would have a very unique physiology possibly worth delving into, be a field of possibility. If taken to an extreme, zombification could be the beginning of the understanding of immortality, of extended life, of super-human ability. It could have military ramifications, societal control, and be the base of many Nazi-like experiments in humanity.

And this is only half of the zombie literature I know about. The other half? The Poe-esque? The macabre and creepy? It also fits! You can have an entire book dedicated to two people, one living and one dead, and the implications/conversations held within. And to think one can have a piece of a larger pie dedicated to such minutae… Yum. All I have to say. The implications are impressive, complex, delicious.

Have you written any zombie stories lately? Why the heck not? (If you have, or if you do, please keep me filled in. I’d love to read)

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4 thoughts on “What Is Modern Zombie Fiction? (And Who Cares?)

  1. I’m pretty sure Schrodinger’s cat observed is either alive or dead. That was part of his point, I always thought. 🙂

    Oh man, though. I SO kind of agree with you, kind of don’t. I got into the whole zombie thing for a while–I mean, it’s pretty cool–and I agree with you that the whole mass-infection angle, taking down the rich and poor alike, allows for a lot of societal satirization. All horror, at its base roots, is the story of a societal fear we share, right? That’s the point of horror, why certain ghoulies and ghosties become popular at certain points. (Zombies, I’ve noticed, seem to get popular in times of economic downturn).

    Zombie stories are, at heart, the story of the individual versus the masses. In a way, I think they’re stories about WHY some people survive and some don’t. In the lower class of zombie movies characters tend to be stereotypes, and you can almost predict the order in which they’re going to go. (Same thing goes with most horror movies, really).

    What I always wonder is: why doesn’t somebody make an attempt at this sort of social commentary with other horror creatures? Vampires are pretty ripe for it, being parasitic creatures existing on ‘lesser’ human prey in a near-conscienceless half life. I feel like vampires have been pretty well ruined by Anne Rice and every other purple prose-dribbling former Goth horror writer ever to turn up the radio when a Smiths song comes on, though. Maybe that’s why: nobody ever quite ruined zombies.

    But yeah, zombie stuff is pretty cool. Tired of hearing hipsters talk about the zombiepocalypse, though. Man, I did an art show a few years back where I had a dude corner me, for like an hour, outside of the gallery. He wanted to tell me about his zombiepocalypse plan. Allllll about it. And it was dumb. He wanted to build a treehouse. I’m sorry, what? Where’s your food? What happens when the zombies tree you like a rabid raccoon, and you have nothing to eat and nowhere to go?

    But, as in all such encounters, I’m a girl, so I shouldn’t worry, he’d be happy to protect me. Shit. Protect me to death, why don’t you.

    I didn’t even find out if I sold anything until the next day. Because of this, I might be slightly prejudiced against zombie stories. World War Z’s been on my reading list for a while and I keep just not quite making it there…

    • I know with the Schroedinger thing. That was the laaaaame joke about it. Lol

      I’d love vampires to be given a more social slant. Unfortunately, there’s Team Edward to also think about. The market is saturated with sexy sparkles. Which is cool. Market wants it. It’s up to us to create a different perspective. We. Are. The future.

      Dude with the zombie prep? Amateur. I’d, like, have a natural water well up there. With machine gun turrets. Murca.

      I’d be biased against zombies, too. Awkward.

      I’ve read so few good zombie books its kinda crazy. Games? Movies? Yeah. Books? Not so much.

      Also. Art show? I want to know more.

      • The Walking Dead totally stole my zombiepocalypse plan: a prison. Good solid fortifications, guns, ammo, toilet wine. Usually in a fairly remote location. But treehouse? C’mon. I guess you can throw leaves on them if they get too rowdy.

        I’ve heard Hugh Howey’s I, Zombie is pretty good, but yet again I’ve had it on the reading list for a while without actually reading it. That zombie bias again: thanks, Zombiepocalypse Treehouse Dude. Thanks for all you did.

        I worked on a vampire story for a while: the vampire-hero is a professor of British Literature, and he’s an elitist class-pandering asshole. A lot of the story focused on his previous friendship with Lord Byron. Then I ran out of Byron anecdotes and Twilight came out. Fuck, right?

        I paint a little. I’m not very good, but I had some friends who ran an art gallery who were kind enough to include me in some of their collective shows. I thought I might be able to make some money doing it for a few years, but boy, is that ever a hard market to make money in! Especially if, like me, you’re in possession of no special gifts. Just glad, personally, that I figured it out before I actually made a go of it. I still enjoy it–probably more, now that I know better than to try and make money doing it.

      • Sounds like that guy destroyed everything zombie for you. Very unfortunate. A prison would be nice. I’ve had a roaming zombie idea in my head for a while now. Open road, clear destination, no sedentary life for me! I guess. I better have ridiculously good reasons to go on a zombie road trip instead of battening down hatches.

        Interesting vampy idea too. I can’t wrap my head around writing one for myself, though. I have little interest in erudite immortals. Though Dan Simmons published a vamp book I’m interested in called Carrion Comfort.

        Good on the painting! I’ve never tried, but I used to sketch really well. Now I use my skills for diagramming magic structure or the random odd map of a world. Hope you have an awesome week.

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