Quiet, I think I heard something.

I have been reading zombie novels for fun for a bit now. I started off with World War Z. I liked the apocalyptic feel, because I was in a really bad mood. I moved on to the Newsflesh trilogy, which was a mix of apocalyptic and conspiratorial, which was fun and again fit my mood. I read Warm Bodies, which has the apocalypse content but mixes it with uplifting and character driven content. That was fun and a nice twist on some of the themes of the other zombie novels. I just read Raising Stony Mayhall. While I’ve enjoyed all these books, Raising Stony Mayhall is my favorite and as I read it I started to think more about these zombie books.

As much as I enjoy these stories, there’s something disconcerting about the myth. These zombie stories are about an enemy who is out to destroy Us and Our Way Of Life, actually, the enemy is out to wipe us out. This enemy can not be reasoned with but can only be eliminated. There is no need to respect this enemy’s rights, it has none and deserves none and extending it some would be a mistake. There’s also no need for due process. In some of these stories the heroes are the people who use violent force. Often these stories involve a kind of means/ends calculation as well along the lines of ‘how many more will live if we sacrifice this small number…?’ All of this is disconcerting given the present world – the war on terror, the war on drugs, and the ongoing war against immigrants waged by the US government.

Warm Bodies and Raising Stony Mayhall both press against at least parts of this myth, by giving the zombies an internal mental life. Zombies can think and feel and can be redeemed. As such the idea of the zombie as nothing but a bloodthirsty enemy of humanity begins to break down. It’s notable as well that both books present zombies as social, as having their own internal organizations, social hierarchies, and conflicts in their ranks. The zombies have rich internal lives as individuals, rich social lives collectively, and their political organization has intrigue and tension as does the human one.

The role of the state varies in these novels. One difference is in the depiction of the repressive forces of the state – heroic or not. World War Z, as the title suggests, presents the zombies as above all a military problem, and one that is basically solved by the end of the book, after some mis-steps and some collective learning. In the Newsflesh trilogy, the zombies are a mix of public health problem and military problem. Indeed, these novels are in part about the overlap between public health and state repressive power – things like quarantine and medical justification of repression. These novels become increasingly more distrustful of the state and its forces, at least the military and repressive side. They’re also partly about state power governing through fear, which is relevant to the present for sure. They have something in common here with Warm Bodies, which ends up criticizing the repressive arm of the state and the reduction of government to that role (or, the rising power of the repressive arm of the state in steering the state), criticizing that move on both the human and zombie side. There’s a similar theme in Raising Stony Mayhall as well, in that one clear bunch of bad guys in the novel are the government’s anti-zombie military-and-espionage forces and another clear bunch of bad guys are those zombies who want to wage war on the humans and eliminate them.

Part of what I find appealing in these books is the sense of calamity. I feel tightly wound and I worry a lot, so a novel about catastrophe just makes sense – it speaks to my feeling tense and worrying about the future. At the same time, as my friend said who first put me onto World War Z, these novels end up being uplifting despite the catastrophe, because they end relatively well. Humanity moves forward despite catastrophe. That’s a feel good ending. Maybe my worries will come true and I’ll get over it. Something like that. There’s also something fun in the violence and here I think it may be more disturbing. Since zombies don’t feel and aren’t human, they can be subjected to all kinds of violence, and they do all kinds of horrible things. I’m not sure that’s a particular good thing to find appealing.

One issue zombie novels have to make a decision about is what kind of problem the zombies are, as in, how explicable are they. In the Newsflesh trilogy they’re relatively explicable, being the result of a virus and obeying many of the basic rules of our universe. This makes them in a way more imaginable; this is science fiction of the kind that depicts a future that could maybe, just slightly a tiny bit possibly maybe could become real. Warm Bodies and Raising Stony Mayhall veer more into the magical and fantasy territory, something that could never become real, that is fully inexplicable. World War Z leaves it unexplained, remaining agnostic on the sources of the zombies.

Since I’m writing this about zombies, I suppose I should say something about Walking Dead. I watched several episodes and enjoyed them. Then I read the comic book, I got very far and that left a bad taste in my mouth so that I didn’t want to watch the show anymore. It wasn’t how deeply bleak the show was, I appreciated that, but I found the violence was too much for me to handle, especially the violence to children. That’s just not something I want in what is for me fundamentally a leisure and entertainment activity. My younger self somewhere is shaking his head dismissively at the me of today.

I’ve got more books on order from the library, I may write more about this stuff.

Edit:

Yup I got more from the library. I read Mira Grant’s When Will You Rise, which is a novella and a short story, and I forgot to mention that I read the short stories and novellas from the series that are available electronically. I don’t have anything to add (and I don’t mean that dismissively, I like those books) except that a virtue of the books that is easy to overlook is that Grant writes some casually queer characters – a gay married couple, a polyamorous family – where their being queer is not what defines them or treated as a particularly interesting fact, no more than hair color. I like that a lot.

I just finished Ashes by Ilsa Bick. It’s a familiar post-apocalyptic setting. The coolest parts are that the main characters are women and the book’s largely about gender. I’d call it a subtly feminist young adult novel about zombie apocalypse. It reminds me of something a friend said about Walking Dead – the men hunt and fight and protect; the women sing. Ashes is in part about that dynamic, apocalypse scenario as opportunity for the re-creation and maintenance of especially reactionary forms of patriarchy. I don’t mean to reduce the book to an idea, that’s really easy to do with thinking about literature without paying much attention to its formal/literary qualities (not a strength of mine); it’s also a well-told enjoyable story. I’m gonna order the sequel from the library.

Edit:

Today I finished Fiend by Peter Stenson. I enjoyed it a lot. It starts with the main characters coming off a week or more of doing methamphetamine and not sleeping. They come down and quickly realize a zombie apocalypse has happened. It’s sort of like if World War Z broke out in the middle of Trainspotting. The book is really about addiction and relationships, though set in a zombocalypse. I found the treatement of addiction honest and moving. The zombocalypse is well told, with the added trait that the zombie giggle a lot. That makes them creepier. I also liked that the book was set in the Twin Cities, and that the Cities are depicted as a place of inequality, poverty, and violence, rather than treating Minnesota as somewhere quaint.

So far I am not tired of zombie books. I got more on order from the library.

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