By J.L. Koszarek
Not having a Bram Stoker or Mary Shelley, or even an Anne Rice for leverage, writing about zombies is a unique and liberating challenge. While there are many films about zombies beginning nearly 100 years ago with The White Zombie starring Bela Lugosi, there is no literary genesis for zombies, no poems, no short stories, no tragic love stories or sonnets. Zombies have been left for literary dead.
Dracula and Frankenstein, and even Vampire Lestat were not soulless. They felt emotion, pined for those in the living world, even Dr. Frankenstein’s monster was painfully self-aware if not through the doctor’s suffering. They knew they were monsters undeserving of love. Each of them terrible victims of the tragedy of self-loathing, a rich inner conflict deserving of dramatic literary and metaphoric fame. Tragic. Romantic. Memorable.
While resurrection stories appear throughout history from the epic tale of Gilgamesh and others in Greek mythology to even Biblical mythology with the story of Lazarus, zombies don’t appear in classic western literature. Writing about them within the constructs of the 18th and 19th centuries was probably nearly impossible. The literary challenges were insurmountable because to write about the zombie, given the times, would be a fruitless attempt to tell a story about the resurrection of the truly soulless. Our soul, or as I prefer, consciousness is the center of everything dramatic, everything within us that drives our emotions, decisions, behaviors, all elements required for an interesting literary plot. The 19th century author was not aware of the concept of a zombie and even if she were, she would lack consideration for something the world assumed had no soul. Even the story of Lazarus is sketchy regarding his soul. Once Jesus calls him forth from the tomb, he remains nameless and eventually fades from recognition.
Zombies were not conceptualized as “walking dead” by the Haitians because the people who became zombies never died. They were wretched victims of a vengeful diabolist who rendered them powerless through his knowledge of chemistry. Even in death, the poor victim was unable to find freedom from the slavery of the day. In the 1930’s Zora Neale Hurst wrote about the Haitian zombie rituals, which exemplified the human struggle for liberation (Haitians viewed death as the ultimate liberation from the harsh realities of life) versus dark magic centering on power over others. Herein we see for the first time that zombies never died, but rather they were living, breathing human beings captured by voodoo priests and enslaved as an act of revenge.
The voodoo priest made a powerful poison powder from a litany of burned and dried organic ingredients including but not limited to human remains, lizards, spiders, worms, and frogs, but every variation of the powder included puffer fish, a known neurotoxin. The clever priest, knowing his chemistry would dispense just the right amount of his coup padre to render the victim comatose, a state in which the victim’s heart beat and respiration would be undetectable given the technology of the day. In truth, he would be very much alive, and sometimes even conscious, but unable to physically or verbally protest his funeral rites and burial after which the priest would exhume him from the grave, give him more hallucinogenic chemicals, beat him, enslave him, and declare that he has risen from the dead as a soulless creature. The Zombification Ritual, such an agonizing plot for revenge not only on the victim, but his entire family.
Herein, I believe the challenges for today’s zombie literati aren’t so overwhelming. Writing about a nonconscious being is akin to writing about a rock, except a rock isn’t animated like a zombie! Zombies open the door for hundreds of questions. How can this be? Why is it here? Where did it come from? What is it doing and why? Is it aware? Does it remember? Is it cognizant of its surroundings? Now, we’re getting somewhere.
The leverage today’s writer of the zombie genre has is unprecedented. There is no historical standard to which authors must aspire, zombie varietals are ripe for their own imagination. This is liberating, but with serious caveats. Popular culture is much more demanding than history. Much in the way of anxiety creeps into my heart when I imagine my readers disliking my zombies. With Thad David’s valuable input, he and I have embraced the neozombie virulent variety. It metamorphoses in seconds, it’s fast, violent, and seemingly lacking consciousness. It does not so much consume its victim, but rather spreads its virus. For this writer, this type of behavior indicates some kind of consciousness or collective awareness, a not so far cry from the original zombies of Haitian lore, except for the catatonic slave scenario.
Instead of metaphysical black magic and voodoo, today’s zombies have fallen victim to a mysterious virus with as yet unknown origins that deems them mindless, driven only by the primal nature that a virus has to replicate itself. So, even the zombie has a will to survive. It evolves in a dynamic world filled with adversity and yet, as in Haitian lore, the zombie is the still the loser in the ever ending struggle for power, the ultimate victim of a hostile natural world, which brings us to what zombies have come to symbolize. Do they remain the ultimate symbol of revenge, the powerlessness of the human condition? I think so, but this begs the question, then within whom or what does the vengeful heart reside? There are no voodoo priests, no more colonial planter class slavers or European colonists from which the poor person of color struggles to be freed.
What do we wish to be freed from? What condition renders us powerless? Who are the powerful and why? What about our conscious lives? What does freedom mean? Is there even such a thing? If so, how do we achieve it? Can it be experienced in the framework of our minds? What does it mean to die? What does it mean to love? These are the fertile challenges for today’s zombie literati.
The world is our oyster.
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The stench of frozen flesh is in the air! Welcome to the Winter of Zombie Blog Tour 2015, with 40+ of the best zombie authors spreading the disease in the month of November.
Stop by the event page on Facebook so you don’t miss an interview, guest post or teaser…and pick up some great swag as well!
Giveaways galore from most of the authors as well as interaction with them!
#WinterofZombie is the hashtag for Twitter, too!