“They're coming to get you!”
That line is a direct quote from George Romero's cult zombie film Night of the Living Dead, and it could very well become the mantra for booksellers throughout the country who recently have found themselves besieged by zombies—i.e., reanimated corpses with a voracious appetite for human flesh and brains—in novels, anthologies, nonfiction treatises, survival guides, advice books, graphic novels, romance primers and scholarly studies. Once an exclusive denizen of the horror genre, where it toiled in the shadow of the ghost, the werewolf and the overachieving vampire, the zombie has recently gone mainstream and if sales figures are any indication—more than 200,000 copies of Max Brooks's zombie apocalypse novel World War Z have sold since its publication in 2007, while Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (a “posthumous collaboration” with Jane Austen in every sense of the word) has gone into its 16th printing and been translated into 17 languages since its release this April—readers seem to be... well, eating it up.
The prevalence of the zombie in media ranging from video games and comic books to movies and fiction for kids prompted Time magazine, in its April 9, 2009, issue, to proclaim “Zombies Are the New Vampire.” Whence this sudden paradigm shift at the top of the fantasy food chain?
“Zombies may have become so popular in the mainstream because they're so basic they're almost a blank slate,” says Don D'Auria, executive editor of the Leisure Books horror imprint. “You can read so much into them. They can be a satire on consumerism or a comment on any group-think mentality. Plus, they're instantly recognizable. Even nonhorror fans know what a zombie is, at least on some level.”
Zombies: The New Vampire
Blame the new-found interest in the blood curdling zombie in large part on a very funny guy named Max Brooks. In 2003 Brooks, a writer for Saturday Night Live, served up A Zombie Survival Guide, the ultimate reference text for a generation of couch potatoes who had overdosed on George Romero's Night of the Living Dead and the scores of zombie flicks knocked off it. Laced with deadpan satire about our interest in cinematic zombies (“Since the living dead first stepped onto the silver screen, their greatest enemy has not been hunters, but critics”) and black humor (“The mental capacity of the average zombie ranks somewhere below that of the average insect”), Brooks's practical manual on the care, feeding and extermination of zombies reads like a Worst Case Scenario guide for a world where zombies are as ubiquitous—and as pesky—as houseflies.
Three years and hundreds of thousands of units sold later, Brooks's publisher, Crown, released World War Z, a no-bones-about-it serious horror novel chronicling a global zombie pandemic enabled by contemporary social and political intrigues. Brooks's two different approaches to the zombie theme capitalized upon what Susan Chang, senior editor at Tor Books, has identified as the versatility of the zombie as a symbol. “The tone of zombie books covers the spectrum from true horror to campy humor,” she says. In 2011, World War Z will be adapted for the screen by director Marc Forster. This fall, Brooks will attempt a horror hat trick with The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks, a graphic novel rendering of historical zombie conflicts from as far back as 60,000 B.C.
The success of Brooks's books awakened the mainstream reading audience to the relevance of zombies. The same year that World War Z hit the bestseller list, David Wellington saw Monster Island, a zombie holocaust tale, published under the Thunder's Mouth imprint. The book had begun as a novel serialized for free at the author's blog site, and its instant notoriety netted him a print contract for the trilogy that ultimately came to comprise Monster Nation (2006) and Monster Planet (2007). By the time Scribner published Stephen King's Cell (2006), which tells of all but a fraction of the world's populace being turned into rampaging zombies by a sinisterly manipulated cellphone pulse, the zombie was well established in publishing culture. Broadway Books brought out S.G. Browne's bittersweet zombie romance novel Breathers: A Zombie's Lament this past March, and it was immediately snapped up for 2011 film adaptation.
Then came Quirk Books' Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a tongue-in-(festering)-cheek splice of Jane Austen gentility with zombie cannibal shenanigans coauthored by Seth Grahame-Smith. With his outrageous riffing on Jane Austen's painfully proper prose—“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains” reads the opening line—and its reinvention of the marriage-seeking Bennet sisters as a family of ninja-trained zombie whackers, Grahame-Smith cut the velvet ropes keeping zombie genre fiction away from the literary classics.
“I'd always wanted to do a mashup of a famous literary novel,” says Quirk editorial director Jason Rekulak on the novel's genesis. “I thought it would be funny to do a 'new and improved' version of a classic that kids are forced to read in high school. So I made a list of classic novels and a second list of elements that could enhance these novels—pirates, robots, ninjas, monkeys and so forth. When I drew a line between Pride and Prejudice and zombies, I knew I had my title and it was easy to envision how the book would work.” With more than 600,000 copies in print, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a bestseller that has already inspired its share of genre splices and revisionist zombie literature.
Dawn of the Dead
Actually, the zombie's recent skyrocket to the top of the trend chain is an example of how old things can seem new again when the zeitgeist is right. A fixture of West Indian folklore for centuries, the zombie was introduced to many American readers in the early 20th century through William Seabrook's The Magic Island (1929), a travelogue of Haiti that featured a fanciful account of corpses resurrected through voodoo to work as cheap labor in the cane fields. Seabrook's book sparked the imaginations of many pulp fiction writers, who started churning out stories of the walking dead for Weird Tales and other horror and science fiction magazines. At the same time that Robert E. Howard, Hugh Cave, Seabury Quinn, Henry S. Whitehead, Jane Rice and other fantasists were building a literary legacy for the zombie, Hollywood's Poverty Row studios were titillating movie audience with equally pulpy matinee shockers such White Zombie (1932) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943).
The zombie story as it's written today only just celebrated its 20th anniversary. In June of 1989, Bantam released Book of the Dead, an anthology of new zombie stories edited by John Skipp and Craig Spector, two of the rowdiest writers from horror's then surging splatterpunk wave. Citing George Romero's Night of the Living Dead films as a major influence on their style of graphically gory horror, the editors invited an all-star cast of horror's best and brightest—among them Stephen King, Robert R. McCammon, David Schow and Joe R. Lansdale—to drop their inhibitions and let the flesh fly in gleefully gruesome stories struck from the same template as Romero's films about hordes of the newly dead resurrected as zombies whose bite is infectious and whose hunger for living humans is as insatiable as it is inexplicable. A follow-up anthology, Still Dead (1991), offered more of the same and helped spawn a cottage industry of zombie short fiction anthologies, including Stephen Jones's The Mammoth Book of Zombies (1993), Byron Preiss and John Betancourt's The Ultimate Zombie (1993), James Lowder's Book of All Flesh anthology trilogy (2001—2003) and Skipp's third all-original compilation, Mondo Zombie (2006).
These efforts within the genre helped to transform the zombie from the mindless and relatively nonthreatening automaton of traditional occult fiction to a vicious self-motivated eating machine perfect for post-Romero audiences. But this extreme makeover notwithstanding, it still was not enough to break the monster out to a bigger audience. Over the years, however, zombies slowly percolated into and pervaded our popular culture. They proliferated in widely watched films, including Sam Raimi's Evil Dead series and Danny Boyle's Romero-inflected 28 Days Later. Enormously popular computer games, like Resident Evil, pitted players against the walking dead and turned participants of all ages and predispositions into expert zombie hunters. High-profile comics series including Marvel Zombies cast SpiderMan, the Hulk and other comic book superheroes as putrefying zombies who battle even nastier nemeses, while indie comics like Biohazard and Living with Zombies raised the bar for zombie gore and mayhem. But a popular character-driven comics series like Robert Kirkland's The Walking Dead (Image Comics has just published the Walking Dead Compendium, vol. 1, an omnibus edition of the series) has elevated the apocalyptic zombie invasion to a transformative tale of human conflict and drama. The result was zombies who were leaner, meaner, quicker and sicker, because that's what the audience cultivated for them expected.
Then came the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the national fear of a faceless horde of enemies slavishly obedient to their objective of dishing out extreme violence. Suddenly, the zombie became a monster for our time. “I think it's interesting that the spike in zombie interest occurred right around the time of 9/11 and the Iraq War,” says Rekulak. “It's been building ever since.”
Zombie fiction is filling an increasing number of niches in genre publishing schedules. Last fall, Night Shade Books, a leading specialty publisher of fantasy and science fiction, brought out John Joseph Adams's anthology The Living Dead, a connoisseur's culling of much of the best short zombie fiction published over the past three decades. It will be followed next February by St. Martin's The New Dead, a collection of all original zombie tales, edited by Christopher Golden and featuring contributions from Max Brooks, Joe Hill and other horror heavyweights. Ulysses Press's The Ultimate Book of Zombies: An Anthology of Flesh-Eating Fiction will just precede it into print this December.
Ulysses will also jump on the zombie nonfiction/humor bandwagon this summer with The Zombie Handbook, a guide that promises to help readers “identify the living dead and survive the coming zombie apocalypse.” It will be joined in October by Sourcebooks' Zombies for Zombies, a motivational guide written by David Murphy for zombies themselves, with tips on diet, proper manners, grooming, anger management and best brain recipes.
Liz Gorinsky, an editor at Tor, sees the future of zombie fiction in terms of hybridization. Citing novels like George Mann's The Affinity Bridge, a 2008 steampunk novel with reanimated dead characters, and Cheri Priest's forthcoming Boneshaker, a period gothic teeming with zombie-like “rotters,” she says, “I think it's likely we'll be seeing more zombie plus insert subgenre combinations as we move forward.” In fact, this fall will see an unprecedented incursion of zombies into a science fiction franchise when Del Rey releases Joe Schreiber's Star Wars: Death Troopers, about a derelict spaceship incubating a disease that can literally raise the dead.
Just as Stephenie Meyer helped to make the vampire safe for younger readers through her bestselling Twilight novels, so are zombies beginning to populate the shelves reserved for young adult fiction. Given the ground broken by R.L. Stine's Goosebumps books for how much kids crave the icky-factor in their reading, it's not surprising. “Zombies appeal to all ages,” says Chang, at Tor. This August will see Tor/Starscape's publication of David Lubar's My Rotten Life, the first book in the Nathan Abercrombie, Accidental Zombie series, in which the titular character must navigate the usual obstacles of middle school (gym class, bullies, etc.) handicapped by his being a zombie. The same month, Tor Teen launches E. Van Lowe's Never Slow Dance with a Zombie, which Chang describes as “Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion meets The Night of the Living Dead. Both books showcase the funny, campy side of zombies, and appeal equally to boys and girls.”
All of which raises the question of how many more zombie reimaginings and genre invasions the popular fiction market can bear. To D'Auria's mind, not many. “I think the horror market, as opposed to the general mainstream market, has already moved on from zombies. We're seeing zombies crossing over into a lot of other genres. For example, next January, Leisure is publishing My Zombie Valentine, a romance anthology. Zombies have moved from the horror genre into the mainstream and lost much of their scariness in the process.” Indeed, the very fact that zombies are so outrageous by nature that they wear their campiness on their rotting sleeves has Chang doubting that they'll ever yield a body of fiction as popular or large as the omnipresent vampire. “Zombies have no personalities. They don't have a romantic aspect like vampires do. You're not gonna fall in love with a zombie—you're gonna run like hell from one.”
Still, all editors acknowledge that submissions of zombie-themed books are on the rise. Until the trend abates, it's best to assume that you can't keep a good (or bad) zombie down.
|Stefan Dziemianowicz writes regularly on horror fiction for Locus and other publications.|