We know a number of things about zombies, mostly involving their undead state, their willingness to consume brains, and their general monotone emotional nature. But could it be that we’re missing something fundamental about zombies and their nature — and what that fundamental thing about their nature can mean for their literary (undead) lives?
Those are some pretty heady questions to put on the decomposing shoulders of a zombie, but in her debut novel The Loving Dead, Amelia Beamer puts them there anyway, and goes looking for some answers amid the zombie apocalypse. Here she is to give a little background.
I was on a panel about politics and science fiction in San Francisco, and author John Shirley was trying to get me to say that the zombies in my first novel were a political statement: that they were secretly unleashed by the government, or something equivalent. That’s not at all what my agenda was. I want to show that zombies can be literary, and not just in the sense of remixing Jane Austen.
Don’t tell anyone, because zombie stories are entertaining, and the word “literary” tends to mean “boring,” — i.e. works more concerned with lofty themes and techniques than with telling an engaging story. This is the basic tension between genre literature, which is plot-driven, and mainstream literary fiction, which is focused on the characters’ thoughts and feelings.
I wanted to write a novel where I could do both of these things. So it had to be a zombie novel. Zombie stories can render characters better than stories about everyday people with normal problems — because during an emergency, people reveal who they really are. They’re scared, they’re worried about their loved ones and their own safety, they don’t have enough resources, they’re missing crucial information, and they still have to make responsible decisions. A disaster requires all of our mental and emotional capacity just to survive from moment to moment. The idea that there might be a normal future is crowded out by the emergency. And anyone who survives has to live with the ramifications of their decisions.
Any disaster – like an earthquake or flood – can serve as the setting for this kind of story, but the zombie apocalypse is the perfect setting because the disaster is so obviously fictional. Every other kind of disaster has happened to someone, and fiction about real disasters risks making light of the real people who’ve lived and died in these disasters.
If I’d forgotten to put in the zombies, my characters would still have stuff to talk about. The zombies just force the characters to work harder at staying alive so that they can afford the luxury of wondering whether they’re really dating the right person.
And themes don’t have to be boring; even the most entertaining novels have themes. One theme I’m concerned with in The Loving Dead is the idea of consent in romantic relationships. So I have a character who’s seeing a much older guy that she met on Craigslist, in exchange for money; they’ve both agreed to this exchange and they’re both adults, but in any relationship where there’s a significant difference in power, consent isn’t a simple matter. Particularly in a world where zombieism is a sexually transmitted disease that heightens the sex drive and lowers inhibitions.
Zombies can also be powerful metaphors, and this is another way that zombie stories are literary. Sure, zombies want to eat you, but they also represent the possibility that your closest loved ones will betray you. Your own body might betray you. And if you manage to survive, you might do so by abandoning everyone you know and love. Even Shaun of the Dead, a comedy, ends with an element of sorrow and loss.
I watched a lot of zombie movies while working on The Loving Dead, and I came to understand something important about zombies. If you set aside the initial fear and shock that zombies are supposed to inspire, you realize that zombies are incredibly loving.
In fact, we can learn some lessons from zombies about love. Zombies have a refreshing lack of prejudice. They treat everyone equally, and they never lie. They desire you no matter what mood you’re in or how you smell. They love you regardless of how much money you make, or how lousy your jokes are. They just want to be close to you, and they’ll stop at nothing to get this.
Persistence is the core of seduction, after all.