On Zombie Lovers and (Im)mortal Envy
If persistent overabundance of the assorted immortal undead in contemporary fiction is an expression of our not-so-subtle wish of immortality, what exactly are we expressing through our current fixation on zombies, the glorified immortal undead’s ugly cousins?
What’s the first image that comes to your mind when you think of zombies? Mine used to be a band of misfits forced to hide together in a shaky house. They are boarding the windows and locking the doors, while an army of recently reanimated marches on, hunting the living.
Now, when I think of zombie, I think of this book (its cover scares me but also makes me giggle):
A lazy Goodreads search confirms my suspicion that most full-on zombie books are written by men. But women writers are catching up on all the zombie love, with Lia Habel, self-described ‘zombie anthropologist’ leading the way. Amanda Hocking also pitches in on the topic with her Hollowland and Hollowmen novels. Rachel Caine spins the Death Becomes Her’s concept of a beautiful living corpse maintained by a superdrug.
There’s probably a trove (ok, there most likely is) of cultural/media studies articles analysing zombie fiction, going into agonising academicky struggle to decipher, interpret and deconstruct what does it all mean, but I do enough literature reviewing for my PhD as it is, so I won’t go academising here. What I will do is give you my little typology (ok, a little bit of academising never hurt no one) of zombies in contemporary literature, particular in YA as it is so dear to my heart.
The first type of zombie is a classical reanimated corpse. It is not good or evil or anything in-between for it has no consciousness and cannot choose. What it has though is hunger, which is at the core of this zombie's monstrosity, for it hungers for the living. Majority of zombie books out there feature this kind of zombie. The hero (or heroine) in such fiction is often defined as uniquely non-zombie. By this, I mean the hero is immune; the hero’s blood/DNA contains the secret that can save humanity. It also means that the hero is the only human on Earth that can truly (and finally) die, guaranteed to never come back in any undead state. This zombie can be found in Hocking’s Hollowland or in Pride, Prejudice and Zombies. I also think that Strain’s vampires are technically zombies, but I’m open to discussion on this one.
The second kind of zombie is a reanimated corpse with a consciousness. Its decay is delayed or stopped all together, often by some scientific means. In this case, a zombie who can be a hero on its own is representative of a peculiar state of immortality. There is a catch though: the zombie hero is forever hooked on the substance that prevents his/her decay. Without this substance, horrors ensure. In Caine’s first instalment of The Revivalist, serious eek factor aside, ‘zombies’ are pretty much immortal indestructible humans, frozen into non-aging state, fuelled by daily injections of a new experimental drug called Returne. [Minor spoiler alert] Goodreads reviewers tell me though that in The Revitalist’s second instalment the discourse takes a turn towards the 1st zombie category, making the ‘revived’ humans balance a thin line between humanity and a crazed (perpetually hungry) zombie state.
And finally, the 3rd category of a zombie hero is the one emerging in YA books, especially in the YA paranormal (a genre predominantly geared up towards girls). Zombie in this third category becomes the romantic hero. It is also understandably a dramatic figure, for this kind of zombie is not immortal. On the opposite, the zombie lover is very much mortal and also inconveniently decomposing. While his/her body could be preserved/maintained for some time, the zombie lover’s days of physical attractiveness and clear mind are limited.
The living dead of the third type are the most fascinating to me for they are pretty much us but, don’t they have it rough: increasingly aware of their own quickly decomposing flesh and impending end, they choose to go on, carve out an existence for themselves, no matter how marginalised. This kind of zombie, though romanticised, is the ultimate outsider, an outcast rejected by the mainstream who serves as a distorted mirror in which humanity, terrified but content, sees their own twisted selves, our own im(mortal) envy reflected back at us.