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Literary history of the undead

It’s been mentioned in a few articles I’ve read lately, but zombies are special in that they weren’t established in literature before heading to the silver screen. They aren’t European or Gothic monsters. Although undead have been around forever in various myths and stories, academics (e.g Kyle William Bishop) agree that zombies really came into Western thought through Haiti. There are European and Gothic undead, or works which seem to be related to the modern zombie (e.g Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher or Masque of the Red Death – a personal fave), and you can see reflections of the vampire in modern zombie myth as well (particularly with the influence of I am Legend by Richard Matheson on Romero. Some mistake I am Legend for a zombie story).


The earliest texts that mention zombies are actually non-fiction, such as William Seabrook’s The Magic Island. Zora Neale Hurston wrote Tell my horse about her experiences through Haiti and Jamaica and voodoo, including a zombie incident in Haiti. Black Baghdad and Cannibal Cousins by John H Craige tell of Voodoo rituals and cannibalism.

As discussed in the first podcast of Zombies – The Living Dead in Literature (by the University of Alabama), zombies came around the time of the beginnings of cinema, and while there were plays and dramas of these zombies, the cinematic zombies could essentially rip off the earlier versions by claiming they are all based on non-fiction texts, bypassing copyright and ownership law. This is the case with the first movie White Zombie. The producer of the 1929 stage play ‘Zombie’ attempted to sue those in charge of White Zombie for similarities and failed.


For fiction, there are quite a few short stories which did include the Haitian voodoo zonbi (there’s a lot of different spellings to indicate the original Haitian zonbi, nzambi, etc to it’s modern myth counterpart, the zombie)  include Salt is not for Slaves by G W Hutter (salt will cause the zombi to become concious of their state) , The House in the Magnolias by August Derleth (A woman from Haiti is run out of the country for enslaving zombis, only to go to America and continue her black magic there), Song of the Slaves by Manly Wade Wellman (with an American as the bad guy rather than a Haitian or African). A lot of essays mention H P Lovecraft’s Herbert West – Re-animator series in the 1920’s (Movie version: Jeffrey Combs, for the freaking win!), but this story is more about science than voodoo, and doesn’t use the term zombie. Lovecraft wrote in letters that it was intended as a parody of Frankenstein.

The novels (which are damned hard to find) came a little later, more around the time of the zombie movies, such as The Whistling Ancestors by Richard Goddard (a story of evil racist megalomaniacs), You Can’t Hang the Dead by Leslie Carroll (I can’t find a copy of this at all or enough information to share, except that it’s a zombie story) and A Grave Must Be Deep by Theodore Roscoe (a voodoo mystery!). Voodoo was particularly popular with crime writers at the time.

Which story first uses the word zombie is contested. Most essays agree that it’s William Seabrook’s travelogue (1929), but some other essays say that it’s from ‘The Country of the Comers-Back’ by Lacfcadio Hearn (1889), and yet another essay says that the term actually was first published in French with Le Zombi du Grand Perou, ou la comtesse de Cocagne by Pierre-Corneille Bloessebois.


It’s fascinating to read about ‘original’ voodoo zombies, compared to the modern. The old are a mix of racism and post-colonial literature, most having been published after the Haitian Revolution and the burst of literature of zombies and voodoo is through the years of the US occupation of Haiti. Zombies, either possessed corpses or the living who were poisoned with a concoction to mimic death and then enslaved, are products of sorcery and magic. I can only think of a few modern examples of this use of magic (beware Native American burial grounds!).


Recommended Reading:

White Zombie by Kieran M Murphy in Contemporary French and Francophone Studies, VOl 15, no 1

The Zombie Media Monster and its Evolution as a Sign and Historical Allegory by Ryan Lizardi, Masters Thesis

The Story of Zombi in Haiti by Louis P Mars in Man, vol 45

The Modern Zombie: Living Death in the Technological Age by Sarah Juliet Lauro, PHD thesis

Zombies Before Romero by Tony Chestor, article for the UK World Horror Convention in 2010 (found here)


Warm Bodies

I have to make a stance on people whining about how this movie will be a “Twilight with zombies”. Clearly they’ve never read the book!

Isaac Marion brings to life a rich world with deep meaning with Warm Bodies.

Zombie romance is really not new, and it’s very much opposite vampire romance. Zombie romance looks for love in the weirdest place imaginable – there aren’t many zombies you can sympathise with when they want your flesh/brains.

But zombie romance like I Kissed a Zombie and I Liked It and Generation Dead (series) and Warm Bodies are some of the most intelligent paranormal romances I’ve ever read (and I’m not a big fan of the subgenre by any means). They delve into what’s important, they look to respect others, to equality, and the limit of humans to accept what is different. It’s been the same throughout zombie literature for decades – society couldn’t accept a Frankenstein’s monster any more than they could accept people of coloured skin (race is very big in zombie literature, particularly in early zomlit. See ‘White Zombie’ with Bela Lugosi, as one example.) When it comes to zombies, it’s every man for himself and he forgets society and community to save himself above all others, which makes for a lot of jerks!

One of the biggest thing in zomlit isn’t about the zombies at all, but about humans and how willing people are to give up kindness, respect, and those emotions that make us human. Zombies should be the great equaliser of man, when we all come together to survive, but our petty politics and infighting doom us all.

I was a bit weirded out in the beginning of Warm Bodies, even for all my zombie loving, but the story challenges you and changes you.

Need more convincing? Go check out some reviews at Fangtastic.

If you see any of these covers, go buy it! (The first is the audio version)











We are the real monsters

Horror is about making us uncomfortable. There’s a brilliant scene in many zombie texts where someone is confronted with having to kill their loved one or be eaten and turned. Is the one they loved still inside somewhere?

In the cult of zombie post, I listed some ‘things’ that zombies could stand for, as the creator’s (whether intended or not) response or reaction to social anxieties. Below that is what the zombies mean for humanity. Zombies are not just there to point out our fear of plagues or being eaten alive. They are both a reflection and an evolution/devolution of us, depending on the text and means of zombification.

As not so subtly alluded to before, in every zombie work, there’s always a jerk. Someone who puts their own interests above anyone else and is willing to risk destroying what is left of the human race to get what they want. Sometimes it’s the most frivolous of things: money or goods. What you spend your life before now gaining is nothing but useless baggage. Think your plasma/LED TV can help you out in the zombie apocalypse? What junk it is when there are beasts outside hungering for your flesh!

Patricia Kerslake writes in Science Fiction and Empire: “how we see the Other depends on where we stand”. Horror, fantasy, our creations are not alone in metaphor. We fear each other most of all. We fear ourselves.

(Images from Left4Dead 2 walls. If you play, slow down and read them, some are funny and some are written in Japanese (of which my L4D buddy majored in Japanese and read it for me!))