Until more recently, I have had a real problem with zombies. No, this doesn’t mean that my next door neighbors were developing a hankering for human brains. I’m talking about zombie books (and movies) and the niche they seem to have carved out in popular culture. As an author I have always loved zombie stories on the primal level. Why? To me, survival stories represent this amazingly compelling recipe of action and adventure. When I first realized how much I loved tales of survival it was like discovering as a kid that chocolate chip cookies could have M&Ms in them – a new door to the world was unlocked for me, changing me forever.
All silliness aside, show me an awesome work of survival fiction, and I can show you a boon for inspiring new readers. Books like Robert Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky take a gripping premise of survival, and throw the reader along a wild ride as its teenage characters learn the limits and capabilities of human endurance – the hard way, on an alien planet even. For similar reasons I have always viewed zombie stories as, at their very core, having this potential to be survival stories at their best: Seeing humans pitted up against the harshest, most brutal situations and coming out the other side, probably not unscathed, but covered in blood and a lot stronger for it.
And yet, this is where until recent years the genre of zombie fiction has failed in the most spectacular way. Book after book (not to mention films) depict zombies as harbingers of an inevitable apocalypse leading to the inevitable extinction of the human race. Even if the characters we are rooting for survive, like in the harrowing Omega Days series written by John Campbell, it’s almost assumed that sooner or later even our tough-as-nails survivors will wind up as brain food for the undead.
Can I say how wrongheaded this often is? This approach sometimes shows a laziness that strays beyond just being unoriginal, and for too long it’s become a taken-for-granted part of the zombie landscape. Yes, early on zombie stories were popular as a social commentary, via story arcs like in the George Romero zombie films, which criticized a shallow, consumer-driven culture. Showing humans becoming extinct to the zombie herd/horde needed to be done to realize that message. Fair enough. But we’re not living in the 1970s anymore.
The zombie genre today can explore themes connecting to terrorism, climate change, and even economic upheaval that call for more subtle story arcs and outcomes than their original anti-consumerism origins.
And here’s the point I’m really getting at, that truly great zombie stories should have an optimistic, survivalist angle in their telling much more often than they have in the past. This is something we’re finally starting to see, too. Look at some of the more recent well received zombie books out there – Red Hill by Jamie McGuire or Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion, not to mention World War Z by Max Brooks. In these stories the future matters. There is a post-zombie world which implies that survival at great cost isn’t a hopeless endeavor. Human fate is not preordained.
It’s about time that zombie stories reached their true potential as gripping, edge-of-your-seat nail-biters about human ingenuity, (and yes, human depravity), but above all human survival. It’s easy to write about a world falling apart without taking the trouble to ‘what-if?’ some of those challenging solutions. But I think the more visionary storytellers in the universe of zombie lore are starting to recognize that the real world…and our human heritage…is a heck of a lot more complex than the old, tired Doomsday narratives would have us believe.
Ambling brain-dead freaks can be scary, maybe even relentless, but they also aren’t unbeatable. Future writers of zombie stories do us a service when they remember that. They also enrich a category of books that has yet to receive the full credit it deserves.
Below are some links to the books I mentioned above, and I also recommend The Seething: A Zombie Chronicle by J.A. Johnson and K.G. McAbee (https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/460147)
Red Hill by Jamie McGuire
Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion
World War Z by Max Brooks
Omega Days by John Campbell