There’s a thirst for apocalyptic fiction and zombie novels now, while we are in the midst of a pandemic.
I belong to a secretive, if not secret, club. It’s the club of ‘normal’ people who read zombie novels. We enjoy reading books and watching movies or TV series about zombies. We’re not teenage gamers or goths and we don’t live in our mother’s basement. Many of us own our own basements. We are educated, have good jobs, maybe a spouse and children.
And we like zombies. We don’t talk openly about it but it’s there. People may be surprised, even a little shocked when they discover this about us. However, in recent months, our numbers have soared.
To the point that now I feel safe in going public. It’s time to defend the zombie genre…
Why zombie novels are worth reading
The zombie genre is a sub-genre of horror. I don’t like horror novels, with a few exceptions, but the zombie genre captured my heart immediately some years ago when my very persistent brother persuaded me to read World War Z. (The book is better than the movie…)
To say I was hooked would be an understatement. Not because of the gore. Not because of the fighting (the gun porn in many of these books is a massive turn-off). Not because of the adrenaline rush (although that’s good). But because good zombie novels do an amazing job in suspending your disbelief (I mean, ZOMBIES! Really!) What’s more, they do what the very best, even literary novels, do: they give you insights into human behavior.
Zombie novels are interesting because they are about the human condition in a crisis. Apocalypse brings out the best and the worst in people, catching them at a critical, defining time in their lives. I like all apocalyptic fiction for this reason, but compared to situations where the ‘main event’ has already passed, in zombie novels the threat is ever present. People are hugely vulnerable, all the time.
Now it may be that having suffered from chronic stress I’m addicted to cortisol (it’s a thing, truly). But I actually find that this type of fiction is good for my stress levels and mental health. Maybe it’s a case of ‘nothing in my life is as bad as that‘. That alone would explain why there is such a thirst for apocalyptic fiction now, while we are in the midst of a pandemic.
Moreover, unlike the horror of watching the news, you know that the zombie apocalypse will never really happen, so at least that’s comforting. (I hope I never have cause to come back and update that sentence.)
But there’s more do it than a visceral thrill.
Collective action in a crisis
Zombie novels invite us to think critically about the collective, about society and our role in preserving it. When faced with a zombie apocalypse, you’d think that humans would come together to fight the danger that threatens their very survival as a species. You’d think. But in [good] zombie novels (movies, etc.) the drama comes not so much from the battle between the dead and the living, but from the politics and in-fighting among the living. From the tension between the social contract to defend the group and some individuals’ desire to put their own well-being and survival above everything and everyone else.
And inevitably you’ll ask yourself what you would do. Would you sacrifice yourself for others or take everything you can, regardless of how it hurts others? After all, it’s a matter of life or death. How far would you extend your own sacrifices and courage? Would you defend just yourself? Your immediate family and loved ones? Your community? Would you hunker down and ride it out while others fight, or go into battle yourself? Would you kill only zombies or other humans?
2020 has shown us that these are not totally trivial or merely academic questions. People are indeed on the point of extreme violence over questions as simple as whether or not a mask mandate should be imposed. This shit just got serious.
What makes a good zombie novel
A good zombie novel (or movie) is character-driven and emotionally very intense. It will have:
- a strong, tense plot (even if the backstory is vague)
- well-developed characters you strongly care about so you’re rooting for them
- situations that are emotionally highly charged, including at least one major ethical dilemma
- strong bonds between characters
- suspense deriving from characters’ decisions to help or abandon each other, and from uncertainty about the fate of individuals
- lots of details about the practicalities of day-to-day survival and comfort
- good insights into the mental state of the important characters
- a good ebb and flow of suspense, drama and periods of calm and reflection or humor
- resolution. One way or another, it ends.
Bad zombie novels are all about the gore, the violence and factions at war with each other. More action than reflection. And guns. Bad zombie novels really go on (and on) about the guns. Especially after living through a real pandemic, I don’t believe that everyone will start shooting each other in the supermarket just 20 minutes after the apocalypse kicks off. (Although admittedly coronavirus doesn’t turn people into zombies. Braindead idiots, maybe, but not flesh-eating ones.)
That’s about it really. Lot’s of good reasons to lose yourself in a good book. With zombies.
Take a look at my zombie book reviews:
PS: The Girl With All The Gifts is one of the few mainstream novels about zombies. It was hailed as being “breathtaking” and “phenomenal”. It’s not. I found it boring and pretentious. I suspect that thousands of people bought it because it came with plenty of marketing promoting it as a ‘literary’ novel, so it didn’t carry the stigma of the zombie genre. And most of these readers had never read any other books in the genre. Much of what was praised in this book is present in many zombie novels, and done much better.