This article originally appeared on the Miami Herald website.
A very literary guy channels his inner zombie
By Connie Ogle
Colson Whitehead comes by his affection for zombies honestly. Sure, he’s considered a literary guy, one of those Writers with a capital W, winner of a Whiting Writers’ Award and a MacArthur Fellowship, author of the critically praised novels Sag Harbor, John Henry Days, Apex Hides the Hurt and a book of essays titled The Colossus of New York. But his recent foray into horror fiction didn’t happen merely because he watched one too many episodes of The Walking Dead.
“Other kids liked to do sports. I liked to hang around the house reading horror comics and Marvel comics and Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft,” says Whitehead, who appears Saturday at Miami Book Fair International to discuss his latest novel, Zone One (Doubleday, $25.95), about the survivors stumbling through the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. “My orientation to zombies goes back to the first [George] Romero trilogy. I saw Dawn of the Dead in the theater. When I was in junior high and early high school, it was the heyday of Betamax, and we’d rent horror movies instead of being sociable teenagers. Kids today have grown up on 28 Days Later and Resident Evil and videogames, but my zombie is from the ’70s.”
Zone One takes place after the initial plague, following the adventures of civilian-turned-soldier Mark Spitz — not his real name; the moniker was given to him after a particularly close encounter of the zombie kind — whose unit is tasked by the interim government with clearing out Manhattan and making it ready for habitation again. There are still zombies staggering around, but most are “stragglers,” a less aggressive monster transfixed by the habits and places of their old lives.
The rabid zombies of Zone One are tougher to exterminate; early on, Mark stumbles into a nest of them in a long-forgotten Human Resources department: “He was the first live human being the dead had seen since the start, and the former ladies of HR were starving. … [T]hey were a thin membrane of meat stretched over bone. Their skirts were bunched on the floor, having slid off their shrunken hips long ago, and the dark jackets of their sensible dress suits were made darker still, and stiffened, by jagged arterial splashes and kernels of gore.”
So yes, there is gore, and there is flesh-eating and all those other horror requirements in Zone One. Whitehead does not skimp on blood or bodies, and his lumbering zombies are Romero-style monsters, not the speedy track stars of 28 Days Later. “The run and tackle zombies are scary,” he says, “but for me zombies are about the terror of the mob, of your community trying to devour you. That’s more horrifying to me.”
And monsters, of course, can always be more than ravenous creatures trying to eat your brain.
“With any kind of rhetorical device, whether it’s magic realism or a guy with wings or vampires and demons, you’re using a construct to talk about people. My first book, The Intuitionist, was about elevators, but it’s not really about elevators, it’s about transcendence and rationality. … Mark’s travails are about survival. He and the other survivors are really just trying to cope with a devastating event in their lives. It just happens to be the apocalypse. But it could be a minor apocalypse.”
Whitehead never loses his sharp sense of humor at human foibles; after all, apocalypse? We’ve all been there. One of the darkly funny elements of Zone One is the reconstructed government’s insistence that the units not destroy any property in their sweeps of Manhattan. After all, people are going to want to come back, so don’t smash any windows if you have to blow away the undead.
“My initial take on the psychology of survival is after the end of the world, things will be a little more bombed out, but everything we hate about contemporary society will come back, all the insane rules and the marketing and the bureaucracy,” Whitehead says. “Someone will decide the reboot of society needs a marketing slogan.”
Zombies are still big in pop culture these days, of course, what with AMC’s hit The Walking Dead, horror videogames, the upcoming World War Z movie starring Brad Pitt, even Jane Austen interpreted through an undead prism in Quirk Books’ Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. But Whitehead has his own take on why he’s fascinated with this particular creature.
“My paranoid orientation toward zombies is really a fear of people,” he admits. “I guess my interpretation goes back to when I was a kid, any moment your friends and family stop to reveal themselves to be the monsters they’ve always been.”