A Very Literary Guy Channels His Inner Zombie

This article originally appeared on the Miami Herald website.

A very literary guy channels his inner  zombie

By Connie Ogle

Colson Whitehead (photo courtesy of Whitehead's website)

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 DaysApex 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.”

One comment on “A Very Literary Guy Channels His Inner Zombie

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