Greg Garrett: Living with the Living Dead

My own zombie study, Books of the Dead: Reading the Zombie in Contemporary Literature, should be forthcoming from University Press of Mississippi late this year or early next, but in the meantime, I want to say a few words on Greg Garrett’s new Living with the Living Dead: The Wisdom of the Zombie Apocalypse, published this year with Oxford UP. Garrett is a Professor of English at Baylor University in Waco (“Baptist Harvard,” I think it’s sometimes referred to?). So, the book. It’s very good, and well worth your time.

The book is the second in which Garrett tries to “read culture for ultimate meanings” (217; the first being Entertaining Judgment, a book on the medial life of the idea of the afterlife; I’ve not read it), and it’s very good at what it does. Garrett’s purpose isn’t so much to elucidate the zombie (as a symbol, or a sign of our times), or any specific text (his chapters are structured by topic, not by text): what he does, and does well, is to take “stories of the Zombie Apocalypse seriously as vehicles for meaning and considering what those meanings might be” (19). What that means, for Garrett, is to read zombie stories as genuinely useful to readers, as offering some sort of guidance to living one’s everyday life, even absent an apocalypse (which, come to think of it, might kinda screw your everyday life anyhow).

Garrett’s book runs wildly and allusively over a somewhat narrow but quite unique corpus of returning texts, tying together scenes spread across the zombie canon to make its point about what zombie stories tell us about the nature of humanity, the good life, community, and other concerns. Garrett looks at some of the obvious choices—The Walking Dead, Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, World War Z, and the Romero films—but also at texts which are less often seen in zombie criticism—Game of Thrones, Marvel Zombies, Justin Cronin’s The Passage trilogy, and Afterlife with Archie, and even the atrocious Making of Zombie Wars. I was especially intrigued by the two comic entries in this latter list, which might easily fall under the rubric of pure commodity art, just another way of tacking “zombie” onto an already-existing property to make money, but which Garrett convincingly argues are rather more than that. Kudos to Garrett for this, if not for this only. Readers who are looking for someone to make sense of whether zombies are really good for anything, and then by extension what that something might be, will find here a way to parse it in such a way that it makes sense. Hey, zombies really do something useful in fiction!

Alas, this wouldn’t be a review, of course, if I didn’t have a modest amount of complaints. And my largest complaints, I think, are that while Garrett very convincingly outlines the broad strokes of the zombie’s usefulness, I miss two things in his book. The first is less vital: this is not a long book, and even though Garrett engages in close reading single scenes in the works he is interested in, such close reading remains too allusive sometimes. Columbus, in Zombieland, is alone (for a while at least), and so is Robert Neville in I am Legend; and maybe “alienation is […] a central theme” (88) in both; but it seems to me that it would have been useful to be more careful in outlining how these themes work differently, and are contextually different, in both of these texts (indeed, while I’m perfectly happy to be catholic about these things, I’m not quite sure the antagonists in I am Legend are, actually, “the living dead”). This isn’t a major deal, of course: Garrett’s strength really is these broad connections that let us see the trend lines of living dead fiction. But precisely because of this it sometimes reads slightly unfortunately, and some readers may be inclined to take it less seriously than it deserves because its readings sometimes seem to bend somewhat disparate things happening over different media into a recognizably similar shape. One thing that struck me in this regard, for example, is the way Garrett talks about community. He has a chapter on the way zombies remind us of the need for community, but to my mind, Garrett is somewhat blithe about the meaning of the term. Full disclosure: I have a chapter on community in my own book, and I struggled with the term’s philosophical provenance and especially its delimitation from other forms of being together; Garrett to my mind far too easily assumes something like collectivity, indeed simply “being with someone” equals community. Having done the research, it’s clear to me that the answer to the question of what is entailed in the search for community hinges heavily on the definition of community, and on realizing what it does and does not mean. So just because you’re looking for friends doesn’t really seem to me equate the rather complex question of what the meaning of community is. But your mileage may vary.

The second thing I’m actually slightly more concerned about: the question of the zombie’s (or even “any” undead’s) role in this. That’s to say: over the entire length of the book, the specificities of why it should be the zombie apocalypse, or indeed the zombie apocalypse, isn’t really addressed (and that’s granting that The Passage, with its incredibly powerful vampire-monsters, shares more with, say, Night of the Living Dead than it does not). Certainly, Garrett at times nods towards answers, such as suggesting that they are confrontations with Death as such, which you can’t really say isn’t true. But it’s also wildly unspecific, and ignores both the question of why Death itself should be rendered through zombies, as well as what the concrete consequences of imagining Death itself through the zombie bring to the foreground. In his conclusion, Garrett notes that the question he asked himself in beginning the book was “Why are zombies so popular” (213). The stress, I think, is “why are zombies so popular,” rather than “why are zombies so popular,” and the problem is that much of the book, while it answers the first question very well, and while it certainly focuses (though not exclusively) on zombie narratives, it essentially also, and unavoidably, simply asks “why are apocalyptic narratives so popular.” I’ve got my own answer in my book about what it is that makes the zombie so relevant to all this, and which for obvious reasons I’ll not give away here, but it looks to me that Garrett missed a chance here to deal with the specifics of the zombie as an apocalyptic form, which is different from the vampire, or the ecocatastrophe, or the dystopian science-fiction film, and so on.

But if this is my major complaint, it’s also one which is at last only minor. Garrett sets out to convince readers that the “living dead have something to tell you, and it may just save your life” (215). He does that, and he does it very well, in an endearingly written, knowledgeable, and utterly readable book.

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Roger Luckhurst: Zombies. A Cultural History

luckhurstAs I’ve said somewhere here, I’m working on a book on zombie fictions, so I read whatever is new in the field. Roger Luckhurst’s brand-new “cultural history” of the zombie is among the most interesting recent entries in a growing field. Not terribly long at 220 pages, it nonetheless offers a century’s worth of zombie culture, inclusive of film stills and other graphic material. Luckhurst’s prose is engaging and witty, lucid and magisterial, so the book was a joy to read, and exceptionally informative—in parts. So here we get into the criticism bits of this post.

Luckhurst’s Zombies splits somewhat uneasily into two by no means unconnected, but very much unevenly handled sections. The first half, which really only carries the zombie’s cultural history from about the early 1900s to 1945, is outstanding, a must read for anybody interested in the zombie. Luckhurst expands the history of the figure tremendously from the usual story of William Seabrook and Zora Neal Hurston, White Zombie and I Walked with a Zombie. He teases out the American fascination with Haiti, built in large part on American economic imperialism, and draws powerful role the “the black republic of Haiti has played in the colonial imagination of Europe and American since independence in 1804” (40). It’s these long lines that make Luckhurst stand out: it’s an actual argument for reading the zombie against the colonial and imperialist backdrops of its country of origin, rather than the usual, more or less encyclopedic enumerations of zombie appearances that most previous studies have undertaken. At the end of the first one hundred pages, then, I marveled at Luckhurst’s facility in making strong connections between Haiti and American popular culture. Relativizing the impact of Seabrook and Hurston, bringing in less often discussed influences such as Lafcadio Hearn, and situating the entire issues of the zombie in the 1920s and 1930s in a larger survey of the “colonial margin of the American empire” and its influences on American popular culture, Zombie: A Cultural History here traces its grounds expertly, offering a wealth of information. Luckhurst’s conclusion: “By 1939, the zombie is recognized by its embedded references in American culture, rather than through obscure colonial folklore” (65); that is, by 1939 “zombie” already refers to an American version of a voodoo figure, rather than that figure itself.

Yet what seems to me to be a desirable revisioning of the zombie figure is perhaps taken a little too far in the end, and this is where the second section of the book suffers. If I found the first half to be genuinely surprising, establishing a new narrative of the zombie that helpfully elucidates the at least awkward history behind the popular cultural appropriation of the figure. But Luckhurst’s narrative is more ambitious than this: he seeks to keep this Caribbean connection alive even as he draws away from the pre-war era and into the 1950s and 1960s. Again, some of the things he does seem eminently useful, such as including films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers in a greater narrative of what anxieties film in the postwar period engaged; whether or not one buys he relating the Red Scare with the (yet to come) zombie masses or not, at least Luckhurst ably weaves the major strands of popular cultural production into a usefully coherent whole here. But when Luckhurst seeks to draw together his narrative of the zombie as a product of colonial fantasies and the seminal films of George Romero, things become slightly awkward. First, the connections between Romero’s films and the Caribbean remain, at best, tenuous. Sure, “Night takes the vengeful dead from EC Comics and re-injects them with all the cannibalistic terror that underwrote colonial fantasy” (143)—if by that we mean there are two things that appeared in different contexts that both appear in Night of the Living Dead. But there is an sense here that Luckhurst believes the coherence of his argument requires this connection to be more meaningful, even if ultimately, his own sense of how this greater meaning would work is left unclear. This issue becomes evident in Luckhurst’s reading of Dawn of the Dead, for example. As he rightly points out, the read the film as a critique of consumerism is “hardly the unearthing of a brilliant ideological subtext”; but at the same time, his argument that this reading is guilty of “nudging out of the picture the complex colonial history of the zombie” (150) seems vastly unwarranted; and indeed, Luckhurst himself doesn’t offer a positive reading of this “complex colonial history” that would impinge upon a reading of Dawn.

And this is perhaps the books great problem, at least on its final 100 pages or so: the sense that while Luckhurst’s readings aim to set themselves off from much previous criticism, they do not provide much substance by themselves. I felt myself nodding along with much of it. Little of it is spectacularly new, and indeed, perhaps it provides too neat a narrative in its effort to establish that “wherever it comes to stop” it “remains connected to the meaning of Haiti and the islands of the Antilles to the modern world” (15). Luckhurst’s sense of the zombie’s necessary connectedness to Haiti is too strong in the way he offers it. It echoes other recent conceptualizations which, however, leave more room for readerly interpretation and variation. Maxime Coulomb, in the Petite philosophie du zombie, for example, speaks of “sedimentation” (2012, 14) when he describes the way previous meanings of the zombie remain active in more contemporary ones; Haiti and colonialism linger, yes, but need not have the kind of direct expression that Luckhurst often at least implicitly finds in the contemporary zombie. Given that Luckhurst’s drawing on the Haitian origins of the zombie in popular American culture barely ever leads anywhere, a less ambitious thesis might have done the book some good.

Every so often, too, there are bits and pieces that are a critical jump too far. Speaking about Romero’s influence in general, Luckhurst first claims that “the American state was of course founded by millenarians hoping to establish the New Jerusalem as the last redoubt against a sinful, fallen Europe” (156)—a summary that seems at least deserving of a little more caution than Luckhurst’s “of course” leaves—and then notes that “Romero’s zombie films have been appropriated by Christian thinkers” (156) as grounds for reading the films’ success in terms of a post-war millenarian revival culture. While this is an appropriately trenchant and culture-surveying reading, it also seems at second glance more suggestive than substantial. Similar moments, in fact, occur frequently in the latter half of the novel, especially when Luckhurst discusses the most recent boom in zombie fictions. Speaking of Max Brooks’s World War Z, for example, Luckhurst summarizes its conclusion by claiming that “[a]s is common to the American apocalyptic imagination, the disaster proves a hygienic reboot for a nation that has forgotten its Puritan foundations” (185). Where Luckhurst draws the Puritans from here, why he feels compelled to reduce the novel to its American aspects, and how the sense of “hygiene” comes in, is never explained. The problem here then is not that this is not an interesting reading, but that it’s a reading backed up by very little engagement with the text proper, perhaps even to the exclusion of some of the text’s more overt meanings.

Luckhurst’s study, despite all this, is a must buy for its first half and a can buy for its second; it is pithy and abrasive, opinionated and sometimes condescending, frequently surprising. Its own narrative of zombie culture may be foreshortened, but at least its foreshortening brings to the fore the often disregarded, or at least never fully spelled-out, implications of the zombie’s origin in colonialist oppression and appropriation. Its daringly radical thesis, I think, is not successful: but no matter, since the book as a whole is worth the time spent reading and digesting it.