The Problem with Zombies

Put the shotguns and the crowbars down, zombie lovers. Like you, I love the genre, and have spent many a beer-fueled evening arguing over the plausibility of retrofitting a bus with chain-saw slots and snow plows in order to escape a press of rotting, stinking, writhing undead. My problem is not with the zombies or those brave souls who battle them. It’s not even with the writers of zombie stories and movies, who produce some of my favorite entertainment. It’s with those writers who occasionally mistake the narrative purpose and utility of their brain-dead creations.

Before we get going, a clarification: I’m going to be using the term “zombie” in its broadest possible sense. (This will irritate the purists, to whom I say: too bad, it’s my blog.) In this post, “zombie” will indicate any creature that is both mindless and malevolent. In this sense, we loop in the “forged” of Robin Hobb, the Vord and the “taken” of Jim Butcher, the Others of George R.R. Martin, and the generic storm troopers from Star Wars. We can debate until the cows come home about whether these various groups are actually as mindless as literal zombies, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to point out that they are 1) pretty bad and 2) entirely monochromatic in terms of their motivations and emotional range.

So what’s the trouble? Well, in the hands of skilled writers, nothing. Zombies can be tremendously useful and unsettling. I love Star Wars and Dawn of the Dead, Assassin’s Apprentice and Game of Thrones. It’s vital, however, to understand what zombies are good for, and to do that, we need to take a look at the main instance in which they are useless.

To wit: zombies make shitty principal villains. Any movie or book in which a zombie is the main bad guy is in serious trouble from the get-go. Consider this simple thought experiment: replace Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine with anonymous storm troopers and see what happens to Star Wars. Replace Joffrey and Cersei Lanniser with “Others.” Either revision would geld the story. Good villains have to be able to think and feel. If it can’t think and feel, it can’t win or lose, and if it can’t win or lose, there’s no real satisfaction in hacking off its head and mounting it on a pitchfork over the mailbox, no matter how much ichor drips onto the junk mailings from Publisher’s Weekly.

Yes, smallpox was “defeated,” but as far as I know, the World Health Organization didn’t stand over the final virus, fists clenched, teeth bared, like Muhammad Ali over Sonny Liston.

“Aha!” the zombie-fanatic exclaims. “But what about zombie movies, asshole? You know – the ones with actual shambling, brain-eating zombies? Zombies are the antagonists in those movies, and those movies ROCK!”

Yes and no. Yes, Dawn of the Dead rocks, but no, zombies are not the antagonists. The zombies are not characters at all. They are the weather.

They are the weather in exactly the same way the storm in The Perfect Storm is the weather, and they serve an identical function: they make life harder for the cast of human characters, and in so doing they force all manner of interesting conflicts and compromises, fuck-ups and epiphanies to the surface. This is the first good use to which zombies can be put.

And we need not limit ourselves to storms and zombies. The weather could be comprised of deadly trees (The Happening, Day of the Triffids), deadly blobs (The Blob), deadly birds (The Birds), deadly trans-dimensional insects (The Mist), deadly dinosaurs (Jurassic Park), deadly cold (The Day after Tomorrow), deadly freaky underground worm things (Tremors), deadly water pressure (all submarine movies ever made), deadly viruses (Contagion, et. al.), deadly genetically-modified hyper-intelligent sharks (that movie where Samuel Jackson gets chomped in half).

I could go on, but I think the theme is clear: it’s the “deadly” that matters, not the noun that follows it. Yes, of course, the strategy and tactics differ; you don’t use the same tricks to survive a vengeful fungus that you might when trying to endure the precipitous onset of an ice age. When I say that the type of adversity doesn’t matter, what I really mean is that the sort of drama that ensues in this type of plot is fundamentally the same: people struggle with each other and themselves in order to overcome or survive “the weather.” This type of story (when told well) generally doesn’t culminate with the defeat of the tree/worm thing/hyper-intelligent shark but with human endurance (or, in the case of several of these stories) the failure to endure. In Twenty-Eight Days Later, the point isn’t to beat the zombies – you can’t defeat them any more than you could defeat The Perfect Storm – it is to weather them. The struggle happens between the human beings.

The second use of zombies (again, in my broad sense) is as a weapon. This is what happens in Star Wars, where the Emperor wields his imperial minions, or The Lord of the Rings, where Sauron and Saruman wield their orcs. In this case, we don’t need intelligence or emotional range out of the zombies any more than we need intellectual subtlety out of the Kurgan’s sword (although the Kurgan’s sword does kick some serious ass) or Voldemort’s wand. What matters is the villain wielding the weapon and the way in which he/she/it wields it.

To come full circle, a story runs into trouble when a zombie or group of zombies is treated as the antagonist. “Good Guys and Gals Versus Zombies” tends to fail, plot-wise, because it’s the equivalent of “Good Guys and Gals Versus Lightning.” If the guys and gals are all truly good, if they have no psychological demons or bad eggs mixed into the group, then there’s not much to write about. They do their best and either the lightning gets them or it doesn’t.

Almost all writers understand this at some level, and so it’s rare to see a story without a viable antagonist at the outset. In zombie stories, there’s always a megalomaniac or sociopath mixed into the group, a petty tyrant or at least a garden-variety asshole (Garden-Variety Asshole would be a good name for something. Not, like, a child, but a band or an album.) against whom the protagonists must struggle while they’re trying to endure the zombies. So far, so good.

What often happens, however, is that the writer mistakes the zombies for the true antagonist. As a result, the humans start out with their real and interesting problems, problems that emotionally animate the story, that keep us reading, but then those problems are resolved prematurely. For the final pages/minutes we’re left with what can only be a cooking-cutter climax between good and zombie. The special effects people will do their damndest to keep us engaged, and I like seeing a field of zombies decimated by a helicopter blade as much as the next guy, but if that’s the final conflict, it’s just a matter of hacking up meat – and there’s a reason we don’t have a thriving market for stories about people in the chicken plants chopping up the dead birds.

The Vader Effect; Our Fondness for Fictionalized Evil

Why do you enjoy seeing a little kid dressed up as a brutal murderer?

Well, you might not, but at least fifty-seven million of us – and I include myself in that number – certainly do. If you missed it, check out this wonderful Volkswagen ad. It features a small boy dressed as Darth Vader wandering around his house trying to use the Force. It’s clever and cute, evoking both the magic of childhood and the ability of parents to prolong that magic for their children.

It’s also, if you pause to think about it, a little strange. After all, Darth Vader is a genocidal maniac. He is the right hand of a totalitarian empire responsible for the murder of billions. He stands by during the destruction of Alderaan, and, though he does not give the order, he is obviously complicit in the act. If we were to search for a real-world analogue, Vader might be the equivalent of Heinrich Himmler, one of the highest-ranking members of the Nazi party and commander of the Gestapo. And you’ll notice that Volkswagen isn’t making ads of little kids dressed up as Himmler.

Please don’t get me wrong. This isn’t some sort of call to arms or expression of outrage at Volkswagen. I watched the VW ad half a dozen times while writing this, and I enjoyed it every time. I don’t feel guilty about this, and I don’t think anyone else should either. The phenomenon does, however, raise an interesting question: Why are we so willing to cozy up to fictionalized portrayals of evil?

Before answering, let’s be clear that this “Vader Effect” isn’t limited to the PR folks at Volkswagen. Dick Cheney, in an interview with John King, said that people figured him to be the “Darth Vader of the administration.” The Washington National Cathedral includes a gargoyle of Vader high on the northwest tower. There are thousands of t-shirts portraying Darth Vader, including one reading “World’s Greatest Dad.” Most strikingly, some people evidently feel comfortable slipping into a little Vader lingerie in a way I suspect they would not for, say, Pol Pot or Stalin.

Clearly, our relationship to fictionalized evil differs from our response to that same evil in the real world, and in a way, this isn’t surprising at all. Books and movies are made up; their villains can’t really hurt us. On the other hand, wouldn’t we expect fictional atrocity to elicit something related to real-world outrage and horror? Wouldn’t we expect to loathe Jaime Lannister and Hannibal Lecter in the same way, although with less intensity, that we loathe bin Laden and Adam Lanza?

We might expect this loathing, but, oddly, we do not seem to feel it. Jaime throws an innocent child out a tower window at the start of Game of Thrones and yet his character remains a fan favorite.

I can suggest two possible explanations for the Vader Effect. The first is that fiction often brings us into the lives and motivations of villains in a way we rarely encounter in the real world. We get into Jaime Lannister’s head by book three, but we never get into Lanza’s head. This explanation for our willingness to accommodate Jaime (and other characters like him) strikes me as compelling but incomplete. Even were we somehow to know what passed through Lanza’s brain, I can’t imagine our condemnation of him would be one whit diminished.

I suspect the more powerful reason for our attraction to some fictional villains is that they are more interesting than workers of evil in the real world. Hannah Arendt, a German Jew who lived through the Second World War, argued famously for “the banality of evil.” In Arendt’s estimation, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” Writing of Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief architects of the Holocaust, she argues, “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”

Whatever one might say about Darth Vader, Jaime Lannister, or Hannibal Lecter, they are not normal. They are preternaturally talented, or strikingly good-looking, or devastatingly witty, or incomprehensibly brilliant, or all of the above. We forget, while reading about them or watching them, that most real-world perpetrators of evil are stunted little people with small minds and small hearts. In the wake of yesterday’s tragedy in Boston, it’s important to remember that there is nothing interesting about people who set bombs or kill children. They are vile, but they are not remarkable. They need to be killed or locked up, but there’s no point listening to them. Real evil is not sexy or exciting.

In the real world, the only characters worth following are the good guys.

Withering Bolts and Blazing Spears: A Guide to Magic and Childbirth

Anyone who’s played an RPG as a magic user knows that there are subtle ways to handle magic. You can slink around casting Fearful Gaze, Burdening Touch, or Mesmerizing Grasp, trying to charm and finesse your way through the various dungeons, dissolving the swords of bandits, or tricking the kobolds into thinking you’re another kobold, or whatever.

And then there are the not-so-subtle ways. How about some Blazing Spear, assholes? A little Withering Bolt? Eat it, frost atronach! I respect players who take the former route, but when I fire up some magic I want lightning bolts to leap from my fingertips, Emperor Palpatine-style. I want meteors to rain down from the sky. I want shit to burn.

It’s tempting to try to write this style of magic, too. Plenty of writers do it, with varying results. The trouble is, you’re competing head-to-head with both video games and movies. What looks totally bad-ass on the screen might not come across as well on the page.

“But,” I hear an ardent reader protesting, “the way I imagine the Withering Bolt is so much cooler than the way it appears on screen.”

Fair enough. This is, after all, the whole point of novels. Smart writers take advantage of the active role played by their readers’ outstanding imaginations, using those imaginations to supplement their own text. They know when to draw the line with their description, realizing that if you overwrite the scene you’re actually limiting your reader’s ability to visualize it for herself. In this case, writing becomes a sort of collaboration between the reader and the writer, rather than an imposition of the writer’s vision on the reader’s mind, the sort of imposition that we find in movies.

Don’t get me wrong; I love movies. Sometimes I like to be imposed upon. It’s just that movies don’t allow the same latitude for imagination. Everyone who’s seen Star Wars has pretty much the same idea of what Darth Vader looks like.

If we return to novels and the magic that appears inside them, there’s an opportunity lurking here. It’s possible to turn away, at least from time to time, from exterior, physical magic that clamors for elaborate description. If the writer is asking the reader to visualize things for herself anyway, why not occasionally turn the focus from the supernatural event itself to the psychology and struggle of the spell caster?

One of my favorite instances of this approach takes place in Ursula LeGuin’s The Tombs of Atuan. Without ruining the book for those who haven’t had the pleasure, I can say that Ged, a powerful wizard, is stuck in a very nasty labyrinth, harried by some very nasty forces. He and a young woman, who has become his companion, are trying to escape. On the surface, it doesn’t seem as though Ged’s doing all that much:

“Beside her the man would breathe deep, and hold the breath, again and again, like one making a mighty effort with all the strength of his body. Sometimes his voice broke out, hushed and sharp, in a word or fragment of a word.”

No Exploding Brain. No Rain of Hell-Fire. But we do catch a glimpse of his internal struggle, a struggle made all the more riveting when we discover what he’s actually up to:

“Tenar, I hold the roof up over out heads, this moment. I keep the walls from closing in upon us. I keep the ground from opening beneath our feet. I have done this since we passed the pit […] They are seeking us, seeking our will, our spirit. To quench it, to devour it. I must keep that alight. All my strength is going into that.”

It doesn’t look like much, but the drama is intense. Ged is literally holding the up the earth, and he is pushed to the breaking point, an impressive statement when you understand the extent of Ged’s power.

There’s a scene from Robin Hobb that strikes me as quite similar. Here the King-in-Waiting, Verity, is using his magical Skill to deceive the sinister Red-Ship raiders who have been harrying his coastline and doing unspeakable things to his people. As in the LeGuin novel, he doesn’t seem all that impressive at the outset:

“Verity was sitting in a chair by the window. A summer wind off the ocean blew into the room. It could have been a pleasant chamber, full of light and air on a stuffy summer day. Instead it seemed to me a cell. There was the chair by the window, and a small table next to it. In the corners and around the edges of the room the floor was dusty and littered with bits of old strewing reeds. And Verity, his chin slumped to his chest as if dozing, except that to my senses the room thrummed with his effort. His hair was unkempt, his chin bewhiskered with a day’s growth. His clothing hung on him.”

Only a few pages later do we learn the full extent of his efforts. Every day, every night, almost without time for food or sleep, he is muddying the minds of his assailants. The effort involved is literally killing him, but, as he points out in this argument with the king, the stakes are enormous:

“Perhaps there is a Red-Ship right now, not so far that they cannot see Egg Island, and already the captain of it is discounting the dream of ill omen he had last night, and the navigator is correcting his course, wondering how he could have so mistaken the landmarks of our coastline. Already the work I did last night while you slept and Regal danced and drank with his courtiers is coming undone, while we stand here and yatter at one another.”

In this second case the magic involved (Skilling) is interesting in its own right, but Hobb chooses not to focus on the magic itself. Instead, she shifts our attention to Verity, a man struggling mightily but – and this is the crucial point here – struggling internally. The same is true of LeGuin’s handling of Ged, only more so. In that case, we don’t even really understand what magic is at Ged’s disposal or how it works. It doesn’t matter; the human drama blazes all the more brightly for the lack of a conjured fireball.

I was reminded of this inner intensity almost a year ago as I watched my wife labor with the birth of our son. There’s not all that much to look at: a beautiful woman, her face etched with concentration and pain. At the very end, of course, there’s the jaw-dropping, tear-jerking sight of a child being born, but the real business, the real struggle and doubt and courage, takes place internally in the long hours before, in the mind and heart of the mother.

Of course, we wouldn’t want to get rid of some of the more theatrical bits of our favorite novels. I still want to see demons riven in twain by sky-rending conjurations. I suppose the trick when handling magic is to find the right balance between inner and outer, between character-focused and effect-focused writing. I’m eager to hear what others think of this balance, and of other novels in which it’s been skillfully achieved.