A couple of years ago, I was in a van full of librarians, being whisked in air conditioned splendor to the convention hall at ALA. I got to talking to my seatmate, a public librarian, and she told me that the most interesting thing she’d heard so far was that zombies were going to be the next vampires.
(Proving yet again that librarians know everything.)
I frowned at her and said something like ‘No way’, and she said something like ‘I know, hard to believe but it’s coming’, and we went our separate ways, each armed with logoed bags to pick up enough sample books in the hall to weigh down a small truck. (ALA has so many sample books for free that they set up special mailing-home stations so people don’t have to keep hauling the books around; unfortunately, I didn’t notice these until later, so I only got two boxes worth of books.)
A small incident in a professional context, two years ago, but I was thinking of it recently as I was discussing some comics.
I’ve never been a big fan of scary horror. I enjoy the occasional foray into serious horror, as a genre, but mostly I prefer comedic horror. I only saw the Shining by accident. A roommate told me it was funny and talked me into going to see it on the big screen for a dollar. By the end, I was huddled under a coat, levitating with panic, jumping at noises and peering through my fingers. Funny my ass. (Bitter? Me? Never!)
But I loved Evil Dead, and I’ve seen not only Blacula, but Blacula 2 (bka Scream Blacula Scream), and all of the movies with the plucky German Shepherds who turn into vampire dogs (hey, it’s a mini genre, and they have cute ears, don’t judge me OK). I also enjoyed the early Anita Blake books, which were rather comedic in their zippy, plotty way, and I even sat through Howling: New Moon Rising, although I demanded that my hosts supply me with spirituous liquors if they were going to continue to subject me to it.
So I should be an ideal candidate to jump on the zombie train.
I’m burned out already.
My zombies are pastede on yay
Everything old is new again at some point, with someone, and I understand how endearing those first tastes of a trope may be to those who have never encountered it before. I think this idea is perfectly encapsulated in the Amanda Quick books. (For those who are not aware, Amanda Quick is a NY Times bestselling historical romance author, aka Jayne Anne Krentz, or Jayne Castle.)
Back in the day, when dinosaurs ruled the earth and the internet had static webpages (‘memba them?) and message boards, I read a lot of romance novel criticism. Those scrolling message board posts are long gone, but over at LLB’s All About Romance, we once got to talking about the Amanda Quick phenomenon. See, Amanda Quick writes a lot. Each book is basically the same story, with the same heroine and hero, with the serial numbers filed off and a different locale and velvet draperies swapped in. Like, one had a pirate theme (the hero had an eye patch, there was a treasure map, etc.), one had a medieval theme (a knight, a castle, etc.), but they were all basically the same story. (And before anyone says it, no, romance novels are not all the same hero and heroine; this is a special case. My intent is not to rag on romance novels.)
So Quick wrote a whole bunch of these suckers, right, and at the time of the internet boom in the late nineties, they were all being rereleased, as the internet had begun to allow publishers to figure out that some readers would buy old books if they were released again, since they’d missed them the first time around. AAR was one of the first review sites in romance that graded books (and still do) all the way down to an F, which was (and is), pretty shocking to a lot of that group. This went over rather badly with many authors and fans, but delighted others, much like HU gets a bit of love and hate. Ahem. Anyway. So, an interesting thing kept happening. The very first Quick book that someone read was almost always an A or a B, but by the third or fourth (we were all big glommers back in the day), it was a solid C or even D.
The fascinating thing, the thing I’m trying to get at, is that it didn’t matter which book was which. Mystique was an A book if it was the first Quick, but a C or D to someone who’d read other Quicks.
Further, those initial books could remain as DIK (desert island keepers, aka comfort reads, or favorites for rereading) even after the other C or D books bored the reader and soured them on Quick.
Which brings me back to zombies.
My zombies are organically grown
(Now that everyone is over that transitional whiplash….)
When I read the Anita Blake series, I’d never read a novel about a zombie animator before. The early books had a lot of funny moments, because if you take the idea of raising corpses from the dead to their logical conclusion, it can lead to a small office run by Bert, a shady car salesman type who sells animating services to, fer instance, lawyers trying to settle will and estate issues. Which is pretty neat.
But how much of this do I really need?
And moreover, do I need to read this in another medium?
The idea that I’m wrestling with, that I see right now with zombies and which seems to be a new trend, is that a single story trope (or genre) should be enough to sell something and that there’s a total buy in by the consumer. It’s always been there a little bit, ever since Star Wars started marketing everything from action figures to collectible McDonalds glasses, but this isn’t just additional ephemera or Big Gulps with Wookies, it’s works themselves.
There seem to be two kinds of ways that zombies get included in art. One, they grow organically from the kind of story that the storyteller is telling. The Serpent and the Rainbow, a film about zombies, is….about zombies. The zombies, Haiti, voodoo, they’re the entirety of the story. I actually thought the film sucked, but it’s not like the zombies are tacked on. Godchild, which doesn’t usually get mentioned as a zombie comic but is one, would have the soul of its story removed if the zombie parts were not included. The zombies function, not as a marketing gimmick, but as the story’s heart, part of its theme. Another comic, Bayou, contains zombies in an organically grown way.
But then there’s what I think of as draperies and wallpaper. These are stories where the genre element or hot fashionable trope is slapped on.
Jane Austen is dead. Long live Jane Austen.
The most obvious example, of course, is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
I’m not against Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I love Jane, and I admit I was tempted, however briefly, to buy my own copy.
The intent of the book is satire, and it’s obviously effective, because it’s spawned a rerelease in hardcover, which you don’t see every day. (Now with 30% more zombies, as the website states.)
And, because it’s poking fun at classic literature, the juxtaposition of zombies and ninja moves is part of the point. The book that is satirizing the spread of Jane Austen remakes by adding in gratuitous zombies is sort of the ultimate meta about publishing’s current gratuitous approach.
PP&Z (I’m already tired of typing the whole title) first came out in book form. It quickly spawned not only other books (Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, etc.), but also a book sequel (Dawn of the Dreadfuls). There’s also an audio version. PP&Z’s moved into a third medium, YouTube videos, both fan made and pro made. It’s spawned a big movie deal starring Natalie Portman which is coming out next year. And it’s a video game, not just for computers but iPhones.
And now it’s a graphic novel, too.
How many mediums does a work need?
And, is this media-wide spread, both of a specific work (PPZ) and a specific trope (zombies), beneficial?
I’m not sure.
But what about that yarn VM
I love a good joke. I am the proud owner of a Nancy Pearl action figure (with Amazing Shushing Action!). And you know, I think my librarian action figure is pretty funny. I have other toys on my desk, from a Breyer horse to an evil fairy tea mug (because I’m kind of an evil fairy, get it?).
I even make the occasional toy myself. I decided recently that what my bestest friend needed was a Zeke the Aloof Alpaca, so I went off to get some of my favorite washable yarn, which is Lorna’s Laces Shepherding Worsted. And lo and behold…
There are zombies in my yarn. Zombies! In my yarn.
Lorna’s Laces does great colorways, and I love the variety and spice they bring to the yarns. They’ve got inspiration and names from Chicago locales (where they’re located), to everyday color naming conventions like Satsuma, to evocative colorways that speak to traditional fiber arts colors like Blackwatch and Amish (for the plaid and the quilts).
And now they have Zombie BBQ.
It’s exactly what you’d expect. Light, festive zombie gray greens, evocative of Thriller, dashed with blood red and, er, charcoal pit gray-brown.
I don’t hate that there’s zombies in my yarn, but I do find it…indicative of the extent to which the zombie shtick has spread.
It’s gone pretty far when it’s in my yarn. I wouldn’t care to make a knitted monster toy from this yarn, even though I think the Iris Monsters are quite fetching in their way.
Do we really need all these zombies? I mean, really?
I was staunch through the YouTube book trailer videos. The Jane Austen rewrites. The Marvel crossovers. The Legos. The zombie glow in the dark rubber duck. The not one but three bestselling survival guides. The blog memes. The ghoulie doll with a Mr. Hoots A Lot owl friend. OK? I’ve been good, I’ve been patient, but the yarn is making me want to go play in traffic, because nothing is safe.
I have this idea, perhaps charmingly naïve, that there is (or should be) some relationship between the story and the medium.
I’m not suggesting that others shouldn’t embrace the glory of zombie-whatever. As a librarian, I’m accustomed to other people liking things I consider junk, and not only do I tolerate it, I empower it by purchasing the books for them or acquiring them via expensive interlibrary loan.
But I keep seeing a trend of publishers leaping on these bandwagons to an extent that troubles me, on an artistic level. Is it really going to ruin my life if there’s another terrible, schlocky zombie YA book? My soul cries out in agony! Well, no. But the awful books are making it nearly impossible for me to find and enjoy the good, organic art, the art that actually has some kind of relationship with the story trope, on an artistic level, on a story level. Hell, on any level.
When I see that Marvel has created an entire universe of nothing but superheroes who turn into zombies and eat innocents, it breaks the fourth wall. I think, well, if even Marvel has no respect for their superheroes, why should I? Why should I think any of these stories have anything to say to me? Why shouldn’t I go read some damn other thing, any other thing?
Which brings me to the last portion of the essay (and then I’m done, I promise). Some time ago, we were discussing possibilities for roundtables, and one of the works recommended (by I forget who) was X’ed out. I’d heard, vaguely, that it was good, but I didn’t know anything about it, so I went to take a look. And discovered, yup, there appear to be zombies (or at least a dead talking pet, which is close enough). I groaned and told Noah that while I’d be for it if everyone else voted for it, I’d kind of prefer not, because I just couldn’t take any more zombies.
And I’m wondering whether the proliferation of the zombie genre is like Quick. Is everyone mad for these stories, be they PP&Z or Marvel’s zombie crossover, because it’s their first taste of zombies?
Does everyone else just have a higher zombie tolerance? Certainly I’ve been out of step with popular trends before. (Acid wash jeans, I’m looking at you.)
I see this as a huge wave, reaching out wider (more mediums) and even more shallowly (mashups) than what I’ve seen in the past. It does seem that the zombie craze, if I may call it that, has a certain whimsical air, a participatory engagement (cons even, fanworks as in the YouTube videos) that I would normally consider a plus in a genre. But I don’t know. This time I feel like all these zombie elements are primarily drapery—clever velvet hangings, new rugs, on shabby furniture and cold dark rooms. And moreover that such a profusion of draperies and cheap plastic figurines are obscuring the real art that might be lurking down the hall.
But that’s my take. Normally at HU, I think we slam our fists down on the table and say Dammit, that’s how it is! (And then have a tasty argument about it.) This time, I’m not even sure of my own opinion. Genre is such an individual thing, and saying, well, this vein has been overmined runs too close to forbidding art, which I just plain don’t believe in. And yet… I don’t want to read some of the new stuff coming out. I’m oversaturated and I’ve become positively allergic to just. one. more. damn. zombie.
A/N: I’d like to thank my betas, A.G. and Rachel, for their zombie-wrangling assistance. Also, Rachel posed an excellent question, to wit, are vampires the as zombies same or different, to which I can only say that I think vampires are different. As a genre, they seem to produce more organic works, but even though I’ve always found them interesting, I think they’re becoming too prevalent as well. Feel free to toss that concept into the ring as well. I wish I’d had time to cover the pesky bloodsuckers more thoroughly. Perhaps next week, if there’s interest.