It has been over a century since mild-mannered Irish theater manager Bram Stoker set down in words the epistolary novel that would indelibly stamp itself on the midbrain of human culture. DRACULA (1897) was considered a straight-forward horror tale in its day, but on deeper levels it reflected the collective unconscious of the Gilded Era, crystallizing a mythos that is still as potent today as ever: the attack of the repressed. DRACULA was the embodiment of latent sexual urges worming their way into puritanical society. Forget the Freudian symbolism, the piercing of virginal white napes. Forget the stake through the heart. The Count resonated for the Victorians like no other avatar of literature. And even today, teenagers assaulted by sexualized media and raging hormones connect with the vampire myth in books and movies for the very same reasons that turn-of-the-century Londoners clicked with DRACULA: it makes sense to the subconscious.
Enter the zombie.
The modern zombie archetype has not been around for nearly as long as Stoker’s creation. Arguably, the rebel indie filmmaker George Romero is the closest we can come to a Bram Stoker of contemporary zombies. Romero’s seminal 1968 film, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, laid out almost biblical rules of the game for future incarnations of flesh-eating dead: cadaverous-looking, slow-moving, ravenous, and “all messed up.” The idea resonated for Vietnam era audiences burned out on Cold War paranoia and a constant stream of body bags on the nightly news. Again, in its day, the film was thought of by many as a simple, lurid, gruesome version of an EC comic – VARIETY called it an “unrelieved orgy of sadism” – but the archetype connected with people in unexpected ways.
The shambling, cannibalistic, reanimated dead touched an irritated nerve-ending in our culture’s deep, primal subconscious.
All of which brings us to today, and the real reason I’m blogging about this in the first place. I suppose I should just be happy that I’m gainfully employed, co-writing a series of original novels with the great Robert Kirkman, creator of the Eisner-award winning comic THE WALKING DEAD. I suppose I should just basically be satisfied with the ecstasy of working on such an amazing project – each of the three books we’ve been contracted to write for St. Martins Press expands upon the back-stories of the comic’s most popular characters. I suppose I should just shut up and be content to ride the Kirkman juggernaut of AMC’s smash hit series of the same name. But like my fabulous and beautiful ex-wife Jeanie says, “Bono… you always have to pick at stuff, over analyze things, and just gnaw at the bone until there’s nothing left.”
Pardon my rumination but I cannot stop wondering why zombies – and specifically Kirkman’s incredible universe – are so resonant today. What chord have we struck in the year 2011? Sure, the comic book series is a page-turner of the first order – an epic survival quest that plays like Homer’s ODYSSEY on mushrooms. Certainly that has something to do with the phenomenon. If THE WALKING DEAD sucked we wouldn’t be here right now, you and I, geeking out so heartily. But there’s a deeper meaning to Kirkman’s creation – and by extension, the zombie archetype in general. I think I know what it is.
For millennial America, the zombie is the wolf at our nation’s door – the stubborn, lumbering danger that just keeps coming, regardless of what we each do individually to shoot it in the head. The economy. Gridlock. Terrorism. Global warming. Unemployment. The zombie is the Roman Circus – the rotting underbelly of an empire in decline. On a more personal level, the zombie is your mortgage sinking underwater, your property taxes skyrocketing, your foundation festering with termites. The zombie is a lymph node. It’s that microscopic, unseen cell beneath the thin flesh of your armpit – a ticking time bomb — just waiting to become cancerous. Maybe you can destroy one of them, but they keep coming. They are legion. It sounds grim but the zombie is the personification of the blunt, impassive, inexorable obsolescence lurking beneath the shiny surface of modern life.
The good news is, art itself can offer a remedy. The horror genre in particular is best at providing catharsis – a poignant vehicle through which people can experience the worst case scenario, and ultimately, at least on a virtual level, find mastery over these impenetrable threats. That is the key to THE WALKING DEAD. It’s got all the slam-bang shock value of a great zombie-thon, but what it’s really about is the Living. What it’s really about is survival. Family. Even love. Which, let’s face it, is all we really need to survive.
That and a 12-guage shotgun.
Which brings me to THE WALKING DEAD: RISE OF THE GOVERNOR. The first original novel in Kirkman’s and my planned trilogy, the book is due out from St. Martins on September 27th, 2011… choreographed to coincide with the hotly anticipated second season of the AMC series. But for my money, the comic is the real driver of these books. The comic exists in a world by itself – a sui generis blend of horror and human drama – which is so rich with off-panel back-story that we could write en entire library of supplemental prose.
This one is the first.
Yes, I’m proud.
BUY IT NOW on Amazon.
PS: Visit The Walking Dead novel’s Facebook page (http://on.fb.me/pHU50D) for links to the first chapter of RISE OF THE GOV, as well as a chance to win an e-reader!