Just in time for Halloween, BookBrowse reviewer Lisa Guidarini explores the literary history of zombies...
They're the undead dreaded monsters that feast on the brains of the living. But what exactly is the origin of the zombie? No one knows for sure - perhaps it's the Haitian belief that animals can be brought back to life via witchcraft; or maybe it's the jiang shi (reanimated dead body) in Chinese folklore that lives off others' qi or life forces; or what about the evil Dybbuk in Jewish fables that consumes the spirits of lost souls?
Though a definitive mythology of the origin of zombies isn't entirely clear, these ghastly ghouls - in some form or variation - have been a part of the Western literary tradition for centuries. Mary Shelley's 1818 Frankenstein introduced the idea of harvesting body parts of the dead, and in H.P. Lovecraft's Herbert West: Re-animator (1921), a doctor concocts a potion that revives corpses. According to an article in Time magazine in 1940, the word "zombi" - which probably comes from the Kongo word Nzambi, the name of an African voodoo snake-deity - didn't crop up in American literature until W.B. Seabrook's book The Magic Island, in 1929. (Coincidently, this is the same book that inspired Victor Halpern's 1932 horror film, White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi.)
In 1954 - just nine years after the detonation of two atomic bombs in Japan - Richard Matheson penned I Am Legend, a novel that helped introduce themes of post-apocalyptic strife to traditional zombie literature. The novel was adapted to film with The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971), and I am Legend (2007), and was part of the inspiration behind George A. Romero's 1968 cult classic, Night of the Living Dead.
Over the decades, as technology evolved, zombie literature began to reflect more modern times; authors started to incorporate the advancements of the 21st century into their stories. For example, master horror novelist Stephen King's Cell (2006), supposes cellular technology to be the germ that infects innocents, transforming them into the living dead.
Then in 2009, a surprising extension of the genre came along - the "mash up." Launched by the astonishing popularity of Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, mash up novels usually include the full text of an original classic novel, and are supplemented by the author's contributed zombie storyline. A whole slew of these books now exist, spinning off classics by iconic authors such as Mark Twain, Leo Tolstoy, and Louisa May Alcott, delighting some readers while completely mystifying others.
Where zombie literature originated, no one may ever know for certain, but its popularity has only grown in this century. How long will it continue to capture readers' imaginations? Time will tell - but it doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon.
This article originally ran as a "beyond the book" feature for Colson Whitehead's Zone One, full access to BookBrowse's 'beyond the book features' is available to BookBrowse members.