Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Strange Takes On The Dead
I surf the web from time to time to see what people are saying about my books, and the one that gets the most attention is The Dead...even before Permuted Press brought their edition out, a lot of folks had expressed themselves, and after PP did their thing, there was a big increase in chatter...the book got more reviews (most of them really positive) than all of my other books combined, and there was a bunch of discussion on zombie sites. But even though, by and large, it's been good egoboo, it frequently makes for peculiar reading.
First off, some people are perplexed by the very idea of a Christian horror novel. The Dead has been called been called "A wierd mix of Christian and Horror themes" as though the two things are kinda antithetical. Apparently there are folks who've never heard of devils, damnation, fire and brimstone, satanism. They couldn't have any familiarity with the Book of Revelation, and they sure as hell must never have read Dante's Inferno, which is horror stuff from beginning to end, really sadistic, rivers of blood, people head down in blazing tombs, dismemberments by demons, all sorts of good stuff like that. Medieval Catholicism was awash in horror imagery...take a look at some of the tomb-effigies from the period...the old memento mori was never far from anybody's minds. As a matter of fact, The Dead was directly inspired by Brueghel's painting The Triumph of Death, (post-medieval, admittedly, although you wouldn't know to look at it) which features armies of mummies out to the horizon, hunting everybody down and killing us all quite horribly, peasants, merchants, kings, popes...absolutely batshit terrifying. And of course, when it comes to modern horror, you've got Bram Stoker's Dracula, The Exorcist, The Stand...even in H.P.Lovecraft, Christianity is sometimes efficacious, particularly in the more theological Cthulhu Mythos stuff, before he decided to try and recast that in a science-fictional mode. As for movies, well...the Hammer vampire films were straight out Roman Catholic propaganda...the film adaptation of The Exorcist is one of the most famous horror movies ever...you get the picture.
On to zombies.
There's this melody that keeps cropping up in one horror movie after another...it was used as the theme in The Shining, for example...it's the tune for Thomas of Celano's Dies Irae, the Mass For the Dead...it's about the scariest piece of music ever, and it's all about the dead rising from their tombs on the last day. I bring this up because there's this notion that Christianity and zombie horror are particularly and peculiarly antithetical. A number of people respond to the very premise of The Dead, and ask, how can this possibly be? You don't have any zombies in the Bible, etc.Well, I might reference Ezekiel and the Dry Bones (I utilize that biblical bit in my book, actually) and also point out that dead people rise from their graves when Jesus dies...then, of course, there's the fact that the primary archetype for a zombie apocalypse is the Resurrection of the Dead, which is one of the tenets of the Nicene Creed. Well, in my book, the Resurrection is the reason the zombies are up and around. The good people have been Raptured off to Heaven; some mediocre folks are stuck here on earth (wrote this way before Left Behind, by the way), and they're coping with the bad resurrected dead people....earth has become Hell. Now, all sorts of zombie movies have brought up the Resurrection and the actual Apocalypse, but then they don't really go anywhere with it. It evinces a lack of ambition, to say the least.
But even when some of The Dead's admirers have no problem with the mix of theology and horror, they're frequently rather ill-informed. I keep hearing that my zombies are byproducts of the Last Judgement or the Rapture. Nope, they're the direct products of...the Resurrection. Also, it's peculiar how many people zero in on the whole Rapture aspect of the book...it's a doctrine that doesn't even make it into the Nicene Creed, and while it has some scriptural basis, it was never a big part of the tradition---Roman Catholicism---that I was raised in. Oh, there are Catholic Pentecostals who are quite taken with the idea, and I thought it had some horror potential---it's really pretty creepy, and it's a handy prop. But first and foremost, this is a Resurrection book here. The Rapture is disposed of right at the beginning, and then...it's one damn brush with zombies after another. As a matter of fact, the whole end times schema that a lot of people are so attached to gets pretty short shrift...not so much because I'm making fun of it, but because the Antichrist and Second Coming etc., are not the focus of the book, which is living dead horror. The Antichrist is mentioned in passing...it turns out he's an Undersecretary of the Department of Education...I'm not making fun of Evangelicals...I'm making fun of the D of E.
The matter of my Catholicism comes up with some regularity too. Some people seem sure that I'm Protestant, then pronounce themselves puzzled, because all of my lead characters are Catholics. Well, I'm a Catholic of a rather traditional sort, and by and large, the book reflects that. Admittedly, the clergy in the book are presented in a pretty negative light, and I've been accused of outright Catholic bashing...but the worldview that the book depicts is Catholic. Catholicism turns out to be true, even if certain priests suck...they've erred horribly in wandering away from it. There's a positive review out there that assures people that the book isn't a justification of Catholicism. I don't know what book that person read. I mean, I'm glad they like it, but...The Dead is about as in-your-face theologically as anything you're likely to pick up. It's primary purpose is to terrify, but that fits in perfectly well with the theological agenda. I'm a Roman Catholic fear monger. Jonathan Edwards, the guy who wrote Sinners in The Hands of An Angry God, might've been a Puritan, but I regard him as a kindred spirit. The fact is, if you really want to disturb someone, you have to get to them on some level where they think there's something authentic about the horror. Most people are religious; a lot of them believe in damnation, and while they might not believe in zombies, they believe in Devils.
Nobody but nobody believes in Cthulhu.
On the other hand, there are those who are so bewildered by the juxtaposition of God and zombies that they don't even classify the book as a zombie book at all. Some of them like it, but they call it an "apocalyptic thriller" or a "thought experiment." Now, some of this has to do with the characterization of the zombies...even though I use the term, my zombies are not much like the original variety, which were semi-sentient agricultural slaves. But Romero's zombies are also very different from the originals...Haitian zombies didn't eat you, for example...Romero's zombies seem to have somewhat more in common with Richard Matheson's vampires in I Am Legend. Well, my zombies differed from Haitian zombies too, in different ways. Mine are smart, fast, and vicious, embodiments of furious damnation, jealous of the living, and not interested at all in eating you...they want to kill you so you'll come back as one of them and share their misery. Moreover, they simply can't be killed, only crippled temporarily. Some people don't like this conception...oh well. My zombies are scarier than Romero's. I might also point out that John Russo, the co-author or the Night of the Living Dead screenplay, opted for fast mean zombies in Return of the Living Dead when he decided to take another hack at the subject matter...we arrived at the idea independently. In short, when you get folks that insist that The Dead isn't even a zombie book at all, it's rather laughable, in my opinion.
Finally, there are all the people who hate the book, hate it, hate it, hate it. I'd say about one in five readers get really mad. Generally it seems to be purely philosophical, because their analysis is so rabid and ill-observed. Now frankly, I can see how the book might piss some people off...but when they start claiming that the book is slow, well, that's nuts. They really tend to go overboard on the number of typos, even in the Permuted Press version, which was actually properly copyedited. They complain that the characters, some of whom are clergymen, have conversations about theology and the end of the world in a story in which the Last Judgement, the Resurrection, and the End of the World actually happen. They unload on the dialogue, because everyone sounds so literate, and "no one talks that way," even though three of the major characters are academics, and two of them are priests. Fact is, a lot of my closest friends are academics, my wife is a Doctor of Philosophy, and a lot of the lines in the book are drawn from things I've heard actual people say...some of the liberal theology is taken practically verbatim from utterances by priests from the Theology Department at Notre Dame. I've been in a number of exchanges that were pure set-pieces, almost exactly like Max's controversies with Uncle Buddy, and all of them unfolded exactly the same way.
Buddy's disquisition on Big Head Louis Armstrong figures, by the way, is based on a real conversation too, which took place a long while ago in a bar called The Flagship, in Seaford DE.
Just goes to show you.