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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Zombie Lore Began as a Symbol of North American Slavery, 1929 Story Suggests

Posted By on Wed, Oct 5, 2011 at 8:00 AM

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Like the undead themselves, the zombie fad has overstayed its welcome. That's not to say it doesn't have its charm. That's also not to say we won't watch Night of the Living Dead and Zombieland again next month. Yet the deluge of new (and mostly derivative) zombie-inspired novels, movies, dolls, turkey basters, and who knows what else has dulled our senses. And the zombie walks -- oh, those cursed zombie walks! Please cease now!

So, paradoxically, we turn to the past to find a fresh perspective. Indeed, we would do well to page through a wonderfully thorough new anthology of short fiction called, straightforwardly enough, Zombies! Zombies! Zombies! This 800-page behemoth collects several dozen short stories, documenting the origins and development of zombie mythology -- and its first entry traces the Haitian "origin story" of the zombie.

Titled "Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields," the story is an excerpt from W. B. Seabrook's 1929 book The Magic Island, which was primarily an ethnographic study of Haiti and voodoo practices. The book also introduced the zombie concept to an English-language readership. With contemporary hindsight, what is most striking about the story is that, in Haiti, the zombie legend held a significance that had nothing to do with brain-eating, but everything to do with the fact that Haiti was founded by former slaves.

Cover of Weird Tales of the Future, September 1952 - BASIL WOLVERTON
  • Basil Wolverton
  • Cover of Weird Tales of the Future, September 1952

Seabrook's tale -- like the book from which it is taken -- is a true account of the author's experience in Haiti. In the longest and most interesting of its three segments, Seabrook recounts the first time he heard the zombie lore. One of his Haitian friends has told him that farmers in need of additional hands to work their land will sometimes, and against their better judgment, use magic to raise the dead. The animated corpses form an easy-to-care-for labor force of zombie drones, which take orders and work without complaint.

But there's a risk. A zombie's surviving family may discover their dearly departed father, daughter, or nephew employed in this extra-legal (extra-natural?) fashion, in which case the extant fanmi comes after the zombies' bosses with mortal punishment in mind.

No adult reader of this story will overlook the relationship of the undead workforce to Haiti's history as a republic built by former slaves. Zombies aren't just the anonymous dead -- they are Haitians. They are brothers and aunts and mothers. They are the honored dead, unlawfully put to work. Scenes of black "masters" in control of a black work force whose members do not require a wage, shelter, or much in the way of food suggest that zombie folklore was a way for Haitians to memorialize the excruciating hardship of their forebears, an undead memory that would forever hearken back to the vicious evils of forced labor.

The import of Seabrook's tale would seem to render all other zombie fiction painfully thin. However, besides restoring some historical perspective to zombie tales, this anthology succeeds by also showcasing countless terrific writers, known and unknown. These tales include "Schalken the Painter" (1839) by J. Sheridan le Fanu, which includes a key "undead" character. The story predates the widespread usage of the word "zombie," as do others in the collection. Such stories include "Maternal Instinct" (2006, posthumous) by Robert Bloch, best known for the novel that was the basis of Hitchcock's Psycho; Theodore Sturgeon's "It" (1940); and "The Broken Fang" (1917) by Uel Key, featuring Professor Arnold Rhymer, M.D., a sort of supernatural Sherlock Holmes.

The collection was edited by Otto Penzler, America's librarian of pulp fiction, and the owner of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York and its affiliated Mysterious Press. Penzler is an influential figure, and his enthusiasm for genre fiction is evident in this volume's sheer heft, as well as that of the several similar anthologies his has issued through Knopf's Black Lizard imprint in recent years -- The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps and The Vampire Archives notably among them.

If you like your zombies with a dose of literary erudition and horror fiction with character, intelligence, and atmosphere, be pick this one up.

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Follow Casey Burchby and SF Weekly's Exhibitionist blog on Twitter.

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Casey Burchby

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