Guest Post: Jonathan Maberry – The Literary Zombie


I am very excited to be a part of Jonathan Maberry’s Dead of Night Shambling Zombie Blog Tour. I am fairly new to zombie fiction – my first introduction was Jonathan’s YA novel Rot and Ruin and the sequel Dust and Decay, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed. When I was invited to be a part of the blog tour for Dead of Night (I just purchased my copy last weekend and can’t wait to read it!), I jumped at the chance to have Jonathan write a guest post about the history of the zombie in literature.

After reading Jonathan’s post, you can read the first fifteen pages of Dead of Night. And, to tempt you even more, here’s the book trailer:

And now, please welcome Jonathan Maberry to Books and Movies:

The Literary Zombie
A lot of folks ask me when the zombie first shambled onto the literary scene, but the answer is actually pretty complicated.

The first complication is the name. Zombie. Bear in mind that when we typically think of zombies these days, we’re thinking of the George Romero-esque flesh-eating living dead. The hitch is that Romero never intended them to be ‘zombies’. He called them ghouls. The word ‘zombie’ belongs to a different kind of creature –also living dead, but with less gory dining habits—that is part of the Haitian religion of Voodoo. The word zombie was hung on the Romero genre by European film distributors. But it stuck.

But maybe we should take a step back and view this from a bigger picture. Do zombies have to be only those flesh-eaters from Romero’s films and all of the pop culture that followed?

Not really. After all, Romero didn’t invent the ‘ghoul’. He didn’t even invent living dead flesh-eaters. They showed up in writing long before they staggered onto celluloid.

The first mention of the zombie in literature is in The Epic of Gilgamesh. Yep. That is the earliest known piece of writing, circa 18th century BC. There’s one very significant passage, in which the goddess Ishtar describes her descent to the underworld. As she approaches the gate she says:

If thou openest not the gate to let me enter,
I will break the door, I will wrench the lock,
I will smash the door-posts, I will force the doors.
I will bring up the dead to eat the living.
And the dead will outnumber the living.

Sounds familiar? Romero echoed that in Dawn of the Dead with his line: “When there is no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth.”

So, if we use The Epic of Gilgamesh as a starting point, we have nearly four thousand years of zombie literature. There are tales of ghouls and flesh-eaters all through history. The word ‘ghoul’ is even an Anglicized version of Alghul or Ghul, a demon from Arabian legend. There are even mentions of this flesh-eater in 1001 Arabian Nights.

Ghouls of various kinds abound in folklore, too. About a third of the monsters that loosely fall under the label of ‘vampire’ are actually closer to the flesh-eating zombie model. Like the Craqueuhhe of France is a living-dead flesh-eater; as is the Dalhan from the Middle East, the Malaysian Langsuir, the Native American Atakapa and Lofa; the Black Annis, a vengeance ghost from the Dane Hills in Leicestershire; the Zulu Tokoloshe , and the Callicantzari from the folklore of Christian Greeks.

If you broaden the view of ‘zombie’ to include all reanimated dead, then you’d have to include Frankenstein and Dracula…but that gets complicated. Better to tackle that another time!

Zombie fiction, as such, got its real start with novelizations of Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, and John Russo’s attempt to write a sequel to NOTLD with his short novel, Return of the Living Dead (no relation to the movie of the same name).

But there was very little in the way of zombie fiction until anthologists John Skipp and Craig Spector gathered together eighteen new zombie tales for Book of the Dead (Bantam, 1989). The anthology included a foreword by Romero and works by Stephen King, Robert R. McCammon, Joe R. Lansdale, Ramsey Campbell and other top horror writers. These weren’t throwaway stories, either. These were intelligent, insightful, and beautifully crafted tales.

It’s fair to say that zombie literature was born with that antho. It’s a true watershed moment.

In 1998, Tim Powers wrote a pirate novel that included Haitian zombies of the non-cannibalistic type. That novel, On Stranger Tides, was later purchased and reworked to become an entry in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. That same year we had novelizations of the first major zombie videogame, Resident Evil. The novels by S.D. Perry did well, but mostly played to the gaming crowd and flew under the larger zombie genre radar.

Then we take a step forward to first major zombie novel, The Rising by Brian Keene (Delirium Press limited edition, 2003; Leisure mass market paperback, 2004). The book flew off the shelves to become the most successful zombie-themed fiction to that point.

In 2004 we hit another landmark moment with the release of Max Brook’s novel, World War Z (Crown, 2006). The book was a hardcover bestseller for over a year and then began a tireless run in paperback. It resulted in a bidding war for film rights between Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio (no, that’s not a misprint, and Pitt won). Pitt’s making that movie right now.

Yeah, Brad Pitt in a big budget zombie flick. Wow.

With the double-shot of The Rising and World War Z, zombie fiction had come of age. It also began a publishing tsunami that is still gaining momentum. Less than a decade ago you could count-off the top zombie novels on your fingers. Now we have long shelves filled with them. My own collection has over one hundred novels and twice as many anthologies. And lots and lots of comics.

David Wellington’s trilogy Monster Island (Thunder Mouth, 2006), Monster Nation (2006) and Monster Planet (2007) was the next big moment, and then Joe McKinney burst onto the scene with Dead City (Pinnacle, 2006) in the same year that Stephen King released a sort-of/kind-of zombie novel, The Cell (Scribner).

Since then…wow. So many. Scary books, funny books, heart-breaking books, visceral adventure books.

I entered the zombie fiction scene in 2009 with Patient Zero, the first mainstream science thriller about zombies. I followed it in 2010 with the first of my young adult series, Rot & Ruin. The second in that series, Dust & Decay debuted last year, and the third, Flesh & Bone, drops in August. And I did a standalone zombie thriller –my unabashed homage to George Romero—with Dead of Night (2011).

But there are so many others. Seth Grahame-Smith shoved zombies into classic literature with the runaway bestseller Pride and Prejudice and Zombies –which itself kicked off a sub-genre of classics re-told with horrific elements. Ryan Brown had a hit with a sports-themed zombie novel, Play Dead, and S.G. Brown gave us living dead existential literature with Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament.

New zombie anthologies such as The New Dead (edited by Christopher Golden for St. Martin’s Griffin) and the forthcoming 21st Century Dead, include excellent new stories by writers like historical fiction bestseller David Liss and paranormal romance author Kelley Armstrong.

The YA market has had serious hits with Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth, Cherie Priest’s steampunk zombie wackiness Boneshaker, Alden Bell’s chilling The Reapers are the Angels, Daniel Waters’ Generation Dead, Charlie Higson’s The Enemy and many more are on the way.

Zombie literature? Yeah…the invasion is here and there’s no stopping it. Go on…take a bite.

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Jonathan Maberry is a New York Times bestseller and multiple Bram Stoker Award-winning author, editor and Marvel Comics writer. He has written pre-apocalypse novels: Ghost Road Blues, Dead Man’s Song, Bad Moon Rising, Patient Zero, and The Dragon Factory; an apocalypse novel, Dead Man’s Song; apocalypse comics: Marvel Universe vs the Punisher and Marvel Universe vs Wolverine; and post-apocalyptic novels: Rot & Ruin, Dust & Decay, and Flesh & Bone. He hasn’t tackled dystopian fiction yet…but you can pretty much assume he will. Find him online at JonathanMaberry.com and on Twitter, Facebook and GoodReads.

Thanks so much, Jonathan!

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2 Responses to Guest Post: Jonathan Maberry – The Literary Zombie

  1. Dana says:

    Wow. That trailer is creepy as hell!
    Excellent post too! I love the fact that flesh eating dead go as far back as Gilgamesh…