The History of Zombies in Literature- or, Revenge of the living trope

(originally posted at http://jjosephwright.com/)

 

The undead revolution has begun.

Whether you think zombies are scary or not, there is no denying that they are huge. Everytime it seems that zombies are dead as a trope, they return in full fledge and the public goes wild.  Video games are using them as guiltless kill enemy and movies are using them as metaphors or as horror devices. Due to their rabid popularity, the evolution of the zombies in both of these mediums is becoming better and better known. But what about literature?

It seems that zombies in literature are largely ignored, or thought to be directly related to the rise of zombies in film. This post will examine the history of zombies in literature.

Early Zombies- Or, Really freaking old Tropes

Zombie myths can be found in many cultures, the most famous being in West African Vodou legend. The earliest record of the zombies in literature comes from the Epic of Gilgamesh, written in the 7th century BC. They are mentioned in this passage:

” I will knock down the Gates of the Netherworld,

I will smash the door posts, and leave the doors flat down,

and will let the dead go up to eat the living!

And the dead will outnumber the living!”

Zombies are mentioned several places in the Bible, one of the oldest texts known to man, in both the old and new testament. My personal favourites comes from Ezekiel and Revelation (both verses taken directly from the Good News Bible):

Ezekiel 37:10: So I prophesized as I had been told. Breath entered the bodies, and they came to life and stood up. There were enough of them to form an army.

Revelation 11:11: After three and a half days a life-giving breath came from God and entered them and they stood up; and all who saw them were terrified.

The middle ages had it’s very own zombie. Their zombie was known as a Revenant, and was a soul returning from the dead to avenge a wrong committed against them in life. They typically appeared as a skeletal human corpse. So the revenant was the first Zombvenger, a trope which was further used in Ambrose Bierce’s “The Death of Halpin Frayser”

The earliest mentions of “zombies” began in 1791 from travel writers visiting Haiti after its independence. They did not become sensationalised until the 19th century, when travel writer William Seabrook wrote an account of Haitian zombies in the 1920’s. Accounts such as these inspired the original horror master, H.P Lovecraft, to write short stories such as “Cool Air”, “In the Vault”, and perhaps most famously, “The Reanimator” in the 1920’s and 30’s.

Zombies found their way to comic books in the 1940’s and 50’s with EC comics Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror and Weird Science.

Modern Zombies- Or, how literature and film inspired each other.

Modern zombie literature, which emerged as its own subgenre in the late 80’s, is directly linked to George A. Romero and the popularity of zombie films. This would begin modern zombie fiction’s direct link to film, and the trend of zombie film introducing and adding to the popularity of zombie literature.

Despite growing in popularity, zombies mainly stayed on the big screen after Night of the Living Dead. Two zombie fiction anthologies stand out from this period, Book of the Dead and Still Dead: Book of the Dead 2, edited by John Skipp and Craig Spektor and featuring notable horror authors such as Stephen King. Zombies became and remained an underground/counter culture phenomenon until around 2003, when The Walking Dead comic series was released and the undead started to get a little more attention, growing more with the release of Max Brook’s completely awesome Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z.  With these releases, zombies became a staple of the counter-culture and more and more zombie films were being made. Oh, how the tides had turned.

Video games began to catch on to the zombie bandwagon, introducing then as new enemies and pioneering the modern survival horror genre. However, zombies were still not at the level of mainstream popularity as another undead counterpart, the vampire. That was soon to change, with films such as 28 Days Later.

Now, the zombie is mainstream huge and hipsters like me get to say that they liked zombies before they were cool. The biggest zombie-related excitement these days is over The Walking Dead TV series, directly inspired by the comic books, and upcoming zombie films like World War Z, also directly inspired by literature.

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