Yesterday I started listening to a fresh audiobook, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks. As the name implies, it’s set around a 17th century outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in England. When the novel opens, the plague has already swept through, and the main character is coping with the emptiness of her village. I’ve barely begun, but the story has a lot of interest for its sheer novelty: I could name social effects of the plague or list a few historical facts about it, but I’ve never read a book set during or after it. But it also made me think of a sort of story I have heard more than once: zombie stories.
I know, I know, there are no zombies in 17th century history. But the empty streets, the feeling of being an island of humanity — those are definitely part of modern post-apocalyptic fiction. And that’s when zombies came up — I began to wonder if zombies are a plague fear. I know, a lot of stories refer to it as “the infection!” and so forth so this may seem obvious to others, but it had never occurred to me to wonder if that’s where zombies get their archetypal oomph. I’ve always figured they were a very literal fear of death, uninteresting from a subtextual standpoint. But in an epidemic, even the people you love can kill you. Especially them, as you stay near them and tend them. Everyone is a threat, anyone could prove the agent of your death. You’re surrounded by bodies and death and there are few survivors, traumatized and isolated. Zombies!
Ryan responded to this musing of mine by saying he thought zombies came from someone thinking the dead walking and making you one of them would be a good story. But I think recurring stories — especially scary stories, like werewolves and zombies — have to tap into something in the human psyche or they wouldn’t keep coming back. Like plagues and zombies, these stories keep coming and won’t lie down.