Green Hills Literary Lantern



Preface to Volume XXIII

Wot No Zombies?

Somebody really asked. And since the question came from a person whose opinions I have long valued, I couldn’t blow it off. The easy answer is, “we didn’t get any zombie stories.” But that doesn’t really cut it. If an envelope with Richard Matheson’s or George Romero’s return address were to sail over the transom, yeah, it would get our attention, but otherwise, GHLL isn’t likely to deal in zombies. Or sexy vampires. Or wizard-kids, hobbits, what have you. I found myself in an advanced creative writing class not long ago, saying something similar. Not forbidding these topics, mind you. It would be the very definition of bigotry to reject an entire universe of subject matter. But I did want to make clear to the students that most of the fiction I encounter that’s set in a world other than that which we actually inhabit suffers from one of two complementary flaws:

1) the writer fails to think through the requirements of the altworld s/he’s building. For an English major, I had pretty good coursework in Bio. If you want me to believe in a planet with eight-legged draft animals, you’re going to have to create a credible pelvis and a coherent evolutionary history for it. This is work likely to be standard genre-fare on redecorated stages, suited to cover art of a bodice-busting babe in the arms of a guy who apparently swallowed a xylophone. Or maybe a sweaty, swollen and glowering goth posed atop a heap of bones, for which no one sees any pressing need to atone. A kind of pornography, if you ask me, and it’s part of the pathology of this world that nobody finds it especially objectionable, but they get all worked up about a little gentle, affectionate, consensual fornication.

2) the writer spends all her time in world-building. That is, explaining how it came about that the children of Zubingi govern the adults, and how this actually works so that the garbage gets collected, and there’s sustainable agriculture, a reasonable foreign policy, but no war…stories that really would like to be essays in political philosophy or something else equally worthy, but still neglectful of what fiction (and poetry; we’re not running any sestinas on the Undead either) has always been about: real men and women encountering real problems in a real world.

Yeah, it sounds stodgy even to me. And I can supply the counters myself –

Isn’t any writing good writing?

Sure, from kindergarten up through even the intro college cw course, where you have an opportunity to play, be bad, find out whether this is worth pursuing. But at some point, you choose to be a grownup. Or not.

Can’t genius work ingeniously with genre?

Yup – and we would certainly publish the hymns and hallmarkery of a Dickinson, or southseas adventures by a Melville (and I continue to think this is why my great grandchildren will be reading Stephen King in college – he’s a serious writer working in the genres). I would like to think we’ll recognize it when it comes in.

            Who are you to say what's "serious" or "literary" and what's not?

                    Check the masthead. Somebody's gotta do it.

It is empirically undeniable: zombies are more than a fad. As a lit-person oriented towards the social sciences, I think that’s interesting and important. There have been symposia aimed at accounting for the rather sudden increase in their popularity as a theme (it’s not like the things were suddenly invented in the last couple of years, but beyond any doubt, there’s an uptick not only in writing and film, but in what folklorists call ostension, acting-out, popular performance). What consensus there is points to a cultural moment in which problems seem unaddressable, the world doomed in any number of ways, and traditional responses – institutional, philosophical, political, technological – bankrupt and impotent. It’s a way of contemplating a slo-mo apocalypse. And that is nontrivial.

But the slo-mo apocalypse that you and I are actually living through, and must live through rather than merely watch, before dropping the popcorn carton in the trashcan and stepping back onto the reassuringly gumwad-dotted and cigarette-butt-littered sidewalk – that’s more challenging to depict. I suspect that some of the popularity of these films comes from their very non-reality – it’s a safe scare, like a roller coaster (as opposed to the authentic terror of my old floorless, iffy-braking ’74 Maverick). And there’s an element of copping here, too. Genuine despair is so cold, so inert, it rarely makes art, let alone entertainment. Think of Hopper or Munch (but not that one painting everybody thinks of). Despair is too often a posture that claims credit for worldly experience but excuses us from actually getting off our asses and doing something.

Without particularly intending it, GHLL has become much more of an international journal, a consequence maybe of accepting overseas submissions by email long before other literary journals would do so. If, as is claimed, the zombie apocalypse appeals because it asks us to confront the strange and unfamiliar – well, I think that’s more honestly and authentically done, for most of us,  in contemplating how very different the usual “have it all” claptrap sounds in the circle of the Vietnamese women Abbigail Rosewood takes us into. Cindy Matthews asks us in among the Mennonites, who differ from mainstream Americans in ways far more profound than do the ethnicities that make up the usual multicultural curriculum (mainly people with different taste in food and clothing who quite understandably want an equal go at the goodies). And Kayti Doolittle will be your guide to something every bit as nightmarish as your usual HvZ event, but made worse by far by the fact that it’s real, and we’re complicit in it. Apocalypse – the Church has long taught that the universal eschaton and the personal, that is, the Big Dirt Nap – are figures, one for the other. Spend a quiet minute with Charles Rammelkamp, meditating on all that we do in bed. Erik Bendix struggles to English the yearnings his grandfather felt in a Nazi prison. Now those were monsters. Real ones. There’s no fictional narrative of heroism, and no posturing of despair.

I’ve never been one to propose some platonic wall of separation between high culture and pop, but I’m not inclined to think there’s no meaningful way to talk about a difference, either. I hope in fact I’m provoking somebody out there to send us a zombie story that engages us the way these writers do.

Off you go into the worlds of these storytellers and poets.

And be careful out there.




Adam Brooke Davis is managing editor of GHLL. He teaches folklore, linguistics, medieval studies and writing at Truman State University.