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A Zombie By Any Other Name – The (Added) Value of Retrospective in Genre Fiction

Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer


ImageCC2K’s Big Ross discusses the merits of retrospective in genre fiction by examining two hit shows: True Blood and The Walking Dead.

I realized recently that I love it when writers of genre fiction acknowledge the pre-existing body of work within their genre.

I don’t think I ever consciously thought about this until the past week or so when my girlfriend and I began inhaling season 1 of HBO’s hit vamp show True Blood on DVD. This following on the heels of my DVR-assisted consumption of AMC’s hit zombie show The Walking Dead. Despite both of these shows building narratives upon a foundation of the dead (or undead, as it were), their writers take quite different approaches in how they deal with the extensive bodies of work in their respective genres of fiction.  

SPOILERS AHEAD!!!        SPOILERS AHEAD!!!        SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

A great example of precisely what I’m talking about was recently provided by Tony Lazlo in a forum post here on CC2K on the topic of genre fiction. Here’s what he said:

“By any standard, Stephenson has full command of the English language, and Anathem would (again, by any standard) fall under the purview of science-fiction. Its storyline [SPOILER ALERT] follows the adherents of a monastic following on an alternate earth who weather an alien invasion. The action includes space travel, rayguns and an incredible look at other-world biology. This is so much a science-fiction novel, that at one point, one of our heroes says, ‘I can’t believe I’m about to say this but … take me to your leader.'”

That phrase, “take me to your leader,” as Tony rightly points out is so ingrained in the genre of sci-fi/alien fiction the two are practically bonded on a molecular level. I have no doubt that Stephenson was not only aware of it, but consciously chose to have a character speak it because of that connection. That’s the kind of acknowledgment of past work that gets my geekogenic neurons firing on all synapses. Again, part of my realization of this phenomenon came with how The Walking Dead and True Blood differ in their approach to it.

The Walking Dead begins in a manner quite similar to Danny Boyle’s hit film 28 Days Later (I still do not know if this is a bit of literary convergence or imitation being the best form of flattery; I’d welcome ideas on this). Soon after meeting Sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes, husband, father, and all-around stand-up guy, Rick and his partner Shane Walsh are involved in a shoot-out that leaves Rick wounded and in a coma, only to awaken in a hospital bed weeks later, disoriented, in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse.

Rick quickly encounters the eponymous walking dead, as well as other survivors who fill him in on what has transpired while he was comatose. And here is where the writers seemingly made, IMHO, a not altogether insignificant decision. The walking dead are never referred to, neither in the series premiere nor throughout the first season, as zombies. “Zombie” is a term that is never uttered. What anyone, anywhere from the age of eight to eighty could tell you are zombies are instead referred to as “the dead” (a little too on the nose), “geeks” (unexpected, original, kinda cool), and most frequently “walkers” (WTF?).

It’s as if the writers, in trying to come up with an alternative to “zombies”, decided upon the most mundane feature of this life-impaired demographic. With this decision, it seems clear to me that The Walking Dead is set, not on this Earth, but on the Earth of a parallel universe where George A. Romero died as child, perhaps in a car crash or by contracting some illness, never living long enough to leave behind the legacy of Night of the Living Dead. Is it fair to say that NOTLD firmly cemented the zombie into pop culture? I’m not an expert on the genre, but I believe so, yes. Would “zombie” never make it into our cultural lexicon without Romero’s classic film (and its sequels)? I’m afraid I don’t have the answer to such a metaphysical question.  But does The Walking Dead suffer from this lack of retrospective?

For all intents and purposes, no. I don’t think that it does. It could be perfectly plausible that survivors learned about the traits of the “walkers” (they apparently have all of the classic zombie traits: slow moving most of the time but capable of short bursts of speed when agitated, not so deadly when alone but exceedingly dangerous when swarming, only vulnerable to severe brain damage, i.e. “shoot ’em in the head”, etc.) by observation and trial & error. And that’s OK. I find no fault in that approach. But the geek in me (the pop culture loving nerd, not the flesh-eating zombie) would have absolutely flipped out had the writers decided to place The Walking Dead firmly in our world, and introduced survivors who had an edge specifically because of their knowledge of zombie fiction.

Instead The Walking Dead is hermetically sealed in a zombie vacuum. That’s fine, but I would have liked it better if the show’s world had some zombies in its past, as well as in its post-apocalyptic near-future.

ImageWay over on the other hand, HBO’s team of writers have firmly entrenched True Blood in our Earth. An earth where vampires showed up in legends around the world hundreds to thousands of years ago, Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, Bela Lugosi helped immortalize the character, and vampires still feature prominently in pop culture today from Buffy to Twilight to Castlevania.

From the series premiere onward (granted, I’m still only midway through the first season) the writers wink and nod and tip their hats to the extensive and varied conglomeration of vampire fiction. For those who haven’t tasted True Blood, it follows the residents of a small town in rural Louisiana, most prominently one telepathically gifted Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), as they deal with the arrival of recently “outed” vampires.

Much like Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (and a good deal other works, I’m sure) in the world of True Blood vampires have existed in reality as long as they have in myth, legend, and works of fiction. But for reasons I have yet to discover, some have decided to cease living in secret and “come out of the coffin,” revealing themselves to the world and demanding recognition, as well as equal rights under the law. Helping them to “mainstream” is the recent discovery and development of synthetic human blood, marketed as Tru Blood to the true hemophiliacs hoping to avoid condemnation for thriving on more natural sources.

By setting True Blood in our world, all of the classic vampire attributes are known to Sookie and the other characters, who carry them as preconceptions and in some cases, prejudices. Mainly through the vampire Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), we learn that most of these familiar preconceptions are in fact misconceptions, myths the vampires themselves started, to avoid detection. For example, [MINOR SPOILER ALERT] they actually do cast reflections in mirrors, and they have no problems with crosses, holy water, or just about any religious artifact/institution. Garlic is only a mild irritant, but the old myth that they cannot enter your home unless invited holds true.

Again, it’s not just that the writers acknowledge these familiar conceits, but the manner in which they do so. Seeing the townsfolk momentarily panic and cover a cross with an American flag, fearing that Bill won’t be able to enter and speak at a meeting of Civil War history buffs, only to be rebuked by Bill as a school teacher corrects a class room full of third-graders is a great moment. Likewise, watching Sookie’s face light up with childlike curiosity as she peppers Bill with questions about the various myths and rumors about vampires adds another layer of enjoyment to an already entertaining work of genre fiction.

In the end there’s no right or wrong way to go about writing genre fiction with respect to this particular topic, but as for me, I’ll take my genre fiction with an extra helping of retrospective, please.

Author: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer

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