( 2017) Greg Garrett, Oxford Univerity Press, £16.99 / US$24.95, hrdbk, 248pp, ISBN 978-0-190-26045-3
I have to confess that I both quite liked and disliked this book. Let me explain my schizophrenia. I'll begin with this book's pluses.
Greg Garrett makes it plain from the off that zombies have a long pedigree that go way back before George R. Romero and his seminal film and that his book focuses largely (but not exclusively) on Romero's own type of zombie and subsequent zombie treatments. This is a most sensible approach given George Romero's impact on this trope of fantastical horror. In fact you could almost say that Romero defined the zombie for the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Garrett's Living With the Living Dead covers a heck of a lot of ground drawing upon many aspects of culture and religion including much popular culture including shows such as The Living Dead and Game of Thrones. This book therefore will appeal, among others, to serious zombie fans of both these shows and while there may not be a big proportion of these show's audiences who are truly serious fans of zombie stories, the sheer size of these shows' reach mean that many will quite like this book. Others will gain from it too.
Though covering much ground, this book is not overly long. Of its 248 pages, the main body of the text ends at p215 with footnote references in an appendix and a helpful subject index making up the rest of the page count. There are just four chapters. Garrett gets to his points quickly, even though not always in a straight line.
These are positive points and so serious zombie fans seeking to learn more as to how this trope resonates elsewhere in our culture will be completely satisfied.
Having said that, I disliked this book mainly on two counts. First, like a number of arts/humanities books it is self-referential to the arts and humanities: true navel gazing that really does not get you anywhere other than familiarity with the navel. But there are more to navels: there is a whole biology of reproduction and mammalian embryonic ontogeny (some of whose aspects may or may not reflect phylogeny) to explore beyond an immediate visual inspection. Similarly with the whole Romero zombie trope there are relevancies to world development, human ecology, psychology and the Anthropocene that in turn relate to our personal lives and society involving control, resource use (and access), and our role(s).
Secondly, and in no small part springing from this first point, the book does not address the promise I expected from the title: I did not receive any wisdom of the apocalypse. Yes, I learned that there were very many cultural resonances with the zombie trope, but why was this so? There was so much that could have been done.
Now, here I am not going to write a book on zombies, but I will give you just one example to illustrate my point. A mind boggling huge population of the undead is one key aspect of the modern zombie trope. OK, so how does this relate to the real human population? Well, the first thing to do is to draw a graph of human population of the past couple of centuries through to the present (you can even add in UN future projections should you wish). That alone should tell you something. Then you can convert that graph to a graph of the log (logarithm) of global population against time (ask a mathematician or a scientist to explain what that means if you are in doubt, and this feat can be achieved by just a couple of clicks on a Windows Excel sheet). Then mark on that graph the year Romero made his seminal film. Assuming you have done that my only additional comment is, 'interesting, huh'! (The implications are that obvious.) Now, this may seem too much of a science approach for some artsy types, but then this website's principal visitor target is scientists with an interest in SF and, for this group, this issue is therefore germane.
So there you have it. Garrett has provided a fine examination of the many ways the zombie trope are reflected culturally and this will go a long way to satisfying the needs of serious zombie fans (and perhaps even those of English lit/media students). However it does lack both more structure in its analysis and reference to the science underpinning this dimension of science fiction.
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