In the lead-up to our monstrous Talking Writing, Nyssa Harkness tells us why she loves zombies. She’ll be joining Kate Forsyth and Matt Finch on Thursday 26 October to discuss monsters and villians in kid’s and YA fiction.
What are some monsters, baddies or villains you’ve come across in kids and YA fiction that made an impression on you, and why?
One of them was definitely The Enemy by Charlie Higson. It’s a world where the adults have turned into zombies. I love the idea of the adult as an enemy to children, and the complete reversal of the power structures of society. Children’s literature has sometimes been accused of romanticising childhood innocence, and these sorts of texts leave the children high and dry – those who were the very people who protected them are now their most dangerous enemy. It’s up to the kids to reestablish some sort of society and protect what is left of humanity. A lot of children’s texts give power back to children in some fashion, but I think this was particularly stark.
Some of the other baddies I rather like in YA fiction are not really a single being, but the whole structure of society as an enemy to humanity and the protagonist, and it seeks to wash away any uniqueness and individuality they have. In particular, Feed by M T Anderson and Uglies by Scott Westerfeld. I love these sorts of dystopias that are set up in such a way that the perspective you are reading is that the society is completely normal. These protagonists didn’t experience any disaster or massive changes. In Feed, it’s normal to Titus that everyone gets a chip in their head that connects them straight to the internet, where to the reader, it’s a massively changed society built on rabid consumerism. For Tally in Uglies, she knows that on everyone’s 16th birthday, they become a Pretty – they undergo plastic surgery to become beautiful and go live in New Pretty Town where they will party every night, but for us reading it, that society quickly becomes a nightmare.
You’re currently studying for your Masters of Research. Can you tell us a little more about your work on zombies, YA fiction and zombie romance?
I love zombies. They are a great villain because there’s nothing to negotiate with, no central way to bringing them down. They have the ultimate reason to kill: to survive. They are unstoppable. Hence why it was a bit weird finding zombies featuring in romances! They don’t have a history of being sexy at all, like the vampire. They are plain gross and no one would consider it possible to have any sort of relationship with them. So why do these texts exist? (I’m not a fan of blaming everything on Twilight.)
One of the main themes that I picked up on in a few of these books is the discrimination faced by the zombies. This is especially strong in the Generation Dead series by Daniel Waters, where not only are zombies called names, but they are the target of real hate crimes, and the law is yet to catch up with things like “is it really murder to kill someone already dead?”. In some films as well (not necessarily romantic), viewers are asked to sympathise with the monsters, and their struggle for recognition is considered reminiscent of the fight for civil rights.
Zombies being reflective of racial tensions is not new; they were originally misappropriated from Haitian beliefs and went straight into the Hollywood machine, so they are the ultimate monster of colonialism. I want to examine how we went from that to zombies as a love interest.
Zombies have become quite ubiquitous in film, TV and games lately. Why do you think that is? Is it a fear of being devoured, a reaction to global financial upheavals, a fear of slavery… all of the above? None of the above?
There are a lot of theories out there about this, and the representations change across time (while there are some scholars who examine or try to predict the author’s intent, part of the theoretical basis of a lot of the works I read are that all texts are cultural artefacts and infused with ideology – whether intentional or not). Of the more recent works, there is the slavery of modern day life (Shaun of the Dead), dangers of fast food (28 Days Later), 9/11 and terrorism (various, but includes Resident Evil), the bare life of refugees (Land of the Dead) or the all-consuming capitalism (Dawn of the Dead).
That’s the beauty of zombies, they are so malleable. Where vampires and werewolves and other monsters have hundreds of years of folklore, the American zombie is only quite young and came into the Western world without an extensive literary tradition behind it.