The Zombie Survival Guide


by Max Brooks Published by Duckworth 2009 ISBN 978 0 7156 5318 2

 Are you alive and kicking? Not so sure? Perhaps you feel your own level of vitality,  vim, and vigour are at a low ebb. If so The Zombie Survival Guide may be for you. It is a self-help book with a difference. It purports to protect the reader from entities called zombies.

These fantasy creatures have became popular in modern horror fiction since the success of the 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. They are portrayed as lifeless, sterile and apathetic, supposedly roaming around with a shambling awkward limp, and experiencing little or no physical sensation or emotion. The popular myth is that they are either re-animated human corpses or human beings controlled by someone else by magic. In either case they are said to be devoid of life of their own, and so assumed to be wanting to suck the life-blood from those who get into their clutches.  If they get hold of you the book suggests this would be a living death and it aims to give practical advice about how to avoid this peril. 

Yes, it all sounds rather macabre but I do wonder if this is a potent symbol for our times.

We are told that these entities are an integral part of the Afro-Caribbean religion known as voodoo. Also that the word ‘zombie’ originally comes from the Kimbundu word ‘nzumbe,’ a term describing a part of a dead person’s soul that has been taken under the magical control of a sorcerer. And so zombies are believed to have no will of their own. They are also referred to in the book as ghouls. My dictionary defines a ghoul as an evil spirit or demon who in Muslim folklore are believed to plunder graves and feed on corpses. 

The parts of the book that I rather enjoyed were to do with going on the run to escape the danger from zombies with consideration given to the vigilance required to travel stealthily without being noticed through different types of terrain, using different modes of transportation. No need to make unnecessary mistakes in risking life and limb. Of less interest was the advice provided about armed attack on the enemy. This was all a bit too violent for me with its guidance on fighting tactics and weaponry. 

I’ve never been the least bit interested in watching a horror film and have often wondered why people are attracted to something that can only trigger revulsion and fear. Perhaps such fiction touches on a raw nerve.    Are these stories to do with a  concern about losing our zest for life? Is the book an allegory not so much about our physical survival as our spiritual survival?

The way I see it is that we respond to things around us either with excitement or boredom, either enjoying challenges or hiding away. In other words, many of us have an inward concern about the extent we may be able to enjoy life, whether we can relish its pleasures and thrive on the opportunities it provides.

Will we each live life to the full or find our energy and life force dissipated and become one of the ‘living dead’? Do we face the unknown with hope or do we fear what’s around the next corner? After all, those who lose their courage tend to get rather anxious, and those who are very anxious get diagnosed with anxiety disorder and may end up just like a zombie – on high doses of tranquilliser and as a result going round in a daze.  

Actually I take the view that we are all capable of getting into a negative state of mind where there is nothing to look forward to, when life just seems dull and empty. When writing I sometimes fear that my creative juices will dry up and I will get what is called writer’s block not knowing what else to say. We are all artists to some extent in the way we deal with life – not only in the way we express ourselves but also in the way we try to be inventive in solving ordinary problems. We need a constant inflow of inspiration to give us any imaginative spark. And when we are down we need a sense there is light at the end of the tunnel; something to bring us back to life.

Don’t those unfortunate people who suffer chronic unemployment become pessimistic and apathetic about finding work? We all need a sense of purpose and meaning in what we do and these can be the spiritual source of optimism and interest.

The book doesn’t really work for me because it makes no mention of a higher spiritual force behind what we positively do.  I would suggest we cut ourselves from this source of inspiration at our peril.

So could anyone ever get cut off from a meaningful sense of hope? Could we ever become zombie-like sick at heart and lacking soul in our endeavours?

Often our concerns and interests come from those around us. No man is an island as the poet once said. Left alone we become forlorn and find life dreary. That is why solitary confinement is used as a punishment. We need to let other people become the source of our motivation – their concerns, their interests, their needs. In addition religious people believe the source of their guiding light is the divine itself. God is in heaven and all’s right with the world. This attitude surely encourages them to make something of their life.

Reading the book, readers may wonder whether there really are such supernatural forces as zombies that literally speaking can drain us of our life-force. Or are zombies just powerful symbols that give expression to our existential dilemmas? The author claims to separate fact from fiction by stating zombies are neither the work of ‘black magic’ nor supernatural forces but rather are victims of infection from a virus he calls Solanum. Yet he contradicts himself by also stating that ‘conventional warfare is useless against these creatures as is conventional thought.’ He says that the military technology cannot protect us from an enemy that has no ‘life’ to end.

My own view is that zombies are both symbols in our culture and real supernatural forces. The latter idea arises from the extraordinary experiences of the eighteenth century mystic philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg who claimed to have visions of spirits. He said these were actual people who once lived on earth and whose inner character has become clearer in the spirit realm where they are not allowed any longer to pretend to be something they are not.

The desires that rule the hearts of these people end up determining all their thoughts and feelings. This process shows up the stark contrasts between those basically good and bad at heart – beautiful people and monstrous ones.

He wrote that some of the worst of these spirit-people appeared to him like corpses, with little of life. Some had so horrible a face that they could never be described; and they were so numerous that they could not be numbered. For example those who are consumed by self-love, wanting to get their own way through violence, such as committing sexual rape, sit there, like charred Egyptian mummies.

The ways they want to cruelly maltreat others he says must be kept secret, because they are horrible. They were seen by others, who were horror-struck – they were so monstrous, corpse-like and vile. They are not able to think at all, are dead to themselves. They utterly lose everything of understanding and become most stupid.

Despite his horrendous experience of evil, Swedenborg reassures us that we, like him, are protected from their malicious sphere. What Max Brooks book implies and which I firmly believe is that we are perfectly free to turn our minds away from wicked thoughts and desires. For there is a balance between the unconscious inflow of what is good and humane and what is evil and inhumane into our hearts and minds.    

Copyright 2010 Stephen Russell-Lacy

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