Zombies. They’re sort of like vampires, but nowhere near as popular. Why is that? Aside from the fact that their mythology hasn’t yet been sexed up and corrupted, it’s because there’s not a lot of great zombie literature. Max Brooks’s World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War puts that excuse to rest. In short, it is to the zombie genre what Bram Stoker’s Dracula is to the vampire genre. And like with Dracula, if all zombie stories henceforth would use WWZ as a template, the literary world of the living dead will be a more enjoyable place.
(By the way, don’t believe me about the “sexed up and corrupted” bit when it comes to vampires? Read some of the pre-Dracula vampire literature. They were vile, foul-smelling creatures whose organs had long been replaced by a giant, blood-holding stomach. Over time, they went from that to goths with an eating disorder.)
WWZ collects various individual accounts from the Zombie War, or what would later be known as World War Z. These stories are told by numerous tellers, each filling in a bit from their perspective. Tellers include astronauts stuck on the IIS, military personnel who fought to reclaim infested “White Zones”, doctors who saw the first cases, Japanese otaku who actually had to get out of their house, political attaches, body guards, and others.
Brooks creates a world full of folks as individually convincing as the world he creates. I found it interesting how the author interjects real people from popular culture into the story. While none is ever named, descriptions are more than enough. (A Paris Hilton-like character and Colin Powell-like President both appear in the story, among others whose names are always withheld for “legal reasons”.) Of course, none of these folks is ever directly interviewed, just people around them.
The research that went into this book is obvious from the start. Details are interjected by each of the interviewees which create not just a believable future in which the dead reanimate, but which also shows the level of care taken to ensure that slang and speaking styles are used correctly depending on where in the world the person being interviewed comes from. In fact, more than once while reading the book I asked myself whether this had been imagined or whether this book actually came from a real, alternate universe in which the dead do indeed rise.
I’m sure this book is considered to be in the “horror” genre, but I’m not so sure I’d be so quick to place it there. There are no passages in which something terrible is lurking behind some door, waiting for the main character to open it, so there aren’t any moments which catch the reader by surprise. Instead, the fright factor comes from the matter-of-fact tone throughout each of the stories. The most extraordinarily frightening details don’t actually involve zombies, but instead those very human moments which make us seem frighteningly inhuman. Whenever zombies are involved it’s more suspenseful than anything. Again, this is due to the matter of fact tone taken when interviewing each of the folks who went through (and obviously survived) the war.
Overall, I highly recommend this book For those who enjoy this type of writing, you’ll probably want to go back to reading the Local Interests section of the paper, or listening to Ira Glass on NPR. If you enjoy zombie literature, you’ll probably want to check out Stephen King’s Cell, which while not technically a zombie novel, it’s close enough to the genre to be of interest.