Back on January 7, 2022 and in his Fangoria Terror Teletype “Monstrous Musings Column,” Phil Nobile Jr. asked for freelance pitches in his article “Things to Do in 2022” with the observation that most pitches have become “repetitively autobiographical,” and that many more readers are getting to the point where they “want to read informed, smart content about the genre, not about the writer.”
It’s something I’ve been mulling over ever since, and I will admit that it felt personal, though Nobile also added that it is his opinion, and perhaps even that of Fangoria’s Digital Editor Angel Melanson. Certainly, I would imagine that this sentiment would not apply to horror figures such as Barbara Crampton with her “Scene Queen” column, or the various interview that luminaries such as Jordan Peele and Ari Aster have given to each other, but even then while their lives definitely figure into their discussions, it is often more the insight into their already established careers that have the most fascination for a horror readership. It also makes me wonder if Nobile is referring specifically to digital content itself (with a majority of Fangoria’s print edition being filled by veteran writers and figures in the genre), as you will find many articles in which the writers involved attempt to relate their life experiences to different horror media.
I know I’m not different. Many of my articles on The Horror Doctor and elsewhere are specifically focused on how I relate to something. I think it’s a very human thing to do, especially in the face of uncertainty, trauma, and fear. I’m also different in that while genre is important to look at, as opposed to merely my own life experience, I think that the stories told within that genre are equally – if not even more – important.
This is a long segue into being reintroduced to Max Brooks’ novel World War Z during this Pandemic. The first time I read it was back in 2009, and the second time I exposed myself to this specific brain-virus again is the year of this writing, 2022. However, World War Z was published in 2006, and the audiobook that I listened to this year was released in 2013. Let’s look at these years. In 2006, several years passed since 9/11 and the War Against Terror. But more specifically, we have the SARS epidemic in China back in 2002, and then H1N1 spreading in 2009. This is around the point, at least in North America, where we began to see hand sanitizer dispensers crop up in public spaces outside of hospitals. The fear that a Pandemic could happen in our generation thanks to poor governmental organization, and global ennui was really prevalent, and the spectre of it never disappeared. And look at the zombie films, as unliving, walking, representatives of what a Pandemic represents truly coming to the fore: You have your 28 Days Later, Quarantine, Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead, and a whole other host of cinematic, slavering, creeping, infections.
The era when I first read World War Z was long after I read Dracula, and I’d become very aware of epistolary narratives, though definitely before I’d truly come to appreciate the horror subgenre of found-footage films. I recall reading it as I traveled from Go-Train between Toronto and Oshawa to visit the partner that bought it for me. H1N1 was still a fear, so much so that in a horror writing contest called “Dark Idol” I attempted to be clever and write a story called “Hypochondriac” where the main character is terrified of getting a vaccine that ends up turning patients into zombies, only for his girlfriend to turn right when she’s giving him oral sex. Yeah. I made the themes relate back to one another much in the way I circle back to a point in my current writing, but between the awkward gait of the prose that would have made a zombie frustrated, and a “just a dream” hallucination from the vaccine he actually had leading up to that point, I didn’t want to think about it.
But it all circles back for me, now.
In 2009, World War Z was just a pseudo-historical narrative of different people’s stories being affected by the spread of the zombie virus, and watching how civilization almost dies, and then radically changes as a result of surviving the waves of its Pandemic. It also makes each source of – shall we say – An Oral History of the Zombie War, very compelling, and incredibly human in both how it depicts suffering, fear, hope, and a grim determination. I absolutely love how Brooks manages, or at least attempts, to encompass a variety of cultural and individual experiences in dealing with the unthinkable: almost the ridiculous. I’d heard about the 2013 film loose adaptation, that focuses on just one story and seems to lose the point of the entire human experience by altering the slow, creeping Romero nature of the zombies and cutting out all of those stories. I’ve said for a long time that World War Z would have benefitted much from being made into a miniseries, or webseries for streaming: which Netflix could have easily done as it created original programming in 2013. At the time the only other work I can think of that attempted to bring together so many stories into a world surviving the undead is The Walking Dead released in 2010: and adapted from Robert Kirkman’s 2003-2019 comics run of the same name, the Cable-televised version starting off strong before eventually succumbing to its own inevitable melodramatic rot.
However, after bemoaning this (I am sorry, but not sorry for these unintentional zombie puns), a friend of mine reminded me of the audiobook which I listened to now, again, in 2022: the closest thing to a multifaceted audio, oral history of a zombie apocalypse, or at least a global disaster. The World War Z audiobook, narrated and voiced by luminaries such as its creator Max Brooks, then Mark Hamill, Simon Pegg, Nathan Fillion, Denise Crosby, Alfred Molina, René Auberjonois, Bruce Boxleitner, Henry Rollins, Jeri Ryan, even Martin Scorsese, and other all-stars, feels like the vocal equivalent to different episodes of a series about people that saw, survived, and look back on different human facets of a zombie pandemic. Their voices reanimate the conflict between life and death, society and chaos, in a whole other way – these eye-witness accounts, recollections, and reflections, feeling more ever-present, more vital: especially after existing several waves of our own global Pandemic, and its effects on our world, and lives.
If reading World War Z came at a time in my life, and in the world, where it became apparent that global health was letting itself become vulnerable to a superbug or virus, and North America was exhausted by various wars in the Middle-East, along with wondering how I was going to get my own work done in Graduate School and what I would do from there, listening to the audiobook is something that comes with its own existential angst. Aside from freelancing jobs, I have been long unemployed after Graduation, isolating at my parents’ house even before the Pandemic, and watching an incompetent government reign in America, and waves of sickness deciminate people and overwhelm medical systems. They are similar places, but while the former was an abstraction of something that could happen, and was going to, the latter is an experience which it has – and it still is.
It’s eerie. While Max Brooks used Studs Terkel’s The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two as the inspiration for his narrative, as well as the zombie films and tropes of George Romero to create the solanum virus – the disease that creates the zombies that he introduces in his Zombie Survival Guide of 2003 in which he actually outlines an infection scenario that is expanded on in so many ways in World War Z, he might as well have predicted many of the events of 2020, and even some that preceded it.
The parallels are fairly clear. At one point, set presumably after the Bush Administration – though Brooks seems to be intentionally ambiguous about this – a new Black President and his running mate, nicknamed “The Whacko” are elected into office, the comparisons between Barack Obama and Joe Biden being fairly clear: though I can definitely see some Duane Jones in the little characterization we are told of that leader and his mannerisms. There is so much misinformation and denial about the zombies, even when the governments of the world are warned about the virus in advance. There are interviews that cover the terrible socio-economic conditions of North America, how the Pandemic is changing how everybody works, and what is important in a world attempting to survive, and then rebuild. There are tensions with Eastern Europe, especially Russia: even though as far as I know, it isn’t attempting to become a theocracy yet. There are accounts of people fleeing with items that will not help them in the long run, and taking all essential products from others, and falling for poor advice. Hell, even the false zombie cure or vaccine called Phalanx has some disturbing ties to all the debate circling around Moderna, Pfizer, and the like: though Phalanx is a placebo to prevent international, or at least American panic, while the vaccines of our world actually work.
You also have constant reports of a death toll, and seeing how bureaucratic structures simply can’t – or aren’t willing and able – to change fast enough to combat this virus, and many people choose to remain ignorant, or even see it as a sign from God, or at worse even try to appease and embrace it. There are obvious differences. While the threat of societal breakdown was, and is, possible if medical infrastructure is overwhelmed by the vast numbers of infected in our world, Brooks’ universe is one where civilization takes a major hit. But Brooks’ world also has stages where the change of seasons will allow for the virus to spread again through its carriers, and has lulls and waves: though ours tends to happen in Winter and Flu-Season, while Brooks’ occurs during Spring and Summer thaws.
I think there is something that The Whacko, who became President after his running mate, says that sums up everything that we have been feeling. While he is talking about America, and its idea of the “fair deal”: of doing honest work and be rewarded for it, he also mentions: ”The numbers are declining, thank heavens, but it doesn’t mean people should let down their guard, We’re still at war, and until every trace is sponged, and purged, and if need be, blasted from the surface of the Earth, everybody’s still gotta pitch in, and do their job.”
And make no mistake, what we have gone through – what we are still going through – is a struggle akin to a war: a world war. And this isn’t even talking about Russia and Ukraine and the spectre of atomic conflict, or the environmental damage that has created longer winters in World War Z (due to a nuclear confrontation between Iran and Pakistan) and our own pre-existing behaviour.
COVID-19 is heavily infectious. And while it isn’t incurable like the solanum virus, it mutates and if people take unnecessary risks it will continue to persist and remain a potentially deadly adversary. Like zombies, COVID-19 isn’t an opponent you can negotiate with, bomb (The Whacko’s comments not withstanding), shoot, or intimidate into surrender. It is definitely not something to ignore. While solanum spreads through bites and fluids passed into cuts or openings in a person, COVID-19 is airborne in enclosed spaces. And while you can’t survive solanum, it is possible to beat COVID, though it can have its price and potentially overwhelm our social structures if left unchecked. Despite their differences, take away the symbol of the zombie and what you get is our twenty-first boogeyman made manifest: our fear of plague and contagion every bit as frightening as the terror that makes the herd instinct do some incredibly stupid things.
I don’t know if anyone, beyond health professionals and zombie hunters, wears thick and almost cumbersome gear. I am not sure if masks are a part of Max Brooks’ World War Z, or what effect the virus has on fashion and social interaction. Ours is insidious. See, The Walking Dead likes to focus on how “the walking dead” aren’t the undead, but humanity as it struggles with a force greater than itself, trying to wipe it out completely. Who maintains their integrity? Who rises to the occasion in extraordinary times? Or who will resort to foolish actions? Who will be selfish? Who will have incredibly rash and irrational moments that can mean not only the differences between life and death, but between questioning their morality, or losing it completely? Who will admit they were exposed to something that made them sick as they stay in places, with people, that are vulnerable and don’t want to become sick?
The people of World War Z and their responses are different. With solanum, some people have attempted to isolate if they have the infrastructure and the resources to hunker down, or to keep moving and migrating and always being vigilant to whom they spend their time. With COVID-19, it is isolation that is both the greatest boon if you can manage – if you aren’t an essential worker – but a major killer for a herd-based species like us. I can’t even begin to tell you how being separated from my friends and loved ones for two years has affected my health and sanity. And how many relationships of mine ended, in one case terminally.
The thing is, we do our part too. We take the vaccines that now thankfully exist for a year. We put on our masks in this grim Halloween game, something we need to keep doing despite many governments and organizations relaxing those mandates. There is something absolutely soul-killing about seeing people attempting to return to business as usual, to parties and gatherings as though they can’t get sick again, as though they can’t die, as if you are the one that is mentally sick, and perhaps you are: maybe you do need help – and if so, you should seek it out.
Many of us, like the people in World War Z, will never be the same again. Some persevere, now working from home, or having new jobs and mobility they didn’t have before. Others lost everything, and they still have to struggle to get something akin to stability back. Their favourite places no longer exist. Many have larger families. Some have no families at all anymore. There is a story of a shut-in, in his case a self-identified otaku in Japan, who feels a lot like I was before our Pandemic, and I know I couldn’t have improved as much as he had done.
For me, and this is where it is personal again, I struggled to get out of the house before COVID-19 and I was in the process of rebuilding my life before the virus destroyed all of my plans. It is a major event for me to even go to the movies with my brother, or see my small group of friends, or go on a date. There are places I can never go back to. People I won’t see again. And there is so much trauma I haven’t even begun to process yet.
I am a freak. I watched Cronenberg’s Rabid and Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse in the midst of the Pandemic. It is always on my mind. The day I visited my partner in the respiratory ward of a hospital before the virus officially hit, where I had to put gloves and a mask on felt not only like the dress rehearsal of her death and isolating myself from all other people, seeing them from a distance, but the beginning of this grim Halloween harvest that never seems to end.
It reminds me of something in the novel. Actually, it reminds me of two things. At one point, Max Brooks as “Max Brooks” is interviewing a filmmaker who created movies during the Zombie War for morale. And to give you a strange feeling, at one point the filmmaker refers to “Marty,” you know: Scorsese, who also does voice-acting in Brooks’ audio adaptation. Anyway, this movie-maker mentions how “Marty” created a film called Avalon: in which the residents of a college of the same name fight valiantly against the zombie hordes. The version that most people see is the one where the heroes are valiant, brave, and those that die presumably go out tragically, if not with nobility. But then the filmmaker tells “Brooks” that there is a longer version of that film that “Marty” chose not to release during the height of the Pandemic: a cut which shows the worst of humanity, the lows, the despondencies, the vilest and cruelest excesses, and even the despair of the heroes, or protagonists in question. “Marty” wanted to show the best of humanity in the worst crisis of their world, to prevent depression and even suicide rates. It is only after the worst of the Pandemic is over that “Marty” releases the longer cut to show the multifaceted nature of the human condition in the crucible of life versus death itself.
Right now, after several waves and quarantines, I think this is my longer cut of my own observations between COVID-19 and World War Z. At the beginning of the novel, “Max Brooks” is supposed to be working for the UN: to create a report on the event, only for it be greatly paired down for its consumption. It is only after he gets furious over many of his testimonies getting cropped out and his interviews ignored, that his boss tells him that what he should do is something else: that he should write a book.
I think back to Phil Nobile Jr. and Angel Melanson talking about how they believe horror readers, at least of Fangoria, are exhausted by autobiography as opposed to facts and genre details. And maybe where The Horror Doctor, and my writing in general, shines is precisely in looking at those emotional and personal elements. And while I can examine other considerations, perhaps I should do something different with my writing: with my experiments. Because while I can say something about the genre and tropes of World War Z, how it is just as much a world-building serial extension of the ghoul mythos created by George Romero and John Russo as Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, and how the cinematic adaptations of both Brooks and Kirkman do not do them justice, I think it’s important to say something about people – and even horror fans and creators’ minds – during this time.
When you compare World War Z to COVID-19, the novel reads like the past two years of our world accelerated and condensed into something of a four year singularity, or a potential implosion. Brooks’ fictional pandemic lasted from 2004 to 2008, but ours began in 2020 and still continues now in 2022. But our War, our World War C isn’t over yet, but I think that despite this fact, this is a timely article to write. We are all feeling it: the C, for cyclical, nature of this conflict and how literature and horror imitate and even anticipate the timelessness of our struggle, and the stories that we live and leave behind in its wake.