The living dead4 min read . Updated: 11 Oct 2014, 12:08 AM IST
Zombies, vampires, and other horrible outsiders go back a long way to the era of classic gothic fiction
His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips." That’s from a British novel published anonymously in 1818, with a tiny print-run of only 500 copies—but which, against odds, went on to become a major classic.
It was written by Mary Godwin, the teenaged mistress of romantic poet P.B. Shelley (they later married and she’s better known as Mary Shelley). Rings lots of bells, yes? The movie version, Frankenstein, starred Boris Karloff and spawned an entire franchise of monster flicks from the 1930s onwards during the golden age of B-horror.
Frankenstein, Or The Modern Prometheus was indeed planned as a horror story about a mad scientist who uses electricity and dead body parts to cobble together a living being, and who, once he succeeds, is shocked by the hideous result. However, the monster turns out to be sensitive, teaches itself to read, and imitates human behaviour until it realizes that it isn’t anywhere near human, triggering a monstrous existential crisis. It’s an evocative, poetic, philosophical narrative, which unsurprisingly became one of the most influential novels of its century.
Its success unleashed a whole series of books and films about horrible outsiders, such as Dracula, an epistolary novel written in the 1890s by a London theatre manager, Bram Stoker. There were also werewolves galore in gothic fiction and then the very cinematic King Kong (the first movie appeared in 1933) ran amok, followed by a tsunami of zombies. Most of these monsters are known to us today through films, with Dracula alone providing inspiration for over 200 movies. Much of the writing was sheer pulp and cheap thrills, save for the work of certain geniuses like H.P. Lovecraft, who died impoverished in 1937 but inspired major later writers such as Joyce Carol Oates on the one hand, as well as the gory 1980s Re-Animator movie franchise with its echoes of Frankenstein. Twilight Zone scriptwriter Richard Matheson was another literary whiz kid, whose most popular vampire novel I Am Legend (1954) has been filmed multiple times—most recently in 2007.
Lately a new generation of writers has taken up the challenge to write horror that matches the literary qualities of Frankenstein and Dracula. I first noticed this trend about 10 years ago, when in the early 2000s Swedish novelist John Ajvide Lindqvist published his debut Let the Right One In, which went on to be filmed twice—the Hollywood version was called Let Me In (2010). It is a gripping story about a girl vampire living in humdrum suburbia, who makes friends with a boy who is bullied at school—both are outcasts, and their friendship strengthens them. It can be appreciated equally by horror aficionados as well as anybody who loves a good story.
The latest example of a sensible horror novel, that combines good literature with shocks, just landed on my desk and I must say I relished every line of The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey, who you may have come across as a comic book writer (X-men). It has been compared to Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian Never Let Me Go, which, incidentally, was also a bit of a crossover as critics couldn’t agree upon whether to label it horror or sci-fi or something else.
In comparison, The Girl With All the Gifts is a through and through zombie chiller, but acquires depth in its portrayal of a zombie girl’s coming of age. It is set in a school for particularly talented zombie children, and partially told from the point of view of Melanie who, unlike your standard zombie, isn’t brain dead, but has a superhuman IQ. But none of that matters much if you’re being kept as a lab rat in the hope that your brain tissue samples will one day provide a zombie vaccine.
Although Melanie initially cannot fathom what makes her different from humans, she keeps noticing clues. As she is about to grasp her situation, the lab is attacked by hordes of crazed survivalists and the narrative turns into a post-apocalyptic take on The Wizard Of Oz, sending Melanie off on a journey with a motley group of human survivors: her teacher Miss Justineau, the slightly psychopathic Dr Caldwell, and two army men, Sergeant Parks and Private Gallagher, through a devastated England of ruined cities, roaming monsters and festering fungus.
Of the five, Melanie soon appears to have the moral upper hand, and she also has a crush on her teacher; whatever happens she doesn’t want to sink her teeth into Miss Justineau. While the book has its fair share of splattering brain matter, we’re constantly reminded of Melanie’s reality—and the passage through the English wastelands becomes an existential journey for her. Carey’s is a grand horror story that is as good as anything the gothic novelists produced.
Zac O’Yeah is the writer of Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan and Mr Majestic: The Tout of Bengaluru.
Also Read | Zac O’Yeah’s previous Lounge columns