The Un-History of the Undead Part 1: Zombie Folklore

Don't bury me. I'm not dead!

Imagine that a zombie knocked on your door—a real, true to life (or death) zombie. You open the door and find a black man, looking every bit normal and alive, except for the listless expression and glazed eyes. No shambling carcass of rotting flesh and bones. It does not salivate for your intestines or brains.

The word zombie signifies a member of the undead—those creatures that come back to haunt the living. However, the image that comes to mind for this creature has been greatly shaped by popular media, such as literature and film. In the example above, the first description comes from folklore, while the second is influenced by fiction. How did our perception of these creatures change over the years?

Lafcadio Hearn introduced English speakers to the word zombie through his brief article, “The Country of the Comers-Back”, which appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1889. (Although the OED dates zombie back to 1819, it was Hearn’s article that circulated widely enough to catch the public’s attention.) Hearn had traveled to Martinique in 1887 to study local customs and folklore for a series of articles on the Caribbean. It was there that he heard talk of zombies.

While it’s true that Hearn discovered the zombie, it was left to American adventurer William Seabrook to capitalize on it. Arriving in Haiti in 1928, he left no stone unturned in his quest for the corps cadavers (walking dead). This led to his autobiographical travelogue The Magic Island, which became an immediate bestseller.

A Haitian farmer by the name of Polynice introduced Seabrook to some real live zombies. The farmer brought the adventurer to the middle of a plantation and pointed out three zombies and the man controlling them. Seabrook went up to each of the zombies in turn, and found them to be little more than dumb brutes, working mindlessly. The eyes were dead, unfocused and vacant.

A central precept of Voodoo, a hybrid of African animism and Catholicism, is the possession of a body by the loa. The loa is usually translated as god or divinity, but it is closer to a genie, demon, or spirit. A person was believed to have two souls, the gros-bon-age (the big good angel), and the ti-bon-age (the little good angel). Each soul served a purpose. The gros-bon-age served to give the body life, while the ti-bon-age gave the person their personality. During a Voodoo ceremony, the loa would displace the ti-bon-age, and thus control the person’s body.

A Voodoo sorcerer, called a bòkò, had the ability to transform any person into a zombie. The bòkò would sprinkle a powder on the doorstep, and when the intended victim stepped on it, the magic entered through the soles of the feet. The person died soon after. Within three days the bòkò snuck into the graveyard, recited a magical chant, and called the victim’s name several times. The zombie had no choice but to answer and come out of the ground. The bòkò then beat the body with a whip to keep the ti-bon-age from returning. Often the bòkò kept the ti-bon-age in a jar. This was called a zombie astral, while the body that walked around, soulless, was called a zombie cadavre.

Every member of society shunned the zombie. This fear did not center on what the creature might do physically. Zombies were entirely docile. It was becoming a zombie that so horrified the islanders. This represented a return to slavery, as the creature must literally do whatever its master bids. Even after death, you might return to work in servitude. Canadian ethnobiologist Wade Davis spent several years researching the zombie powder. He commented, “Given the availability of cheap labor and the physical condition of the zombie, there is no economic incentive to create a force of indentured labor” (American Scientist, 1987).

In order to prevent loved ones from becoming zombies, Haitians took precautions similar to what the Serbians did for vampires. The body was often killed again, either by poison, strangulation, stabbing, a shot to the head or decapitation. Measures were also taken to prevent the zombie from rising. A wealthy family would bury their loved one in a solid tomb, while the less off would inter the body under a piece of heavy masonry. In order to prevent the zombie from answering this call, precautions were made. The mouth might be sewn up or tied shut using a strip of cloth fastened over the head and under the chin. Finally, a zombie might be distracted so that he might not hear the bòkò calling his name. There were two types of distractions. First the body would be buried with an eyeless needle so the corpse would spend eternity trying to thread it. The other method involved scattering seeds in the coffin, and the zombie was forced to count them all, one by one.

Becoming a zombie was not necessarily a permanent condition. There were several cases of people who died, only to be discovered many years later seemingly normal. One Clairvius Narcisse died in 1962 after complaining of sickness and coughing up blood. Eighteen years later his sister, Angelina, discovered him in the l’Estere marketplace. His speech was slurred and his muscles were weak, but he knew that he was no longer a zombie. Apparently, after being dug up and beaten by the bòkò, he had worked on a farm with other zombies. Only when one of the zombies killed the zombie master did they all become free.
Another way to cure an individual of the zombie curse was with salt. If a zombie consumed even a grain of salt, the fog that swirled around his brain would lift, and he would become filled with an unspeakable rage. He would first turn on the one who controlled him, killing the zombie master and destroying his property. The released zombie would then go in search of his tomb, claw at the dirt, and collapse onto his empty grave.

Seabrook’s 1929 publication of Magic Island touched off interest in the zombie and the Caribbean. Unlike Dracula or Frankenstein, the zombie wasn’t under copyright, since Seabrook was essentially reporting on fact. This led to the production of Universal’s 1932 White Zombie, with Bela Lugosi as the zombie master. (The film was preceded by a dreary play, Zombie, penned by Kenneth Webb. The production opened and closed in 1932 after only twenty performances.) The film cemented the Haitian myth of the zombie as a soulless body accepting any order. However the Voodoo version of the zombie would quickly be forgotten in the 60s when an independent filmmaker from Pittsburg got a hold of the concept.
Part 2 will examine what Romero has done to the zombie mythology.

By Tim Kane

I brought this article back from the dead in recognition of the digital release of Stories in the Ether. This has my story, Moth and Rust, which is my take on the zombie story that involves a weary husband who does his wife’s chores for years, only to drop dead. Yet, she still insists he work his butt off. No rest for the dead. Don’t worry, the young nephew has some ideas how to solve this undead problem.

Check out Stories in the Ether in Kindle or Lulu.

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What James Patterson and Michelangelo Have in Common (Not in a Good Way)

Michelangelo looking contemplative

It all started when I visited the National Gallery in London. I took the art tour with a curator, who diligently explained what all those famous paintings were about. When we came to a rather room-engulfing Michelangelo, the curator explained that only the sketch was done by the master himself. All the detail painting was done by his studio of apprentices and students.

Apparently, the Renaissance artist functioned more as a modern day advertising agency, providing all sorts of custom services to the patrons. Want a marble statue? He can do that? How about a mural in your foyer? No problem. Leonardo da Vinci advertised no fewer than 60 services he could provide.

So that famous work of art with the equally famous signature might have been composed by underpaid grunts hoping to break into the big leagues.

Then we shoot forward five-hundred years to brand name publishing and James Patterson. Just like Michelangelo, the author has saturated the market. Last year he made $84 million, twice his nearest competitor and more than J K Rowling or Stephen King. He released, on average, a book every two months. Last year is was ten books.

Patterson admits that he runs his publishing empire on the Henry Ford model, assembly-line style. He provides ghost writers with a detailed outline and lets them do all the heavy lifting. Then he reads through the finished manuscript, edits it, and collects the check.

Patterson claims that he is more skilled at writing a plot than the crafting of sentence after sentence. Excuse me, but isn’t that what writing is about? The writing?

Now, it’s true that the ghost writers do get credit on the book, far more than Michelangelo gave them. Yet in the art world, the Renaissance artists were only starting to gain reputations as individuals. Most were simply skilled artisans employed by guilds. Only two-hundred years before Giotto was the first to become a household name.

In this age of Internet and personal celebrity, individual artistic work should be rewarded. Yes, there’s no human way any author can churn out that much fiction. But why dominate the cover with your name when you’re only the idea man? The answer, of course, is money. The publishers make more off of brand-name authors than unknowns. And readers don’t seem to care.

It’s a pity. I know that when I pick up a Stephen King or a J K Rowling, I want to read their words on the page. It’s in the trenches of sentences, paragraphs, and chapters that the true novel is written.

Just today, my critique group questioned the direction my novel was going. I stood back and had a serious look at the chapters I’d written. Yes. It did need to change. The outline I had diligently put together had to be thrown out and reworked. Yet I was only fifty pages into the work. I could fix that.

Somehow, given the schedule pushed by the large publishers, I doubt that the edits made by James Patterson are ever major enough to cause a complete rewrite of the story. If the story sticks to the original outline, then it gets published.

I simply cringe. I mean I know that thrillers are churned off at a fast pace to satisfy avid readers, but I’d much rather wait for one or two quality books by an author than have eight or ten a year. If I need more to read, I can strike out and find a new writer.

It’s not like fast book production can’t be done. Chet Cunningham writes three to four books a year, and he needs a magnifying glass to see the words on the screen. He once told me a wrote a 50,000 page book in a week.

I guess is goes back to that old adage: You’ll never find me selling out, until someone offers. Perhaps if I had the opportunity to pull down $84 million, I’d wrangle some ghostwriters. But until then, let me write the words, thank you.

Tim Kane

Regenerate Willpower Through Downtime

The myth of the author has him (or her) hunkered down in front of the keyboard, toiling away on the great American novel, working hours on end. A pile of crumpled paper accumulating around the trash can.

The reality is a bit more like Jack Torrance from The Shining. That author, embodied by Jack Nicholson, became so engrossed in his work that he typed the same thing over and over again. And we all know how that story turned out.

An author needs a deep well of willpower to shove aside distractions like Twitter and email and carve out time to write. What few writers realize is that the supply of willpower is not infinite.

A study by Princeton neuroscientist, Dr. Wang, found that willpower can be drained and regenerated. Tasks that require a lot of mental effort, like exercising or paying bills, can leave you drained.

Have you ever sat down to write only to find yourself ready to give up before you even start? The problem might be a sapped willpower.

Dr. Wang illustrated his point with “The Radish Experiment.” A group of college students were presented impossible puzzles to solve. Beforehand, one third were given radishes to eat. The second third were given cookies. The last third were given nothing to eat. The radish group gave up after 8 minutes. The other two groups lasted twice as long. Why? Because eating a cookie, or even eating nothing, required no willpower. They arrived at the puzzles with a fully charged battery.

Apparently, eating radishes eats up a big chunk of your fortitude.

The Oreo Method
Here’s the trick to maximizing your willpower: Oreo. Do some challenging work, then play and relax, and then get back to work. So what this means is that little stint on Twitter you’re beating yourself up about, might actually be beneficial. My favorite willpower rebuilders are my daughter and my dog. Nothing relaxes the mind more than creating a Lego tower or petting a dog with it’s head nested in your lap. As tempting as it is to grab my mobile phone and squeeze a little work in, I resist. I need this downtime to recharge.

If you do plan on an extended writing session, don’t do a mentally taxing activity directly beforehand. And don’t confuse fun with easy. Running or exercise usually requires willpower because you have to get off your ass to make it happen.

Likewise, those so-called guilty pleasures require no willpower to do (on the contrary, they suck up the willpower to stay away). So indulge in a cookie or a little Starbucks. It just might be the boost you need to go that extra mile with your writing.

After all, you don’t want to end up like Jack…

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

Tim Kane