[Jim, Mike and Dawn are at a rest-stop in New Jersey. Jim and Mike have been close friends for years. Mike and Dawn have been dating for weeks, but they’ve both been wondering whether their relationship has run its course. The three of them are on their way home from a well-attended zombie run. Their conversation about the run has come to an end, but Jim is in no hurry to keep driving.]
Jim: It’s a little weird, though, isn’t it?
Mike: What’s that?
Jim: The way the whole zombie phenomenon sprung up. It’s strange to think that this all started with one cult director.
Dawn: George Romero?
Jim: Yeah. Do you think he predicted all this?
Dawn: He didn’t even get paid for Night of the Living Dead.
Jim: Exactly, and look at what it spawned.
Mike: He’s great, but he didn’t really “start” anything. I mean, his zombies couldn’t even run.
Jim: Sure, other people have changed his zombies a bit, but he laid the framework for zombies themselves.
Mike: He was an important part of how zombies have gotten to where they are, definitely, but not the beginning.
Dawn: He’s right. HP Lovecraft was writing about zombies in the ‘20s.
Mike: I’m thinking earlier. Daniel Defoe wrote the first zombie novel in 1722.
Dawn: Are you talking about A Journal of the Plague Year again?
Mike: Yes I’m talking about it again, because it’s relevant.
Jim: What’s A Journal of the Plague Year?
Dawn: It’s this book Mike talks about all the time. Apparently a plague struck London in 1665 and Daniel Defoe kept a detailed account of it. At Morgan’s party last month, Mike spent an hour telling us how it was the beginning of New Journalism.
Mike: And now I’m saying it’s the beginning of modern zombie literature. It’s all things to all people.
Jim: Oh, come on. If you want to find the beginning of zombies, it seems like you could go further than the 1700s. Didn’t zombies come to North America from Haiti?
Mike: Sort of. You’re talking about voodoo zombies, right? What you see in this sort of mysticism is that an individual, living or dead, can have their body and will be overtaken by a stronger mystical force. There’s a significant sense of complete slavery at play in these stories, and with it a distinct master-slave hierarchy. So when we come across these stories we can fear the masters because of their power, or we can fear losing all of ourselves and becoming slaves.
Mike: So nowadays we fear zombies for almost the opposite reasons. Look, Night of the Living Dead, The Walking Dead, World War Z, 28 Days Later – all of these pieces have the power to frighten us because of a distinct lack of control. We fear that we’ll become mindless freaks gnawing at our friends’ skulls. We can’t control ourselves, the government can’t control the situation, science and God have both failed us.
Jim: But they rise from the dead. That’s what makes them zombies.
Mike: That’s what makes them technically zombies, sure. But doesn’t the consequence matter as much as the action? Was Lazarus a zombie?
Jim: Lazarus didn’t eat people.
Mike: West African and Haitian zombies didn’t necessarily eat people, either.
Dawn: And Lazarus was just one guy. What about stories of zombies rising en masse? Those are all over ancient literature.
Mike: Yes, they are, but if you look at the Bible, or Gilgamesh, or the Quran, or even the more mainstream Voodoo, what you see is God, or a God-figure, commanding the dead to rise to fight in a holy war or to be led somewhere, or to terrify the enemies of God, or for some practicable reason. So you have the sense of a goal, and you also have an intimate relationship between the zombies and their creator. Romero severed this connection, as Defoe had already done three centuries earlier.
Dawn: Wasn’t that during the Dark Ages, when people just attributed everything to God?
Mike: It wasn’t in the Dark Ages, that’s not strictly true of the Dark Ages, and also no.
[Mike produces a copy of A Journal of the Plague Year from his pocket]
Dawn: Did you bring that with you on the run?
Mike: How else would I know what to expect if I was transported to 1665 London?
Dawn: I’ve got some follow up questions to that…
Mike: I’ll grant you that some people in the book attribute the zombies to God, mostly priests and the sort. And the narrator does refer to himself as being spared by God. But the narrator also attributes his survival to following his doctor’s advice
Jim: They must have blamed something, and they’re more likely to blame God than science.
Dawn: And are you kidnapped in this time travel fantasy?
Mike: If that were true, then modern zombie literature would blame science for zombies. Instead, modern zombie literature, starting here, has characters that are a bit too busy or frazzled to pass blame. We see this throughout the book. Just fifteen pages in, he sees people who “heard voices that never spake, and saw sights that never appeared; but the imagination of the people was really turned wayward and possessed.” Basically, even in the beginning, the people were in no state to find a cause for the plague. By page seventy-nine we have parishioners fighting over whether to even ask for God’s help. By page 120, Defoe is frustrated by how “insensibly” the plague is spread. But all of this is by way of observation. Defoe is less interested in how the plague started than in surviving it.
Dawn: And if you’ve already read the book, wouldn’t you pretty much know what to expect?
Jim: I’ll buy that these people become the living dead without being able to know why in every respect but one: they aren’t the living dead. They’re suffering from a plague. It seems significantly different from dying and coming back to life.
Jim: Because the fact of life is never disconnected from them. They can’t be the living dead because they were never dead.
Mike: But doesn’t a lot of modern zombie literature consider when life ends, or when death ends? In 28 Days Later people don’t even fall down before they become zombies.
Jim: But it’s an overwhelming change in their humanity.
Mike: There’s not really a question of whether Defoe’s plague victims change. He has them attacking police officers, killing their own families, running to mass graves to bury themselves among the dead. Because of their infection, these people are significantly disconnected from their humanity. Defoe is exploring the limits of his characters’ humanity – is it really relevant whether their hearts stopped beating first?
Jim: But a zombie is clearly dead. There’s no moral question about killing them.
Mike: Have you ever seen a zombie movie?
Jim: Okay, that was nonsense, but what I mean is: how does the book handle the moral question? It just seems like a more significant question than in typical zombie fare.
Mike: It is, in some ways. But remember, getting the plague is a death sentence. There’s no cure and the pain will drive you insane, so the way they were dealt with in this book is foundational to the way we imagine we would deal with them today. They were humans, so it was illegal to kill them, improper not to bury them, and if one disappeared then a party would go to search for that one.
Jim: So the government tried to respect their human dignity.
Mike: Right. On the other hand, people are required to give notice if they become infected. Infected people are locked up in their homes with their families and guarded by police officers who are assigned to bring them food or medicine, or anything they need.
Jim: Wait, so if a father is infected, he gets locked into a house with his wife and daughter?
Jim: Doesn’t he infect his wife and daughter?
Mike: Does he ever. Also, for the most part they have to pay for their own food and medicine.
Jim: So that raises one of the questions of basically every modern piece of zombie literature: whether to kill a loved one or become a zombie yourself.
Mike: Right, and as a crisis it’s somewhat existential, but it’s definitely a desperate one. The family relations are strained, and provisions are scarce, so that people can’t really trust strangers, either. There’s always a suspicion that people are either infected or thieves. This comes to a head here, on page 105. A small group of non-infected people whose story Defoe has been following try to pass through a particular town and the guard tells them “Self-preservation obliges us” to keep them out of the town, and that he’ll get a band of people to attack them if necessary. A rumor begins to go around town that several hundred infected people are outside the gate, and the town does actually organize a group of soldiers to get rid of them.
Dawn: Even though they weren’t infected?
Jim: That’s a pretty common aspect of zombie stories. People who have survived are, on the one hand, grateful to be alive, but they also have to be aware that anyone could take that from them. People could take their life or provisions, either on purpose or accident. In zombie stories it’s a way of exploring the limits of humanity, which I understand, but isn’t it working as a more common dystopian trope here?
Mike: If you really want to stretch it, A Journal of the Plague Year could be a sort of early dystopia, but it doesn’t fit nicely under that label. It doesn’t have any real broad cultural criticism. I mentioned how the government failed the plague victims, but Defoe doesn’t really blame the government for that. When he talks about the policy of shutting up houses on page 126 he outright says that “it was not in the power of the magistrates or of any human methods or policy, to prevent the spreading [of] the infection.” So it’s not the government’s fault. The infection’s spread is inevitable. Dystopias aren’t inevitable.
Dawn: One of the things that fascinates me about zombie literature is how society functions, but it sounds to me that in Defoe’s world society breaks down into a collection of warring camps. Isn’t the rebuilding of society essential to zombie literature?
Jim: That’s mostly very modern stuff – 28 Weeks Later, A Questionable Shape….
Mike: Society and commerce are intertwined in Defoe’s book, as a result of it taking place in the early days of capitalism. So rebuilding the economic infrastructure is inherent to rebuilding society. Here, we see quack doctors, mystics, traders who can’t send off their ships, and then actual doctors and nurses who can’t really do anything. Society is revealed broadly, and chaos and distrust permeate every aspect of it, and the way it's adapting reflects that.
Jim: One of the scariest things about zombies is all the unexpected ways that the non-infected try to take advantage of and hurt each other.
Dawn: Sounds bleak.
Mike: Well it is a plague year.
Jim: So does it deal with individual’s struggles broadly? The way zombie stories reveal conflicts outside of the physical act of fighting zombies is always an integral part of them.
Mike: The characters are usually treated at a distance, but when you have ordinary people taking jobs pushing dead carts or guarding infected houses, their tensions should be clear to anyone reading. The distance is useful because it lets Defoe explore more characters than he would have been able to otherwise. It’s not a stretch to extract their individual crises, though.
Jim: I’ll buy your premise, but I think there’s an essential component of zombie literature that you’re overlooking, which is that zombie literature uses style as argument. Dawn of the Dead uses its budget filming techniques to reinforce its anti-consumerism message, World War Z uses its whole form to reflect its global nature, 28 Days Later uses shaky-cam to reflect the sharp brutality it wants to talk about, A Questionable Shape uses footnotes to emphasize its interiority, and so on. So style as argument or theme happens consistently, but I’m thumbing through this book and not seeing that.
Mike: While you’re holding the book, how many chapters are in it?
Jim: Why, none at all.
Dawn: Had they discovered chapters in the 18th century?
Mike: Yes. In fact, Defoe’s other most famous work, Robinson Crusoe, has plenty of chapters. So this isn’t just his style. It’s a conscious choice he made for this book in particular – no chapters, no line breaks, and no section headings. Not only that, but it claims to be a journal. We understand that epistolary works have natural divisions, he had every right to divide his work however he wanted. But he doesn’t. Instead, the book reads as though all of this is happening at once. The clearest sense of time progressing in the book is when Defoe lists the number of people buried at the perishes.
Dawn: So his chapter headings are the burial graphs?
Mike: That’s an interesting way to read it, but they’re not really consistent enough for me to say that. He really seems to be suggesting that all of this seems to be happening simultaneously, so any divisions in time or narrative would be profoundly artificial.
Dawn: I heard Defoe might have made up big parts of this book. Isn’t that artificial?
Mike: I think we should break up.
Jim: Looks like it’s going to be a long ride home.
[They pack into the car. And it is a long ride home.]
All quotes and page numbers from the Dover Thrift edition of A Journal of the Plague Year, first published in 2001.
Erick Brucker is currently a student at University of Iowa's Non-Fiction Writing Program.