Disembowelling the Zombie Handbook: Part 2

The subtitle to Rob Sachetto’s The Zombie Handbook is “How to Identify the Living Dead and Survive the Coming Zombie Apocalypse.” The blurb on the back cover proclaims it to be “the definitive guide to zombies and all their blood-soaked traits.” Yes, the word “blood-soaked” is coloured red, which I guess… makes sense? It apparently “lays out your step-by-step plan of attack to not only survive the zombies’ assault, but to counter it and obliterate the army of the undead” (the fact that this is also coloured in red perhaps makes less sense). In the foreword, multiple Bram Stoker Award-winning author and liar Jonathan Maberry proclaims that of all zombie books, “The Zombie Handbook has become the most crucial manual to survival.”

When you’re using words like “crucial” and “definitive,” it’s important to know the other big names in the niche you’re trying to occupy. And in the “zombie survival guide” niche, the biggest of all is actually called The Zombie Survival Guide.


It’s right there in the title guys!

If you recognise The Zombie Survival Guide, it’s because it was in your local Waterstone’s, occupying the space where The Zombie Handbook would probably very much like to be. The Zombie Survival Guide is massively popular and critically acclaimed; the majority of it is based on real research which the author Max Brooks conducted into things like the nature of how quickly pathogens can spread, and which guns have the most readily-available ammunition in America. It’s a cool book because:

1) it’s entirely serious in tone, which actually makes it quite effective horror fiction, because the way it treats the zombie apocalypse with the same resigned inevitability that a documentary might treat global warming really does get under your skin;

2) it’s packed with genuinely educational information on various survival skills, in amongst all the typical zombie guff;

and 3) it’s lovingly reverent of all the tropes and conventions of zombie fiction, and clearly references them throughout, in lots of neat little in-jokes and winks-to-the-reader.

You might know of its sequel, the similarly excellent documentary-style novel World War Z, because Brad Pitt is currently ruining it in Hollywood somewhere.

So Sachetto’s Zombie Handbook bears more than a few similarities to Max Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide, even if you look past the two titles; both attempt to ‘codify’ the nature of zombies, both give tips on the best weapons to use to dispatch the walking dead, both examine the methodology of the virus itself. But where Brooks is in-depth and considered, Sachetto is entirely shallow. He focuses entirely on killing zombies, playing exclusively to the nerdy man-child power-fantasy of externalizing your misanthropy by mowing down countless numbers of human-looking things that you don’t need to feel guilty about killing. And Sachetto doesn’t even do this very well; he has an enormous fondness for acid, for instance, which he seems to believe is readily available in such huge quantities that he advocates digging an “acid moat” around your hide-out and spraying incoming zombies with your “acid cannon.” Apparently this is better than “wasting bullets,” because I guess acid is endlessly abundant. This is accompanied by lovingly-rendered images of melting zombies in vivid, full-colour detail. Another tactic Sachetto advocates is punching a zombie so hard in the chin that its brain flies out. Again, this is accompanied by a detailed illustration.

Now this is significant – make no bones about it, The Zombie Handbook is not a book, it is an excuse. An excuse for Rob Sachetto to peddle his art. Sachetto makes money by drawing “gross-out” art – vivid pictures of dead bodies and gore and zombies and intestines and so on – which he sells online apparently in order to “grace mantles and gross out guests.” I can’t imagine that the kind of person who’d buy this sort of thing would ever have any guests over or even, for that matter, a mantle, but maybe I’m being unfairly judgemental here. After all, this sort of thing clearly has a target market, and I’m sure most of them are perfectly sweet and lovely non-murderers. So while The Zombie Handbook clearly occupies the same niche as The Zombie Survival Guide, in practice the two are very different beasts; The Zombie Handbook is, essentially, a picture-book for horror-lovers and power-fantasists who enjoy a good look at some gross-out gore and probably have Human Centipede on DVD.

Still, I’m not sure I see the appeal even if I put myself in the position of someone who loves that sort of thing. For someone who draws zombies for a living, Sachetto has some really odd ideas about what they actually look like:

What the hell is that thing on the left, a pez dispenser?

What the hell is that thing on the left, a pez dispenser?

Oh, and yes, your eyes do not deceive you. That is a female zombie in a bikini. Posing seductively, no less, which is a bit of an odd thing for a mindless shambling corpse animated only by hunger to do. This is… Yeah. This is just one part of what is…. sort of an overarching theme, for this book. We will be coming back to this later.

Still, bikini zombies aside, this is all good fun, right? I mean, even in Brooks there are shades of the same indulgent power-fantasy pandering, and at least Sachetto isn’t trying to mimic Brooks – Sachetto is not only showing off his artwork but also obviously trying to be much sillier, revelling in the display of mindless zombie gore while clearly not taking himself or zombies seriously. If you’re trying to share a niche with The Zombie Survival Guide, it’s probably a good idea to go out in such a dramatically different direction. If all The Zombie Handbook was, was a few pages of throwing acid at zombies and other intentionally goofy scenarios, along with some “gross-out” pictures of zombies vomiting their own intestines or whatever* to top the whole thing off, I might’ve rolled my eyes a bit but I’d have kept it to myself.

No, the real problems of The Zombie Handbook lie elsewhere. Like in the anti-semitism. Ah yes, the horrible, horrible anti-semitism.


This is the single largest concentration of words in the entire book, by the way.

It’s a real shame, because the anti-semitism first jumps out at you from what ought to be one of the only genuinely interesting pages in the entire book. It’s a page talking about the myths and legends in which zombie-esque creatures appear, and as you know from Part 1, I’m a big fan of that shit. The first part of the page does talk about some very interesting stuff – quoting from the Epic of Gilgamesh, where the goddess Ishtar threatens to cause the “the dead [to] go up to eat the living!/ And the dead will outnumber the living!” Admittedly, this entire bit could have easily been cribbed from the first few lines of the wikipedia page for “Zombie,” but at least it’s semi-educational and actually relevant!

Things go downhill fast when Sachetto starts to talk about the tale of the golem, a mythical animated figure made of clay. The golem is completely irrelevant to the zombie myth – it’s not a walking corpse, it’s put together out of fuckin’ clay, it’s further from being a zombie than a vampire is! Why not talk about the legends of ghouls or the craquehhe or jikininki, the actual legends of cannibal corpses from which the zombie mythos typically cribs? It’s possible that Sachetto decides to mention the completely irrelevant golem because, in the most famous golem myth, a golem was created by a Rabbi in order to defend the Jews of Prague from antisemitic attacks. This allows Sachetto to get in an antisemitic attack of his own:

Here it is at a readable size. I lied. I am not merciful.

Ha ha, about time someone took the Jews down a peg, amirite

No words.

Now, I suppose it’s exaggerating to call this an “antisemitic attack,” but it’s certainly deeply, deeply troubling. Firstly, as I’ve already said, the entire thing is pointless; anyone with half a brain can see that the legend of the golem has basically nothing to do with zombies. With this in mind, the entire paragraph reads as though Sachetto wrote it in order to build up to the “punchline” – as there’s no other purpose to the thing apart from the joke at the end. And the punchline it builds up to is, I guess, a Jewish man saying Yiddish things, accompanied by a Jewish caricature? As a joke, it’s poor – it’s awkwardly and half-assedly inserted into the text. More importantly, the only basis of its comedy is the idea that stereotypes are inherently funny. That’s why it’s anti-semitic – there’s no subversion or original thought here, just a lazy propagation of a harmful cultural reductionism that was last popular in comedy sometime in the 1930s. There’s no punchline beyond that, unless you consider the idea of a Jewish person cowering in fear inherently funny, but even I would like to think better of Sachetto than that.

And we still haven’t managed to get to my main complaints about this deeply weird, somewhat unsettling book. I guess for now, we’ll wait until the third and final part of this series.

Rest assured, though – the anti-semitism is just a taster of things to come. Up next: despicable misogyny, stomach-churning sexualization of corpses, and… satire.

God help us all.


* There are about six pictures of this.


Disembowelling the Zombie Handbook: Part 1

Over the last few months I’ve been increasingly interested in myths. Not the kind of epic Greek, Norse or Egyptian myth that involves the various misdeeds of deities whose drama-fraught immortal existences seem to more closely parallel a typical episode of Eastenders than anything else; although I do find that interesting too, to a lesser extent. No, what I’ve gotten really interested in recently is the kind of much lower-key folklore that used to keep 13th-century peasants huddled in their huts on the long winter nights, shaking salt onto the damp earth outside and hanging iron horseshoes on their door. I’m talking household myths about the Alp-luachra, the Joint-eater, the evil shape-shifting fairy-creature that crawls down your throat to feed on the food you’ve already eaten; or the Noppera-bō ghosts, who impersonate one of your friends or family, then slowly let their face melt away into a blank mask.

As far as I can tell every ancient culture, from the Celtic to the Japanese to the Aboriginal Australians, has built up a fascinating rogues’ gallery of monsters. It probably wasn’t hard, back in the days before street-lights, to look out into the vastness of the night and feel supernatural eyes staring invisibly back at you. Giving a name and a shape to those eyes probably made the nightly terror worse in some ways, but must at least have made it seem manageable; sure, the Manananggal is scary, but keep some salt and crushed garlic about your person and you’ll be safe. At least the fear of the unknown had been replaced by specifics – you just had to make sure to tell your sons and daughters about it as well, so they knew what they were up against and how to deal with it! It was an oral tradition not necessarily kept alive by poets, but by concerned mothers. The most famous modern stock types to emerge from this kind of ancient monster-lore are probably zombies and vampires.* About 2 weeks ago, on Amazon, I ordered a book on the latter and ended up with a book on the former.

The book I had wanted was very hard to track down, so I was forced to order it online from the USA. It was a work cited almost everywhere that talked about vampire mythology; by all accounts, it was academic and in-depth, clocking in at 686 pages and featuring an exhaustive catalogue of vampiric myths indexed by culture. It was also saddled with the slightly campy title The Vampire Slayers’ Field Guide to the Undead, but I wasn’t going to hold that against it.

When I finally received my package after weeks and weeks of waiting – remember, this had been sent to me across the Pacific via the cheapest delivery option Amazon had to offer – it felt oddly light-weight. I opened the envelope and was greeted, not by a 700-page tome, but by this:

Doesn't this just scream "academic" and "scholarly"?

Exhibit A, your honour.

Yeah. That alien-looking thing on the front is a zombie. It’s 95 pages long, though every page is mainly taken up by similar big, cartoony illustrations, with maybe a paragraph to accompany them.

Suffice it to say, I was not very impressed. As I opened the book, I became even less impressed, and grew less and less impressed as I flicked through, until I think it could safely be said that I wasn’t impressed at all.

Now, I’m actually a big fan of zombie fiction. It’s one of my favourite kinds of horror, in fact, and I can safely say I’ve consumed (no pun intended) far more zombie stuff over the years than I have vampire stuff. Sure, the cover of this thing is goofy, but it could still be fun! In fact, I believe there is a very specific saying about books, covers, and the judging thereof! And although this wasn’t the book I ordered, and although it’s much shorter, much less thorough and by a completely different author than the book I ordered, that still doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad. It could be fun!

It was not fun.

Hopefully, in a few weeks the nice people at Amazon will send me the book I did order, and maybe I can review The Vampire Slayers’ Field Guide to the Undead here then. For now, I am going to systematically eviscerate Rob Sacchetto’s The Zombie Handbook. I am going to go to town on this thing like I’m a zombie horde and it is any character in a zombie movie who stands too near a window. There is so much stuff in The Zombie Handbook that I need to unpack. In those 100 or so pages there are so many bizarre decisions, so much shameless pandering, so much ickiness, that all I want to do at this point is try to make sense of it all.

Look out for Part 2, upcoming probably later today. Now that I’ve got the preamble out of the way, I’ll skip straight to the book itself and start rummaging around elbow-deep in its guts, pulling out the most disgusting parts and holding them up to the light. And if that analogy was a little too much for you, you might want to consider skipping Part 2 entirely, because there will be scanned images from the book itself that you will not be able to unsee.


* Although the term “vampire” would have rarely been used, and the term “zombie” never.

I begin my blog by immediately questioning its existence

Hey. My name is Harry, and I have no idea what I’m doing writing a blog. I tend to not know what I’m doing in everyday life either, so I guess this terrifying existential dread has a certain familiarity to it, but it does feel weird to just plant my flag on this tiny corner of the Internet and proclaim it Mine. This is My Blog. I own it. You want to write a comment? Fine, but I can delete it AT WILL. I have staked my claim to these green and fertile pixels, I have undergone the ancient test of Finding An Unused Domain Name That Isn’t Dumb As Fuck, and I have been deemed worthy by the WordPress gods. Now I am the undisputed dictator within the land known as Ink and Trickery, and none may question my authority within these borders. These tiny, tiny borders.

What are you even meant to do when you “have” a blog? I guess I’m here to – what – market my writing ability? Peddle my opinions? Do what I seem to do on my Twitter, which is to shout meaninglessly into a gaping void? All of the above?

I’m fairly sure that this is a self-destructive route to go down. This is my blog, there are many like it but this is mine, and what I’m going to do here is talk about the things that interest me and, most likely, irritate me. This is going to be a wholly self-indulgent exercise, which feels weird because I write a lot of essays and a lot of stories, and in both I constantly think about the target audience. I’m constantly wondering if the person reading will understand the point I’m making, or whether I need to go back and make things more clear – or maybe I’m trying too hard to make things clear, and patronizing them! I wonder how character x will seem to the reader – I want them to be snarky and caustic but ultimately likeable, but what if they just come across as a detestable douchebag?

This blog isn’t the place for that. Ink and Trickery is going to be a wholesale exercise in self-indulgence, and hopefully it’ll be entertaining for others along the way – but that’s merely a neat by-product. This blog is for me, and if that means I’m shouting into the void, so be it. At least here, unlike when I’m on Twitter, I’ll have room to shout into the void at length.

On the off-chance someone is actually reading this, though, here’s 5 things you probably ought to know about me:

1) I go to Oxford University, but I’m in my final year. Assuming this thing is still active, expect a lot of gibbering anxiety about employment in 3-4 months.

2) My degree is English Literature. Hence both the wanky self-analysis and the aforementioned employment-related gibbering anxiety.

3) To paraphrase Pratchett, I think that creative writing is the most fun it’s possible to have on your own. I’ve wanted to be a published author since I learned to write (note: if you think I’m exaggerating, I can show you the multi-page illustrated storybooks I wrote when I was 3 years old). Maybe some of this blog will focus on that. Maybe not!

4) I started this blog because I received an erroneous package from Amazon which turned out to be comedy gold. I decided a blog would be the perfect place to share my bemusement with the world.

5) I am basically a cultural omnivore. I will happily watch, read, or play pretty much any form of entertainment. There are two exceptions – when it comes to music, even I am forced to acknowledge that I have incredibly bad taste. A good 50% of the music on my iPod comes from movie trailers. I also have no idea about the sports. I have been known to enjoy playing the sports, but I have never been able to enjoy watching them, apart from occasionally tennis I guess. So yeah, this will not be a sports blog, and if I talk about music, know that I speak from a position of profound ignorance.

So enjoy reading my blog, I guess. If you’re wondering about the name – the non-pretentious answer is, I chose it because it sounds cool. The pretentious answer is I chose it because I’m a writer, this is my blog where I write stuff, and all writing is – essentially – an exercise in trickery.