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.
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:
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.
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:
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.