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 At least the fear of the unknown had been replaced by specifics – you just had to make sure to tell your sons and daughters about it as well, so they knew what they were up against and how to deal with it!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.

Footnotes:

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

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