[an error occurred while processing this directive]
The Course of Zombie Love Never Did Run Smooth: Transcendent
Union in ‘She’d Make a Dead Man Crawl’ and Shadows
of the Dead
‘There’s nothing worse than a dead man with a broken heart’ (Houarner, p. 192).
Films like 28 Days Later or Resident Evil represent zombies as insensate and monstrous. Zombies in Laurell K. Hamilton’s novels are soulless by definition. Despite these and other contemporary images of the zombie as flesh-eating and mindless, the figure of the zombie, like that of the vampire, may be ripe for moving from what Jules Zanger called metaphor to metonymy. Zanger cites the vampires’ movement from embodiment of ‘supernal Evil’ to a new undead whose ‘evil acts are expressions of individual personality and condition’ (18). Both Henry from Gerard Houarner’s short story, ‘She’d Make a Dead Man Crawl’ and John from the film Shadows of the Dead are zombies ennobled by their post-death relationships with their lovers. The creatures’ potential for love and expanded knowledge may make them less the monsters we fear and more the monsters with whom we empathize. Like Zanger’s vampires’ movement from anti-Christ to ‘secular sinner’ or ‘social deviant’, (19) these zombies harbor highly specific personalities that inform, shape and control their desires.
Zombie lovers Henry and John come to know the wisdom of the Shakespearean adage about love from the vantage point of their reawakening from death. In ‘She’d Make a Dead Man Crawl’, protagonist and Zombie/lover Henry is awakened by the beautiful conjure woman Phebe at the crossroads. Henry, who has always felt an intense connection to Phebe, ‘I’d always felt like I belonged to her’ wakes to suddenly find himself immersed in an intimate act that suggests marriage, ‘this was the first time I ever felt like, maybe, she belonged to me’ (193). This pseudo marriage of the living Phebe to the dead Henry is officiated by the wonderfully ambiguous figure of the black Dog. Like the crossroads themselves, the Dog is both physical and metaphysical, itself a union of oppositions in cultures (Prometheus, Mercury, Legba) and morals (Good/Bad). When the Dog asks Henry, “What do you need to learn?” the stage is set for Henry’s union with the woman he loved, loves, and will continue to love. He initially answers, ‘What am I doing here?’ (192) When the Dog asks him again, Henry’s later request is, ‘I want to know how to make her love me’. (208) Henry’s un-death is a time of ontological quest and personal growth via transcendent union. Through his union with Phebe, Henry will be granted a special social status, discover a sense of his own identity, engage his personal creativity, and eventually find a transcendent unity with the earth. By the end of the story, ‘My heart’s all over the ground, in bits and pieces, melting into the earth like the rest of me, feeding the brush and the trees and the squirrels and mice and birds and bugs that come along’. (211) Henry’s evolution begins with his own murder at the hands of Phebe and includes his murder of Phebe. This may not be a marriage made in heaven, but it is a union of the physical to the metaphysical that engages its participants in rituals leading to self-knowledge and atonement. Henry is a contemporary zombie with a modern lover, enacting an antique, courtly form of romance.(1)
Like a medieval knight engaged in a courtly love that is both physical and metaphysical, Henry is literally both murdered and awakened from death by his lover. Fittingly, he is spiritually perfected by his union with her, although it means his corporeal demise. Human love (greedy, excessive, selfish, obsessive, corporeal and emotionally messy) leads Zombie Henry to a final philosophical and physical integration with the universe. He moves from an inactive, wasted, unexamined life between worlds to an active embrace of his desires, and through those intellectual choices and physical actions, he reaches contemplative acceptance of universal truth. When the Dog leaves him a final time, ‘he gave me a lick, but didn’t offer to teach me anything, and I didn’t ask’. (211) Henry has ‘got a taste of what I needed, learned everything I wanted to, and more’. (211) Satiated with understanding, Henry has found his own way home through the status of both zombie and lover.
In Shadows of the Dead, John may never realize the Holy Grail of atonement with the natural world through his love of Zombie Jennifer, but he does come to understand the finality of death, learning the chivalric lesson of Bonte or pity. (2) His early statement that he is the same person in death that he was in life is, unfortunately, initially true. In the opening sequence of the film, John is hoping to snatch a few of Jennifer’s French fries as they drive toward their lovers’ retreat. She castigates him for not ordering his own and then planning on taking what is hers. Alive or dead, John has a greedy appetite. When John bites Jennifer on the neck, transmitting the infection to her against her will, the young zombie is simply acting on his appetite in much the same way he did as a living man. This avarice is the greatest obstacle to their love, alive or dead. (3)
Railing against her fate, Jennifer tells her lover that she has nothing left but regrets and accurately calls him a “selfish bastard.” Despite his actions, the couple stays together, making love, and enjoying the transitory moment. Like Tristan and Iseult, poised in their hidden woodland bower, Jennifer and John’s bed is both sublime and doomed. Their transcendence of their physicality, their predicament, and their need for consumption of human flesh is exquisite, if temporary. Jennifer tells John to close his eyes and remember their past bodies. The lovers engage the past by reaching beyond their present numbness, reanimating themselves metaphysically, even as their flesh slips off the bones.
John makes an effective, if undead, courtly lover. His eyes turned to milky cataracts by death, John nonetheless does come to see himself reflected in Jennifer’s eyes. His love for Jennifer becomes both the impetus and the vehicle for change. His physical decay may appear to be at odds with his spiritual growth, but John’s desire for her translates into a desire to become more for her. In the classic courtly tradition he gives over (or claims to give over) agency and control of his actions to his beloved. John, like Henry journeying and gathering charms for his beloved conjure woman, earns and learns a freedom through submission. Both medieval and masochistic, the lovers’ fusion of agency and passivity functions on both the erotic and philosophical levels.
Lovers beyond sex, but trapped by their bodies, John and Jennifer seek the numbness of narcotics stolen from a local hospital. Working together, they secure and share a pharmacological space of peace and respite, yet another temporary bower. The lovers move past their sexual hunger for one another, eventually wearing clothing at all times. Jennifer’s suicide is the shock that causes John to stop killing people for food. After he experiences the (final) death of the one he loves, he can no longer cause equivalent pain to the surviving families of his prey. His selfishness and his appetites are only brought in check when he has learned sympathy with the husbands, fathers, etc. of those who have lost a love. He projects his undead experience upon the living, to better know their pain. John’s loss of Jennifer is his bridge to an understanding of both his own and his fellows’ essential humanity.
Theoretically, Medieval Courtly Love could resurrect, reform, and reconstitute the humanity of a hardened mercenary who killed and destroyed for pay and glory. John, who says he feels the urge to kill things, not out of anger, but necessity, establishes control over the ‘necessity’ to kill. He handcuffs himself to a post rather than attack the family who comes to his door for directions. He rips free of the handcuffs, but the moment of stasis is his breakthrough and the family escapes.
For a medieval, the experience of the sublime through the vehicle of a physical lover was supposedly more compelling than a person’s lust for glory, gold or God. When Jennifer comprehends her zombie state she allows a golden crucifix to slip down the drain and turns to John. She finds beauty in his deteoriating body, as well as his recognition that ‘We have nothing . . .we only have each other.’ Set against the permanence of heaven, illicit poetic love’s potential impermanence has always been part of its exquisite, consuming allure. Simultaneously spiritually transformative and the height of self-absorption, courtly love redeems and purifies the violent nature of killing man. In the case of contemporary Zombie Lovers Henry and John, one man learns to kill and one resists killing at the behest of his beloved. Both men love to the exclusion and expulsion of their respective hungers, John for human flesh and Henry for his lover’s desire.
Henry moves from knowing she is always and forever beyond his reach to having Phebe desire him above all else. He finally sees himself, the object rather than the abject of Phebe’s desire, and as she mirrors him, he comes to know himself through his lover. Phebe’s death is both the consummation and the consumption of their combined desire. Love bites. When the conjure woman tries to eat the zombie, biting chunks out of his flesh, it is the successful apex of Henry’s journey to self- knowledge and his final comprehension of his beloved Phebe. He knows her in all her painful and pain-filled hunger and it is through this experience that Henry embraces the world of which he is a part. Henry finds freedom bound to and binding the woman he considered far above himself. Like Henry himself, Phebe is sacrificed to the power of self-recognition and its attendant self-transformation.
If Henry and John’s lives have been stolen by an unsympathetic fate, their undeaths become second chances for their souls, the very thing so many Zombies seem to lack. At the dawn of the 21st century, Zombies who emote, form lasting relationships, as well as learn, have risen alongside the mega consumers of modern society. These figures are still the animated dead; they rot. Yet their experience of corporeal undeath provides a unique venue for them to establish or extend love relationships. Considering the classic definition of the Caribbean zombie as an essentially human figure drugged and/or conjured into mindless work, perhaps these characters’ ability to spiritually grow from their experience is a statement or projection of hope. Love lasts; love is more real than (and can even outlast) desire. In the hands of sloppy humans (or even sloppier zombies) “Love can deny nothing to love.” (4) Both Henry and John are engaged in downright courtly relationships that function as psychic mirrors for their flaws as both men and zombies.(5) Perhaps contemporary audiences merely want romance in their undeath; perhaps courtly love has always offered both perfection and death through the venue of a woman’s love. (6)
The figure of the zombie, corporeally abject and an agent of abject desires, is always set against normative societal expectations. Whether it consumes human flesh (John) or folds and consumes the outrageous objects of another’s desire (Henry), it acts in opposition to laws of humankind and nature. Irreversibly alien, the figure seems lost to reform. Wearing the flesh and bearing some memory of their lives, Zombies are especially, wonderfully tragic. As writer Carl Lindbergh states in Shadows of the Dead, ‘all great love stories end tragically.’ This kinship of the tragic to the supernatural is an obvious aspect of both the gothic and medieval romances. Courtly love allowed for human beings to exist both within and exterior to the natural world and its laws. Lovers’ unions routinely evoke supra or supernatural events. (7) Super-human feats are the routine assignment of the courtly lovers of medieval romance. They transcend the laws of the natural world, just as they do the conventions of authority. It is part of their romance. Their negotiations with the supernatural or the inexplicable, like the injuries they suffer at the hands of fate, define their humanity, rather than obscure it.
In terms of humanity, vampires and werewolves are clearly cursed and, although they make others suffer through their suffering, there is often the potential that their curse is a separate thing from the obscured or damaged person. Perhaps the curse could be broken? However, Zombies don’t de-zombify and, like humans, they are trapped by time. Perhaps because they are so completely bereft of hope they offer a potential innocence, or even purity. As Laurel Hamilton writes, ‘Zombies are very honest . . .they don’t lie’ (29). Like many human lovers, Zombies embody desire, although that honest desire may ruin the body it inhabits.
In the real world ‘transformation’ is likely to mean corrective plastic surgery, hair plugs, or the gym, and ‘transcendence’ is a sign of willpower, education, or geographic transition. By comparison, fictional zombie characters transform and transcend in startlingly authentic ways, shucking off their bodies without denying the physical/metaphysical desire that motivates and finally frees their souls. Like contemporary live couples, Zombie lovers hunger both for one another and for the life they can’t quite achieve. Alive or dead, no one begins by being satisfied with his or her body. Dead, bound by the reality of their bodies, Henry and John die again, but their animating spirits and personalities are ennobled by having experienced the transcendent union of the undead.
2 A good measure of a male lover’s evolution can be found in Dan Michel’s Ayenbite of Inwyt, a 14th-century discussion of noble, chivalric behavior which cites ten characteristics of both internal and external gentilesse. John’s development is especially apparent in terms of the internal aspects of gentility: Trouthe (Loyalty, Faithfulness) and Bonte (Pity). His engagement with truth is the journal that gives witness to his and Jennifer’s experiences as the undead. Eventually, although it means his own discorporation, John grows a conscience. He develops sympathy, empathy and a willingness to forgive, all of which constitute Bonte.
3 John might have benefited from the 12th-century Andreas Cappellanus’s ‘Art of Courtly Love, Book Two: 10)’: ‘Love is always a stranger in the home of avarice.’
4 This concept is ‘rule’ 30 from Cappellanus’s ‘Rules of Courtly Love’.
5 Perhaps what Laurel K. Hamilton’s monster hunter Anita Blake suggests of vampires can be applied to zombies, ‘Just being dead doesn’t cure you of any problems you had as a live human being.’ (50)
6 Love in the Western World explores courtly love as an expression of thantos as much as a link to eros in the literature and art of Medieval Europe.
7 From Marie of France’s famous intertwining of vine and tree in The Honeysuckle to the magical potion that links the fate of Tristan and Iseult, courtly lovers’ passions seem to change or reconstitute the usual pattern of the natural world.
De Rougemnt, Denis  (1983) Love in the Western World, trans. Montgomery Belgion, (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
Hamilton, Laurel K. (1996) Bloody Bones (New York: Ace).
Houarner, Gerald (2003) ‘She’d Make a Dead Man Crawl’, Mojo Conjure Stories, ed. Nalo Hopkinson (New York: Warner).
Michel, Dan (1340) Ayenbite of Inwyt, http://www.worldcatlibraries.org
Shakespeare, William, A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Zanger, Jules (1997) ‘Metaphor into Metonymy: The
Vampire Next Door’, Blood Read: The Vampire as Metaphor in
Contemporary Culture, eds. Joan Gordon and Veronica Hollinger (Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press).
Website maintained by Michelle Bernard - Contact firstname.lastname@example.org - last updated February 6, 2008