We’ve all heard of brain-craving zombies whether from The Walking Dead or George A. Romero’s film Night of the Living Dead. However, few know of the zombie’s origins in literature.
The first usage of the word “zombi” in American literature is claimed to be in W.B. Seabrook’s 1929 novel The Magic Island. The novel traces the zombie’s origins to Haiti, with the word zombie possibly coming from the Kongo word “Nzambi,” or “soul.” Groups of Haitians who dabbled in Voodoo and ritual magic believed that people who died before their time were at risk of being reanimated as a mindless creature. Seabrook popularized the idea of the zombie in America with his novel, placing the monster in the pop-cultural hold right alongside Frankenstein and Dracula.
The next major step in zombie literature perhaps did not come until 1954 with Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend. This novel was inspired by the bombing of Japan during World War II1. It closely resembles modern zombie literature, highlighting the dangers of the creatures and their hunger for flesh. I Am Legend tied zombies with dystopian, post-apocalyptic societies where the only goal is to survive. It also popularized the theme of zombies resulting from disease rather than voodoo practices. The novel has three film adaptions, the most popular being I Am Legend (2007).
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006) by Max Brooks built on the ideas in Matheson’s novel. It is structured as a series of narrations by a United Nations Postwar Commission agent as the world fights against a zombie plague. This novel was adapted into a film in 2013. Brooks also wrote The Zombie Survival Guide, a nonfiction novel that gives instructions for what to do in the event of a zombie apocalypse.
Three years before Brooks’s World War Z, the famous comic book series, The Walking Dead, by Robert Kirkman debuted. Like Matheson, Kirkman drew a lot of his post-apocalyptic inspiration from Holocaust events2. Though the TV show that aired in 2010 peaked the popularity of zombies, the comic book series is still in progress with Kirkman stating in an interview:
“If I don’t get bored and people are still enjoying the story, I can do 1,000 issues of The Walking Dead. So it is actually possible to tell a story that follows the collapse of civilization into the dark ages into the rebirth of civilization, where things are completely different. There could be an issue 700 of The Walking Dead that’s about people delivering mail. That is exciting to me2.”
Kirkman’s quote may highlight the future of zombie literature. Nonetheless, a novel about people delivering mail in the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse does sound interesting.
- Ransom, Amy J. I Am Legend as American Myth: Race and Masculinity in the Novel and Its Film Adaptations. McFarland, 2018.