Zombies are everywhere in the landscape of contemporary American pop culture, their proliferation in various media a phenomenon analogous to their proliferation in the towns, cities, and entire countries that succumb to their pestilential presence in movies and novels, comic books and tongue-in-cheek self-help literature (I’m looking at you The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead). “What does it all mean?” one can almost hear the professors of culture studies crying out, “It must mean something!”
One assumes that PopMatters will publish essays on the subject sometime in the near future. (For the record, I’ve got some theories).
Before looking specifically at a recent installment in the ever growing zombie culture—Lori Handeland’s Shakespeare Undead: A Novel — I think an anecdote might be pertinent. When asked what the lyrics to “American Pie” mean Don McLean, composer and original performer of the song, replied, “It means I never have to work again.” McLean, you see, recognized that whatever enigmatic and cryptic messages others were eager to find in his song, it had real world effects—namely securing him a healthy income for years to come. I include this anecdote because whatever zombies may tell us about early 21st century America and Britain and everywhere else haunted by their lurid appeal they’re ripe for exploitation by writers, directors, and artists of all sorts looking to make some serious scratch by tapping into the collective imagination or at least the collective appetite for schlock.
Moreover, if zombies have long stalked the pages of pulp fiction and b-movies, why not expand their hunting grounds to include the exclusive territory of “high” literature? In other words, why not throw some zombies into, say, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, longtime staple of high school and college English courses, and see what happens? Lots of money and a prolonged stay on various bestsellers’ lists is what happened for Seth Grahame-Smith, author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Whether the novel is delightful pastiche or a travesty readers must decide for themselves but the commercial success of the work has been so great that imitation was inevitable.
Cue Shakespeare Undead, which presents the greatest writer of all time (by the lights of many) as a vampire who hunts the members of a zombie army terrorizing the citizens of early modern London. The Bard’s eons-long tenure on the earth has given him an extraordinarily rich and diverse set of experiences along with exposure to legions of living and dead persons and he’s found in playwriting the perfect vehicle for chronicling their stories.
This is a fun and clever explanation of Shakespeare’s genius—and not much more far-fetched than others that enjoy currency both within and on the fringes of academia. What’s the harm, after all, in subscripting the famously enigmatic Shakespeare into a horror mash-up? After all, he’s already been made the protagonist of countless historical novels and movies and murder mystery series.
No harm at all in the idea but plenty in the execution. Shakespeare Undead is a horror show of thin plotting, wince-inducing dialogue, painful pop culture references, and clichés. Here’s a brief catalogue of examples of egregious writing: “I planted my feet and drew my weapon, wincing when the slick slide sliced through the still air”; “Talking to a zombie was almost as foolish as wrestling one. I’m strong, but zombies are stronger. I’m not sure why”; “Creatures such as he became again who they once were, if who they once were was who they were still inclined to be.” This is unforgiveable and it doesn’t help that Handeland, in an attempt to dress up her prose in period costume, frequently throws in “Forsooths” and “Ye’s” and “To wit’s” and other words and idiomatic expressions whose meaning and function in their original context she does not always appear to understand.
Add to this numerous anachronisms and a romance novel plot that reads like someone goofing on supermarket trash (“He drank her mirth like the finest Madeira, licked the lightness from her lips like licoresse”) and characters straight out of stereotype central casting (the ghost of a Haitian voodoo sorceress, for example, says things like, “You cannot fight dem alone”) and you’ve got a candidate for worst novel of the year.
Still, archaeologists insist that midden heaps tell us a great deal about the societies that created them. There are stories in the refuse, actual meanings in the garbage…. surely. There’s some weird stuff in Shakespeare Undead, much weirder than its incompetent exploitation of popular horror conventions. For example, while the novel is happy to present a vampiric-necromancer Shakespeare, it does so in order to exonerate him from the charge of homosexuality (a female zombie hunter who disguises herself as an adolescent boy serves as the inspiration for both Shakespeare’s homoerotic sonnets and those whose object of desire is a woman of dark complexion). Maybe this tells us something important about our cultural moment and the versions of Shakespeare with which we’re comfortable.
Or maybe not. At one point in the novel Shakespeare reflects on his compulsion to compose plays and poetry and thinks to himself: “Sometimes writing was a gift, other times a curse, but it was always fascinating.” This is simply untrue. Some writing is both a curse and not at all fascinating.