They stagger through movies, creep into our night reading and nightmares, and are the stars of our favorite TV shows. Zombies, the walking and living dead, have become a popular part of our culture. What is the history of these creatures and what were they in their infancy? Are they just a myth, or is there some reality to their existence? This article explores reanimated corpses’ origins, evolution and a chronological list of classic zombie reads written and published through time.
The History and Origins of Zombies
Zombies have a long history that dates back centuries. The concept of reanimated corpses traces back to ancient myths and folklore from various cultures worldwide. In Haitian folklore, for example, the belief in zombies originated from the practices of voodoo priests who were said to have the power to control the dead and bring them back to life.
The term “zombie” itself is believed to have originated from the West African word “nzambi,” which means “god” or “spirit of a dead person.” It was brought to the Americas through the slave trade and eventually became associated with the reanimated dead.
In the early 20th century, the concept of zombies gained popularity through literature. Authors like Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, William Seabrook, Seabury Quinn, and L. Ron Hubbard incorporated the idea of the walking dead into their works.
Originally, zombies, as written about in the pulp magazines of the early 20th century, were just that—reanimated corpses, often from the Caribbean or Africa, brought back to “life” to do their master’s bidding. Sometimes, these purposes were straightforward, involving manual labor, while others were far more sinister, such as committing murder.
While the first exposure most of us have had to a reanimated corpse is most likely Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which tells of the man-monster assembled from others’ body parts, other early tales have drawn on Haitian and voodoo lore to talk about “jumbees”—zombies—and the tasks set them by their masters. Working in the fields, as in William Seabrook’s The Magic Island, or murder, as in Seabury Quinn’s “The Corpse Master,” which appeared in Weird Tales in 1929, or “Dead Men Kill,” by L. Ron Hubbard—published in Thrilling Detective in 1934—in which a doctor creates his own zombies to carry out his wicked schemes.
Clark Ashton Smith carried it further in two more Weird Tales offerings set in his creation of Zothique where reanimated dead inhabited entire cities—solely to obey the orders of the necromancers who had summoned them back from the grave. Robert E. Howard of Conan fame tried his hand with zombies, although to less effect than with barbarians.
Pulp writers continued to draw on zombie lore to add dread and terror to their tales, and it was inevitable that such creations would spill over into movies. While one of the earliest zombie appearances was in 1932, and there were occasional forays into the land of the walking dead from then on, zombies in movies did not indeed hit their stride until the release of George A. Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. This black and white horror flick became a cult classic, spawning two remakes and five subsequent films.
The Portrayal of Zombies in Pop Culture
From Romero’s film to the hit TV show, The Walking Dead, zombies are often depicted as mindless, flesh-eating creatures who spread their infection through a bite. They are also used to explore human nature, survival instincts, and societal breakdown.
The popularity of zombies in pop culture has given rise to a subgenre known as “zombie fiction.” Books like Max Brooks’ World War Z and movies like Dawn of the Dead have provided fresh and unique takes on the zombie genre, expanding its appeal beyond just horror enthusiasts. Today, zombies can be found in video games, graphic novels, and even comedy films. Their appeal is far-reaching and adaptable to different storytelling mediums.
The Literary History of Zombies
Reanimated corpses, otherwise known as zombies, have their roots in ancient folklore, and storytellers have adapted and reimagined the concept throughout history. If it is in your DNA to get a thrill from these creatures, here is a list of books that will give you a chronological literary history of this subject.
1818: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.
While not strictly a zombie novel, this is a foundational work in the genre. This is the story of a scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who creates a sentient creature through an unorthodox scientific experiment.
1929: “The Corpse-Master” by Seabury Quinn.
This short story published in Weird Tales features a character who practices necromancy and reanimates the dead. The story delves into the darker aspects of resurrecting corpses for nefarious purposes.
1934: Dead Men Kill by L. Ron Hubbard.
In the pulp magazine Detective Story, a doctor creates zombies to carry out his criminal plans. The narrative revolves around the doctor’s use of reanimated corpses to further his evil schemes.
1930s: Zothique Stories by Clark Ashton Smith.
In this series of stories set in the distant future of a dying Earth on the last continent of Zothique, necromancers manipulate and control the reanimated dead, creating a dark and eerie atmosphere.
1930s: Zombie Stories by Robert E. Howard.
Known for Conan the Barbarian, Robert also wrote some zombie-themed stories, featuring elements of supernatural horror.
1954: I Am Legend by Richard Matheson.
This classic novel tells the story of the last man on Earth, Robert Neville, as he battles against vampire-like creatures that were once human. While not traditional zombie, the novel greatly influences modern zombie fiction and movies, particularly with its portrayal of a lone survivor in a post-apocalyptic world.
1987: Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon.
This post-apocalyptic novel features various supernatural elements, including a character reminiscent of a zombie known as the Man with the Scarlet Eye. The story explores the battle between good and evil in a devastated world.
2006: World War Z by Max Brooks.
This novel is a collection of firsthand accounts of a global war with zombies, exploring different aspects of the zombie apocalypse from various perspectives.
2006: Cell by Stephen King.
In this novel, a mysterious signal broadcast via cell phones turns people into zombie-like creatures. It follows a group of survivors as they navigate the chaos and try to understand the origin of the signal.
2009: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith.
This parody novel combines Jane Austen’s classic tale with a zombie apocalypse, adding an undead twist to the beloved story of manners and romance.
2010: Handling the Undead by John Ajvide Lindqvist.
In this novel, the dead return to live in Stockholm, and the story explores how society reacts to their reanimated loved ones and the ethical dilemmas surrounding the undead.
2011: Zone One by Colson Whitehead.
Set in post-apocalyptic New York City, this novel follows a survivor tasked with clearing out the remaining zombies from the city and reclaiming it for the living.
2014: The Zombie Survival Guide also by Max Brooks.
This book is a comprehensive guide on how to survive a zombie apocalypse, offering practical tips and strategies for dealing with the undead.
The Impact of Zombie Culture on Society
As fictional as the subject is, there is more to it than myth, folklore, and reanimated corpses. The rise of the zombie culture has significantly influenced our society with hundreds of articles, and scores of movies and films appearing. As this article is a Zombie Literature History 101, the only references to the far broader impact are a few telling social media comments:
“Let’s settle the debate: slow zombies vs. fast zombies—which ones give you the chills?”
“Ever since my first encounter with zombies, I’ve been hooked like a zombie on brains!”
“There’s something oddly thrilling about imagining a world overrun by the undead. Maybe it’s the survivalist in us speaking!”
“A special high-five to the cosplayers who bring our favorite undead characters to life at conventions!”
“Can we talk about the zombie apocalypse survival guides circulating online?”
Conclusion: Zombies Are a Work of Fiction
While zombies will continue to stimulate imaginations and provide thrilling entertainment, it is important to remember that they are purely a work of fiction that you can vicariously enjoy. If we forgot any significant zombie books, leave a note in the comments. May your imagination be with you!
For references on why zombies have become so popular in our culture, why the zombie craze will survive The Walking Dead, and how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides info (true!) from 2011 on surviving a zombie apocalypse, check out the following links: