The Zombie as Reflective of Contemporary Setting
In the opening of Zombieland, we see zombies from diverse communities, cultures and careers. From the Washington D.C. politico zombie to the band of little girl, suburban princess party zombies to the stripper zombie with nipple tassels, the forms our zombies take in our narratives add immediate atmosphere, tone and setting. Each zombie must be hand-picked, every gash and rotted wound must have significance. The details of the zombie will immediately set a tone, mood and expectation for the reader. If you were to pick one zombie and hand-crafted every single seeping wound, lost limb, tattered clothing item so to reflect you now in your current setting–home, career, self-concept, identity–what would your zombie look like? Consider how this zombie might attack in such with subtle differentiation so that it is meaningful to its former “identity.”
As you consider your zombie and its attack, let’s explore Chechov’s “gun on the mantle” premise in literary narrative, more specifically The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Though this narrative does not include zombies, it does include cannibals and a dead world. It also will give us an excellent example of Chechov’s “gun on the mantle,” in which, we can contemplate the “zombie on the mantle.” More details below.
Chechov’s Gun on the Mantle: Exploring The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Writing zombies well means remembering Chechov’s “gun on the mantle” theory. If the narrative places a gun on the mantle, the gun better go off at some point in the narrative. Likewise, if the narrative places a zombie “on the mantle,” the zombie better go off at some point in the narrative.
This week, you are going to focus on writing a single zombie as the “gun on the mantle.” You will focus on every wound, seeping eyehole and lost limb. Zombies usually do not talk or “think” in their narratives, though, as in Warm Bodies, we see this as a changing attribute. In our narrative this week, however, we’ll go old school and keep our zombie speechless and mindless. We are going to let the wounds and tattered clothing of the zombie speak of its former human life. And just as in “the gun on the mantle” theory, we’re going to have our zombie, “go off.” Let’s use The Road as a preeminent study for this “gun on the mantle” principle as well as an excellent study of linguistic mastery. The Road (Pulitzer Winner) has become the heralded example of literary minimalism for both literary and speculative writers alike. (You’ll notice in this excerpt that McCarthy has a dislike for apostrophes, quotation marks and commas. It’s his thing. You’ll get used to it as you continue reading.)
In the following scene from The Road, the man, protagonist, and his son have just snuck out of a house where a band of cannibals keep a “quarry” of humans in the cellar. The cannibals are just returning to the house. The man and boy are sneaking off, trying to avoid detection:
They crawled slowly through the leaves toward what looked like lower ground. He lay listening, holding the boy. He could hear them in the road talking. Voice of a woman. Then he heard them in the dry leaves. He took the boy’s hand and pushed the revolver into it. Take it, he whispered. Take it. The boy was terrified. He put his arm around him and held him. His body so thin. Dont be afraid, he said. If they find you you are going to have to do it. Do you understand? Shh. No crying. Do you hear me? You know how to do it. You put it in your mouth and point it up. Do it quick and hard. Do you understand? Stop crying. Do you understand?
I think so.
No. Do you understand?
Say yes I do Papa.
Yes I do Papa.
He looked down at him. All he saw was terror. He took the gun from him. No you dont, he said.
I dont know what to do, Papa. I dont know what to do. Where will you be?
I dont know what to do.
Shh. I’m right here. I wont leave you.
Yes. I promise. I was going to run. To try and lead them away. But I cant leave you.
Shh. Stay down.
I’m so scared.
They lay listening. Can you do it? When the time comes? When the time comes there will be no time. Now is the time. Curse God and die. What if it doesnt fire? It has to fire. What if it doesnt fire? Could you crush that beloved skull with a rock? Is there such a being within you of which you know nothing? Can there be? Hold him in your arms. Just so. The soul is quick. Pull him toward you. Kiss him. Quickly.
In this example, McCarthy plays with the “gun on the mantle” but in a unique and horrifying way. The narrative presents the gun, which we already knew was there, but in this scene it is presented again in such an immediate way and with such tragic potential that once the reader is brought to this point with the man and his son, we cannot easily walk away from it. There must be some sense of closure to this gun scene. The gun must somehow go off. Instead of a literal “shot,” McCarthy presents an emotional “shot,” aimed directly at the reader’s humanity and emotions.
McCarthy might have had the man shoot one of the cannibals, but this is expected, a shootout sort of commonplace end to an emotional rising arc within the scene. Plus, there are only two bullets left in the gun. These bullets, the reader already understands are meant for the man and the boy, should they ever be cornered by rapists and cannibals. Being the dramatic master McCarthy is, he instead forces the reader into an unflinching contemplation of violence that leaves the reader shaking, emotionally exhausted and ready to move on. In this scene, the “gun on the mantle” arc completes itself with the protagonist contemplating the lesser of two evils–mercy killing his son or letting his son be taken, raped and eaten (quite possibly a piece at a time as the boy is kept alive and cut repeatedly away in a cage or cellar. Yes. The horror of all horrors.) In this scene, the gun does not literally go off, but the emotional horror and honesty of the potential of the gun going off, a father contemplating the most horrific act possible in order to save his son from an even more horrific event and death, is enough of an emotional spike and exhaustion to satisfy Chechov’s “gun on the mantle” test.
Chiaroscuro: After this particularly draining and horrific scene, the man and boy huddle on the ground and spend a cold evening hiding in the woods and listening to screams from the nearby house where the cannibals kept their “quarry.” The next day they sneak off and quickly come upon an apple orchard with rotting but edible apples and a cistern full of clean, delicious water. This is an oasis of sorts for them after such a horrific night. This scene allows the reader a moment of “light” contrast to the pervading “dark” of the narrative. Chiaroscuro. Additionally, the goodness of the man protecting his son, who is the “good” or angelic character of the narrative, presents on ongoing chiaroscuro. We will look at narrative chiaroscuro with more detail below.
Zombies are generally predictable. Whether your zombie moves slow or fast, it’s trying to feed. Always feed. It feeds on live human, or animal, flesh. As we read in Brooks’ Survival Guide, zombie’s will often speed up, become more determined, stronger and more vicious when they have live human flesh in their grasps or close to grasping. Zombies will often follow other zombies. There is usually very little to differentiate zombies apart from their wounds and tattered clothing, except for one often-used strategy: zombies will sometimes retain “muscle memories” of their lives–i.e., the little girl zombie picking up her stuffed bunny in The Walking Dead, the hordes of shopping mall zombies in Dawn of the Dead.
Zombies can and often do recreate the mindless habits of their lives, which leads our protagonists to sometimes question whether or not there is still some life left in a zombie, especially a previously loved one. In Warm Bodies, this suspicion becomes realized and a central narrative arc to the storyline. In nearly every zombie narrative, however, this wishful thinking gets the live character into trouble, usually bitten or nearly bitten. This wishful thinking, this very human desire to rekindle life in a zombie that was once a loved one is a fantastic trove of narrative tension. Perhaps, one of the most successful and emotionally dramatic examples of this “wishful thinking” is in The Walking Dead’s first season, first episode:
Rick luckily is found by a man named Morgan Jones and his son, Duane, both of whom teach Rick the basic lessons of survival. They explain the “walker” situation and how the walkers are dead. Morgan explains how he watched his wife die and turn into a walker. She is currently walking the street outside the house. Morgan reconciles that he must “kill” her because it would bring him and his son closure. He believes it would be more humane than leaving her in a zombie state, but each time he sets the rifle sites upon her, he cannot bring himself to do it. He still sees her as the woman he loves, the mother of his son. The power of this scene is subtle, emotionally honest and reflective of a very real scenario all people experience at some point, whether it is divorce, breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, cutting ties with a family member or friend who has become so dysfunctional that the relationship puts the other at serious personal risk. We sometimes must “kill off” our visions we have of others so to move on, survive, grow and find happiness again. Yet, it is one of the most difficult things to do. Morgan Jones cannot “kill” his wife because he sees her as a time past, a time when family, love and security was a part of his life. Killing his wife now means killing a piece of himself he isn’t yet ready to let go. His wife is reflective of what he’s lost and a foil to his better self.
In creating your zombie and protagonist, consider how they are each foils of the other. Perhaps they were in a relationship and at one time reflected both the best and worst in each other. Perhaps the zombie is a complete stranger but something about the zombie’s previous life, as reflected in its current state, mirrors the protagonist’s sense of self or the self the protagonist does not want to see. What would happen if the protagonist chained the zombie and tried to interact, such as at the end of Shaun of the Dead? In this protagonist and zombie as foils study, how does the final “killing” of the zombie or refusal to “kill” the zombie reflect progression in the protagonist’s character arc?
Chiaroscuro: The use of light and dark as contrast in order to further develop the dramatic within art forms.
How do narratives use chiaroscuro to create dramatic tension and focus? Very simple. As we’ve already explored, the human hope and desire for a cure, a safe haven, love, friendship, camaraderie, etcetera becomes the “light” against a very “dark” setting of death, betrayal, monsters, diminishing resources, criminals and so on. The setting serves as both the contrast and the reflection of the protagonist. This forms an excellent irony and dichotomy within the narrative, which further develops the narrative tension for the reader. Essentially, the setting is a foil to the protagonist as well as the “zombie character.”
Whether you choose a near-future, world is actively crumbling setting, or the full on post-apocalypic setting, or the moments when the first bites are occurring and most of the world is still clueless as to what is coming setting, it is essential to consider how this setting will reflect the character’s arc.
In McCarthy’s The Road, the setting is full on post-apocalyptic. We’re not even fully certain how or why the world has “died.” We are led to believe it is some sort of environmental event. Some readers are certain it is nuclear holocaust. Others are just as certain it was a natural disaster of some sort. Either way, it doesn’t matter. The focus is on characters and how they are dealing with it is what is important.
Where some zombie narratives will focus on a “world building” sort of why and how the zombies started and so on, the character-focused zombie narrative will pay little attention to this, the one exception being World War Z. Brooks’ takes a unique approach. The narrative faces the “why” question head on and lets it drive the framework of the narrative without letting it be the main conflict of the narrative. As the characters strive to find the origin, cure, best survival practices, the more pressing conflicts are how each character faces his or her own weaknesses and fears to become the survivor. Chiaroscuro.
In Zombieland, the narrative gives us a quick synopsis of the “end of the world” and then we move very quickly into an up close and personal, boy meets girl, survival story. Each scene is hand-picked for the “human story” developing as a light and “good” focus with this dark and “bad” setting backdrop. Chiaroscuro.
Any good narrative, zombie or realist literary, will employ this essential chiaroscuro element. Without it, the story lacks depth. It is two-dimensional and emotionally lacking. This week, consider how you can further develop this chiaroscuro in your narrative.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy (If you have not yet started this novel, go ahead and begin reading now. The way McCarthy employs chiaroscuro and setting in this novel is unparalleled. Whether you choose a dramatic or comedic approach in your zombie narratives, the study of McCarthy’s chiaroscuro and setting will be greatly helpful as part of your narrative toolbox.)
In 1000 words or less, write one human protagonist, one zombie and a dark setting. This is a single moment, a single scene, where the protagonist and zombie reflect each other, their pasts. The protagonist will have some form of hope. Perhaps the zombie was a loved one and the protagonist believes he or she can rehabilitate it back to life. In all of this, the setting will reflect the pervading hopelessness of the protagonist’s fantasy. The zombie is the “gun on the mantle.” That zombie will “go off” by the end of the scene in one way or another. You will make the detailed choices of how this will happen and how your protagonist will handle it. As always, this scene can be written as seriously dramatic or comedic. Your choice. We’ve explored a seriously dark and dramatic version in The Road. For an excellent study of how this scene might play out in humor, watch Shaun of the Dead (if you haven’t already.) The final scene is a good study for this.
How did you feel reading the above scene from The Road? Was it too dark for you, the sort of scene you could never see yourself writing, or did it impress your writerly sensibilities more than it horrified? Consider how your reaction to this scene might inform your development as a writer of dark and/or darkly comedic fiction and briefly explain your thoughts below.
Guidelines, Submissions & Formatting
- Due Date: Sunday, 6 pm.
- Submission Link: Submit to the FORUM.
- Submission Format: Attach an MS Word document in Universal Manuscript Format with the following format (this format is firm and universal). Double-spaced, 12 point font, Times New Roman, 1 in margins, heading with name, address, email, website (if applicable), and phone number on page one. Page two and forward should have in the top right corner your last name and page number.
- Word Count: 1000 words or less (this is firm)
- First Draft: As you write the first draft, let your creativity go where it needs to go. First drafts are meant to be messy and creatively uninhibited. After writing the first draft, lay it to the side for at least a day before revising.
- Second Draft: Read through again, and revise for language and lyricism. Consider, during this revision, how the two characters interact and what that might mean in a sociopolitical and/or human relationship way. How do they foil each other? Flesh out any sections that might further reflect this sociopolitical undercurrent of the work but be careful not to make this undercurrent too obvious. Let the reader have room to work this out for him or herself. Remember, we don’t answer questions for our readers, we simply prompt our readers to ask good questions. Giving our readers room to make meaning for themselves within our narratives is a sign of artistic and literary excellence. Now, lay the work aside for at least a day before your next revision.
- Third Draft: Now read this revision aloud as you record yourself. Upon listening to your recording, consider any language issues in your revision. You might also ask a trusted reader to read the manuscript aloud to you as you sit with your own copy and make revisions. Hearing our language aloud is one of the quickest and surest ways to improve pacing, tone, and cadence.
- Forum: Upload your course-created work to your course and month forum so that other students in the course can read your work and give you feedback on your story. MAKE SURE YOU ARE UPLOADING YOUR STORY TO THE CORRECT FORUM AND COURSE. Group feedback runs on the honor code. Submit only one work by the due date, next Sunday 6 pm. Your feedback given on each story need be no more than a paragraph or two and should include elements that are working and elements that require further work.
- Favorite Forum Works: Beginning with Week 2, after you’ve read through all the student submissions, pick your favorite work from each peer’s course-created content. Mark this work as favorited. At the end of the course, you will each be able to review each others’ profiles and see which of your works are the favorites of your peers and instructor.
- Submissions to the Instructor: The last week of class, you will choose one favorite piece from the works you’ve created in this course for submission to Rae. You will be given the chance to flesh it out and make it longer. Your peers will give feedback on your story in short paragraph form. Rae will give you specific copy editing and contextual feedback.
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