By Bob Fingerman
What is it about the zombie genre that makes it such a tenacious sub-genre in our popular culture? Certainly it is not the nuanced characterization of the walking undead. From the opening scene of George Romero's 1968 genre-setting film Night of the Living Dead to present, zombies, with very few exceptions, have been rather two-dimensional in scope. They are reanimated corpses who have a singular existential urge: to devour human flesh. Not the most rounded characters. And yet they seem to have more staying than vampires, wizards and werewolves which lend themselves to complex characterization.
So what gives?
The difference is the secondary characters. While other similar styles of horror focus the narrative on the specific creature (be it vampires, werewolves or what have you), what many people fail to understand about (most of) the zombie genre is that the zombies are actually inconsequential to the story being told. Zombie lore, at it's finest, is social satire. The writer or director uses the notion of a zombie apocalypse as a way in which to render society down to a microcosm of our complex social networks. Zombies focus the multitude of humanity's ills and places them under a microscope for the writer or director to examine in detail.
The zombie element is simply a clever and visually exciting backdrop to the real story: the human drama unfolding in the farm house or the shaping mall or the tenement building. When zombie lore strays from this nowhere-to-run motif it often falls flat on its face (note: this does not include anything that is written or filmed from the perspective of the zombie... that's genre deconstruction and worthy of its own discussion. See Dust). George Romero himself is guilty of straying in some of his more recent work, especially Day of the Dead.
All this is not to say that those working within the zombie genre are entirely reined in with respect to how they tell their story. There is still more than enough creative leeway within the genre to sustain it for years to come.
Case in point, Bob Fingerman's novel Pariah. The novel begins months into the apocalypse. The streets of New York are wall to wall zombies. A group of people living in a building in (or near) the Bronx have barricaded themselves inside their own building and are slowly starving to death and/or going crazy. As with so much zombie lore, each character represents a specific social stereotype that the author wants to throw into his own personal meting pot. What would happen if we put a misogynistic jock, an elderly Jewish couple, an artist, a woman who has recently lost her husband and infant daughter, the son of a mid-western Jesus freak and a middle aged black dude all together in a tiny space? What if they couldn't leave? How would that pan out?
This story could just as easily take place on a lonely spacecraft in deep space or a collapsed mine or an Antarctic base during the winter. Really, it would work in any local that offered no immediate escape. It would just be difficult to explain how an elderly Jewish couple ended up in Antarctica. That's where the zombies come in handy. It doesn't hurt that they are creepy and gory and scary as well.
This is what Fingerman understands so well. Rather than try to re-invent the wheel, Fingerman stayed true to the spirit of that old farmhouse in Romero's original film. Pariah is very much about humans trying and failing to co-exist in times of extreme duress.
But if that was all there was to Pariah, why would it merit such a lofty discussion on the nature of zombie lore? Thankfully, Pariah brings more to the table than simply another retelling of the same rat-in-a-cage trope. Fingerman, in what can only be described as a moment of undead clarity, introduces the concept of zombie immunity. What if specific individuals, for whatever reason, repelled the walking undead? What if certain people were simply unappetizing to zombies and could walk among them entirely unmolested? How would that work?
Pariah isn't a perfect novel. I found that Fingerman threw far too many pop culture references into his dialogue and internal monologue. While I fully understand the pervasive nature of books, music, films and the like, I don't think that people living under these conditions would reference SCTV or Dumb and Dumber that often. A lot of the pop culture references felt shoehorned into the narrative as a way for Fingerman to sound off about his own views rather than develop his characters. Unless, of course, he was insinuating that the sum of our culture doesn't amount to anything more than what we know about The Addams Family. In that case, this book is even more depressing than I initially thought.
But that's a minor inconvenience to an otherwise thought-provoking addition to the zombie oeuvre. I'm not one for spoilers so I'm just going to urge those who enjoy all things zombie to read Pariah. I'll admit that if you aren't a fan of the genre I don't think this will be the novel to turn you on to zombies, but if you, like me, crave all things living dead, this is a can't miss novel. It maintains all of the standard features that drew you into the zombie sub-genre to begin with, stays true to the mythology established by George Romero and throws just enough monkey wrench into the cogs to leave you asking more questions that it answers. Pariah is certainly a next step sort of work and, in time, should be considered canon for the keepers of zombie lore.