It’s Not Easy Being Undead

The travails of a Toronto zombie

Now that he has been turned into a zombie, Sheldon Funk misses a number of things. Breathing. Yawning. Blowing his nose. Sex, not so much.

In the opening pages of Husk, Corey Redekop’s madcap zombie yarn, Sheldon faces a more pressing problem. Two guys in white lab coats are cutting him open and tearing out his vital organs. Roaring into action, Sheldon rises from his gurney, trashes the morgue, dispatches his tormentors, snacks on their remains and trundles off into the night, kicking off a comic, picaresque novel that, although occasionally over the top, is fresh, original and engaging.

Determined to get on with afterlife, Sheldon stuffs his innards into his eviscerated torso and considers binding his wounds with duct tape. Canadian identity may be elusive, but apparently it outlasts death. Toronto turns out to be a tough town for zombies. “Snow and wind battered me,” Sheldon relates as he trudges away from the hospital, “pushing me across the ice rink of a parking lot.” Is he the only zombie in the city, he wonders. If so, he has beaten the odds. His next thoughts establish the comic tone. He decides to buy lottery tickets on the way home, then wonders if he should stop by Canadian Tire to purchase a scythe.

Deeper thoughts trouble him. Is he death itself, a dark angel sent to gather living souls? What might eternity hold for a self-described gay, atheistic, chronically unemployed 30-something? Come to think of it, since he is dead, how can it be that he still has a mind? What does it mean to be a zombie, exactly?

The notion of the dangerous undead has deep roots. In the epic of Gilgamesh, recorded on stone tablets circa 2000 BCE, the goddess Ishtar curses the future with a dark promise: “I will raise up the dead and they will eat the living.” Indeed, as history unfolds, the undead keep popping up. The ghoul, a demon native to Arabian mythology, lures travellers into the desert and devours them. The revenant, a corpse freed from the grave, haunts the folklore of the Middle Ages. The zombie, a relative newcomer to western culture, came to us in its original form through the work of Zora Neale Hurston, an African-American folklorist who travelled the Caribbean in the 1930s, recording legends and myths. Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica, a volume of non-fiction published in 1938, documents the rituals and superstitions Hurston encountered. Scholars believe that the legend of the zombie took ship in Africa with the miserable captives bound for the slave plantations of the new world. The connection with slavery is fundamental. Beckoned from the grave by a voudon sorcerer, the Caribbean zombie is condemned to an eternity of toil, a fate that caps the horror of slavery with a cruel irony. America has a sweet tooth for the macabre; the country took to the zombie immediately. The shadowy figure of a mindless monster, with its racial overtones, became a staple of mid-century radio drama and horror films.

Oblivious to all this, Sheldon stumbles home, feeds the cat and faces an identity crisis. Who was he, exactly? An actor, he learns; his agent has left an audition call on his answering machine. With the notable exception of his flesh-crazed rampages, Sheldon is a zombie in the Canadian mode: self-effacing, caring, conscientious. He may be dead, but he has a mother in a nursing home, and someone has to pay the rent. A second career begins; zombies do well in casting calls. He learns to speak, after a fashion, and he finds ways—often hilarious—to cope with his decaying flesh. You cannot keep a good zombie down, and Sheldon takes the American media by storm, a development that suggests certain truths are perpetual—to make it big, even the Canadian undead head for the States. The story rollicks along with Redekop supplying a steady stream of laugh-aloud moments. My favourite comes when Oprah tells Sheldon that he has crawled his way “out of the grave and straight into her heart.”

Being a zombie has its advantages. “I had some new lines to go over before shooting started the next day, but since I no longer slept, I had plenty of time for memorization later.” “My hair is static, which saves on hairdressing fees.” Sheldon gets by, prospers even, constantly fighting the itch to go wild and feast on human flesh.

Sheldon’s inner zombie—an insatiable, pestiferous, clannish cannibal who prowls the land by night—stems from The Night of the Living Dead, the low-budget horror flick that took the drive-ins by storm in 1968. George Romero’s iconic film went on to make millions and to earn the ultimate accolade—a screening at the Museum of Modern Art. Zombie-ologists insist that the monsters in Romero’s first film are never called zombies. Nevertheless, the connection is clear, and Romero claimed the term in subsequent movies.

If the idea of a Canadian zombie seems a stretch, we should remember that zombies have roots in Toronto. Diary of the Dead, Romero’s latest film, was shot in that chameleon city, disguised as usual as various American locales. The Toronto Zombie Walk, a piece of street theatre that lets everyone dress down and lurch around, first saw the light of day in 2003.

With the events of September 2001 came a zombie boom. The harrowing spectacle of victims stumbling away from the ruins, white with dust, struck a resonant, apocalyptic chord. Zombie movies and zombie novels proliferated. The Walking Dead, an American TV series that debuted in 2010, is typical of the genre: a band of survivors fight to stay alive in a world terrorized by zombie hoards. Ishtar would be pleased.

Redekop, always a clever writer, lets the zombie tell its side of the story. As Sheldon grapples with his predicament, he acquires an endearing complexity. He tries to distance himself from his dilemma by casting it in poetic prose: “The world around me blurred red, and all was blood and hunger.” He looks for the bright side, reflecting, for instance, that as an actor, “Death had provided me an unsettling and savage charisma I had lacked in life.” He puzzles over zombie-ism like a philosopher possessed—who gets to be a zombie, and why?—creating a narrative thread that reads like a parody of the Calvinist doctrine of election. A child of the age of therapy, Sheldon eventually tries on a pop-psych explanation: “Raised from an early age on a steady pop culture diet of late-night B-movies on cable television, I have always believed the classic zombie to be obsessed with the cannibalistic consumption of human flesh. So following the path of logic, I eat people because, subconsciously, I believe I am supposed to.” Late in the novel, a tormentor endorses this circular thinking and adds a burden of guilt: “You couldn’t even be a proper zombie,” Sheldon is told. “You had to be conflicted.”

The line between drama and comedy is a tightrope, and Redekop keeps the narrative in balance until the last sequence, when, for this reader at least, events take an unlikely turn—even for a zombie novel. Still, the plot never spoils the fun, and we should not fault Sheldon for not figuring it all out. He comes close. As the novel concludes, our zombie antihero rails at his fate and speaks with an eerie clairvoyance: “a crazy impulse took me and I yelled, ‘I am Spartacus!’” In that moment of self-knowledge, the zombie comes full circle and is once again a creature born of slavery.