Zombies invade politics and YA fiction

by Alicia Rudnicki, Library Mix

Before digging into the sunny yet macabre world of Stacey Jay’s young adult (YA) novel You Are So Undead to Me, it is first necessary to dig into a bowl of cornflakes and the Saturday newspaper.

The pop-ed page
For many people, Saturdays are for relaxing. You don’t wake up in an oh-so-serious, rush-rush mood. They are good days for considering fascinating, pop-culture questions such as the one posed by syndicated columnist David Sirota. In a recent op-ed piece, Sirota asked, “What’s with all the zombies lately?”

Not too long ago, I pondered similar thoughts in an article that concerned how the blockbuster bloodfest movie Zombieland is cathartic for viewers who are angry at our lumbering economy.

“Who doesn’t want to beat this New Depression with a stick or something worse?” I asked.

So on a recent Saturday morning, while consuming Sirota’s column while consuming coffee, I wasn’t surprised by his observation that zombies have become a popular metaphor in American politics over the past year.

Zombies, Sirota said, “first entered the colloquial economic lexicon during the collapse of the financial institutions that were cannibalizing the economy. From a balance-sheet perspective, many of these firms were dead. But they were quickly reanimated as zombie banks with trillions of taxpayer dollars.”

Say what?

What is up with the zombies?
Reanimated. Now there’s a word that pops up a lot in Jay’s novel, where there isn’t just a one-size-fits-all zombie like there is in Zombieland. In You Are So Undead to Me there are good zombies and there are very bad zombies known as “reanimated corpses” who would be the perfect clients for reanimated banks.

The streets of New York, Philadelphia, and other big cities are looking plenty animated these days with followers of the reanimated. Teens and young adults  spend significant chunks (pardon the noun) of their time dressing up as zombies and wandering the streets during “zombie crawls.” There are even branches of underground (excuse me, again) rock music such as “psychobilly”—a combination of punk and rockabilly—that generate songs such as “Livin’ or Dyin’” and “Brand New Corpse.”

So politics aside, what is up with all the zombies? Originally, these flesh-eating monsters hailed from the voo-doo traditions of the Caribbean and resided solely in folklore and B-list movies. But now they are the fare of teen bedtime reading.

World War Z
Some, such as Sirota and Stefan Dziemianowicz of Publishers Weekly say that much of the current rage for zombies derives from the zombie “guides” and popular 2007 novel World War Z by former Saturday Night Live writer Max Brooks.

Perhaps. However, it is probably more accurate to say that the current obsession with zombies comes from youth culture. In particular, the headwaters of popular zombiculture spring from the video games that were inspired long ago by George Romero’s classic Vietnam-era movie Night of the Living Dead.

Eventually, all that video gaming led to the shelves of bookstores and libraries where you can find many young adult novels preoccupied with the not so dearly departed, stories such as the hilarious 2009 teen romance You Are So Undead to Me.

An unsettling problem
Megan Berry is a 15-year-old wannabe cheerleader with an unusual problem. She is a “settler.”

Forget all your Little House on the Prairie notions that are connected to that word. Megan “settles” corpses that have risen from the dead when they have a grievance with the living or some other unfinished business. These are benign zombies, gentle spirits who just want to rest in peace.

Megan, who inherited her settler genes from her mom, must interview the zombies to determine why they are on the lam.

“Welcome to your after-death session,” Megan professionally greets one such moldy visitor to her house as she jots information in her settler notebook. “My name is Megan. May I have your name, last name first?”

Helping zombies go back to sleep
After helping to resolve the zombie’s problem, she must lead him back to his grave. The final step in settling the undead is to tidy up by sealing his grave with magic spells chanted in Latin so he will stay put.

Terrible things can happen if graves aren’t sealed. The zombies can rise again and wander around the countryside going “rogue,” which is code for a harmless zombie who wanders around scaring people.

Worse yet, a settler must also be prepared to combat reanimated corpses— zombies brought to life through black magic. These are the kind who want to take a big chomp out of you.

Homecoming horrors
As with so many teenagers, Megan wishes that she could have had more control over her genes. Nevertheless, she doesn’t seem to see her unusual calling as the biggest problem in her life—at least not at the beginning of her story.

As the novel opens, Megan is far more concerned with her prospects for gaining a cool date to the high school homecoming dance.

Do you see where this is going?

Proms and homecoming dances in YA fiction haven’t hip hopped to a happy-go-lucky beat ever since Stephen King published his 1974 classic horror novel Carrie.

While Carrie is so sad and freakish that the novel and movie are difficult to revisit, the horror in Jay’s novel is heavily leavened with humor.

Faced with the puzzling mystery of triplet reanimated zombies, Megan observes, “I had just enough time to notice that their French manicures were in awfully good shape for chicks who’d dug themselves out from under six feet of dirt before we were on the floor, rumbling like something from the WWWF.”

A sweet bit of the supernatural?

Budding romance and Megan’s increasing capability at dealing with her peculiar life, further soften the bashing and biting of You Are So Undead to Me.

This is the kind of supernatural YA novel that mothers can feel comfortable letting their daughters sneak under the covers with a flashlight. It isn’t going to inspire screaming nightmares even if the promotional trailer for Jay’s upcoming novel (shown below) is designed to look scary.

Mothers don’t worry about letting your daughters grow up to be zombie novel lovers. Like the economy, it’s probably just a phase you will learn to live through.

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