8 Zombie Stories Without Any Zombies

Malcolm Devlin, author of "And Then I Woke Up," breaks down the characteristics of the walking dead genre

Screenshot from "Night of the Living Dead"
Screenshot from “Night of the Living Dead”

Zombies didn’t discriminate. Everyone tasted equally good as far as zombies were concerned. And anyone could be a zombie. You didn’t have to be special, or good at sports, or good-looking. You didn’t have to smell good, or wear the right kind of clothes, or listen to the right kind of music. You just had to be slow.”

“Some Zombie Contingency Plans” by Kelly Link

The zombie story is an analogy fitted with a universal adaptor.

At the end of George Romero’s 1963 film, Night of the Living Dead, the apocalypse appears to have burnt itself out. A posse of good ol’ boys work their way through the countryside, picking off the remaining zombies with the brutal efficiency of a livestock cull. In the nearby farmhouse, Ben, the sole survivor of the night’s horrors and the film’s hero, risks a glance out the window as the cavalry approaches. He’s mistaken for one of the undead and shot through the head before he can say anything. His corpse is then thrown on the bonfire with the remains of the creatures who spent the previous night trying to eat him. 

Romero has argued the film was never intended to directly comment on U.S. civil rights era tensions, but the casting of Duane Jones—an African American actor—as Ben, shifts the film’s weight from what could have been a simple but inventive monster movie into something far more resonant and shocking. 

Subsequent zombie stories have explored ideas as diverse as consumerism, the military industrial complex, urban malaise, terminal illness and even putting a child up for adoption. 

Defining “zombie” in terms of the George Romero’s ravenous undead Hollywood monster rather than the Haitian mythology the term was lifted from, there are countless lists of recommendations for zombie novels where the zombie apocalypse can stand in for anything and everything. Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, Max Brooks’ World War Z, Mira Grant’s Feed novels and so many more. 

Given the monster’s origins on the screen, the genre is an inherently cinematic one too but not all zombie films are equal and sometimes the wrong metaphor can be read. To my mind, too many resort to crass survivalist fantasies where the zombie hordes represent a narratively useful subsection of society where it’s permissible for the heroes to kill with impunity.

When Kelly Link’s collection Magic For Beginners was reviewed by the New York Times, the reviewer questioned whether or not the zombies in “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” were metaphorical or not. This kicked up a brief, pocket-sized controversy in the genre world. Sometimes, it was argued, a zombie is an actual zombie and there should be no shame in that at all. All absolutely true, except of course that Kelly Link’s stories are all such marvelously slippery, wriggly things that describing any of them with absolutes feels mortifying and foolish. At a pinch, you might describe “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” as being about a doomsday prepper with a magic painting who gatecrashes a house party, but that barely scratches the surface. Link, after all, is the sort of dizzyingly accomplished writer who can have zombies both real and metaphorical and—as a lap of honor—keep both of them well off the page for the duration of the story.

My novella, And Then I Woke Up, is not really a zombie story, but it borrows the aesthetics of one and— don’t tell anyone—sometimes pretends to be. 

Just in case anyone thinks that my not-zombies are a slight against genre stories with real, actual zombies in them, I’ve taken the liberty of collecting eight stories which largely aren’t zombie stories at all and I will now try and prove they are all zombie stories at heart and thus restore balance to the world. 

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

To me, many zombie stories feel like the third act of something larger. I’ve always felt that their natural shape is lines converging to a remorseless point and this is why I think they work best in the shorter form. Zombies—traditionally at least—are slow moving and, when encountered in low numbers, easy enough to avoid even at a brisk walk, but zombie stories aren’t really about surviving, they’re about sinking to any level to avoid the inevitability of death. The zombies are not only a threat, they serve as a shuffling momento mori. The inevitability of death has been superseded by the inevitability of undeath. While you might do your best to keep them out, you will make a mistake, your defences will be flawed, and when they fail they will be there, waiting. 

Cormac McCarthy has been accused of nihilism before, so in a sense, The Road feels like a natural progression of his work. Here, the world has already ended and what remains is the lingering long tail before the lights are extinguished for good. There are no zombies here, so there’s nothing else to blame. There are no monsters to exacerbate matters except those that were here already. At risk of belittling the novel with such a lumpenly crass observation, this doesn’t mean the rest of McCarthy’s slim, devastating novel doesn’t tick almost every other checkbox on the zombie apocalypse list. Blasted landscape? Feral gangs? Cannibalism? All here, along with desperate survivors trying their best to cling to the map. That there’s beauty here too—in the spare, unsentimental prose and the desperate love between the father and son—that feels like the last magical dance of the pilot light before it goes out.

“The Birds” by Daphne DuMaurier

Daphne Du Maurier’s bleak short story was first published in 1952. Farm worker Nat Hocken witnesses nature twist, turning local birdlife violent against humankind. Nat has the foresight to batten down the hatches before the storm arrives, but again, the story ends with little hope that he or his family will survive much longer. 

Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation was released eleven years after the story’s publication. It begins by pretending to be a romantic comedy, but ends in a very similar place to the original. The survivors of the siege venture out during a lull and and to all intents and purposes make their escape. Famously, Hitchcock refused to include a title card marking “The End”, so how far they actually get is left to the viewer. 

Five years later in 1968, George Romero’s Night of The Living Dead arrived. The proximity of the releases of those two films has always taken me a little by surprise as there remains something so fiercely modern about Romero’s film that it still bewilders me to think of it as a near contemporary with Hitchcock’s classic. 

Moreover, Night of the Living Dead is—I would suggest—what you would get if you tried to remake The Birds but didn’t have the budget for any special effects. Both are stories in which something passive rises up against the living. In both, survivors hole up somewhere isolated and snatches of radio reports give the event a sense of scale. The phenomenon, they will learn, is going on everywhere, and then the broadcasts fall silent and then there is something at the door. 

In some respects, Romero’s version is a more faithful adaptation of Du Maurier’s story than Hitchcock’s. There’s a similar sparse desperation to the narrative, a similar hopeless cruelty to its denouement. Du Maurier’s story isn’t a zombie story in itself, but I don’t think it’s too far fetched to suggest the bones of it have taken on an undead sort of life of their own.

The Migration by Helen Marshall

Helen Marshall’s novel takes its cue from Aristophanes’ The Birds rather than DuMaurier’s. Moreover, there’s hope here—if not for us, Marshall argues, then for the generations who might follow.

In a world ravaged by climate change, a pandemic is taking the world’s young. Children are dying and to make things worse, they’re not quite staying dead. 

Zombie stories are frequently pandemic stories, and I wonder if they’ve achieved a new sort of resonance following the Coronavirus outbreak which made the world grind to a halt over the past few years. All that news footage of cities in lockdown, endless empty streets that should be bustling with life, could easily be mistaken for footage from any contemporary zombie movie. Marshall’s pandemic is even more horrifying, the victims—all children—are afflicted by some kind of toxoplasmosis, which leads them to actively facilitate their own deaths. Drifting from the safety of the path, veering into traffic or towards the relentless rising floodwaters. When the bodies start twitching in the hospital morgues, it almost comes as something of a relief. Zombies! Of course! We’re much better equipped to deal with those than whatever else is happening here!

But The Migration isn’t really a horror story. These juddering, metamorphosing corpses aren’t zombies, and although Stephen King’s Pet Sematary is invoked on the back cover, these kids aren’t coming back with a nasty look in their eye and a scalpel hidden behind their back. Something much stranger and— surprisingly—more beautiful is happening and I defy anyone to read the final chapter without choking back a sob.

(Full disclosure, Helen and I married in 2019 and have a small sprog of our own now. One of these days he’s going to read this book and I suspect he’ll have many questions.)

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori 

Zombie stories are frequently stories of betrayal. Like many classic monsters, a zombie is powerful because they can wear the faces of those you love. Worse still, if you fall to a zombie, you too will become one and now those you love are at risk from you. 

Earthlings isn’t about zombies at all. As a girl, Natsuki tells her cousin Yuu she is a magician, given powers and missions by her stuffed toy hedgehog. For his part, Yuu admits that he’s actually an alien, originally hailing from Planet Popinpobopia. All of this is delivered in the same matter-of-fact deadpan voice Murata employed in Convenience Store Woman, another short, sharper-than-you-expect novel involving a protagonist living just outside the periphery of society’s expectation. 

Natsuki and Yuu (and later, Natsuki’s husband-of-convenience, Tomoya), come to believe the real world is nothing more than a Baby Factory. The conviction that their only purpose is to breed and consume is not entirely unreasonable given how Natsuki’s family are as cartoonishly awful as any villains from a Roald Dahl novel. In this manner, Murata paints polite society as the zombie hoard that you must escape or be assimilated into. 

Natsuki’s narration is both naive and utterly confident and the effect is disorientating. The same feather-light tone she employs to outline her whimsical fantasies is used to detail her abuse at the hands of a predatory school teacher. As the ending veers sharply into gonzo delirium that would be more at home in a Lucio Fulci move, there’s a lingering sense that a parallel—more conventional story—is somewhere in the background, too heartbreaking to be fully told.

Resurrection Points” in Midnight Doorways by Usman T. Malik

I have a theory about zombie stories, that some consider them to be a genre-sequel, or a genre-progression of the traditional ghost story. Like many sequels there’s a more-is-more approach. If a ghost story asks “What if a friend you knew to be dead was standing in your room,” a zombie story would ask “What if a friend you knew to be dead was standing in your room, and what if they’re hungry?”

“Resurrection Points” isn’t quite a zombie story—not in the traditional sense. It might be said to be a prequel to an unwritten zombie story, and in those terms, to me, it reads to me as a ghost story with real flesh on its bones. Daoud has inherited his family’s remarkable gift. With the correct training from his father, he can activate certain pressure points within the human body and in such a manner, he can relieve arthritis, make dead muscles move and perhaps—just perhaps—he might even raise the dead themselves. When he asks his father if there are more like him, his father nods and adds, “the Prophet Isa is said to have returned men to life.”

It’s a dangerous name to invoke. As the neighborhood descends into sectarian violence, the violent mob burning up the edges of the story is very much alive. It becomes very clear Daoud will be using his gift before the day is done, and it’s just as clear the ramifications will be alarming.

“Resurrection Points” is an elegantly weighted story told with the measured intelligence. Malik is both a rheumatologist and a poet of darker corners, he’s adept at making the page seem alive beneath your fingertips.

Uzumaki by Junji Ito

One aspect of zombie infection stories is the idea that those afflicted find themselves at the mercy of awful, unstoppable compulsions. Driven by hunger, fury, or a senseless destruction. The zombies scour those who have been left behind.

In Junji Ito’s Uzumaki, a Japanese seaside town becomes “haunted by spirals” and before long, the residents find themselves at the mercy of compulsions they cannot explain let alone avoid. Being Junji Ito, these compulsions go a bit further than simply “becoming violent and trying to eat people.” A man bodily breaks his bones into the shape of a spiral so he can fit himself into a barrel; schoolgirls tear themselves apart trying to obtain the perfect curl of hair; people turn into snails; others eat people who’ve turned into snails, bodies twist and overextend while faces loll into expressions of whirligig delirium. 

The story is at its most zombie-ish in the final chapters, where the individual acts of strangeness tip over into the irreversibly cataclysmic. Again, we find ourselves converging to a single point before the darkness folds in. A small group of survivors bear witness to the town succumbing to its final madness, acting as one to reconfigure the streets into a single lunatic spiral made of connecting longhouses, which then flushes all inside away into a hellish vortex. The whole thing, appropriately enough, is as gloriously, dementedly twisted as you’d hope a Junji Ito story to be. 

The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley

Aliya Whiteley’s novella begins in a world where, we are told by Nate, our narrator and aspiring fireside storyteller, “all the women have died.” Nate lives in a small community of men—many closed of mind—who are clinging to the past they understood and waiting for their time to die.

So, what happens when a strange sort of fungus starts growing on the women’s graves in the village cemetery? And what happens when the fungus gets up and follows the younger men home? What happens when the younger men start to fall for the fungus creatures who might actually be the women they’ve lost in a strange new form? What happens when the status shifts for everyone involved?

As with many of the stories listed here, simply itemizing the story’s weirder avenues does Whiteley’s writing a disservice. The Beauty can be read a story of the dead coming back to life, but like Marshall’s novel, it doesn’t stop there. It’s weird, surprisingly warm, occasionally horrible and genuinely beautiful.

Crash by JG Ballard

Ballard’s characters aren’t zombies in a traditional sense, but if we’re being whimsical—and if you’ve got this far, then we probably are—they could be mistaken for them in précis. Consider that most are the victims of near-fatal car crashes—they have, if you will, survived death. Their experience has changed them fundamentally and now they see the world in a different light. The narrator spends time trying to engineer a similar accident for his wife so that she can experience the world as he does—essentially trying to spread the infection. 

But of course, Crash isn’t about animated corpses dining on the living, it’s about an underground community of car crash survivors, exploring the limits of physical experience through transgressive sex and recreations of “classic” fatal car accidents. 

The idea that Crash might be considered a zombie story might make more sense when viewed through the lens of David Cronenberg’s film adaptation. Cronenberg has a history of stories centering on closed or underground sub-cultures testing their own boundaries and his first theatrical release, Shivers (1975) is less ambiguously a zombie film. Slug-like parasites infect the residents of a Montreal apartment block, turning their hosts sex-mad and infectious with it—it’s no surprise that a working title of the film was Orgy of the Blood Parasites. It’s very much a zombie outbreak in structure. We have the exponential infection rate of a pandemic; the victims overwhelmed with new, out-of-character compulsions and a slow build towards that apocalyptic tipping point.

These threads certainly don’t map cleanly to the outline of Ballard’s novel, if they map at all (despite what the pearl-clutching sections of the British press might have said about either the book or the film, neither could be mistaken for apocalyptic), but it is fascinating seeing how Cronenberg’s concerns evolve from one film to the other. Ballard didn’t write a zombie story, but Cronenberg—perhaps already infected—might have passed on the virus by association.

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