Thursday, September 10, 2009


As I mentioned in an earlier post, my ENWR 3610 teacher dislikes zombies, as well as vampires and werewolves (hereafter I'm mainly going to just say "zombie," but it applies the same to any magical creature, or even magic itself). I've never written a story with werewolves. I wrote one story with vampires (oddly enough, the one I submitted to get into ENWR, and I will never again doubt the importance of names after Denton found the title "Cigarettes, Thunder, and Beer" more interesting than "Four Minutes to Midnight" and so read the non-vampire story instead), but it was, as I said, a story with vampires, not a story about vampires. The same applies to my zombie stories. They're stories with zombies, not stories about zombies.

Perhaps I should explain that difference, as it is one that my professor, who has studied English for the past 30-odd years and has an MFA from Columbia, completely fails to grasp. A story about zombies (or vampires, or werewolves, or any other random thing) is, in my mind, a story where removing the zombies would destroy the story, whereas a story with zombies uses zombies to tell a story about something else. They might make the story more exciting or more interesting, but in the end it's a regular cow steak with zombie sprinkled on top and not a slab of zombie flesh dipped in A-1.
The flash fiction story I turned in last week was about a teenager reminiscing about his father while he gets out his family's heirloom katana, against a backdrop of moans coming from the next room. A mention is made of a spreading contagion. My interpretation of this is that the father has been zombified and the teen is going to go kill him. However, it would fit just as well with any painful, terminal disease that makes his father want to die, or for some sort of dishonour such that his father is going to commit seppuku (the time frame is never specified, it could be modern-day, it could be centuries ago).
In my previous zombie story, it's a coming-of-age tale where the son sacrifices himself so that his sister doesn't grow up without a father. He happens to sacrifice himself by distracting and fighting the zombies outside so the rest of his family can get to safety, but the story would work fine with many other disasters.
To use an example not of my own, World War Z. It's a narrative history of a zombie apocalypse. However, what it is about is human response to a disaster, especially the threat of extinction.

Stories about zombies are not inherently bad. The Zombie Survival Guide (it could be argued that is isn't really a story, but I view it as such) is about zombies, and it's hilarious. However, far too often zombies are used to make a boring idea seem fresh. That's not how it works. If you have a good idea, the prudent addition of zombies can make the story better. Look at World War Z, look at Dracula (vampires, yes, but see the disclaimer in the first sentence), look at The Graveyard Book, look at Harry Potter. They take good ideas, add magic and good writing, and the end result is excellent. If, however, you start with a cliched story and mediocre writing, adding magic, be it traditional fantasy or vampires, isn't going to make it good (for examples, see Twilight, Eragon, and about half of modern fantasy literature).

Perhaps Denton has had bad experiences with books such as Twilight and Eragon that seem to believe that cliched stories + mediocre writing + magic = awesome (note: the preceding equation is false). However, I doubt this. I believe she suffers from a different malady that commonly afflicts English professors, that of basing a story's value purely on whether it contains deep inner meanings and subtle wordplay instead of what I would rate a story on, which is, what do I get from reading it? Even if it contains mountains of meaning, if it isn't interesting, what's all that meaning worth? If it contains one, two good lessons, and is an excellent read that pulls you through like a rocket, that's what a good story is.

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