When I released my first novel, Dead City, there were only a handful of zombie books out there. Skipp and Goodfellow had done their Books of the Dead and Mondo Zombie, and Brian Keene had done The Rising, and Robert Kirkman was just getting The Walking Dead graphic novel series started. If you were willing to search online you could find David Moody, J.L. Bourne and David Wellington serializing their first zombie efforts, but that was about it. Dead City entered the market in 2006 to a hungry zombie readership, and readers devoured it.
But Dead City wasn’t alone. That same year, zombie fans got another sweet treat in the form of Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero’s Visions of Hell on Earth, a probing analysis of the zombie films of George Romero. The author of that book was Dr. Kim Paffenroth, professor of Religious Studies at Iona College in New York. I was impressed with Dr. Paffenroth’s credentials, and when he contacted me and asked if I’d like to take a look at what he’d written, I jumped at the chance.
I was delighted with what I read, and I was delighted yet again when it won the Bram Stoker Award for Non-Fiction.
And then Kim contacted me and said he’d written a little zombie novel of his own, called Dying to Live, and asked if I’d like to read it for a possible cover blurb. I said not just yes but hell yes, let me have a look.
I’m so glad I did, because Kim Paffenroth is a threat on all fronts. Capable of writing non-fiction on everything from Augustine to zombies in a clear, readable style, he is also capable of writing fiction that probes deeply some of knottiest philosophical issues confronting the spiritual man living in today’s world.
I count myself lucky that Kim and I have maintained a steady correspondence over the years. I have watched with great admiration as he’s grown as a fiction writer, and along the way we’ve shared moments of triumph and sorrow. I count him a good friend, and one I’m proud to know. I hope you enjoy this interview, because Kim Paffenroth is one of the truly good guys in this business.
Joe McKinney: Thanks for joining me here on Old Major’s Dream. I’m glad you could swing by. You’re no stranger to zombie fiction. Would you mind telling the folks out there a little about your zombie-related writing? How do you approach the genre?
Kim Paffenroth: I came at it from a different direction than most people. I started out writing nonfiction about zombies – not in the sense of “zombies are real” but I started by analyzing George Romero’s zombie films in a book, Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero’s Visions of Hell on Earth (Baylor, 2006). It won the Bram Stoker Award and I got the idea to follow up with some zombie fiction of my own – instead of analyzing Romero’s zombies, I could give mine the symbolic significance I wanted.
JM: The zombie apocalypse is happening right now. Are you prepared? Would humanity win?
KP: Oh I don’t think I’d make it very far. I think we’d probably “win” but as in the really great zombie films (Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead) and now in The Walking Dead, I think the question would be at what cost? We’ve seen how much freedom and privacy we’re willing to give up, post-9/11: what kind of violent, security state would we have if we were always under the threat of walking, cannibal corpses?
JM: What’s your favorite zombie book, movie, short story, whatever? (Please feel free to ramble as much or as little as you like here. I’d love to know why that story or movie or whatever grabs you.)
KP: I’ll never forget the original Dawn of the Dead and the effect it had on my imagination, or even deeper elements of my being and values. To me, it’s the perfect balance between survivalist fantasies of how to prepare and equip, but with a sense of how those things don’t matter, in the face of an existence that has no meaning or purpose.
JM: What’s your favorite zombie kill scene of all time?
KP: Again, it’s a corollary of seeing something when you’re at a particularly impressionable age. The helicopter partial decapitation in the original Dawn of the Dead is pretty hokey by modern standards, but I remember I could not get over that scene and “How did they do it?” You take a more spectacular kill in a more recent film (I like the bridge-severing in Land of the Dead) and you just can’t look at it the same way, it doesn’t fill you with wonder, because you’ve just come to expect really over the top and complicated and realistic looking scenes like that.
JM: I’ve always felt the best and most effective horror is trying to investigate what we think of ourselves and what it means to be us. Washington Irving’s tales, for instance, generally grapple with the question of what it means to be an American in the post-Revolutionary War period. Nathaniel Hawthorne battled with the intellectual promise of a nation rising to international credibility while simultaneously choking under the yolk of a Puritan past. Stephen King made a name for himself chronicling the slow collapse of the American small town way of life. What do you think the zombie and its current popularity is telling us about ourselves?
KP: I think the zombie may well survive and be re-imagined for future generations with different perspectives and contexts, but the way you frame the question does underline our current situation as a way of understanding the zombie phenomenon. And by “current situation” I don’t just mean “post-9/11”: that’s the challenge, to see the zombie as somehow responding to something that’s been with us since 1967. So in that sense, I’d say the zombie does embody all our fears of the decline of imperialist America, and the zombie can stand in for a myriad of fears associated with that gradual, painful, violent decline: Vietnam, consumerism, racism, the military-industrial complex, terrorism, the surveillance state, the class divide, colonialism, environmental degradation and catastrophe.