The Books Behind The Reapers Are The Angels

The Books Behind The Reapers Are The Angels

As I suspect is true of all novels, The Reapers Are the Angels is cobbled together from the fragments of other books. Any but the most passive reader will collect certain baggage from the books he or she reads—lingering impressions that stick like burrs in the back of the brain and sometimes, especially if the reader is also a writer, plant themselves in the imagination like seeds that grow into other books entirely. For me, these influences can range from a narrative style that I wish I could emulate, to an unforgettable scene, or a perfectly written sentence, or even an ideally chosen and placed word (like the word “thrapple” in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian). For a writer, those are the things that brought you to literature in the first place—a fascination with artful storytelling—so it’s not surprising that the things you admire most make their way in sometimes insidious ways into your own writing.I’ve heard this process referred to in a number of ways: everything from plagiarism to artful thievery to homage. But I think I like Tolstoy’s metaphor best: art is a contagion. It infects you with its brilliance, and you feel inspired, however humbly, to recreate it and infect somebody else with it.

Even though it is, without question, a zombie novel, Reapers traces the source of its literary infection back to the Southern Gothic tradition and the classic stories of the American frontier. Here are some of the contagious books that have contributed to The Reapers Are the Angels.

The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner. The more I write, the more I find myself in debt to Faulkner. The unquestionable master of the Southern Gothic, Faulkner is an icon for writers because he is unafraid to go big: he does not hesitate to launch into epic considerations of good and evil, womanhood and manhood, sin and corruption, nobility and redemption. You could accuse him of being melodramatic, but in an age when so many books seem to be written in a snickering, self-deprecatory style, I personally would rather see someone err in the direction of grandiosity rather than modesty. Some small homages to Faulkner in Reapers: Temple’s name, which comes from Sanctuary, and the figure of Maury, who is based upon Benjy in The Sound and the Fury. Also, the Grierson episode evokes the short story “A Rose for Emily,” about a woman (Emily Grierson) who refuses to make the transition from the past to the present.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain. Reapers is structured as a classic American road novel, the form of which has its roots in Huck Finn. It is episodic, and we are drawn forward by an overdetermination of motives: an escape from whatever imprisonment is behind the hero and a pursuit of whatever freedom lies before the hero. Temple is, I think, a version of the pragmatic, earnest Huck Finn. The pseudonym she uses, Sarah Mary Williams, is the same one Huck Finn himself uses when he dressed up as a girl.

Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy. For my money, this is one of the great American books of the second half of the twentieth century. Its storyline makes it more of a Western, but its style is pure Southern Gothic. The primary conflict is between an unnamed “kid” and a man who seems echo the expansive, chatty evil of a Faustian devil. I think my character Moses is a kinder, gentler version of that antagonist. In addition, a number of the scenes of vast violence in Reapers are inspired by those from Blood Meridian, particularly the infamous Comanche attack scene.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston. You wouldn’t normally associate Hurston’s lovely, poetic, romantic novel with zombies—but she does tap into a folkloric kind of mysticism that has always fascinated me. My term for zombies, “meatskins,” actually comes from Hurston, but she uses it simply to describe puny human beings: “meatskins dancing around the toes of time.”

Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell and Smonk by Tom Franklin. These are two masters of the contemporary Southern Gothic genre. My character of Temple is inspired by the tough, relentless heroines of these two novels. Both of these authors create teenage girls who have managed to survive in brutal surroundings, who have actually grown accustomed to violence and corruption. But what both these authors admire about their characters (you can feel it in the affectionate way they write about them), is their ability to maintain a certain purity within their own individual codes. These girls survive because, even though they live on the rough and tumble margins of society, they are driven by a personal idealism that tells them what to do.

And it would be remiss of me not to mention two television shows that have contributed a great deal to Reapers: Deadwood, which is the perfect representation of a violent, blustery, and wholly beautiful frontier lifestyle, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which represents a landmark in tough, intelligent, complicated and sympathetic young female protagonists.

Alden Bell’s Top Ten Zombie Movies

10. I Walked with a Zombie

Jacques Tourneur’s 1943 classic illustrates the voodoo roots of zombie mythology. The stiff melodrama of this film fits perfectly with the hypnotic movements of the zombies themselves and the decaying gothic sensibility of the setting. This is a different kind of zombie: there are no half-rotted walking corpses here—only haunted figures wandering in authentically creepy trances.

9. 28 Days Later

This seems to be the movie that changed the genre. Suddenly zombies were driven by fury more than hunger, and they ran after you with surprising athleticism rather than loping with a stiff, corpse-like gait. Personally, I’m a fan of the more traditional slow zombies, but I admire this movie for the way it uses the zombie backdrop to portray a very gritty story of human frailty.

8. Night of the Living Dead

What George Romero did with this movie was show that zombies make a marvelously accommodating metaphor for whatever political, social or philosophical point you want to make. He shows us that modern zombie stories aren’t, for the most part, about zombies—which is beautifully illustrated by the opening scene where the zombie doesn’t jump out at you but lingers, unfocussed, in the background for quite a while.

7. Zombieland

I love this movie partly because it is reminiscent of Dawn of the Dead in its playful fascination with post-apocalyptic landscapes but also because it features a cast of characters all of whom have already learned to be survivors. Whether through brutality or trickery or avoidance, these characters have learned to live in the midst of a zombie infestation—and their masterful handling of a blighted world is deeply satisfying to watch.

6. Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn

I have no excuse for this one. I saw it as a kid and thought it was the height of wit. How could the movie be so irreverent to something as deadly serious as flesh-eating zombies? It was my Noel Coward. As a teenager, I had the movie poster fixed permanently above my bed. A grinning skull gazing at you with a sly sideways glance.

5. American Zombie

A brilliant faux documentary about the marginalized population of zombies living on the fringes of Los Angeles. This movie does more than any other to humanize zombies—even turning them into an oppressed yet articulate minority. Understated and surprisingly touching.

4. Re-Animator

I don’t know if this exactly qualifies as a zombie movie, but I love it anyway. It delights in its perverse grossness, and it hearkens back (in a mostly sincere way, despite the number of viewers who like to see it as campy) to old fashioned mad scientist tales.

3. Cemetery Man

This underrated 1994 movie, featuring Rupert Everett as a cemetery keeper who has a problem with the dead returning to life, has some of the most wonderfully absurd incarnations of zombie mythology, including a troop of zombie boy scouts, a zombie motorcyclist, and a zombie bride who is no more than a head. Plus, it features the classic line, uttered by the vivacious Anna Fulchi, “You know, you’ve got a real nice ossuary.” Yes, the movie wants to be a hundred different movies at once. Yes, the special effects are clumsy and the humor broad. But, curiously enough, it’s also a deeply cerebral study of life circumscribed by death.

2. Dead Alive (also called Braindead)

When this first came out, it was lauded as the most gory movie every made. I don’t know how such things are measured, but it would certainly take some effort to find a movie more stomach-churning than this one. Priding itself on bizarre dark humor and innovative ways to be killed, the movie is great because of its unabashed Freudian subplot. Leave it to Peter Jackson to combine a zombie slaughter-fest with the psychological trauma of a severe Oedipal complex.

1. Dawn of the Dead

For me, this is the archetype, this is where it all began. I remember watching it in complete wonder at all the curious reversals: the portrayal of the zombies as sad and rather pathetic background figures, the fixation on the technical logistics of survival (how much time is spent on showing how the survivors fortify and clean up that shopping mall?), the implication that humans are a far greater threat than zombies, the lack of a beginning or ending (the feeling that the movie is all middle), the portrayal of the loneliness and boredom and downright normalization of life in a post-apocalyptic world. And this, ultimately, is what makes the film so unique: where other movies in the genre do everything in their power to show how different and strange the zombie apocalypse is, Romero focuses on how familiar it can be.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.