Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Canon Fodder

One of the definitions of canon -- and the one which applies most to fictional creations -- is "a body of principles, rules, standards, or norms". In many cases, canon is necessary in the literary world. For example, authorized novels set in the Star Wars universe must maintain consistency for suspension of disbelief to be sustained. In that particular reality, it is an accepted fact that the injuries leading to Darth Vader's life-support systems were the result of a duel with Obi Wan Kenobi on the fiery planet of Mustafar. This is as much a part of that universe's history as the invasion of Normandy is to ours. If an author veered from canon and claimed Vader's disfigurement came from a freak pod race accident, that work would lose authenticity to people familiar with the world and be generally disregarded (or, more likely, openly mocked and ridiculed).

So there definitely is a place for canon when different writers are creating works in a shared reality. There's also a place for canon in an author's own distinct creations. One of the quickest ways to lose a reader is to contradict your own, previously established rules. What I've never understood, however, is how some people can attempt to impose canonical rules upon a genre.

Just to be clear, I'm talking about zombie-themed fiction here. For some reason, other archetypal monsters haven't suffered this same fate. No one argues, for example, that a vampire isn't a vampire if it doesn't behave exactly like Count Dracula; no one works themselves into a frenzy because Stephen King's werewolves get "wolfier" as the moon waxes, as opposed to transforming only by the light of a full moon. Yet for some reason the walking dead are treated differently.

There are some hardliners out there who claim that your fictional creatures aren't "true" zombies unless they follow the rules set by George Romero in his classic Living Dead trilogy.  And I'm not just talking about fans of the genre, but other authors as well. To me, this is absolutely ludicrous. Why would I limit my imagination by adhering to someone else's preconceived notions of what constitutes a zombie? And, if I did, what would separate what I'd penned from fan faction? Simply because the original source material is in public domain? Because I only borrow the general ideas and not the same protagonists? Either way, the outcome remains the same... I would still be playing in someone else's sandbox.

Don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with fan fiction. It can be a lot of fun to imagine different events stemming from your favorite books or films. But as authors we have the ability to create entire worlds to our own specifications; as artists, we have the ability to lend new perspectives and ideas to fictional realities, to make them distinctly ours. And it really does boggle my mind when I try to figure out why someone would willingly trade in that freedom.

However, even if we take creative differences out of the equation, it seems that zombie canon is an extremely subjective thing. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of an all-you-can-eat buffet where people pick and choose what they like and leave the rest behind.

For example, Romero-esque canon states that zombies don't run. They should only shamble along slowly with their true strngeth being in their numbers, not their individual speeds. People will argue this until they're blue in the face: Zombies... don'  To accept this piece of canon, you have to totally ignore the fact that the zombie who attacked Johnny in Night of the Living Dead ran after the car when Barbara was trying to get away. Was he as quick or coordinated as the sprinting undead in the remake of Dawn of the Dead? Of course not; but, by the same token, he wasn't just simply shuffling along either. If this isn't enough evidence, then re-watch the original Dawn of the Dead. Right after Ken Foree gets a cup of coffee out of the vending machine, he's attacked by a pair of zombie children.  Children who run to attack him.

Returning to the cemetery scene in Night, however, we stumble across more pieces of contradictory canon, the first being "zombies don't use tools". I'm sorry, but when the cemetery zombie was attempting to break the car window with a rock, he certainly seemed to be using a tool to me. It's not as if he just happened to be holding that stone when he stumbled across Johnny and Barbara. No, he attacked the car and when the initial assault proved futile, looked around and scrambled after something he could use to break the window. This also goes against the so-called canon stating that zombies are incapable of critical thinking. The zombie was presented with an obstacle and found a creative solution to overcome it.

One piece of proposed zombie canon, though, is pretty consistent with Romero's vision: zombies have to be reanimated corpses --anything else simply isn't a zombie. Personally, I strongly disagree with this point of view as it seems overly simplistic. To accept this line of thinking, you also have to accept that the only thing which makes us human is a beating heart and functioning pair of lungs. To me, the infected in Pontypool and 28 Days Later are undeniably zombies, even if they are technically still alive. Everything which makes them human is entirely gone; they exist only at the most base and primal levels and no longer seem to be in possession of consciousness as we know it. The person they used to be is, for all intents and purposes, dead... even if the body isn't.

Besides being a pet peeve, I think there's also an intrinsic danger in applying canon so liberally. If we all agree to only create works which strictly adhere to a set of rules governing all zombie-themed literature, the genre will quickly become stagnant. We will be subjected to the same types of characters, dealing with the same set of circumstances, and will basically write the same book again and again. We would, in essence, become the very things we write about: soulless husks going through the motions while lacking the life-giving spark of innovation and creativity. At that point, you may as well put a bullet in the genre's head, for it would truly be dead.

"When we all think alike, then no one is thinking." ~ Walter Lippmann 


  1. But we should understand that the "fathers" of this genre, as far as literature is concerned, wouldn't mind if it became stagnant, since they're the ones who set the rules that everyone follows. At some point, innovation, originality, and thinking will win over readers who want to stop reading the same thing over and over again. Glorified fan fiction, indeed.

  2. What a lot of folks (both writers in the genre and readers) don't realize is that the zombie mythos isn't as deeply entrenched within the expected tropes as they think. Most people's idea of zombies derive from Romero's classic work, but he took from Afro-Carribean culture (and William Seabrook, and Richard Matheson, and the Halperins, and likely others) and tweaked it in his own way. To think his way is the only way is both ludicrous and revisionist. In fact, "Night" never even used the term zombie, yet the monsters were labeled as such based on the obvious similarities, and the moniker was popularized by his cultists. But all that becomes irrelevant when one considers that the undead predate Romero and aren't limited to his narrow interpretation of them. For example, the Chinese have an interesting myth of the vampire zombie called "jiang shi" which feed on "qi" or living essence. Afro-Carribean/Haitian tradition allows for the living to become enslaved as a "zombi." Further back, the risen dead are referenced in both the Bible and The Epic of Gilgamesh.

    Walking or running, thinking or instinctive, it's all a matter of the creator's intent. People who view the zombie world through Romero-esque glasses fail to understand the point Romero himself was making: zombies are metaphors for the human condition, and as such the zombie monster will adapt as the human condition changes.

  3. "the zombie monster will adapt as the human condition changes"