The Professor, the PhD Candidate, and the Undead

Zombies: pop-culture’s electrically hyped up obsession.  While we haven’t completely tired of vampires yet, we love the thought of plague-stricken, psychologically incompetent but paradoxically dangerous human-monsters bumbling around, chewing flesh and making trouble for everyone.  Surely The Walking Dead, which has received attention on a season-by-season basis on this site, is responsible for much of the captivation provided by the dead-in-life, alive-in-death status of these hungry roamers.  But while The Walking Dead has some spot-on zombie action, I always suspect that maybe we’re more interested in a vision of the apocalypse – and the varied problematic but original scenarios an apocalypse creates – than the zombies, who serve as both a means to that vision and an entertaining sideshow.  A recent short-story I read seems to validate this theory.  Stephen Graham Jones’s Chapter Six is a zombie short-story that puts zombies in the backdrop of a sinister, surprising human drama. 

I was led to Graham’s short story in part by chance.  As part of my Christmas gift this year, my sister bought me The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Seven edited by Ellen Datlow.  When I decided I’d write about one of the short stories for Just Dread-full – something I’ve not done for a while in the midst of my film reviewing – I flipped the book’s pages and opened to a random story – in this case, Chapter Six.  Chapter Six does not hesitate to let you know that zombies are the horror entity that drive the story, only, they don’t really drive the story.  We are immediately introduced to Dr. Ormon, the “mad professor” and dissertation director of ostensible PhD candidate Crain.  (Since I’m going for my PhD this fall, maybe I should find it a little unnerving that a PhD candidate and his “mad professor” sat at the center of the first story I opened to.  Perhaps it’s a sign…)

Dr. Ormon and Crain watch the zombie hordes with binoculars (although Crain secretly prefers the word “herd”) and follow them, eating the remains they leave behind – cartilage of human skeletons, which Crain describes as having a gum-like texture.  Neither Ormon nor Crain seem too harried by the situation, and in fact, one hardly gets the sense that they’re struggling to survive.  They seem nonchalant and vaguely indifferent in their efforts to follow the horde, and the zombies aren’t incredibly harassing.  One may wonder, from reading the story, how the plague came to be, and how Orman and Crain ended up together at the apex of the outbreak.  The reader receives the confusing impression that society collapsed to hell in one foul swoop and groups of people immediately transformed into zombies.  Regardless of how the outbreak started, it seems Dr. Ormon and Crain are aberrations; while they appear easily capable of survival in the situation, the rest of humanity died off relatively quickly, at least everyone in the 80-mile area Ormon and Crain have covered between the university and their current location.

In short, I don’t think Jones is much interested in how the plague started, and I don’t really think he’s interested in zombies.  Much of the story centers around rather scientific conversation between Dr. Orman and Crain about Crain’s dissertation, which provides an evolutionary theory – specifically, a theory about how we evolved to be bipedal.  He believes that humans evolved to be “persistence hunters” relentlessly in pursuit of their pray and became bipedal because they had to carry their young while hunting.  Because I took a sort of “biology for the non-biology major” class in college, I cannot really comment on how reasonable Crain’s theories are, or how sound the story’s biology is.  But, the discussion makes for an interesting story addition.

One senses some tension in the ranks as Dr. Ormon and Crain discuss the theory.  Crain seems intent on being heard by Ormon and validating a theory that Ormon constantly calls into question.  One may even go so far as to say that Ormon puts on airs and has a bit of a superiority complex throughout the story.  I likened him to a stout anthropology professor with a fuzzy grey beard who I had in college, and I couldn’t stop picturing my old professor as I read, even though my professor wasn’t as cocky or condescending.  In any case, their conversation eventually dissolves, and the plot gets dark.  When Ormon unexpectedly commits a heinous act, Crain feigns indifference, but we find out later that he’s been plotting a response to Ormon’s action.

I’ll be honest, it’s hard for me to not give away the ending of this story – there would be much more opportunity for discussion if I did – but I really hesitate to spoil the endings of relatively obscure short stories, perhaps a habit I’ve formed as a fairly avid reader.  While I know this frequently isn’t the case, I always think of the reader who might find a copy of the story or might be intrigued to find out the story’s ending on his or her own, and I hate spoiling it.  As such, I’ll touch on some of the questions the story raises in a way that deviates from spoiling the main action of the story.

First, it’s safe to say that the unnamed action Ormon commits is really reprehensible.  Coupled with his snobbery and condescension, one gets the impression that he’s supposed to be an unlikable character, who – if not malicious – is rational to a fault, in a way that makes him cold and calculating.  Frankly, though I applaud some original elements of the story and enjoyed reading it, I don’t think the characters came to life on the page.  I felt like I could be reading about any student who had pursued his studies until the world ended, and almost any uppity professor – though Ormon’s ultimate atrocious act does color him a bit more.

But this story raised a really interesting question: what do you do if you’re stuck in an apocalyptic scenario with someone you really detest?  On the one hand, the person might provide companionship, albeit not good companionship, and he or she might have some important survival tips.  On the other hand, what if you really, really don’t like the person.  What if, despite his or her loyalty to you, you don’t trust the person.  If you were stranded in an apocalyptic dystopia and the only survivor with you was someone you thought sucked as a human being – or, worse, someone you were afraid of – what would your recourse be?

In that sense, particularly, I really liked the story, because it goes where the predominant zombie fare of modern society – the venerable The Walking Dead ­– hasn’t gone in great depth yet.  In The Walking Dead characters are split up into Rick’s people (the good guys) and the bad guys, who roam around wreaking havoc.  While Rick’s group faces – and, ultimately, causes – myriad threats, the show never explores, in a deep way, what it would be like to be stranded in an apocalyptic scenario with very minimal, and frankly inadequate companionship, except for a brief depiction of Morgan’s character when he lives alone, an arc that tapers off quickly.  Which leads me to a definitive conclusion: if the world ends and my friends and family die before me (which is highly unlikely because I’m a bit out of shape, and anyway I’d be a huge baby about the whole thing), I’ll probably give up the fight and join them.  The only thing worse than the near-end of the world is being alone – or nearly alone – in it.

The Professor, the PhD Candidate, and the Undead

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