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Now, with Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, readers looking for a literary zombie novel are no longer limited to Jane Austen mashups. The running, biting zombies—Whitehead calls them “skels”—have already been killed by the Army, so what’s left are “stragglers,” listless zombies who haunt places important to them in their past lives. The tropes and traditions of the zombie story are a recent development, but there’s a long history of great writers taking up other scary supernatural genres. When respected writers cross over into horror, the decision is amplified by the publishing industry. Scott Spencer sees his horror debut, Breed, as a break from his past work, as his pseudonym, Chase Novak, might suggest. The new issue of the literary quarterly Granta collects stories that exist on the murky boundary between literary and horror genres. The book, released last week, takes place years after a zombie apocalypse and focuses on Mark Spitz, a survivor who’s been assigned by the provisional government to clear the remaining monsters out of lower Manhattan. This makes Zone One a more ruminative and melancholy zombie story than most, but it’s firmly within the traditions of the genre.
Edith Wharton and Henry James were connoisseurs of the ghost story, the dominant horror tradition of their day, and wrote some of the best ever written.



One possible explanation is that writers like Cronin and Whitehead grew up during a golden age of horror that saw the release of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and the beginning of the Halloween and Alien franchises, among many other great and varied horror films. All genre boundaries are porous, and the boundary between horror fiction and literary novels is especially so. They’re written to thrill, but they do so by playing with our understanding of what makes us human, what happens after death, or the way we cope with loss.
Don DeLillo writes about a reclusive Manhattan moviegoer who gradually finds himself stalking a fellow cineaste from theater to theater. Last summer Glen Duncan gave us an erudite werewolf coping with ennui as he evades assassination by the heirs of Van Helsing, and Benjamin Percy, author of the acclaimed short-story series Refresh, Refresh, is working on a werewolf novel of his own, called Red Moon, the story of persecuted Lycans and a clash between xenophobic civilizations. Like George Romero, who used zombies as a foil for racist mobs and obsessed consumers, Whitehead plays with the parallels between zombies and allegedly unique humans who behave in ways that erase their individuality. Both authors cite the movies and comics of their childhood as the inspiration for their turn to the genre. Publishers are attracted to high-concept books that they think can grab an audience by premise alone, and with horror in vogue, a respected writer’s foray into horror is more likely to be trumpeted as a major literary event. To quarantine horror in a genre is to ignore how much of the culture revolves around things we’re afraid of, he says.
Vampires, zombies, and their ilk, in their seemingly unstoppable spread across the culture, are shedding the ghettoization of genre and striving for respectability alongside mainstream dramas.


But Whitehead brings to Romero’s allegorical tradition a keen eye for cultural minutiae: Spitz is constantly classifying the stragglers according to dress and hairstyle and home decor, extrapolating the shows they likely watched, the drinks they drank, and the hopes that brought them to Manhattan.
And publishers will pay more for such a book, creating an additional incentive for writers who might be tempted to dabble in horror. Paul Auster writes about his mother’s death, and Will Self recounts an illness that forced him to undergo repeated bloodletting. And the ubiquity of horror, and the crossover of literary writers into the genre, Freeman says, is nothing to despair over.
When The Walking Dead came to AMC last year, critics questioned whether it belonged with the likes of Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Benjamin Percy’s werewolf-book proposal sold for $500,000 and was immediately optioned for a film.
But it looks like the zombies made it: It was renewed for a third season after the second debuted to the largest basic-cable audience ever. Whitehead, again true to the genre, relishes gore and describes it with gruesome vividness.



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