Right up there with discovering Kreepy Karen Christmas ornaments for a festive take on

Night of the Living Dead

are a litter of zombie Hello Kitty holiday decorations.

A noted zombie-phile explained why books such as Michael Spradlin's It's Beginning to Feel a Lot Like Zombies: A Book of Zombie Christmas Carols and such sites as online lessons drawing zombie Santas crop up this time of year.

"Hey, who says the holidays aren't scary?" says Bucks County author Jonathan Maberry, whose latest book is Wanted Undead or Alive: Vampire Hunters and Other Kick-Ass Enemies of Evil (Citadel Press), with coauthor Janice Gable Bashman.

"Let's face it, A Christmas Carol is a pretty scary ghost story. The Grinch is a monster story. A lot of holiday stories are frightening.

"A lot of holiday stories build on fears of all kinds to make the characters [and the readers and viewers] feel weak, lost, vulnerable, helpless . . . and yet hopeful. So, instead of a gun-toting hero rushing in to save the day, we have Santa, or a reformed Grinch, or a collection of well-intentioned ghosts. . . .

"Some of the best horror stories aren't about monsters, and zombie stories are definitely not about zombies. Not the good ones, anyway. They're about people who . . . escape and/or overcome a great and terrible event. They're survivor stories. Some even have happy endings. Of a sort."

Maberry's first zombie novel, Patient Zero, was all about preventing a zombie apocalypse.

"My most recent, Rot & Ruin, deals with teenagers growing up in a post-zombie apocalyptic world and discovering that they may have a real future. One worth living.

"So . . . hope? Yeah, good holiday gift."

A hot property in Hollywood is Max Brooks' World War Z, a zombie apocalypse survival story with political overtones that has Brad Pitt and director Marc Foster (The Kite Runner, Quantum of Solace) attached. The Internet Movie Data Base lists the film as in "preproduction."

If you can't wait to see who survives and how, there's an all-star audiobook of the novel, with voices including Alan Alda, Mark Hamill, John Turturro, Carl and Rob Reiner, and the author, son of Mel Brooks, as the narrator.

The current success of the cable-TV gorefest The Walking Dead - released appropriately on Halloween, but still going strong for AMC - has put the genre in the fast lane recently.

Writing for The New York Times earlier this month, author Chuck Klosterman (Eating the Dinosaur and Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs) noted that the undead are a growth industry "with no glass ceiling."

"Roughly 5.3 million people watched the first episode of The Walking Dead on AMC, a stunning 83 percent more than the 2.9 million who watched the Season 4 premiere of Mad Men. This means," Klosterman wrote, "there are at least 2.4 million cable-ready Americans who might prefer watching Christina Hendricks if she were an animated corpse."

A longtime zombie

Pittsburgher John Russo, 71, was at the start of the zombie craze - and he's still there. He will soon direct a movie of his own screenplay, adapted from his

Escape of the Living Dead

comic-books series (Avatar Press).

In a recent phone conversation, he said that, combining Christmas and frights, as he did in the low-budget Santa Claws, was more about deciding on a theme that, at the time, hadn't been overdone. Plus, he liked the pun.

He explains that the formula that he and George Romero created back in the 1960s, combining several monster myths to make zombies flesh-eaters, catapulted them into the realm of werewolves and vampires for folks who love a good scare.

Spradlin didn't just jump on the bandwagon when he wrote his book of zombie carols. His fascination had been brewing over time and resulted in lyrics such as these from It's Beginning to Feel a Lot Like Zombies (accompanied by creepy ink illustrations by Jeff Weigel):

Zombie the Snowman was a jolly, happy ghoul,

With a corncob pipe and some boy's nose

And two eyes he got at school. ...

You get the idea.

"Zombie movies freaked me out as a kid, and when I started writing, I knew I was going to write about them someday," the author said by e-mail. "And as zombies became more and more popular, I realized that no one had ever done a Mad Magazine-style parody of anything zombie. One of the things I loved about [Mad creators] is how they would take a trend, a movie, or a popular television show and make fun of it - Star Trek would become a Broadway musical. Starsky & Hutch would become an epic poem. . . . That was my idea as I approached both It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Zombies and Every Zombie Eats Somebody Sometime."

Living Dead Dolls

To Spradlin, the holidays seemed like a happy time ripe for carnivorous carols.

No wonder, then, that among the line of Living Dead Dolls is Nohell (get it?), "in a festive red-and-white holiday dress with real bells on her boots. . . . This 10-inch-tall Living Dead Doll comes in a specially colored coffin," on sale at tfaw.com for $26.99.

If the idea of a coffin under the Christmas tree isn't your thing, but zombies are, another literary excursion into zombieland is Undead (Kensington), Russo's novelizations of Night of the Living Dead and Return of the Living Dead.

Russo's books Movie Making, Scare Tactics, and How to Make Your Own Feature Movie for $10,000 or Less have served as bibles for budding filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith. He also wrote the screenplay for the horror flick Santa Claws, about an actress stalked by a deranged fan - a "Santa" in a skeleton mask.

To explain the enduring nature of what he and his compatriots have wrought, Russo relates a story about a horror convention in Baltimore a few years back, where he was about to join original Dead producer Russ Streiner and director/cowriter George Romero, but first passed a group of about 200 fans waiting in a line, many decked out in Night of the Living Dead gear.

There were all these people, and I told Russ and George: 'They're all wearing our stuff.' They have T-shirts and elaborate tattoos, like Kyra Schon as the little girl, Karen. And then there was this one guy with a prosthetic leg that was painted lavishly, in full color, with a scene from the movie. I don't think about it too often, but I just had to laugh."

Contact Sharon Eberson at seberson@post-gazette.com.