Zombies walked through Colson Whitehead's sleep a long time before he put them to work.
To be specific, Whitehead had what he calls "zombie anxiety dreams."
One in particular struck off the creative spark for his latest novel, Zone One (Doubleday, $25.95), a bleakly beautiful waltz with the undead.
It was two summers ago. "I had houseguests and I woke up one morning and heard them laughing," he recalls. He was cranky and wanted to tell them to get out, but he went back to sleep, instead - a troubled sleep.
"I had one of my zombie dreams," he continues. "In this one, I wanted to go into my living room but I couldn't because I wasn't sure if they'd swept the zombies out yet. Oh, and I wasn't sure who they were, or what kind of zombies they were, but I woke up and I was like, 'Oh, that seems like a logistical nightmare. How do you get the zombies out? They stick around like houseguests.' "
Which is the guts of Zone One, in which zombies do stick around like unwelcome houseguests, with a rude habit of eating the hosts.
Whitehead will talk about Zone One at 7:30 Monday night, Halloween, at the Free Library. The program includes a screening of George Romero's classic zombie film Night of the Living Dead. Admission is free.
Speaking by phone during a book-tour visit to San Francisco, Whitehead describes himself as "totally excited" to be on a twin bill with Night of the Living Dead, which he watched as part of his research. "I haven't watched it with an audience, so it will be fun," he says. "I'm sure the crowd will be into it if they come out that night."
If his other appearances are any indication, chances are good that someone in the Free Library audience will sidle up to him and whisper that they, too, have dreamed of zombies. Zombie anxiety dreams "are pretty widespread, so that's been sort of fun to discover," he says with a laugh.
Whitehead, 41, is a literary writer, no doubt about that - Harvard University graduate, winner of a MacArthur Fellowship and a Whiting Writers' Award, visiting lecturer at Princeton University, his works lauded in reviews by the likes of John Updike. His last novel, Sag Harbor, was a lavishly praised coming-of-age tale set on Long Island, which is the sort of stuff you'd expect from a literary author.
What's he doing with zombies?
Revisiting his childhood, for one thing.
Growing up in Manhattan as a mostly indoors kid, Whitehead fed his imagination a steady and stimulating diet of horror movies, Stephen King novels, and comic books. "It was those things that made me want to write and think up weird crap all day," says Whitehead, who still lives in New York, although in Brooklyn rather than Manhattan. "For me, [Zone One] just acknowledged the influences that got me excited about writing."
Zone One tells the story of a man nicknamed Mark Spitz - we never find out his real name - trying to survive in a postapocalyptic world where a pandemic has turned much of the human race into zombies. Like rabies, the zombie-making disease is spread by biting. Since zombies hanker for human flesh, there's more biting here than in a shark tank at feeding time.
Cities have been emptied, lots and lots of citizens have been eaten, and survivors are on the run. But the human race is fighting back. A provisional American government, located in Buffalo, is trying to eradicate the zombies and rebuild society. The American Phoenix, the project is called, in a spirit of renascent chauvinism, and it even has an anthem: "Stop! Can You Hear the Eagle Roar?"
When we encounter him, Mark Spitz is part of a team of "sweepers," civilian volunteers who eliminate any remaining undead in Zone One, the part of Manhattan south of Canal Street. The Marines have already swept through and blasted the "living" out of hordes of the living dead.
Through Mark Spitz, Whitehead shows us the world as it was pre-apocalypse and is after the disaster. This gives him plenty of room to skewer everything from upscale coffee to Internet marketing to happy hour.
Whitehead's command of the writing craft is impressive, each sentence a small work of art that leaves you wondering whether even his e-mails are full of perfectly turned phrases. He greets you on the opening page with his skills on full display as he describes Spitz's parents as
holdouts in an age of digital multiplicity, raking the soil in lonesome areas of resistance: a coffee machine that didn't tell time, dictionaries made out of paper, a camera that only took pictures.
Cars stuck in a traffic jam become "syllables in an incantation of misfortune."
There's plenty of macabre humor as Mark Spitz and other survivors try to cope with the effects of PASD (Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder). The sweepers play a little game called Name That Bloodstain! as they survey the sanguinary results of their handiwork: "What do you see? - that kid's cloud game gone wrong: Mount Rushmore, Texas, a space shuttle, a dream house, my mom's grave." There's a dandy, if gruesome, little tableau of an elderly relation turning ghoul as her family speeds along I-95.
Race, a topic Whitehead deals with regularly in his writing, has a muted role in Zone One. We learn on Page 231 that Mark Spitz is black, but only when he explains how he ended up nicknamed for an Olympic swimming champion. Part of it, he tells a buddy, is "the black-people-can't-swim thing."
Race "is in some of my books, not so much in other ones," says Whitehead, who is African American. "It seemed to me that if you're in an abandoned gas station with some other survivors, surrounded by 10,000 angry, hungry living dead, that the race of the person next to you there, their crazy accent, or their gender would be unimportant. What's important is getting out of there with your skin intact. We might actually be postracial one day. It will take the end of the world and the decimation of 95 percent of the population to do it."
Is there a social message in Zone One?
"The zombies in the book are just rhetorical props, and the apocalypse becomes a way for me, in my oblique way, to talk about survival. . . . Mark Spitz and the folks he works with are just trying to figure out how to live in this new world that's been so changed."