Christina Bergling's "Savages" and why we're still obsessed with zombies
Why Won’t the Zombie Obsession Die?
A Review of Savages (Bergling)
I just finished reading Savages, by Christina Bergling.
This is a courageous book on a number of levels. Bergling’s treatment of the main protagonist, the last woman on Earth (Parker), cracks open tropes. At the opening of the story, she and her partner (Marcus) lay exhausted in a field of dismembered corpses. A whole town of savages, bestial ex-humans that may or may not be zombies. The protagonists pic themselves up and raid the town for supplies. They find more than they expected: both a survivalist’s horde of food, and a living infant.
Rather than being a slave to her womb, Parker’s reaction to the infant is far from motherly. She’s a skillfully painted three-dimensional portrait. Marcus is the one to insist on trying to save the child. We get some wonderful character growth from both characters over the child.
This is a horror story. Horrible things happen. Bergling seems to have read the formula guidebook “Save the cat” and thrown it out. Don’t expect any pulled punches. Horror, like comedy, is all about going too far and she does so skillfully.
At the same time, she mixes scenes of disgust and terror with beautiful, elegant prose. Not purple by any measure, the writing is nevertheless someone poetic, and definitely moody. This writing adds to the atmosphere expertly.
Additionally, the work takes on existential themes as I think only horror really can. Bergling poses to the readers a number of important questions. The biggest ones – what does it mean to be human? and How can we live with sure knowledge of death? both remain unanswered, as they should. But she does hazard some guesses about smaller questions, like, how are we to love when existence is impermanent? and what is the value of painful emotions and experiences?
This isn’t a huge novel. You could read it in one sitting if you’re a fast reader (it took me a day but I read about as fast as the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice). I think, though, that it will stick with you.
Now, I’ve been waiting for some time to get into the topic of zombies: why does the genre persist so strongly? Other fads come and go. Vampires were big for a while. Then werewolves. Ghost stories. But the zombie phenomenon, like zombies themselves, is relentless. It goes on and on and on.
Savages may or may not be a zombie story. You decide. Bergling explicitly notes that it hardly matters; whether her “savages” are undead or merely have shed the last of their moral restraint, the effect is identical.
I think that’s at the heart of the persistence of this genre.
Old people have always hated young people. Like half the Socratic dialogues were Socrates bitching about young people losing their moral compass. In the 20’s, we thought flappers would destroy America with their bobbed haircuts and beaded purses. The so-called “greatest generation,” which is what happens when you let generations name themselves, thought the Baby Boomers were useless lay-abouts of dubious moral character. Free-love hippies and eco-terrorists, the lot of them. And we like nothing better in this modern age than to hate on Millennials, the largest bloc of voters, parents and workers. My generation, Gen X, seem to have faded to invisibility in the generation wars, skipped over like Prince Charles, and maybe that’s for the best.
In an increasingly frustrating political landscape, it’s easy to paint both Baby Boomers and Millennials as having lost their way, as being brainwashed by political advertising and social media. It’s easy to cast social media itself as sucking the life out of everyone, turning them into mindless machine servitors.
Tastes in manners change. Young people don’t show respect the same way their elders do. Elders tend to have ritualized forms of respect – calling people by their gendered marriage status, last names and honorifics, sir and ma’am; we treat people the way we were trained to treat them. Younger people don’t just know the rules, they know what underlies the rules. Respect has deeper connotations than special language. We call people by the names they ask us to use, disregarding honorifics and gendered marriage status. We treat people the way they want to be treated.
From both sides of this equation, we see shambling, even monstrous subhumans, all banding together, threatening to overwhelm democracy based on inadequate moral reasoning. We’ve been brainwashed into social justice motives or we’ve been brainwashed into accepting capitalism, but we’ve all be been brainwashed.
During the 2016 elections, there was a spate of clown sightings. Do you remember them? Menacing clowns by the roadside, gathered around campfires in the woods, caught on security cameras trying doors at night? I don’t think that’s an accident. We had clearly insincere political candidates vying for our attention, and we had so much hypocrisy from potential voters as they rationalized their choices. Clowns are fundamentally human beings made up to be unrecognizable, with insincere smiles on their faces. That’s why they trouble us.
I don’t think the undying zombie craze is a coincidence, either. The shuffling, rotting corpses, disgusting and relentless, symbolize so much about American society at almost every time in history that I think the craze is likely to continue into an indefinite future.
George A. Romero famously described zombies as innocents. Being mindless, they have no choice about feeding. It’s just what they do. His stories, and all good horror, aren’t about rambling, mindless monsters. They’re about us, and how we react. In the face of threats, do we accept authoritarian leadership? Do we degrade into mindless murderers ourselves? Or do we manage to retain some spark of humanity, somehow, against all odds?