It and the girl were now both on Dante, the girl tugging at the hem of his frock, the boy getting a hold of his right arm. Dante grabbed the girl’s long hair with his left hand, pulling her away from himself before she could bite into his thigh or stomach. He tried to pull his right arm away from the boy, but the dead grip was powerful and tenacious. The two children were dragging him down, and for a moment he felt fairly sure he’d be dead soon, too (Valley of the Dead).
It was bound to happen sooner or later; zombies devour everything in their path, so why not devour the classics? While they may have their rotten pride and prejudices grounded in earthly appetites of the flesh, author Kim Paffenroth brings a sophisticated approach to their dinner table by introducing poet Dante Alighieri to the undead.
Unlike the one trick, novelty-book approach taken in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Paffenroth sets his scholar's philosophical eye on the situations Dante encounters as he meets both living and the dead in his journey across a strange valley during a zombie plague. Like any good zombie, I wanted a closer look into the brain of Paffenroth and his thoughts on writing Valley of the Dead.
You're a big fan of Dante and his poem the Divine Comedy, which details his journey through the Christian visions of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. The allegorical nature of the Divine Comedy lends itself to various layers of meaning; but no one until now has mentioned zombies. What inspiration led you to have Dante square off against zombies?
When I was working on Gospel of the Living Dead (Baylor, 2006), my analysis of the Romero zombie films, it struck me how similar his zombies were to the damned in Dante’s Inferno – not so much tortured with flames and the usual trappings of hell, as just mindless, lost souls, endlessly repeating their stupid, pointless activities. Later it occurred to me to reverse the idea of the influence: what if Romero’s zombies were similar to the inhabitants of Dante’s Hell, because Dante had actually seen a zombie infestation during the 17 years that he’s off the map and could’ve been anywhere. Then, when he went to write Inferno, he incorporated the zombie horrors he had seen into his poem. Once I’d seen that possibility, it was just a matter of working carefully through Inferno, thinking of zombie analogs to each circle of hell. And that was the really fun part!
With Pride and Prejudice and Zombies poised to hit the shelves, you appear prescient of the unlikely melding of zombie and classic fiction. What is it about zombies that makes this oddball marriage work?
Well, two things come to mind. When zombies are about, mayhem and violence are sure to follow. So, it would seem pretty natural to either put them into a work that’s already full of gore, like Inferno, since they’d be right at home, or else put them in a story that’s so genteel and lacks any mayhem, like Pride and Prejudice, so they could stir things up and provide some comic relief.
The other thing I wonder about, is how when they’re not eating people, zombies are so unobtrusive and bland, so maybe it makes more sense to insert them into a work, rather than put in something like a giant robot or dinosaur or vampires, since those monsters would throw the fictional world into a deeper turmoil and upset its balance more. In other words, except during actual zombie attacks, I can have Dante talk about the same things he does in the Divine Comedy, and the author or PP&Z can have his characters talk about the same things they do in Pride and Prejudice. The zombies would thereby “fit” better and not disturb the fictional world as much as other monsters, leaving the world of the “classic” more recognizable and familiar.
What elements in the Divine Comedy were most important to you when writing Valley of the Dead?
To get Dante’s character right, to make him react to zombies (and other scary things like beautiful women) in a way that’s honest and takes seriously his presentation of himself in his works, but maybe to make him a little more understandable and sympathetic to a contemporary audience. And to do something similar with sin and hell, though perhaps more far-reaching: to secularize those concepts in a way, such that a reader could go along and appreciate the story, without necessarily realizing its Christian underpinnings, or agreeing with them. I remember vividly when we read Inferno in college. When someone asked if such a story would still be relevant to an audience that didn’t believe in hell or an afterlife, the professor said it could be, if Dante has made a persuasive presentation of how these people and behaviors are bad, and shown why they are, without relying on specifically or narrowly Christian categories. I think Dante has succeeded at that, and if I’ve helped in some small way to make his ideas more accessible to a modern audience, then I’ve done more with this book, something I’m more proud of, than I did with any of my academic work.
In your novels, there is always one key person who guides, instructs, or otherwise provides the higher ground thinking your other characters are coaxed, coddled, or irritated by. In Dying to Live, there is Milton. In Valley of the Dead, there is Adam. Tell us more about why you do this and what the significance is for doing it.
I'm thinking the influence goes both ways. In other words, Adam is put in as a Virgil figure, but now you've convinced me that's been a running theme in other stories, and I think it's partly because of how much I like and identify with the Virgil/Dante dynamic. For me, it's a more intelligent version of a "buddy" movie formula - the "buddy" is not just there as a reflection or foil of the main character, but as a mentor/teacher, and also to make objective and outward qualities in the main character. In many pieces of good literature, characters "complete" each other in such a way, and I try (however imperfectly) to have some of that in my stories. Of course, it's also a reflection of my own hopes as a teacher - that I might say something to an especially bright student that makes him/her see things better, or that s/he would ask me a question that would expand my knowledge of the situation. It's very idealized and Socratic, but I know I had some teachers like that when I was younger, so it's a dynamic I know and love.
As Dante travels with Bogdana, Radovan, and Adam, they come up against villagers and citizens who go about dealing with the zombie plague in ways that appear at times irrational or bizarre. Can you describe your motivations behind doing this, and how it parallels Dante's later writing of Inferno?
Well, it started with trying to put in scenes that parallel Dante's sinners, and I knew the zombies weren't going to suffice for more complex sins - i.e. the poor monsters can only eat and kill, so they can't symbolize the sins further down in hell. But always I had to have an eye on the narrative and the "rules" of zombies, so the live people would act in ways that were plausible or even familiar to zombie fans, and I think bizarre, often violent or predatory behavior is pretty common in apocalyptic scenarios. In other words, if you could be killed and eaten at any moment, you might become very rational and calculating (and I have some characters do that), or you might just say "To hell with it!" (haha), and do whatever crazy thing you felt like, to eke out whatever perverse pleasure you could in your dangerous, tenuous existence. It's like the Misfit in Flannery O'Connor's short story A Good Man Is Hard to Find, when he says (paraphrasing), "There's no pleasure in life but meanness."
Bogdana is almost another Milton or Adam in her effect on the story's narrative and philosophical discourse, especially with Dante. Why is this and how did you come to create her?
I'm so glad to hear you say that! If I were to give myself any credit for adding something interesting that's only implicit or indirect in Dante's original, it'd be her character! I've thought and hypothesized so many "What if?" scenarios for Dante in the last 20 years, and the one with which I'm obsessed is to consider how he'd interact with a real, live Beatrice. We know how he theorizes or idealizes her, how he thinks she's his spiritual guide, when they never really spoke or interacted (and some say she didn't even exist!). So Bogdana provides a flesh and blood Beatrice (though quite different in some ways) to go through hell with Dante. What kind of woman would he fall for? How would he treat her? Would he listen to her, in preference to the hyper-rational Adam/Virgil (or the hyper-rational side of himself)? If she's the embodiment of Caritas (perfect Love), how would that play out in her interactions with the undead and with the damned? It's not that she's right and Adam (or Dante) are wrong - but she's another piece in having a fully human, honest experience of life, and I loved creating her.
Oddly enough, your zombie books are never really about the zombies. You don't focus on gore, but write vivid scenes filled with it, and you never demonize zombies, but as they go about feasting mindlessly, you use them as a mirror to your characters intentions and thoughts. Why?
Shhh! No! My books are all gut-munching extravaganzas! Go see for yourself! Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! I am KIM - The Great and Terrible!
Well, like your previous question, deep down I'm thrilled to hear you say that, as it's certainly what I've been trying for. I guess I've been hooked ever since I sat in a dark, overly air conditioned theater, completely mesmerized, and heard "They're us!" in the original Dawn of the Dead. That's the appeal of zombies - they're the most mundane and most human monsters. It's probably why Inferno hooked me in college, too - the sinners aren't (for the most part) the larger than life, heroic arch-sinners, like you find in Paradise Lost: they're just boring, petty, regular people who have made themselves monstrous, as all of us do so very often, in so many ways. So for me, zombies and hell aren't really fantastic, supernatural, unbelievable beings or states: they're chilling because they're so close to real life.
Writing this fictional novel with the real-life Dante must have had its challenges. Can you elaborate on those and how you surmounted them?
I've read Inferno eight or nine times, so it's deeply embedded in my mind, I think. Perhaps what gave me the final push was reading The Romance of the Rose for the first time this year. (It's a medieval work regarded as kind of the handbook on idealized, romantic, spiritual love, similar to how Dante conceives of his love for Beatrice.) It gave me a fuller sense of how he'd look at things, especially women, outside of his analysis of sin. I felt like I could put myself in a Dantean frame of mind to approach this undead journey I wanted to put him through. Then it was mostly a matter of working through each canto of Inferno and thinking how to present it - how to give a secularized or zombified version of each sin. It's been my most stimulating project, in terms of the analysis and thought that went on before each chapter was written.
Why did you decide to do a limited special edition of Valley of the Dead?
The editor of Cargo Cult Press is very persuasive! He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, not just financially, but in terms of the quality of the product that would be offered. No matter how many different media there are for presenting one’s work, there’s still something intoxicating about holding a beautifully made volume of one’s book, one with gorgeous binding and art. I wanted to try that feeling out!
I am shopping my first non-zombie novel (gasp!). It's a contemporary ghost story that has no gore, but is just about how we hurt those closest to us with our lies and our cover-ups. Very emotionally draining to write, but it felt good to try something different.
Returning to the walking dead, my next anthology with Permuted, The World Is Dead, will be out later this year. The hook this time is that the stories are set significantly after the dead rise, so it's mostly about how society and individuals have adapted to this new situation of animate corpses. This summer I'll be turning to the third installment in the Dying to Live universe. And all this talking about Dante has me wondering if maybe I shouldn't do more Great Books with Zombies stories. We'll see.
Well, I hope you do...
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