Review: Zombies - a cultural history by Roger Luckhurst

Bec Stafford

Bec Stafford has a Masters of Philosophy from the University of Queensland. She blogs and interviews for the Escape Club and The Spotlight Report.

luckhurst_zombiepicZombies: A Cultural History

Roger Luckhurst

224pp Reaktion Books November, 2015

Professor in Modern Literature at Birkbeck College, University of London, Roger Luckhurst has written and edited a broad range of publications on horror, film, sci-fi, pulp fiction, and gothic literature.

Comprising eight well-arranged chapters, the book kicks off with an introduction to the world of zombies, offering the reader some general context before homing in on specific aspects of their complex evolution.

The first chapter, From Zombi to Zombie, outlines the zombie’s early origins in Caribbean and particularly Haitian folklore and its conceptual migration to U.S popular culture during the final years of the Haitian colonial occupation of the late 1920s and 30s. In describing the transference of the Vodou religion from its spiritual home in Benin, Africa, to the Caribbean via the slave trade, Luckhurst acknowledges the origins of the new Haitian national identity – one which sparked the imaginations of 19th-century travel writers and which was to become inextricably linked with the politics of race and slavery during the American Civil War. Luckhurst describes the early brand of ‘Colonial’ Gothic, firmly establishing the zombie’s place in that literary mode early on in the text and elaborating on this in subsequent chapters.

The zombie of pulp fiction is examined, including early work by HP Lovecraft, JC Henneberger’s influential Weird Tales series, and the famously melodramatic tales of Henry St Clair Whitehead, which were informed by his ethnographic background and fascination with local superstition.

Delving into the rich tradition of zombie cinema, Luckhurst presents the reader with a well-researched and judiciously condensed history and sociocultural analysis of everything from 1932’s White Zombie, Tourneau’s 1942 masterpiece, I Walked with a Zombie, and George Romero’s famous contributions, through to more recent, post-millennial offerings, such as World War Z and The Walking Dead TV series. Luckhurst draws on prominent, respected researchers to back his well-considered, lucid overview of this culturally pervasive figure.

In the final chapter, the essence of current zombie discourse is distilled into a compact summary, highlighting the trope’s multi-layered, politically charged, and significant presence in global popular culture. For anyone seeking a definitive yet succinct history of the zombie, this book is an absorbing, accessible introduction.

 

Awards

davitt-award  aurealis-award   logo-curtin-university

Peacemaker - Aurealis Award
Best Science Fiction Novel 2014

Curtin University Distinguished Alumni Award 2014

Transformation Space - Aurealis Award
 Best Science Fiction Novel 2010

Sharp Shooter - Davitt Award
Best Crime Novel 2009 (Sisters in Crime Australia) 

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