Imagining the end of the world, or a post-apocalyptic existence, is too entrancing for many writers to resist. There is clearly a readership interested in the subject. I remember as a young reader feeling how brutally cold and dark H. G. Wells was in his portrayal of a post-human existence in his novel The Time Machine. More recently, Cormac McCarthy has given us in The Road a sad and dreadful vision of what the end might be. Too often, the lure of the subject is too much for human imagination, which can’t rise to the occasion. I’ve been particularly amused by numerous accounts of an apocalyptic world in which a terrible virus wipes out humanity, converting everyone into ravenous zombies intent on devouring the few remaining survivors. This is the scenario which Colson Whitehead offers in his novel Zone One (Doubleday, 2011), about a man who works with a team assigned to locate and destroy the remaining zombies of a plague that has wiped out most of humanity. The first fifty pages regale us with ruminations on the post-apocalyptic world, of the empty streets and buildings of New York City, and so on.
Zombies are undoubtedly a metaphor, for something. In this and other books and films they are the contagious remnants of humanity, intent on killing and consuming the few who survive. They are supposed to be the worst of horrors. What do they signify? They’re memories. This is what memories of the lost past do to us. The past we can’t recover, whose absence horrifies us. They terrify us, eat us up, fill us with despair, suck out our souls, kill us. They’re a terrifying and nightmarish dream of our own mortality.