By Corey Redekop
There’s a point near the end of Husk where the narrator, long dead and without much of a body left to drag around, decides to embrace his “pop culture heritage” and start acting more like a traditional zombie.
That heritage isn’t essential to enjoying Corey Redekop’s book, his second novel, but some background helps.
The humble zombie, originally raised from the dead by voodoo to perform slave labour in Caribbean cane fields, was first transformed by George Romero’s classic 1968 film Night of the Living Dead into its familiar modern guise of a rotting corpse that shuffles around eating the flesh of the living and infecting others with its disease. In the last half century this iconic figure has gone on to spread like the zombie virus, becoming a feature attraction in countless movies, first-person shooter videogames, and even a cable television series.
Though now a horror franchise staple, the zombie’s comic potential was there from the beginning, and was already well developed in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, a very funny, and very bloody movie now widely regarded as the greatest of all zombie films. In Dawn of the Dead the zombies are presented as mindless mallwalkers instinctively geared toward endless rounds of unfulfilling consumption. This theme – that the dead really aren’t so different from the living – was pushed even further in subsequent parodies like Shaun of the Dead, where the hero even manages to leave his apartment and go to the store without noticing that everyone around him is a zombie. And just last year, during the shooting of the Cuban film Juan of the Dead the director observed that the idea for a zombie movie came to him simply by walking through Havana one day and realizing that everyone around him was already a zombie, to the extent that “they didn’t even need make-up.”
Zombies, in short, have primarily become vehicles for satire. And while we don’t take them as seriously any more, they’re more relevant than ever.
As a zombie satire, Husk is well aware of the genre’s conventions. Sheldon Funk, our narrator, is a gay Toronto-based actor trying hard to make the C-list when he comes to an undignified end in a cramped bus toilet. For some reason that remains murky Sheldon then comes back to life during his own autopsy, with his heart in a dish on a table beside him. Like a standard-model Romero zombie he is compelled to eat other people, infecting those he bites with his disease. Unlike other zombies he is still conscious of who he is, and can even talk.
This, plus the fact that he is an actor, allows Sheldon to initially “pass” as living and reflect on what makes him all that different from any of the other people around him, or the person he once was. After killing and then carving up a former lover, for example, he wonders if he is a “standard zombie” or “just an awful human being.” After all, non-zombies have been known to do such things. Then there is the case of his mother, wasting away in a nursing home. Visiting her, Sheldon is struck by the fact that this is the kind of place he belongs, residing among the “walking dead” as another “tattered ambulatory cadaver.”
While some of this might seem heartless, Sheldon is actually a sensitive and sympathetic creation. Like Frankenstein’s monster he is a victim, cursed with an afterlife he never wanted any part of. He knows the zombie script, even self-consciously quotes from it while feasting on his victims, but is reluctant to play to type.
And after all, the afterlife is not without its perks. With his surprisingly media-sexy new disability, Sheldon’s career is kick-started and he soon becomes a celebrity. Of course given the fact that, being dead, he is decomposing daily and his appearance is so grotesque he makes nearly everyone who sees him retch, he is need in some Hollywood-style nip and tuck, but that all comes as part of Redekop’s send-up of the entertainment biz. And as a gay zombie, identity politics is also grist for the mill as questions are raised about what political rights the living dead have, and the morality and practicality of what amounts to interspecial relationships.
In fact, Redekop tosses so much into this zombie stew that instead of wearing out his premise quickly it almost seems as though he needs a bigger pot. By the time we get to the end, which involves a reclusive billionaire’s bid for immortality and an apocalypse that stirs together pages torn from Philip K. Dick and H. P. Lovecraft, one feels there’s no more ground to cover. Zombiedom’s entire pop culture heritage has been thrown against the wall in bleeding chunks, where much of it sticks.
Review first published in the Toronto Star September 29, 2012.