I was recently invited to give a brief talk and a reading from The Zombie Bible at the Real Myth and Mithril symposium, organized by the Colorado nonprofit Grey Havens Group and hosted by the remarkable independent bookstore Barbed Wire Books in Longmont, Colorado. It was an exuberant event, and I want to share some photos, as well as a quick-quick version of what I had to say about The Zombie Bible.
(Stant Litore reads from What Our Eyes Have Witnessed.)
I feel that I learned something from every talk at the event, and that is really rare. Kelly Cowling’s talk about J.R.R. Tolkien’s idea of “recovery” and the way we use art was worth the trip, all by itself. It also provided the perfect segue to what I hoped to say about The Zombie Bible.
The quick summary: Tolkien’s idea of art was that it provides opportunity for a “recovery” of the freshness of experience. In reading a story about dragons or magical trees or zombies, we are reawakened to wonder, so that we can experience what’s around us freshly, as though for the first time. G. K. Chesterton said something similar in Orthodoxy:
“Fairy tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.”
I have always found that to be a profound description of what wonder stories — or horror stories, for that matter — might achieve. As a storyteller, I live for that “one wild moment.”
(Kelly Cowling, founder of the Grey Havens Group, sharing deep thoughts. Behind her is a painting by artist Dan Hollingshead. His work is truly breathtaking. Photos do not do it justice. I count myself blessed to have seen his paintings face-to-face.)
This idea of “recovery” rang in my mind. When the time came to talk about The Zombie Bible, I spoke about the writing of it as an act of recovery. This is what I had to say:
The Zombie Bible combines two things I love: zombie horror and the old biblical stories, which are horror stories and wonder stories. We’ve largely forgotten that in the US because the stories have become so encrusted with politics. But the stories were written to amaze us, or shock us, or move us. A crucifixion is horrific. A child sacrifice is horrific. These stories try to shock us awake and then invite us to ask really tough questions, necessary questions. I wanted to bring these stories to readers in such a way that they would horrify and amaze us again, move us again. The Bible is our greatest cultural treasure-house of stories; these stories deserve our attention, and we deserve the opportunity to let them touch our hearts and bring us to tears or anger. We deserve to experience these stories as more than just political slogans or ‘life application’ self-help messages. The shock and grief of zombie horror is a way of letting us do that. It’s a way of taking us back out into the heart of the storm on the lake, to that moment when the waves are high and the sky is crushing us down with its dark weight, God is asleep, and we are hanging on to the gunwale for dear life, learning who and what we are.
(Reading aloud to others–not just my own writing, any novel that I enjoy–is an activity I find deeply rewarding. I love dramatic reading; one of my most cherished memories of teaching involved taking a group of college freshmen over to a seniors’ home to give a dramatic reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The level of connection that day between the very young and the very old was beautiful to witness and be a part of. There were points at which both the seniors and the students were moved to tears. While I rarely teach now, a tradition in my home is that each night — or close to each night — I read my wife to sleep. We read The Lord of the Rings in this way, and are currently working our way through The Dresden Files.)
I wanted to “recover” for my readers the experience of encountering these gripping stories for the first time, and encountering them as stories — minus commentary or sermon or political baggage. Of course, you can’t just prune away all of that when you meet the stories now, but you can get close by telling a story so dramatic and shocking and heartfelt that people get lost in it again — even as our ancestors once did. My first real encounter with the stories of the Old Testament occurred when I was a second-grader. Someone at school gave me a Bible and I took it home and (because I was an insanely fast reader) I plowed through Genesis before going to sleep that night. Those stories were compelling; they had me riveted. And they had me asking all kinds of questions. I wanted my readers to have that experience.
(One of the highlights of the event for me — and something I am still trying to process — was finding The Zombie Bible on a shelf of “featured books” alongside the fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, and C.S. Lewis. Seriously, how cool is that?)
I think one thing that surprised me at the event was how many people expected The Zombie Bible to be a humorous project, akin to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Don’t get me wrong; I think Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is absolutely brilliant, and it certainly caters to my love of ninjas, zombies, and mashups. But The Zombie Bible is another animal entirely. It’s a dark and serious work that is about wrestling with history and with our dead. It’s about asking again and again whether hope and love might be stronger than our hunger, and if so, what we are going to do about the hungers our world faces.
(My good friend, Pawnee citizen and scholar Roger Echo-Hawk, tells his audience about a rare printing of Pawnee folklore that was on the stacks at Oxford during the years Tolkien was writing the first versions of his Elvish mythology. Echo-Hawk makes a stunningly compelling case that Tolkien — given his enthusiasm for what he knew as “primitive” mythologies — may well have read this cycle of Pawnee myths and folk tales, and that they may have influenced passages such as the resurrection of Gandalf, the Elven creation myth, and the nightly bear dance of Beorn. My own takeaway from his talk: I really want to participate in a nightly bear dance.)
One of the most meaningful (to me) reviews I ever received for What Our Eyes Have Witnessed — a review by book blogger Jennifer Bielman — concluded with:
“I still can’t get over the beautiful horror of Litore’s writing. Looking past the zombies, you will find that Litore writes about the very core of human error and it has both humbled me and made me appreciative of the life I live. Highly recommended.”
That’s “recovery.” That’s water into wine and golden apples. That’s what matters to me as a writer, far more than sales or royalties (though I would have to say that those matter, too) — knowing that the stories I’ve told have moved a reader’s heart, allowed them to recover a freshness of experience that will affect their lives outside the covers of the book. I’m going to strive for that in each novel I write. Thank you to the Grey Havens Group and to Barbed Wire Books for a wonderful time, one of the most memorable events I’ve taken part in. Those of you reading this, I hope you will check out The Zombie Bible. Each novel retells a biblical or ecclesiastical story as an episode in humanity’s long struggle with hunger and with the hungry dead. Go take a look!
Photo credit: Real Myth and Mithril symposium, Sunday, May 19, 2013, Barbed Wire Books, Longmont, Colorado. Photographers Roger and Linda Echo-Hawk.