Generation Dead: Students Respond to YA Gothics

My level six undergraduate module Generation Dead: Young Adult Fiction and the Gothic has featured heavily on the blog since its beginnings in 2014. The module was inspired by my research for OGOM and the students have been engaging with the OGOM blog and archives on YA fiction throughout the course. Friday was results day and with the exam boards over I can now fulfil my promise and post some of the student work on the blog for you to read. The students were asked to write a critical introduction to one of the novels they studied with suggestions for further reading. This piece is written by Jake Borrett and is very thoughtful and heartfelt, it really succeeds in getting across the importance of  YA fiction in terms of ‘otherness’ and ‘difference’ in a climate rife with hate crime and prejudice. The author of the novel Dan Waters has already had a sneak preview of this piece and he responded with this message to myself and Jake. This is a wonderful acknowledgement of  the exciting work the students have produced and the way they have engaged with the novels. Watch this space for more examples of student work to come over the next few days. Please do comment on any aspects of the piece and encourage Jake and others to continue their literary studies.

Dear Sam,
 
My sincere gratitude for passing along Mr. Borrett’s paper; it is an insightful piece of work and I’m thrilled that he found the text engaging enough to dive so deeply. I hope he was awarded extra points for seeking out mysocalledundeath.com; I’m on the verge of publishing those collected blogs, the stories that appear in Stitches, plus a few new stories in a new volume entitled My Best Friends Are Dead. Perhaps having those stories and blogs collected in a single volume will make such research a little easier on future scholars!
 
Please let Mr. Borrett know I enjoyed reading his work immensely, and please do pass along any of the other work that you can as I’d love to read it.
 
Warmly,
Dan

 

Jake Borrett

Critical Introduction to Generation Dead by Daniel Waters

Introducing Daniel Waters

Daniel Waters is an American writer. His young adult supernatural romance novel Generation Dead was published in 2008. This book is the first in a series that follows the strange phenomena of American teenagers apparently coming back from the dead. The inspiration for the novel came after Waters was watching a newsmagazine show which showed ‘kids [beating] up other kids for ‘fun’ and recording the violence so that they could put it on YouTube’.[1] It is this which led Waters to question what could possibly cause people to commit horrific acts of violence, and the various reasons why people end up being oppressed. Generation Dead interrogates zombies, and Waters has speculated that if they existed they would ‘potentially [be] the most persecuted [people] around’,[2] due to their folkloric history of being manipulated. While Waters has stated his ‘book is more about raising questions than giving answers or imparting messages’[3] one prominent theme in his work is the importance of ‘choosing life, choosing love’[4] by accepting others for their individuality and uniqueness. It is this message which is channeled through his representation of ‘The Sympathetic Zombie’, ‘Otherness’, ‘Intertextuality’ and ‘Adolescence’. This introduction will look at these elements in turn whilst exploring Waters’ compassionate novel more fully.

The Evolution of the Zombie

The first zombie movie was made in 1932. White Zombie, directed and independently produced by Victor and Edward Halperin, was set in Haiti and concentrated on Haitian voodoo. In ‘From Voodoo to Viruses: The Evolution of the Zombie in Twentieth Century Popular Culture’ Margaret Twohy discusses the Haitian voodoo folkloric tradition. She notes ‘the original definition of the word [zombie] describes a reanimated corpse used for the purposes of slave-labour.’[5] There have been stories in Western African spiritual belief systems which have included labourers being controlled by a wizard or ‘necromancer’.[6] Humans being manipulated even after their death and remaining passive in their inability to overcome this control is a theme that has been attached to the ‘zombie’ for decades therefore.

More zombie films were produced during the 1950s, most notably Walter Wanger’s Invasion of the Body Snatches (1956) where zombies were disguised in alien form. However their most significant modern debut arrived with George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and its five sequels. The film is known for being a parable of the American Civil Rights struggle, demonstrating how the zombie can be used politically. ‘The Romero Zombie’ was borne out of the six films, and these zombies are shown to conform to a ‘set of rules’[7] regarding their actions, behaviour, motivations and causes of reanimation. Some examples of these traits include their predatory nature, their need to feed constantly, their slow gaunt movements and the unknown causes behind their reanimation. ‘The Romero Zombie’ became an influence for other later films and literature, especially the redefining nature of what constitutes being a zombie.

In ‘Day of the Dead’ Clive Bloom provides an excellent postmodern framework for how to categorise the zombie. He argues there are three main types of the species. This includes ‘a behavioural zombie, who acts no differently from the living; a neurological zombie, who has a normal brain but no conscious experience; and a soulless zombie, who lacks the essential nature of what it means to be human’.[8] However, many writers of the twenty-first century have attempted to challenge these definitions by developing their own. Most notable is ‘The Sympathetic Zombie’, a fourth species brought about by writers including Isaac Marion (Warm Bodies, 2010), Dominic Mitchell (In the Flesh , 2013) as well as Daniel Waters’ Generation Dead Series (2008-).

The ‘Sympathetic Zombie’ replaces the monstrous, brain-eating cannibal of ‘The Romero Zombie’ with a ‘friendly alternative’.[9] Waters represents this new strand in his novel Generation Dead by demonstrating how they can integrate into society by living with their families, shown in the character of Evan Talbot, and even forming relationships shown primarily through Phoebe Kendell’s ‘attraction’ to ‘differently biotic’[10] Tommy Williams. Aside from the romantic element, the ‘Sympathetic Zombie’ additionally provides an insight into how we perceive the world. Waters attempts to challenge Romero’s predatory zombie replacing it with a loving but victimised one, as he attempts, even if indirectly, to show up societal prejudices towards socially constructed minority groups; whether Goths, the disabled or LGBT community.

George A. Romero’s ‘Romero Zombie’ spawned an iconic image for the ‘zombie’ genre.

romero

Exploring The Outsider and Otherness

In Contemporary Gothic Catherine Spooner discusses the importance of teenage gothic fiction in confronting social prejudices. She remarks, ‘those conventionally represented as the ‘other’ are placed at the centre of the narrative and made a point of identification for the reader or viewer’.[11] By this she is referring to a group or individuals who no longer feel accepted by society and thus become an ‘outsider’, or ones who are feared because of their ‘differences’ and thereby come to be remarked on as the ‘other’. ‘The Outsider’ is no longer marginalised, but is instead pushed into the centre to be analysed, empathised with and most importantly accepted.

It is this understanding which Waters hopes to achieve in Generation Dead. One of the ways he does so is by challenging the prejudices and discriminatory behaviour towards certain social minority groups by using the zombie as a symbolic figure. The division between the humans and the living dead is firstly created through language. The students of Oakvale High School refer to the living dead as ‘dead heads’,[12] ‘corpsicles’,[13] ‘worm food’,[14] because as the character Adam initially believes, ‘What’s the difference? They don’t care. They don’t have feelings to hurt.’[15] On a greater level the American society created in the narrative is shown to refer to them as the ‘living impaired’.[16] No matter the term used or the ‘political correctness’ upheld, the language used segregates the two groups, the living and the dead and thus the latter’s apparent ‘differences’ are exposed. The terms including ‘dead heads’[17] and ‘worm food’[18] place emphasis on what the living dead cannot do, for instance breathe, eat or think ‘properly’ rather than focusing on their own identity. This negative collectivism and stigmatisation is similar to the disability equality movements who consider the term ‘handicapped’[19] as unacceptable as it indicates disability first, person second. The term ‘a person with a disability’[20] is thereby considered preferable.

Another point of interest is the way in which the teenage living dead perceive themselves. This is discovered during one of the colloquially termed ‘Undead Studies’[21] taking place at the Hunter Foundation. The Hunter Foundation is the organisation aiming for ‘the complete integration of differently biotic persons into society’[22] but at the same time are guilty themselves by coining the term ‘differently biotic’[23], which again highlights the differences between the living dead and the ‘traditionally biotic’.[24] The teenage living dead view themselves as ‘zombies’; and as Tommy Williams, who throughout the course of Generation Dead is shown to be the leader and guider to the others, argues it ‘Depends on how they say it.’[25] Language has a social context and the connotation attached or intention behind the word determines its impact. This is again similar to other groups, for instance the LGBT community have reclaimed the word ‘queer’[26] in order to overcome the negative stereotypes brought on from that word.

Whilst the societal fear of the ‘Outsider’ or the ‘Other’ starts out as a form of prejudice through the use of language, it later develops into discrimination. One particular example of this is when the teenage living dead become victims of ‘retermination’,[27] a jargon word for being killed permanently involving the irreparable destruction of the brain. In Generation Dead there are no laws against murdering zombies as technically they are already dead. Nevertheless, these acts of violent discrimination are primarily shown through the ‘vehicle’ of Peter Martinsburg, the bully of Oakvale High School. Whilst he claims his hatred of the living dead is borne out of their apparent differences, the underling motivate for his prejudice is how his girlfriend Julie has not returned after dying from an Asthma attack. Julie, ‘who died and would not, could not come back.’[28] It is this jealously which causes him to act in a violent way. Even so, his brutal attack on Evan Talbot in his home garden mirrors that of the tragic death of Sophie Lancaster. Sophie Lancaster was beaten to death in Stubbylee Park in August 2007 for being a ‘Goth’ or rather for not being afraid to express and celebrate her identity. She and her boyfriend Rob were called ‘Moshers’, ‘freaks’ and ‘weirdos’ by their attackers.[29] This hateful language mirrors that of Peter Martinsburg when he calls Tommy, Karen, Colette and the other living dead as ‘worm food’[30] and ‘freaks’.[31] It is these unprovoked acts of adolescent violence which Waters hopes to expose and challenge through Generation Dead.

Although Waters states his book is ‘more about raising questions than giving answers or imparting messages’[32] he nevertheless hopes we can all accept each other for our uniqueness, and to do so society needs to change their preconceptions. Waters provides many examples of this in his novel including the Hunter Foundation; Phoebe and Margi being accepting of the teenage living dead; and Adam’s own progression from being part of Peter Martinsburg’s ‘Pain Crew’[33] to becoming a friend of Tommy Williams. The most powerful example however is Tommy’s online blog, ‘mysocalledundeath.com’.[34] In the narrative Tommy is depicted as being the martyr for the other living dead teenagers, for instance setting up the ‘Haunted House’[35] where those rejected from society can live. Tommy also campaigns for equal rights on his blog; predominately Proposition 77, ‘A proposal to have the federal government issue a rebirth certificate to anyone who comes back’[36] from the dead which would provide them with some rights and citizenship. In Disobedient Youth: Political Involvement and Genre Resistance in Contemporary Young Adult Dystopian Fiction Rachel Fentin argues young adult fiction ‘consistently tackles the complex relationship between adolescence and political involvement’.[37] Waters shows this adolescent-political relationship through Tommy’s online blog, not only in Generation Dead but also in the reader’s own society. This is especially poignant as Waters has brought Tommy’s fictional blog into the real world as a paratext (found at http://mysocalledundeath.blogspot.co.uk/).[38] In a narrative and global sense, Waters is able to show how the internet can be used as a means of good by communicating positive messages across a multi-cultured channel. Waters in turn challenges the destruction the internet can cause, for instance being used as a method for posting videos of bullying on YouTube, which was one of his motives for writing the novel. Waters is therefore able to bring the marginalised ‘Outsider’ into the centre.

Intertextuality

‘Intertextuality’ is a term coined by Julia Kristeva in 1966 to ‘denote the interdependence of any one literary text with all those that have gone before it.’[39] Rather than being isolated in their meaning texts are shown to ‘[transpose] into one another, so that meanings in one kind of discourse [is] overlaid with meanings from another kind of discourse’.[40] While this definition has been questioned and adapted by critics including Graham Allen in Intertextuality most if not all consider intertextuality to be ‘a crucial element in the attempt to understand literature and culture in general’.[41] Generation Dead is not isolated in its meaning, but Waters instead chooses to celebrate intertextuality in two main senses. The first of these senses is by appreciating Gothic culture. This is shown primarily through the female character, Phoebe Kendell, and her friends Margi and Colette. Phoebe is remarked in having an ‘all-black wardrobe’[42] and shown to wear ‘knee boots with heels, long black skirts, dyed hair, and a flowing shawl’[43] which incidentally ‘repelled people she didn’t want to talk to and attracted those she did.’[44] Whilst in the narrative Phoebe may be confined into her certain set of friends, she is also loved by them. Waters in turn celebrates the fashion which resonated in 1970s Gothic. The nicknames the girls get called by others, ‘Morticia Scarypants’,[45] and themselves, the three ‘Weird Sisters’[46] together with their  ‘telepathetic powers’[47] are respectively intertextual references to Morticia Addams, William Shakespeare’s three witches in Macbeth (1611) and Stephen King’s Carrie (1974), all of which have made their mark on Gothic culture.

Aside from fashion, Waters celebrates the gothic tradition through the arts. One of the most marked examples of this is the type of music Phoebe listens to. Some of the songs include “‘The Empty Chambers of My Heart’, by Endless Sorrow”’[48] and ‘M.T. Graves’s’ solo album All the Graves Are Empty Except Mine.[49] Adam’s remark to Phoebe, ‘“Let make guess: the song playing right now has one of the three following words in its title: sorrowful, rain or death”’[50] carries significance for the preconceptions associated with Gothic culture and its apparent pessimism. The songs can also be interpreted poetically. Both include the word ‘empty’, and it is this emptiness which Waters challenges over the course of Generation Dead by demonstrating that the living dead teenagers are far from it. If the living dead teenagers are left feeling ‘empty’, because of their segregation, they along with society will be left with ‘endless sorrow’.

In addition to Gothic subculture, Waters uses intertextuality politically. There are a number of illustrations of this in the text, for instance Tommy playing in ‘The Badgers’[51] American football match mirrors that of ‘Jesse Owen’[52] who faced discrimination from the Nazi

 Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech of 1963 was a pivotal moment in the American Civil Rights Movement.

 martin luther

German Regime during the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. However, one recurring remnant to the past which is ‘transposed’[53] into Waters’ contemporary setting is ‘Martin Luther King’[54], Jr.

Although Phoebe dismisses him sarcastically as being part of the ‘American community of saints’[55] during the Hunter Foundation session with Skip Slydell, there are many undercurrents of the Civil Rights Movement found in the text. Not only from Tommy’s online blog, but also the wall covered with ‘the blank stares of a hundred differently biotic kids’[56] at the Haunted House. It is these teenagers who Tommy fights for, and this is similar to King’s declaration to fight for African-Americans in his famous speech, ‘I Have A Dream’ (1963). Often sacrifices have a political meaning to them, for instance Tommy quitting the American football team ‘plants a seed’[57] for further change. Incidentally Waters shows his ‘Sympathetic Zombie’ here, one which campaigns peacefully for equal rights. It further challenges the ‘Romero Zombie’ in the parabolic film The Night of the Living Dead. Instead of producing a monster, Waters uses intertextuality for the core purpose of  creating a sympathetic zombie so that readers can accept one another for their differences.

The Importance of Love within Adolescence

Generation Dead is a young adult novel, so one of its core focuses is on teenagers. Adolescence is a vital stage in life as it acts as a ‘threshold’ between childhood innocence and adulthood maturity. In ‘American Gothic’ Peter Messent terms this threshold as ‘Liminality’.[58] This refers to ‘the area between two spaces’ and is ‘predominately associated with provisionality, instability, intermediate forms; what lies between the known and unknown.’[59] One way Waters attempts to overcome this ‘unknown’ within adolescence is the overarching theme of love and acceptance, not only by our families but also our friends, the wider community and by society at large. The revelation at the end of the book comes when Tommy Williams states love is ‘the whole and only difference’[60] between the different levels of functionality between the living dead. Even Karen, who had committed suicide, is able to function almost as if she were still living because she is adored by her parents and sister. This contrasts to other characters, mainly Dallas Jones who was ‘the first’[61] to be resurrected. He returns even after a robbery shooting, and despite having a ‘sad biography’[62] of a ‘teen hoodlum’.[63] Dallas Jones acts as a literary ‘red herring’ for the preconceptions attached to ‘youth culture’ and the fears which still linger in history, mainly the Columbine High School Massacre of April 1999.

Going forward with a new positive conception of adolescence is important, and Waters shares his through this tale of love and acceptance. His appreciation of the zombie genre and ability to understand ‘Otherness’ and the ‘Outsider’ together with his celebration of ‘intertextuality’ makes Generation Dead a heartfelt and thought-provoking novel, and one which should be celebrated for decades to come.

 Suggested Further Reading

Bloom, Clive, ‘Day of the Dead’, Times Higher Education (2010), https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/day-of-the-dead/412166.article

Boluk, Stephanie & Lenz, Wylie, Generation Zombie: Essays on the Living Dead in Modern Culture (Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2011).

Botting, Fred, ‘Love Your Zombie: Horror, Ethics, Excess’, in The Gothic in Contemporary Literature and Popular Culture, ed. by Justin Edwards and Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet (London: Routledge, 2014), pp. 19-36.

Cuddon, J. A, The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (Reference Books) (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991).

Messent, Peter, ‘American Gothic’, Journal of American & Comparative Cultures 23: 4 (2000), pp. 23-35.

Smyth, Catherine, Weirdos, Moshers and Freaks: The Murder of Sophie Lancaster (Croydon: Pomona Books, 2012).

Spooner, Catherine, ‘Gothic Charm School, or how vampires learned to sparkle’, Open Graves, Open Minds, ed. by Sam George and Bill Hughes (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), pp. 146-165.

Twohy, Margaret, ‘From Voodoo to Viruses: The Evolution of the Zombie in Twentieth Century Popular Culture’, Master’s thesis (Trinity College Dublin, 2008).

Waters, Daniel, ‘My So-Called Undeath: My Life As A Zombie’, My So-Called Undeath (2012), http://mysocalledundeath.blogspot.co.uk/

Waters, Daniel, Kiss of Life (London: Simon and Schuster, 2009).

Waters, Daniel, Passing Strange (London: Simon and Schuster, 2010).

Waters, Daniel, Stitches (London: Simon and Schuster, 2012).

Notes

[1] Christina Writes, ‘Generation Dead: Book Review and Author Interview by Daniel Waters’, Teen Ink (2008), http://www.teenink.com/reviews/book_reviews/article/178181/Generation-Dead-Book-Review-and-Author-Interview-by-Daniel-Waters/ (accessed 15/02/2016).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Tina, ‘Author Interview: Daniel Waters’, Fantastic Book Review (2009), http://www.fantasticbookreview.com/2009/05/author-interview-daniel-waters.html (accessed 15/02/2016).

[5] Margaret Twohy, ‘From Voodoo to Viruses: The Evolution of the Zombie in Twentieth Century Popular Culture’, Master’s thesis (Trinity College Dublin, 2008), p. 4.

[6] Dr. Steve Esomba, The Book of Life, Knowledge and Confidence (Lulu.com, 2012), p. 95.

[7] Stephanie Boluk & Wylie Lenz, Generation Zombie: Essays on the Living Dead in Modern Culture (Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2011), p. 5.

[8] Clive Bloom, ‘Day of the Dead’, Times Higher Education (2010), https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/day-of-the-dead/412166.article (accessed 15/02/2016).

[9] Fred Botting, ‘Love Your Zombie: Horror, Ethics, Excess’, in The Gothic in Contemporary Literature and Popular Culture, ed. by Justin Edwards and Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet (London: Routledge, 2014), pp. 19-36.

[10] Daniel Waters, Generation Dead (London: Simon & Schuster Children’s UK, 2008), p.103.

[11] Catherine Spooner, ‘Gothic Charm School, or how vampires learned to sparkle’, Open Graves, Open Minds, ed. by Sam George and Bill Hughes (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), pp. 146-165.

[12] Waters, Generation Dead, p. 101.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid, p. 2.

[16] Ibid, p. 3.

[17] Ibid, p. 101.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Joan K. Blaska, ‘Children’s Literature That Includes Characters With Disabilities or Illnesses’, Disability Studies Quarterly 24: 1 (Winter, 2004).

[20] Ibid.

[21] Waters, Generation Dead, p. 134.

[22] Ibid, p. 103.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid, p.104.

[25] Ibid, p. 192.

[26] Ronald Jeffrey Ringer, Queer Words, Queer Images: Communication and the Construction of Homosexuality (New York & London: New York University Press, 1994), p. 194.

[27] Waters, Generation Dead, p. 121.

[28] Ibid, p. 79.

[29] Catherine Smyth, Weirdos, Moshers and Freaks: The Murder of Sophie Lancaster (Croydon: Pomona Books, 2012).

[30] Waters, Generation Dead, p. 101.

[31] Ibid, p. 110.

[32] Writes, Teen Ink, http://www.teenink.com/reviews/book_reviews/article/178181/Generation-Dead-Book-Review-and-Author-Interview-by-Daniel-Waters/ (accessed 15/02/2016).

[33] Waters, Generation Dead, p. 148.

[34] Ibid, p. 207.

[35] Ibid, 170.

[36] Ibid, p. 209.

[37] Rachel Fentin, ‘Disobedient Youth: Political Involvement and Genre Resistance in Contemporary Young Adult Dystopian Fiction’, BS thesis (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor: Michigan UP, 2012), p. 5.

[38] Daniel Waters, ‘My So-Called Undeath: My Life As A Zombie’, My So-Called Undeath (2012), http://mysocalledundeath.blogspot.co.uk/ (accessed 15/02/2016).

[39] J. A. Cuddon, The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (Reference Books) (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991), p. 454.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Graham Allen, Intertextuality (Abington & New York: Routledge, 2000), p.7.

[42] Waters, Generation Dead, pp. 45-46.

[43] Ibid, p. 46.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid, p. 36.

[46] Ibid, p. 114.

[47] Ibid, p. 2.

[48] Ibid, p. 26.

[49] Ibid, p. 113.

[50] Ibid, p. 26.

[51] Ibid, p. 141.

[52] Ibid, p. 137.

[53] Cuddon, The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (Reference Books), p. 454.

[54] Waters, Generation Dead, p. 190.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Ibid, p. 179.

[57] Ibid, p. 235.

[58] Peter Messent, ‘American Gothic’, Journal of American & Comparative Cultures 23: 4 (2000), pp. 23.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Waters, Generation Dead, p. 379.

[61] Ibid, p. 120.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Ibid.

 

 

 

About Lucy Northenra

Senior Lecturer in Literature, University of Hertfordshire
This entry was posted in Generation Dead: YA Fiction and the Gothic news and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Generation Dead: Students Respond to YA Gothics

  1. William the Bloody says:

    This is an excellent essay, Jake–thoughtful and well-researched. And well done Sam for such inspirational teaching!

  2. Thanks. I am going to post up some work on Marcus Sedgwick and Isaac Marion too. Writer’s of YA gothics should find this interesting. The course is going well and I am always on the look out for new YA gothics to teach so the blog is really useful here for sharing reading lists and approaches.

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