Zombies, Vampires, Frankenstein’s monster

I’ve often wondered when Zombies made their first appearance in literature. We all know the story on Vampires, and Frankenstein’s monster… oh wait, we don’t?  They were caused by a volcano. Specifically, by the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history in April 1815. How so? Because the  Mount Tambora volcano messed with the weather across the entire planet. 1816 was known as the year without a summer in Europe and North America. It was pretty disastrous for farmers (one historian called it the last great subsistence crisis in the Western World), and the poor (many starved to death) but only slightly annoying to Lord Byron and his chums, who were on holiday in Switzerland.

They amused themselves, during the long, cold (and wet) days, by reading German ghost stories around the fire in the Villa Diodati, and Byron enjoyed this so much he suggested that everyone there should write their own ghost story. Mary Shelley produced the first draft of what was to become Frankenstein, while  Byron took a crack at a poem based on some old legends he’d heard when traveling the Balkans. Byron never finished the poem, but one of the other members of the Villa Diodati party, John Polidori (Byron’s physician) took hold of the idea and produced his own poem, The Vampyre. So Frankenstein and Vampire stories have their origin in the same summer holiday.

But I digress. We were talking about Zombies. As I was saying, I’ve often wondered when Zombies made their debut in English literature. They’ve taken such a grip on the culture it seems impossible I didn’t know.

Well, Tin House has just filled my knowledge gap for me, with its ‘The Mysterious’ Issue. Zombies were first introduced to our culture by William Buehler Seabrook in his 1927 travelogue, The Magic Island. Here are the first words ever published in English about the Zombie: “I recalled one creature I had been hearing about in Haiti, which sounded exclusively local – the zombie… a soulless human corpse, still dead, but taken from the grave and endowed by sorcery with a mechanical semblance of life …it is a dead body which is made to walk and act and move as if it were alive.”

There you have it. Hugh Ryan’s scholarly and insightful essay on the book is well worth reading, if you get the chance. But he should get his reviews in faster.


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